How a Story Works

Stories are interesting things. Trying to figure out how they work has been one of the more pleasant obsessions of my recent (and so far, brief) life.

I used to think that a story was just a chain of events, arranged and presented in a manner meant to be interesting to the reader. This was back when my thinking process was pretty rudimentary. I still thought No Fear shirts were cool, for example. My concept of stories was limited mostly to “How does A get from point B to point C?” I pretty much thought of them as a math problem, but with interesting setpieces and maybe, if I was lucky, some sex.

But at some point in time this changed.

Eventually I started to realize that some stories seemed truer than most. Some stories, even though they were patently fiction, felt real. I kept coming back to these as a kid, trying to see what made them what they were. It was like they had found a pattern somewhere in the world. Like they had blown away dust to reveal a groove in the earth itself, part of a larger, tracing architecture laid out under the sky. It was like the stories were always there, like they were passageways leading to that strange pattern that felt so true, so ingrained in everything. I just had to take the time to follow them down.

There were two things I realized about the patterns the stories somehow revealed. One was that the patterns were not at all alike. In fact, many seemed to directly contradict the others. This was somewhat frustrating, since they all, to at least some degree, felt true. How this worked confused me.

The other thing was that not everyone saw the patterns.

This was a blow to me. My first experience that I can recall with this was at the age of ten, when I read Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, and then found my best friend was going to do a report on it in class. I was excited, since I’d found the book exhilarating. There was a transient, magic glory to the world and life Dahl explored in the story. But my best friend gave a cursory, trite summary of the book, summing it up as “a hunting story,” when in fact it was about the growth of a young boy and his poacher father, and how the clever, lower-class folk manage to put one over on a tyrannical, wealthy merchant. It eventually became apparent that he hadn’t even finished the book, and he’d lied about it in class for the book report. I later asked why, and he said that he found the book “boring.”

I had to sit down for a moment after hearing that.

It’s taken me a while to figure out why stories work for some people, whereas for others they don’t work at all. I still haven’t got it completely, but I think I can suggest two things about it.

One is that stories explore a cross-section of the world, not the world as a whole. Like the lives of people, stories are limited. Even if they try and break out of their boundaries, still more boundaries remain. In a way, they’re like shining a flashlight through the rain in the dark – they can only reveal the rain in that section of the sky, and no more. If you can find patterns within that cross-section of the sky, then that is good and beautiful, but they still remain only within that wide swath of water, and go no further. People who have not seen that cross-section of the world will not be interested in it. It’s describing an aspect of existence that may as well not exist to them.

This doesn’t mean that if you aren’t a poacher you won’t enjoy Danny, Champion of the World. When I’m speaking about cross-sections here, I’m speaking in very big terms. In regards to that story, it will speak strongest to those who have experienced rootlessness, anxiety, and that dreadful doubt that gnaws at children when they’re no longer certain their parents know best. Those who haven’t experienced those things, or haven’t experienced them to the degree described in the story, will likely not be as amenable to it.

This is probably why some stories, while all feeling very true, will often contradict one another. They are describing paths and lives that are completely different. In a lot of ways, they are describing different worlds.

The second thing I’m beginning to suspect is that stories broadcast what they’ve learned about that pattern, and I think each one does so on a certain frequency. They’ve taken all the evidence and the datum and arranged it so that it makes sense, and now they just have to send it out. Most stories broadcast at a medium frequency, so that most people can receive it. Some do it at a very high frequency, and so can only be heard by a select few receivers. Some do it at a very, very low frequency, and so can be detected by some, but only in the background, in an unnerving, crawling way.

Everyone can receive at least some kind of stories. But everyone is also deaf to some frequencies, too. There are simply some stories you will never, ever hear, and never, ever understand. Imagine walking into a room and seeing a group of people crowded around a radio, smiling and nodding at one another, and maybe oohing or aahing, as though something marvelous has just happened. You’ll look at the radio, and see that it is on, but nothing seems to be coming from it. The room is silent. And yet these people are having the time of their lives, feverishly discussing things as though they are brilliant, but to you they don’t even exist.

If you’re smart, you’ll just nod your head and move on. If you’re not, you’ll tell them that it’s nothing, that they’re fools, and that this is obviously just a waste of their time and they should flip over to this station that you like, because it’s actually playing something.

This will probably not get a good reaction from them. Why should it? To them, it’s perfectly plain that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

As you can hopefully see what I’m explaining here, stories are tricky things just when you’re on the receiving end.

It gets much trickier when you start trying to make them. It’s like trying to build a telescope from just seeing some magnified pictures of the stars.

It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’m beginning to understand it now. I’m not entirely sure how, though. Some of the understanding has been intuitive, happening in the corners and crevices of my head where I never go. Some of it has been more dialectic, identifying parts that contrast and don’t lead into one another, and those that do. And some of it has been superficial, just trying to figure out how fucking future perfect works in a section that’s mainly past continuous.

But I can say for certain that stories are like organic machines, building themselves by some sort of blind guidance, with interlocking parts and strange physics and methods of energy use I can barely control.

I can also say that stories are mirrors of a wide expanse, and some parts are concave while others are convex, and some parts are rough and pebbled while others are smooth and very, very cold.

I can also say that stories are like chisels, given to the reader to chip away at existence and explain the random events pouring around them, paring years down until understandable truths remain.

I can also say that stories are like maps of the world, explaining the pitfalls and the peaks, showing you the many roads you can take, and where they will lead you if you essay on.

I can say that stories are windows looking out on strange vistas, and sometimes they have glass, which is sometimes of many colors, and sometimes they have no glass at all. Sometimes they look out on a battle. Other times they look out on a large field with many dogs romping about. And still other times they show you a brick wall.

I can say that stories are fractal, expanding as you go further in, or infundibular in both directions.

I can say that some stories go from point A to point B, whereas others seem totally unaware of the alphabet at all.

I can say that the more I learn about stories, the less I know what they are. The narrative construct is one of our greatest and most mysterious tools, and I often doubt if we wield it as much as it wields us.

My first novel, Mr. Shivers, comes out this week. I often think about what kind of story it is. The cross-section of the world it describes, I think, is one of grim survival, of conceptualizing the world as a fluttering flame in a world of darkness, and also as a state of constant flux and flow. Its frequency, I think, is a very low one – a deep rumbling, like that of an earthquake happening in the distance, one some will feel in their bones while others will hardly notice at all. And if it is a mirror, I’m not sure if it’s bent and warped to distort the viewer, or if it’s angled in such a way that they see parts of themselves that were always there at the backs of them, but have so far gone unnoticed. They are probably not the parts the viewer would like to focus on, but they need to know the parts are there.

Some people, I know very well, will not hear the frequency my story broadcasts on, nor will they understand (or perhaps want to understand) anything about survival in that world, and the all-too-close relationship between life and death. And yet for others it is already proving to be a precious secret. These, I know, are the people I wrote it for.

What I wrote, and how I wrote it, and why, remains a mystery for me. I don’t think I will ever really understand it. Maybe I don’t especially want to.

Perhaps I am following that strange architecture I first felt when I read a “true” story, those grooves in the earth tracing across the ground.

Sometimes I think I should explore them more. I wonder where they will lead.

Maybe I could even write a story about it.