Fiction and Story
What is story? Here’s one. A homeless man in Monterey, California has two beloved dogs, one of which dies. He gets a new dog. Here’s another story. A homeless man has two beloved dogs, one of which dies. He gets a new dog, and though no more loved than the old, the new dog renews the man’s faith that he can go on. He has his family, his pack, his tribe. He has two creatures to love. In story, something happens to someone or a person does something, but more, in a story something should change. If you’ve written a story which is essentially the same in the end as the beginning, you have no story.
This is not to say that novels or stories in which little seems to happen have no story. In Norwegian author Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Curse the River of Time, the narrator, Arvid, searches for his dying mother’s love in the beginning and he’s still searching for it at the end. He appears to be the same man at all times, yet in the end he realizes he’s failed to breach the distance with his mother. Something has slowly, quietly happened.
In New York City I had a friend who used to write for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He often made things up. Owls, for example, can detect underground water with the ears of the tops of their heads. The truth: owls’ ears aren’t even on the tops of their heads. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because readers turned to Ripley tales for the absurd, the unbelievable, not for the truth. This is fiction. You can make everything and anything up. You can do whatever you want in fiction, as long as the reader believes it.
Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende make things up, ghosts and spirits and so on, but as master novelists they know how to write story. They know how to make readers believe in magic. You can too when you become a master of your craft and understand story. In your tales, something must change. Your story doesn’t have to move forward in sequence ─ it can appear as if there’s no plot, it can move forward or backward in time, or inside a character’s head ─ but something must happen and something must change from beginning to end.
Stuff has to happen