A Workshop in StorySpace
by P. Orin Zack
Everyone talks about integrity, but have you ever wondered what it looks like? I know I have. But what is it, really? In a way, it’s like air, because even though you can’t touch it or see it directly, you can certainly see its effects, especially when it acts on something, like the wind through the trees.
I mean, think about it. We look for integrity in our leaders and complain when they violate our sense of it. And if we don’t find it in life, we search it out in books. We look for characters that we can depend on, that have a clear sense of who they are and what they should do in any situation. Why else would Harry Potter be so popular?
But even when a person or a character does have integrity, we don’t always recognize it, because it can cause them to change what they do or who they seem to be. If a politician you support changes his mind on something that convinced you to vote for him, you might want to challenge his integrity. But the question to ask is really whether he did it to gain support, or to remain true to his guiding principles. Perhaps he just learned something that exposed an aspect of the position he’d held that he hadn’t been aware of.
Characters in books, just like people, are driven both by what’s inside them and what happens around them. Take this guy, for example…
It was night in Los Angeles, not that it mattered to Ernie Vacca. A sprinkling of stars punctuated the skyglow over the city, but Vacca’s idle gaze wasn’t attracted by any of them. Nor did he notice the distant exhaust flame of a shuttle arcing into space. In fact, his mind was on a star that wasn’t even visible from this latitude. He stood near the window of a high-rise apartment, waiting. He’d been doing a lot of that lately.
That’s the opening to my first science fiction novel, “The Shoals of Time.” The man at the window is driven by something we’re not told about, so all we can do is watch what he does, and try to figure it out on our own.
Vacca’s gaze drifted from what passed for a sky in Los Angeles to the rush and flow of the city’s airborne traffic and then to the city lights below. This apartment had the distinction of being at the same altitude as one of the airborne traffic patterns. Watching the lights of fliers at this height was like sighting along the edge of a shimmering energy field. The effect was almost hypnotic.
Something broke into his reverie and he turned his attention back to the job at hand. He focused his eyes first on his ghostly reflection in the glass, then on the image of the door directly behind him. Being translucent was jarring at first, but you got used to it after a while. Muffled footsteps rose above the hush of the air system and stopped just outside the apartment door. Vacca quietly turned around while the security system checked an ident card.
What we don’t know is whether the job at hand has anything to do with the southern star that was that was on his mind. The question of whether Mr. Vacca is acting from a sense of integrity must be put on hold until we learn more about that star. But even when we do figure it out, if we want to talk about the character’s sense of integrity, we still have a problem, because integrity isn’t concrete, it isn’t something you can point to. In order to do that, we’d need some way to visualize it. And that’s what my talk is about.
Big engineering projects were all the rage when I was a kid. They treated words like a construction kit and showed us how to diagram sentences. We spent our time stringing together nouns, verbs and objects, and then hung adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases all over them like garlands on a Christmas tree.
If you had to build sentences like that before you said or wrote anything, the world would probably be a really somber place, because nobody would bother. Doing that sort of thing may be great for analyzing sentences, for taking them apart to see what makes them tick, but for most people it’s completely useless for thinking or writing.
So why do it? Well, for one thing, it’s a way to visualize something that’s about as solid as a puff of smoke. After all, modeling air currents is how Boeing designs jets these days. But treating a sentence like an engineering problem is a sure way to end up with overly formal results. Getting a thought across is the whole purpose of communicating, but burying that thought under a mountain of stifling rules is a good way to get trapped in the verbal equivalent of sludge.
Stories are the same way, especially the ones that people live. Like sentences, they’re built from a handful of basic components — in this case, characters, conflicts and resolutions — and produce endless variety. But although stories can take you on any number of journeys through the mind of whoever wrote them, we don’t have much in the way of maps. And in order to know whether the course that a person or a character follows through the world they live in is one that reveals their integrity you need to consult a map.
I’d like to show you a new way to think about the stories that surround us, and hopefully give you the means to recognize the phony ones before you invest too much time in them.
Here’s what I’d like you to do. Imagine that you’ve got a hunk of modeling clay in front of you. Grab a handful and start playing with it. Roll it between your fingers; make little balls or long strings of clay. We’re going to be talking about shapes, and the best way to know about shapes is to feel them.
So what is a story, really? How about this?
Little Bobby Smith played with his toy.
