Thursday, March 22, 2012

Matt's Theory about Storytelling

Let me get one thing clear first off: yes, I have read the Hunger Games. And yes, I got some enjoyment out of reading them too. I would never try to deny that. But with the imminent release of the movies, a lot of people are talking about them and there's a lot of crazy superlative going around. The word “amazing” gets thrown around a lot. Amazing, really? You are AMAZED at the Hunger Games? I struggle not to get upset when I hear things like that. Fun, yes. Engaging, sure. Amazing? Best books ever? People will look back in a hundred years and regard them as a highlight in literary accomplishment? Let’s get some perspective here, people. My initial reaction to these pronouncements is an outpouring of very nerdy and frankly quite hipster-ish indignation. So obviously I had to take a deep breath, stand back, and examine just why it upset me so much.

I started to wonder what exactly these people were seeing in the books that I didn’t, or vice versa, and how each of us defines what exactly make a good book or story. I’ve taken enough literary theory courses to feel uncomfortable asserting that some things are just better than others, inherently – quality is a subjective determination based upon what an individual person (or a group, or all of society) considers important. Well, this is a description of one element I consider to be important in determining a work to “amazing” or not, an element that personally I value quite highly.

Here goes Matt’s opinion: something can be highly entertaining and even provoke emotions, but that doesn’t mean it’s amazing or even good. In the same way, as Tom Stoppard said, a newspaper article can make you cry, “but that does not make the newspaper art.” The difference between the newspaper article and the work of art is the craft of storytelling itself, in the way the story is told.

The Hunger Games is an entertaining story, sure, but first of all it’s a bit difficult to judge it as a book because it’s a story that could just as easily be told through another medium, like film. In fact, I would argue in this case that the story of the Hunger Games is really best suited for the big screen, and was written for an audience of people who prefer that medium and don’t often do a lot of reading. It’s a book for movie people, specifically summer blockbuster people. I’m not trying to look down on that or judge it as less than. Summer blockbuster stories can be really good narratives with compelling plots and characters. But they are told at what I would consider to be the most basic level of “narrative sophistication” – the best phrase I can come up with to describe a quality of literature that I value highly. This involves much more than WHAT the story is – again, it is very concerned with HOW the story is told.

I have currently indentified three levels of sophistication in story-telling, and have also started to clearly see a difference between the preferences of people who prefer some of the levels over others.

The most fundamentally basic level goes something like this:

“A happened, then B happened, then C happened, and finally D happened.”

At this level the story telling is as linear and complete as possible. It’s the level of all the fairy tales you loved as a kid. The reader is given pretty much all the information and context about what is going on and is led step by step through all the important events. The only real textual mystery is “What’s going to happen next?” That can be a very compelling mystery, and leads to page-turners. I read the Hunger Games in about a week because I too wanted to know how Katniss would survive the next dangerous moment. Go, Katniss, go!

The overall fundamental quality of this level of narrative sophistication is that the author isn’t going to assume that the reader is going to figure out anything on their own. Everything will be explained multiple times. One character will say, “We aren’t getting a signal from B Squad!” to which the other character will reply, for our benefit, “That must mean…. They are dead!” and then the first character will further be helpful for us by saying, “That’s right, and with B Squad dead, there’s nobody to blow the shield generator. Our plan is in serious trouble.” Thanks, author! You’ve done all the logical processing work for me! This is exactly what is meant by “spoon-feeding” the audience. The author is constantly saying, “Do you get it? Do you get? Huh? Did you get that? I’ll repeat it again. Got it? You sure? Ok.”

Despite this, there are people who have difficulty following the plot even at this level. They find it somewhat challenging to connect A to B, B to C, and then C to D. When they are able to do so, it’s an intensely rewarding experience. I don’t think this has anything to do with a lack of intelligence, per se. Rather, the ability to comprehend messages, correlate information, and piece together meaning is one of those abilities that is variable from brain-to-brain. Maybe some people take to it more easily than others, and more often some have just practiced and developed it more. But even the people who aren’t so good at doing this are likely really intelligent or adept at other cognitive processes, or at least that has been my observation.

The point is that there are people for whom understanding the plot at the basic level of sophistication is a challenging and therefore genuinely rewarding experience. Thrilling, even. I think this partly why you’ll hear a lot of teenagers (many of whose comprehension level is still in development) saying that the Hunger Games are the most amazing books of all time. This is also the sophistication level of the summer blockbuster, and the level of the books that become wildly popular with people who don’t often read books (Harry Potter, etc.) This doesn’t make the books bad (I mean, Star Wars is working at this same basic level, for crying out loud!) – but it also doesn’t mean that their success with the masses makes them good. It does, however, help to explain the widespread success of these stories amongst non-habitual readers.

