Thursday, July 04, 2013

[Rant] Tellin' Stories

Tellin' Stories: Robin Hanson posted an excerpt from Elements of Fiction Writing, by Orson Scott Card, the successful science fiction writer. He highlights Card's description of the four elements of every story: milieu, idea, character, and event. All stories contain these four elements in some combination.

Leo Tolstoy once said "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." I would have replied there really is only one story. A stranger coming to town is only interesting because it sends a man on a journey. But the point of that is that the change in a person if only thing that matters. It's all about character; about enlightening an aspect of a human that causes interest.

Card, it seems, thinks that belief is recent to the 20th century:
Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be "good."
As an example, he offers Lord or the Rings, which is a story based mostly on milieu. Ideas, Character, and Plot are shallow and inconsistent. Yet it is still great (according to Card and most other people).

Hanson chimes in to suggest our elevation of character stories it is a by-product of rising incomes:
Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features.
And adds later:
It is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.
Which is the sort of off-the-cuff Hansonian analysis that rings true, given the premise. Although I suspect all writing in any age has been geared to cognitive elites. At least those elite enough to read. But then we are talking about stories generically, not specifically writing.

I still worry about that premise -- that the great stories aren't just about character. I'm just not sure it's correct. Perhaps I am too deeply attached to my own bias. Let's take a close-to-home look.

Every Sunday night or the past few weeks, Game of Thrones and Mad Men have been on back-to-back. Mad Men is one of the most character focused shows (stories) ever produced. Sure, the milieu (the '60s) is important, but the specific events are almost irrelevant. There is no question the point of the exercise is following the development and interaction of extraordinarily complete and realistic characters. Game of Thrones is all about events. Again, milieu (Westros, etc.) is important but the bulk of the story is about the events that happen -- a sort of live look into a timeline. Characters have some shading, which is good, but no development. My main critique of GoT is that it doesn't go anywhere. Everyone is moved around like pieces on a chessboard but with no larger idea behind it. Things happen, but they are only important because they lead to the next thing that happens. Attention is held but nothing is enlightened.

Tangent: It's fun (for me anyway) to apply this "four pillars" concept to some the great TV shows. The Sopranos was a combo of character and idea, the idea being how deep our self-delusion run. Deadwood I would say idea mostly idea (how does barbarism become civilization?) with character a close second. The Wire Started out as idea (institutions as vengeful deities) and character but I would argue it became events based as it aged and lost it's edge.

What about the paragon himself, Shakespeare? Nothing more highbrow than that, amirite? Characters are memorable but the arcs are not all that sophisticated. He leans on good versus evil instead of grey versus grey. I'd call him an events guy in the main. Of course, the poetry is what counts here, not the story.

Perhaps it's more a matter of goals. If you believe the highest form of story is one that enlightens, then I don't see how you get away from character as your focus, most likely in some combo with idea. Events and Milieu are interesting but can only be enlightening if they affect people or ideas.

But who (apart from George Bernard Shaw) would suggest Shakespeare's stories were inadequate? Or, as Card suggested, Lord of the Rings? They are great stories with less than complete attention to character. It's clear that in terms of effect on the reader (listener? consumer?) these stories are second to none. I have to grudgingly agree with Card and Hanson. I (and it seems We) have probably shortchanged non-character focused stories, but I still don't think they move beyond their value as mere stories without a character focus of some sort. Perhaps I am too busy trying to differentiate great stories from art.