Now remember, that’s all we know about Bobby. There’s no context, no way to know whether that’s all he ever does, or whether watching him play is the most amazing thing in the world. And until we know something else, it isn’t a story. To make it one, the reader has to take a trip, and something has to change along the way. But there are different kinds of change, and different kinds of stories.
Let’s say I haven’t seen you in a while, and you ask me what’s new. Now I could just ramble on about all the inconsequential things that happened in the past few months. I could tell you what I ate for lunch each day, and what order I folded the laundry, but that wouldn’t be very interesting unless it was completely different from what you’re used to. On the other hand, I could choose which things to tell you in order to make some point.
And that point is why you’re playing with a hunk of imaginary clay. If you take a small lump of the stuff and roll it into a little ball, you have the hard little nut that’s at the heart of any story: the point of whatever happens. To make it into a story, however, we’ll have to add some more clay.
I’m sure you’ve all seen or read plenty of news stories. The reason you take the time to go through one is to get to the point, after all, so you don’t want a lot of extraneous stuff to get in the way. That’s why news stories start with the point — that little ball of clay you’ve been fooling with — and then go back to fill in the details. If you roll out another lump of clay into a straight line, you can represent this sort of story by sticking the ball on the end of the line. Reading this kind of story is like starting at the ball, and then following the line to the far end.
Newspeople call this an Inverted Pyramid because the big stuff, a broad statement that encapsulates the entire story, comes first, followed by progressively finer and less critical detail. That’s why you can skim a newspaper and still get the gist of what happened that day. But it’s not all gravy. Consider this piece from the morning paper, for example:
Police arrested two teenagers last night for attacking a man picking pears. Noted local businessman James Elroy accused Robert and Michael Smith of assault after an incident in which he was injured. The twins claimed that they had seen Elroy prowling on their family’s farm, and had accosted him when they saw him stealing fruit. Elroy’s charges were dropped after witnesses confirmed their story.
Since you weren’t there, you have to take the reporter’s word about what happened. That gives him control over your experience, and over your understanding of the events, because he got to roll up the clay point and hand it you. He also decided what information to include in the thin clay line of exposition, and even told you what it meant. The worst part is that if you didn’t bother to follow the line to its end, you wouldn’t know that the boys had been the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of a crime. This is very different from experiencing it first-hand, and then deciding for yourself what to think about them.
But there are always at least two sides to any story, and the version in the morning paper wasn’t the only way to explain what happened. The city’s free weekly, whose reporters aren’t driven by a nightly deadline, led its own article with the same observation about the arrest, but came at that little blob of conceptual clay from a different direction. It presented an alternative view of the event, and even described a different sequence of events leading to it.
Their reporter did this by looking at the story from different points of view. Since she approached the story with no assumptions, she didn’t pre-judge what happened between Mr. Elroy and the Smith twins. In order to learn what had happened, she first asked them each to describe the incident. She then asked each of them who owned the fruit, and what ownership meant to them. What she found was that even the language they used to explain the incident altered its meaning, because the words themselves had emotional value.
During the course of her research, the weekly’s reporter learned that the Smiths had already harvested their crop, and that Mr. Elroy was engaged in a cultural practice called gleaning. You see, he’s an immigrant, and where he comes from, grain or fruit left after a harvest is offered to other members of the community without the stigma associated with charity. He was gleaning fruit for a poor neighbor who was unable to pick it herself.
And that’s just the difference between two approaches to the same news story. In fiction, there’s even more freedom for the writer to manipulate the reader, which is why bookstores, libraries and cinemas are full of fables, adventures, dramas, comedies and tragedies. They all have two things in common, though: conflict and resolution. But because there are different kinds of conflict and resolution to choose from, all sorts of stories are possible. And that’s why we needed the clay.
Just like the point and line of the news report, we can use our imaginary clay to sculpt shapes that will help us to learn what various kinds of stories feel like when they are done well. First, let’s take a look at the size of our model.
We began by representing the idea at the heart of a story with a little ball of clay. In a story with a conflict to be resolved, the events that happen along the way are also represented by a line of clay, but this time, instead of leading directly towards the ball, they trace out a nearby curve. The further from the focus idea or purpose the events are, the larger the curve.
