Friday, July 24, 2009

The Stuff Stories Are Made Of, Part 1

When I decided to be an English major, one of the things I remember being disappointed by was when I learned that literary criticism didn't really concern itself with matters of what was good and bad. It was concerned with meaning. There would not really be an attempt to reason with what stories—novels or short stories—were good or bad. That was just subjective. And in the one and only creative writing class I took, we were told, when critiquing each others stories, not to suggest plot points to each other. Just tips on writing. There was one quite good reason for this, which is that if you told someone what should happen in a story, it stopped being their story, and started being your story. But on the other hand, often what was wrong with the stories was that the stories were just bad stories. Uninteresting. I didn't care what happened to the characters. By saying that the we couldn't critique the events in the story, the class was effectively saying, there are no bad stories, just badly told stories.

But I think there are such things as bad stories, and good stories, separate from the how they're conveyed to their audience. You can have a well made movie or a well written book, and they can still have good moments, well-cut action sequences or beautifully florid passages of description, but they still won't add up to much and most people won't enjoy seeing them or reading them.

So what makes for a good story? What elements make for stories that people want to read/watch? There are elements that people say they read things for, or go to movies, that are not related to form. Good characters. Lots of people talk about how important characters are. Or suspense. People read to see what happens next. Or conflict. Conflict is really important. Most plots center around some central conflict. People read on to see the conflict resolved. Mystery. Maybe there isn't some tension are work in the story any more—the killer has already killed, or something—but people want to know what actually happened. They want the unknown revealed. Little moments. Some stories ain't even all that great, but there are some moments in it that are really good. Little moments of quiet sadness, or uproarious comedy, or touching kindness, or shocking cruelty. Many comedies are comprised of really pointless plots that are just excuses to string along a series of funny bits on (Monty Python and the Holy Grail jumps to mind as a masterpiece of this format). And of course, in the big stories, they want some commentary, or insight, on the human condition, or life and the universe or something. In order for a story to be great, it usually needs to knock us around a bit and leave us thinking big thoughts.

But what makes these things interesting and meaningful. What makes for good characters? What makes something suspenseful? What makes us want to see a conflict concluded, or find out what we didn't know? What makes those little moments special? What makes comedy funny and tragedy cathartic. What makes a story great?

So this is what I thought about.

And the answer, I decided, is irony.

Now, when I say irony, I mean it in the broadest sense of the word. I don't mean it the way people mean it when they talk about people being ironic, or how they meant it when, after 9/11, everyone was talking about the Death of Irony. Usually when people use it in that sense they just mean either verbal irony, or base sarcasm, or something in between. And this misuse has lead to a lot of blather about how no one really knows what irony really means.

That's nonsense. Irony is a very simple concept; all it is the going against of expectations. And what stories need to be interesting is irony. In fact, I think you could say that stories are built out of ironies. Big ironies and little ironies.

Why irony? Well, any good story has to fulfill two somewhat contradictory things. They need to 1) justify why the story is unique enough to be told and 2) be relatable to the rest of human experience.

No one wants to hear a story where nothing interesting happens, like the last time you went grocery shopping. Nor do they want to hear a long string of pointlessly absurd events that have no relation or meaning to each other. Now, you could create art out of such situations. You could write a good poem about going to the supermarket, and the average episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus is basically an series of absurd and unrelated events. But that doesn't mean your poem about going to the supermarket is a good story, and no episode of Flying Circus has anything like a continuous plot (with the possible exception of the one about Scott of the Antarctic, but I think that one just has one really long sketch in it).

An ironic situation manages to fulfill both qualities. In fact, irony is inherent in the fulfillment of both qualities. Any ironic situation is more unique than most situations, since it goes against what is expected—that is, what usually happens. And of course, an implicit aspect of any ironic situation is that, though it goes against expectations, it's rooted in some logic, some sense that what doesn't seem to make sense actually does. Thus it's relatable. If the situation doesn't make sense, then it's just absurd, and absurdity isn't really interesting or relatable. (Although absurdities can be used quite well as a set up for ironies. They heighten the relevant factors by stripping out other, complicating factors, that would undermine the situation. Beckett and Python do this a lot.)

So in any ironic situation there is a kind of return. Let's call it the Ironic Return. The Return is the way in which the ironic moment offers some insight into the world, and thus makes some comment upon it.

More later.

The Urge

Did lots of cleaning today. Put away much of the stuff littering my "living room" floor, organized and re -shelved all the books on my bookcase, dusted a whole bunch of stuff, finally moved that old television sitting in the middle of the floor up onto my dresser (I got it back in June), though I haven't plugged it in yet. I still need to buy a longer tv cord to stretch across the room.

I have been thinking about this Yglesias post from earlier in the day. The part that really got me was this bit:

Before I owned an air card, half of my train or bus trips to and from New York would inevitably result in me starting a novel of some sort. Not because I want to write a novel, but just because it seemed inconceivable to sit for that long with a laptop in my bad [sic] without writing something. Before there were blogs, I was always writing in a journal and apparently my grandfather did the same thing for decades. Consequently, I find it to be a great privilege to have a job where I can just write all the time, about all kinds of stuff, more-or-less at random. For me writing-as-such has always been a necessary activity, and trying to find constructive venues in which to do it a bit problematic. The blog solves the problem.
One of the problems, I have realized, with writing, and this is partially linked to the to epiphany that I mentioned in the last post that I haven't gotten to writing yet, is that i don't really give a shit about writing. It's not something I like doing. What I like is coming up with stories. Making up characters and thinking of things to happen to them. If I could tell those stories in comics or movies to theatre, I would be just as happy to do that. But I can't draw that well, since I wasn't taught to hold a pencil correctly with the left hand which means everything smears. i don't a millions of dollars lying around to hire actors and cameramen and CGI artists. I don't have a theatre troupe lying around. Plus, I am antisocial and, due to reading polomic interviews from Dave Sim and Jeff Smith and Alan Moore and Frank Miller and all the guys from Image, I have a fierce desire to work with my own creations and own my own creations. Writing was just something I fell in with, the easiest means to an end. And of course, like any of those other forms, there is actually an element of craft to the medium that had to be mastered, and so I went about trying to master it, and failing at it, since I don't really care, in some way, about that. Somewhere along the way, probably when I decided to major in English, I forgot that, and consequently disappeared up my own ass. This made it hard to write things I liked, since it was hard to write stories I liked, since it is hard to do anything that makes any kind of sense when in a state of phyiscal impossibility.

I am not saying that I need to forsake good writing. Good writing in inseparable from good storytelling, so I do need to be a good writing in order to tell stories well, and to tell good stories. But not all aspects of good writing are , or things that can be considered good writing, are things that necesarily need to be in good storytelling, and I don't need to concern myself with doing such things. What I need to concentrate on, is making the stories good, knowing what makes them good, and putting that in there. If I can start doing that, maybe I can actually start enjoying this whole writing thing.