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The Enchantment of Story-telling

Outlining a theory of how stories really work - a theory which exposes an underlying force or set of forces at work in fiction in the same way that physicists theorise about the effects of the ‘Higgs-Boson’ particle in underpinning all of reality as we know it - means that some people automatically think that I am ‘reducing’ stories to a set of checklisted steps which can be replicated by anyone. I am occasionally likened to a pop music entrepreneur, seeking to undermine culture by promoting a kind of superficial ‘X Factor’ strand in creative writing - a ‘join the dots’ approach to writing fiction which parallels that of placing a keen newcomer in front of a national TV audience in the hope of ‘making it as a star’.

But the arguments which can ensue about this are misguided. By extending the first analogy above, it might be possible to make the point more clearly: in seeking for a particle which gives mass to all other particles and thus enables our universe to exist in its current form, physicists are not attempting to develop a method of ‘quick starting’ another cosmos into existence: they are merely striving to better understand the current one.

It’s the same with fiction. Stories work on us in mysterious ways; they enchant the youngest child, enthral the growing person, hook us into the latest events (‘catch the latest story’) through mass media, form the basis of our most heart-felt wishing. Understanding how stories work - how they are made, what makes them successful (and unsuccessful), why they fulfil us and what happens when they don’t - can certainly produce, as one effect, an author who now comprehends what it takes to make one. But that is only one of the effects of finding out how they really work.

A more significant effect is to be able to see through the web of a story to something behind or beyond it. As C. S. Lewis put it, ‘To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series - the plot, as we call it - is only really a net whereby to catch something else.’ What is that ‘something else’? And, once we have approached some kind of answer to that question, what on earth do we use that can be woven into a web to catch it?

Children develop a very straightforward kind of story-telling. Something happens, and then that is followed by something else happening. That event is then closely pursued by further events. The story-telling of children is an enchanting thing to listen to. After a while, though, the listener comes to realise that this overheard story has no end; it will go on and on until other, real-world events, like a mealtime or bed-time or even a child’s boredom, bring it to an unfinished close. Frequently, the boredom that arises in a child in the action of telling its own stories comes about precisely because of this characteristic of storytelling: it goes on and on and on and the child slowly comes to see that it has no shape.

How exciting for a child to discover the concept of ‘episodes’! Television can teach this: a story doesn’t have to occur ‘all at once’ but can be interrupted by indeterminate intervals; one can pause and rest and even do something else for a while. The idea of episodes also introduces a further stroke of brilliance: if a story can be legitimately ‘paused’, it can and must also have a legitimate ‘end’. Younger children often fail to realise this at all. It is a revelation to them to see that the characters and events they are describing are heading somewhere. There is a point to them; there is an end to them. Once this notion of purpose enters the field, everything changes.

On one level then, the young storyteller can now work to bring the events he or she is describing to a considered and logical close. For the vast majority of children, this means that evil (whatever form that has take in the story) is defeated; for a huge number of stories told by children, this is simply the result ‘They went home’. Then the new episode picks up with another adventure ‘away from home’ and is completed again by a homecoming (if boredom doesn’t set in before that).

As storytelling grows more sophisticated, ‘home’ is broadened in its definition: not a family-based location, perhaps, but a set of circumstances which might be considered satisfactory, a resolution. Even more revelatory, then, when the story teller discovers that there are kinds of story which leave things largely unresolved: how can this be? Stories in which the central character fails or perishes? Stories in which ‘home’, rather than being returned to as a haven, is actually destroyed? The nature of the landscape changes: we thought we were on Earth, but this is decidedly alien territory. And yet powerful stories have been written throughout the ages which do not end with homecoming or resolution but with disaster and mystery.

This doesn’t necessarily occur to the young writer in a neat sequence, of course, but, if creativity is pursued, one thing becomes clear over time: it has a shape, and a purpose. And the ending or final shaping of that created work either results in the reader or observer feeling that he or she has ‘come home’ or been cast out.

That these things have laws and principles which can be understood and learned is not about learning the superficiality of things in order to ‘make a quick buck’ by exploiting a readership or audience: it’s about absorbing an almost mystical art which can intentionally fulfil or leave unfulfilled the hearts of those who are enchanted by it.


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