At one extreme, there are stories in which someone has an inner conflict. Had the reporter from the free weekly been writing this kind of fiction, the story might have begun like this:
James Elroy stood at the edge of Smith Farm, studying the branch of a nearby pear tree. Harvest had ended a few days earlier, but a straggler still swung from the branch, nudged into a sensuous arc by the gentle breeze that ruffled his beard. He’d promised to care for a neighbor’s wife, a woman too proud to accept gifts of money or cast-offs.
But tradition offered him an alternative, a way to bring her food without the freighting of charity. Both families were immigrant, and in the town where they had been raised, gleaning was an honorable source of food in hard times. The pear he stared at had been left behind after harvest, and that made it fair game, so he reached out and plucked it from the branch. Still, he knew full well that the Smiths came from different stock, and were not likely to see it quite that way.
This kind of conflict can affect those around the focus character, and set off chains of events that have even more far ranging implications. If they do, then we may have to roll up another ball and another line of clay to reflect how each character’s life was affected.
Of course, our writer might have gone even further afield, moving the conflict out into the world, where it would come between the Smith twins:
Robert Smith grabbed his brother’s shoulder. “Let him take it, Mike. The pear’s probably half rotten anyway.”
Michael stopped short and spun around. “That’s not the point, Bob. He’s stealing. If we let him get away with it this time, he’ll think he has permission to do it again, and to bring his friends as well. Pretty soon, the farm will be ruined.”
If the story had been told from this perspective, the line of clay representing the events would be a bit further out. But she could have ratcheted it up still more by making the incident part of a larger social conflict.
The night his neighbor died, James Elroy stayed in his shop long after closing. Tensions between his tight-knit community of immigrant families and the rest of the secluded town had hurt more than just his business. They had cost Omri, his best friend since childhood and the godfather of his daughter, his life, and he felt responsible. After all, Omri wouldn’t have even considered challenging the people who threatened his wife if Elroy hadn’t supported him. And now it was his responsibility to support her, but she steadfastly refused to accept his gifts. He stared out at the passing traffic and wondered what to do.
If the writer wanted to go to extremes, she could have presented the incident as part of a conflict against the forces of nature, making our sculpture even larger.
The pear harvest had been worse. Farmer Smith was certain of that much. He just couldn’t recall when, that’s all. One thing he was damn sure of though, was that it had gotten progressively worse each year since the newcomers had arrived. He never really believed the stories they’d told, not really. But the way things have been going lately, maybe the climate really was changing. Even so, it was harvest time, regardless of how little fruit there was, or how badly it looked. So he called the twins and headed for the grove.
Story conflicts are like the ingredients in stew: they give you a basic idea of what’s for dinner, but nothing about what it’s going to taste like. For that, you need to add a resolution. For stew, it’s the taste left in your mouth when you’re done; for a story, it’s the one left in your mind and heart. There are two basic ways to resolve a conflict, and each has a different effect on both the reader and our sculpture.
If a character isn’t changed by the events in a story, like in a typical TV show, it’s harder to identify with them, because if we’d been in that situation, we probably would have been changed by it. This makes the character seem flat. In clay, that means the line tracing the events of the story returns to exactly where it started, and could just as well have been laid out on a piece of paper as in three dimensions.
But if the character does change, he’s easier to identify with, and we get to add another dimension to our sculpture. The curve of events may return to where things started, but because the character has been changed, the line of clay has changed its orientation. So now, instead of making a flat circle, for instance, our thin clay line starts tracing the surface of a sphere.
Crafting a story has been described as treeing your character and then throwing rocks at him. Ever since Aristotle taught that stories have exposition, complication and resolution, writers have been coming up with more detailed ways to say the same thing. As a result, lots of stories are built around the same framework. But just because all those authors are throwing rocks at their characters doesn’t mean they all know when to stop. When a story works well, it’s usually because the writer didn’t prolong the agony so long that the reader loses interest and gives the book away in disgust.
Remember Star Wars? Luke Skywalker starts out stuck on his desolate home planet with his chores. He joins Obi-Wan on a mission to deliver plans to the rebels at Alderaan. Luke and the others get captured and then escape the Death Star. Finally, after Luke is seasoned in battle, he goes back to defeat the enemy. The series of events that he went through, which we can represent with a string of clay, is known as a character arc. In a well-crafted story, each of the characters has one, and their actions are true to whatever driving force illuminates their fictional lives. So if we were making a sculpture to represent that movie, we’d need to roll up a lot of little balls and lines of clay.
