Sunday, February 24, 2008

What is a story?

At WonderCon this weekend, I had someone asking me when there'd be a sequel to "Common and Precious," and it got me thinking about this.

Our screenwriting teacher has a saying that no character in a movie represents a person. Every character represents a message, or a belief system: a way to live. Even in biographies, most characters are tailored to show a message of some kind through the story of their lives.

So a story, being the movement of characters through a plot, is actually a debate between different beliefs or responses to a problem. The resolution of the story is the success (or failure!) of one of the belief systems to resolve the problem.

Of course, this doesn't mean your characters don't have to be believable. It just means that in addition to being believable characters, they have to be consistent ("on message" in business-speak) throughout the story, or they have to have a reason to change. They have to be believable so that the reader believes that their solution to the problem at hand is a valid one. Otherwise, as Slartibartfast would say, "that's where it all falls apart."

So when I write a story with some characters I enjoy, I don't automatically write a sequel. Sometimes I do, if I feel that the story didn't really resolve. More often, the reason to write another story with the same characters is that you're trying to illuminate another kind of problem, and the character's approach to the problem matches a character you've already written. Which is why I am gratified to have people demand sequels of stories with the same characters, but I'm always unsure how to respond to it. It's not that I don't *like* the characters. It's more that I just don't have anything more to write about them. There has to be a story; I can't just do a "what's next."

Now, all of the above is very clinical. And certainly, I don't sit down to write a story and think, "Hm. This is an interesting problem. I wonder which belief systems I can use to illuminate my preferred solution, and how to create characters out of them." But, to paraphrase my screenwriting teacher again, those concepts are at the foundation of any good writing, and although very few people actually work from the concepts out to the story, they are the underpinnings you need to be aware of when you are constructing your story.

Which is why, when someone wants to know what happens to the characters next, they are actually looking at the characters in somewhat the wrong way. The character has nothing to do without a problem to solve. And that is also why I find myself really interested in secondary characters, to the point of giving them their own stories on occasion. Their problems have not only not been solved, they've often not even been explored. I'd much rather do a story on them than another story with characters whose story has played out.

(And in fact, I am working--slowly--on a Night and Bright story, which a couple people have also requested. I like them too--not their belief systems, but the wrapper around them. They're fun to write. And that, more than anything I just spent half an hour typing, is what determines whether another story gets written. :)

1 comment:

Erin said...

Raymond Chandler once wrote that in every great piece of literature, there is an element of redemption, and the more significant the redemption, the greater the work. I've always tried to include that in my writing, striving never to write a character who doesn't get some kind of redemption.

I suppose that the ideology expressed therein really fits with my worldview - that we're all just doing our best to get by, and that real evil is far rarer than the standard run of events in the world would suggest. Everyone, and in particular every character worth writing about, has the capacity to be redeemed.