The second level is a step up in sophistication and can often be found in the books that more dedicated reading hobbyists tend to favor:

"C happened, then D happened, oh and then F and G happened. I'm going to hint at A and B for a while, and then reveal them fully at a climatic moment. I'll also go back and explain E eventually and then, at the end, everything will fit together."

At this level there are a lot more textual mysteries. The reader is often brought in into the middle of an ongoing story and world without all the context, background, or key information. These details are hinted at, dangled tantalizingly just out of view, and are revealed gradually or in one big moment later on. The reader of this level of sophistication has to have the patience and trust in the author to say, "OK, I don't really understand what is happening right now, there's obviously something I don't know yet. I'll keep going and trust that everything is revealed."

Not everybody can do that. People who are used to the basic level of sophistication automatically tend to assume that either they missed something or that the author is just doing a bad job keeping them informed. Rather than push through, accepting mystery and ambiguity for the moment, they stop reading or watching. For those who prefer this level, though, that big moment at the end when the author tips his hand and brings together all the threads can be very thrilling. There's often an "ah-ha!" moment of realization as the pieces fit together, and that can be exciting. As a reader, listener, or audience member, making the jump from the first level to the second is a big move. It requires an increase in mental participation, demanding you to do some of the math on your own, to remember key information and piece together clues so that the authors eventual tapestry will come into focus for you.

I feel like most mainstream adult novels and series are operating more or less at this level. It's the level of TV dramas, too, who often hold back key information and then slowly reveal it over the course of a season. Slightly more "artsy" movies are often at this level of sophistication, making frequent use of the flashback, or setting up for a big reveal. The fundamental rule of this level is basically, "Things aren't going to be 100% clear, but eventually they will." Writing at this level, and doing it well, its hard! I think most people spend most of their life trying to master this second level of sophistication. I know I still am.

Which is what makes the third and final level so impressive and rare, truly amazing. This level defies my comprehension and leaves me dumbfounded and in awe. Its hard to boil down, but its something like this:

"C happened. And G happened. Oh, and E and F happened. And N happened. I may mention A and B once in passing. I'll never say a word about D."

Where the second level required that the reader trusts the author, at this level the author is placing a tremendous amount of trust in the reader. Nothing is made clear, telegraphed, spoon-fed, or explained. A significant portion of the plot may not even be written in the book, for at this level what is NOT said is just as important as what is. And there's no attempt to piece it all together for you to see the tapestry in some kind of big reveal at the end. You'll finish the story with no greater insight into the missing sections or mysteries than you began.

Which isn't to say the mysteries are unsolvable. A work that's dealing with level of ambiguity just demands to be read more than once. It requires to the reader to pay VERY close attention to every word, to infer and extrapolate meaning from details, and to question the surface level meaning of every section. You stop assuming that what the author or narrator says is happening is what is ACTUALLY happening, which is a HUGE step up in narrative sophistication.

At this level, you can easily read through the book and only get about 1% of what's actually happening. When this happens, people will say, "I don't get it. The book wasn't that good. It was kind of boring, actually. Not much happened." Often, though, through multiple readings the missing sections or unexplained answers begin to reveal themselves. The work starts to operate on multiple levels, and half of what's happening isn't even on the page, but in your own brain as you extrapolate the data.

Most people aren't interested in putting in that much work to understand a book, and the author of this kind of book has to know that. I've found it impossible to approach this level in my own writing. I always give in to the the temptation to make sure everything is clear to the reader. I want them to see exactly what I'm doing and see how clever I am. But the cleverest authors don't talk down to you, don't explain anything more than once, and don't care if you don't get it. That's hard to adapt to. There are books at this level of sophistication that I just can't get in to, whose meanings remain utterly elusive to me. I hope that one day I'll grow into them. And many many times I've leant the books of this level that I DO love and begun to understand to my literarily inclined friends, only to have them returned with a shrug and a baffled look that says, "I didn't get it."

These books are what I would call AMAZING. You can read them for years and continue to discover new elements. I'm afraid you can't say that about the Hunger Games. A second read-through might call the mind the pleasurable experience of the first, but the main driving mystery of the basic narrative level ("What's going to happen next?") will be gone for you. Unless you have amnesia.

This is hardly the only quality that makes a book or story good. Many people may value compelling and believable characters or a strong mood/tone over narrative sophistication. But I think the best books and stories are the ones that require the most of us, that require us to be at our best and cleverest. My favorite author who operates at this level is Gene Wolfe - and I highly advise you to check him out. I once read a fan say that Wolfe isn't interested in showing you how smart and amazing he is through his writing, he's interested in showing YOU how smart and amazing YOU are. And that, I think, is what is truly amazing!