Even before people started thinking of the course of a story as an arc, though, there were relationships between storytelling and geometry. It’s even in the language. Several common geometric forms have literary equivalents that are useful for describing some of the dynamic aspects of storytelling, and words that represent them. We don’t usually think of them in quite this way, though.
The clay lines we’ve been playing with can take on a number of shapes. At one extreme, there’s little Bobby Smith playing with his toy. If that’s all he does, then for anyone watching, there’s no story because he’s staying right on point.
So let’s hide his toy and see what happens. If Bobby is completely focused on finding his toy, then the arc describing the story of his search makes a circle around the toy. But if Bobby is distracted, perhaps by something on TV, the arc of his search will be distorted by the pull of the distraction, and it becomes an oval like the orbit of our planet, also known as an ellipse.
To make an ellipse, you trace a path around two points, keeping the total distance to both of them constant. In terms of a story, the two points of focus — Bobby’s toy and the TV — have an equal influence over the course of events.
Here’s where the fun begins.
When someone alludes to something without completing the thought, they engage in ellipsis. In print, it’s represented with three dots… In life, you’re standing on it. The Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, but only one of the two focus points has something at it: the Sun. The other one is implied, like the missing part of an ellipsis. By keeping one focus a secret, you create mystery. But the secret can be deduced by paying attention to the arc of the story.
The advantage of using this geometrical approach is that it gives us a way to describe and work with many other forms as well, not just traditional stories. For example, the straightforward exposition of an essay or scientific paper would be described as a straight line, because it starts at one thought, and drives directly towards a conclusion.
You can use the same idea to craft parables, tales in which a fictional storyline illuminates something that is never mentioned. Here, two things define the arc of the character or story. One is a line representing the hidden lesson, and the other is the point or focus that is at the heart of the story used to illuminate it. The shape of the resulting story is a parabola.
In a parable, the situation posed in the surface story does not at first resemble the one in the lesson. As the story progresses, though, it becomes more and more like the one in the lesson, and our curved clay line approaches the straight one, but never actually touches it. When the resemblance is strongest, the character learns the lesson, and his course of action is deflected by the insight, sending him back towards the surface context, having been changed by the experience. After all, he’s now heading in different direction than when he began his journey.
The dictionary says that hyperbole is intentional exaggeration, but there’s really a lot more to it than that, and it turns up a lot more often than you might think. The old game of telephone is a good example. One person says something to his neighbor, and then it gets passed along from one to the next. Sometimes it gets changed, for one reason or another, and eventually the original message is so distorted that you probably wouldn’t recognize it.
The same thing happens to a person in the manic stage of bipolar disorder, only it’s their world that mutates. The owner of a marginal construction company might imagine himself the leader of a massive industrial conglomerate by the time it’s over, but the path that his changing reality takes is a hyperbolic curve. It starts out looking pretty much like the world everyone else lives in, but then it starts to change at an accelerating rate.
Some stories use this same pattern. In these tales, the arc begins firmly rooted in reality, and then moves further and further into the unbelievable. Keeping the curve of arc in mind while crafting a story like this helps to prevent jarring excursions along the way. And if you happen to be reading one, you can use it to track the accelerating changes in the character’s universe. If the writer move too fast, or backtracks, you’ll know.
But things get even more interesting when you start to put the different forms together in the same story, and it starts to feel more like sculpting with literary clay.
Several methods have been used over the years to help people visualize stories. Formal techniques from science and engineering, such as Venn diagrams and flowchart structures, have been applied to the problem with varying success. Some schools have even used line drawings to visualize the emotional experiences of a character.
Since we’re working with virtual clay, we can alter the texture and color to highlight the emotional component of a story or character arc, but what I wanted to show you was the kinds of shapes you can use to represent the various aspects of a story. So let’s take a closer look at the tools, and see what we can build with them. First, there are the things that underlie a story:
- Point – an idea or purpose that influences action
- Line – exposition that drives directly towards an idea or purpose
The shapes made by whatever conflicts exist in a story are based on what drives them, not the nature of the conflicts themselves. In other words, a circle could represent either a character’s internal monologue or an interpersonal dispute, as long as there is only one idea or purpose driving the action. The difference is in size: an interpersonal circle would be larger than an internal one.
