Story is Magic, part 1

For those who want to be the next Shakespeare, there are only two criteria you need to meet: forge a deep and powerful connection with your audience and make sure you were born in Stratford-Upon-Avon in April, 1564.

Just as Shakespeare’s plays were mostly based on existing works. There are many influences that go into what we write; be they subject matter, style, or structure, it’s what you do with them that matters.

Influence works both ways, impacting both writer and reader. Interpretations come through life experiences applied to the text and while some of these will be unique and individual, many are common and universal. Some of these experiences are not recalled as conscious memories. They are emotionally important but descriptively vague patterns rooted in the depths of our unconscious, and a pattern drawn upon by the author can resonate with the reader. This is that moment when a book touches your heart in ways you can’t explain, even to yourself.

Patterns form the core of my theory of storytelling, and I want your permission to get a little philosophical. The hope is that both the theory is relevant to all writers, whether literary or genre, no matter the age of the intended audience. The secret of storytelling remains the same.

But first we must agree on the meaning of the word story. Narrative is another word for it. The postmodern era was defined as rejection of grand narratives, also known as a meta-narratives because each is a story about stories. It is the worldview through which a society gives itself legitimacy and the moral right to pursue its central thesis. Story is at the heart of nations and religions, and yet a dictionary will reduce it to “an account told for entertainment”.

My definition: story is the means by which humanity processes, organizes, and shares the interconnected information necessary for understanding the context of existence.

Story processes.

In the food industry, something is processed to make it more palatable. Parts of the wheat kernel are discarded and the remainder is bleached to suit a particular palate. This is story, but it is not simply that we walk into a wheat field and share it with the world as bread. Even standing in the field, we can only comprehend a wheat stalk by turning it into bread. Story is when we recycle and combine breads for others that through our efforts they might experience some aspect of the wheat stalk and the field in which it grew.

Story is an account told for entertainment, but it is also a core mechanism for understanding the world around us. We internalize story, and it becomes reality to us. We use story to interpret story. It’s turtles stacked on top of turtles, all the way down.

Does this matter? Yes, because either we are just sharing an amusing account or we are engaged in a process that is central to the way the human mind understands and organizes its world. If it is the latter, and it is, then our thrillers, romances, and every other tale we tell are crafted from psychologically powerful elements.

Story is magic. It is inserting code into the program of the human machine. Story is the connection between people otherwise isolated in a world of their own perception, and it is the mechanism by which the puppet masters manipulate us, their puppets.

This is not the blog that teaches you to cut filter words. This is the book Mickey Mouse toyed with in Fantasia. Only, instead of spells to control the elements of the universe, the wizardry here controls the elements by which we understand and experience our universe.

Or, rather, it’s part of a page torn from that book. On it is a single spell for connecting with your reader. A footnote indicates the spell is good for emotional enchantments and occasional mind-blowing. Use generously.

“Fine,” you say. “Story is an anecdote told for amusement (and all that other stuff), but you talk about being the next Shakespeare. I don’t want to be the next Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare. I want to be the next Stephen King or N. K. Jemisin. The next Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood. How do you define what makes a good story? If we can’t agree on that, there’s no point going forward.”

Agreeing on the greatest writers of all time would be difficult because, beyond the connection we feel with the patterns that are the heart of their stories, each of us is looking for certain key criteria, and that criteria is not consistent from person to person.

T.S. Elliot asked if the Mona Lisa were art because it was interesting or if it were only interesting because it was art. He considered its reputation overblown. I remember how excited I felt when I read that, not because I have anything against the Mona Lisa but because I had never heard anyone say anything bad about it, ever.

I have this notion that the Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining all have something in common: simplicity. I know, calling Shakespeare simple (and especially Hamlet) is sacrilege, but hear me out.

Familiarity breeds simplicity. For us, embracing Shakespeare is an intellectual undertaking, but the audience of the day knew the source material the plays were based on. Hamlet’s simplicity came from familiarity.

Onto that simplicity, Shakespeare provided the artistry of his poetic language and the complexity of his human insight. The Mona Lisa is a simple composition whose artistry and complexity is in the details and the beguiling realism of her expression. In The Shining, Kubrick reduced the elements of the book to their simplest form, presented a confined story with a complex psychology.

A novel has many components, and storytellers will focus their complexity in areas they and their readers hold in high regard. In other arenas, they simplify.

Myopic critics cannot understand why some authors are popular. Their work seems so simple in the areas they deem important. On the day Terry Pratchett died, someone wrote, “I opened one of his books once and read a few sentences. We need to stop celebrating mediocrity.” To this, I say: no. Rather, we need to acknowledge that our personal criteria is not the only criteria that matters.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson describes two different styles in choice of language. One is the window through which you view the world, the other is the stained-glass window which is, itself, to be viewed. What he is describing is a value choice of where to simplify and where to apply complexity. His contract with the reader is not about the beauty of the language but rather the fantastic aspects of his story and world. His language is a window through which to view that world.

So, in this blog, if we talk about the next Shakespeare, I don’t mean someone who is competing with Shakespeare at his own game. Our call is to focus on what is important. We do that well and do it frequently, and we highlight those strengths by simplifying other areas.

For example, why is Stanley Kubrick considered such a great director when his work appears, as one critic called it, alien and cold? 2001: A Space Odyssey is often criticized for the AI seeming more human than the people, but as they say, “that’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” The astronauts in 2001 are wooden, and Jack Torrance in The Shining is often cartoonish. These are simplifications that may carry meanings of their own but also force our focus onto those areas of concern for Kubrick.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, the poet John Dryden, thought him flat and insipid, and that was not uncommon. Shakespeare created a different contract with his audience than anyone had previously, one that focused on depth and roundness of character. His critics expected something else, and it took time to win them over.

Your story has the potential to be anything, but it can’t be everything. Know what you want to deliver and resist the urge to be all things to all people. Often, advice on writing presumes what is important. I try not to do that here. What makes for a good story is something that only needs to be agreed upon between you and your reader.

Next time, we’ll get really wild and establish an existential basis for a Jungian approach to the unconscious.

See you then,

Thaddeus Thomas

Books by Thaddeus Thomas

Featured Image: Paintings by Rene Magritte

Not To Be Reproduced (1937), The Lovers (1928), and The Son of Man (1964)