31 January 2008

Telling a story

What's a story? What does the word mean?

If you go to a dictionary, you might find it defined as a narrative. Then you might find "narrative" defined as a story.

We get closer to the heart of the matter with a definition like this: "The plot or succession of incidents in a novel, poem, drama, etc."

Succession. That's the key word there. A story is something that unfolds in time.

The simplest way of telling a story is in chronological order. Select the "incident" with which you wish to start, then tell what happened next, and so forth, until you get to the last of them. Notice that I didn't say "start at the beginning." An incident is the beginning of a story because the teller starts there. He doesn't start there because it's "the beginning" in any objective sense. Or he'd have to start every story with the Big Bang.

Also, there's the equally troubling matter of where to end. If you wish to write about the French Revolution -- do you end with the execution of the royal family? the fall of the Jacobins? or do you keep going until, say, Napoleon makes himself Emperor? A dozen other possible stopping points might have suggested them to you already by now. But of course if we think of history as a chain of cause and effect, there is no natural stopping point, short of "and then you read this sentence, ending with the word 'sentence'!"

All of this is only to make the obvious point that no matter how simple and unaffected we seek to make the structuring of our stories, they'll be what they are because of our aesthetic decisions. The decision to seem "simple and unaffected" might be one of those.

I'm thinking these matters through because I'm stuck on a literary project of my own, my "causes of the civil war" novel. I wrote the first draft, which still sits on the top shelf of my desk, in chronological order, beginning with Daniel Webster's famous speech on the nature of the Union, in January 1830. I kept writing -- sometimes about historic events, sometimes about the lives of characters I had invented -- following the order of the calender until I came to the firing upon Fort Sumter.

Now I think some non-chrono re-structuring will be required to kick-start the project.

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