Using this method, the conflicts in a story can make a variety of shapes:
- Circle – action driven by a single idea or purpose
- Ellipse or Oval – action driven by two ideas or purposes of equal influence
- Egg-shape – action driven by two ideas or purposes of unequal influence
- Parabola – action driven by one idea or purpose, but directed by an exposition that drives directly towards a second idea or purpose
- Hyperbola – action driven by the difference between two ideas or purposes
Just as a pleasing sculpture has an identifiable overall shape, a pleasing story does as well. But that shape can be composed of countless smaller ones, and they can be of different kinds, too. So although the general theme of our story might be a parabolic lesson in cooperation, Mr. Elroy’s egg-shaped conflict between tradition and assimilation would be there as well. In fact, Michael Smith might be so single-minded in his protection of the family farm that every one of his actions describes a circle around that purpose.
Putting all of these things together, the story about Mr. Elroy’s pears ends up with a complex shape, because the choices made by each character are influenced by all of the curves that affect both them and the events they are involved in. And that brings us back to the question of what integrity looks like.
If Michael Smith were driven primarily by the need to protect his family, suddenly selling the farm to go on a world cruise would clearly not be in character. Assuming that Michael doesn’t change, it would be safe to say that he had lost his integrity. Doing something like that would cause a jarring shift in the arc of the story and of his character, a defect that is even more obvious when you have a way to visualize it.
But what if Michael did change? That world cruise might not have been in character before, but it could be if he’d just discovered that the Smiths weren’t really his family. The encounter with Elroy might have provided the final piece of a deep personal mystery, revealing that his so so-called father had actually murdered his parents and abducted the brothers when they were babies.
But conflict isn’t the whole story, because every conflict requires some kind of resolution. The nature of that resolution is what gives a story depth. Consider little Bobby Smith and his toy again. If he’s not changed in any way by the experience, then the circle of his story is flat, like one drawn on a piece of paper. But if he learned something along the way, the arc he traveled becomes a three-dimensional shape. When he returns to where he began, it is from a slightly different direction. The paper circle of his experience is now part of the surface of a sphere.
The result of crafting a story using various shapes is different from doing the same thing with real clay, because we’re not building a solid object. Instead, the various forms interpenetrate one another, making a sculpture that can best be represented on a computer screen or in your mind. But by using this method, you can look at the actions of each character, and the events that their interactions produce, and know whether they are true to the influences that guide them, or whether they are simply complications tossed in haphazardly by the author.
And that’s where life imitates art, because each of us is the author of our own lives. The events we experience are influenced by the ideas and purposes that guide us, as well as those that drive events in the world we inhabit. When we admire someone’s life, it is usually because the shape that it made was satisfying, which is the result of remaining true to whatever guiding idea or purpose they followed.
So now let’s get back to Ernie Vacca and see what he was waiting to do…
Vacca watched the apartment door slide open to admit Phil Mantee, one of the few remaining field agents of the Temporal Planning Commission. Lights came on as Mantee entered and the door slid shut behind him. He dropped his ident card on a nearby table and slipped off his jacket. As Mantee turned toward the closet, Vacca thumbed the smaller of the two devices he held. He had been using it to shield his presence from Mantee’s trained senses. Now, as his ethereal form phased to solidity, he hooked the device onto his belt and shifted his grip on the larger apparatus.
“Hello, Phil,” Vacca said quietly.
“What the —?” Phil exclaimed as he whirled to face the sound. His startled look changed first to recognition, then to astonishment. “Ernie Vacca? Where the hell have you been for the last two years? We thought you were dead.”
“Not yet,” Ernie smiled wryly, “I still have some business to take care of.”
Mantee gathered his wits. “What are you doing here, Ernie, and how did you get in?” he asked.
“Oh come on, Phil,” Ernie chided. “I’ve still got my synergizer.”
Phil grimaced. “So I see. What’s that other thing?”
“This, my friend, is a Tors Synergizer. It’s based on our illustrious founder’s original design.” Ernie looked down at the crude device in his hand. It was clumsier than the TPC’s standard issue, the kind that agents used to phase into the TimeStream to monitor and direct the course of events. Standard-issue synergizers were foolproof. They had safeties and interlocks. This one didn’t. It gave him complete control over the combination psychic shield and destabilizer whose synergy had given the device its name.
“The original design?” Phil asked, cocking an eyebrow. “But that’s not safe.”
“Depends who’s using it,” Ernie replied, his voice low and ominous. “And on whom.”
Phil’s face darkened in puzzlement. Then, as the pieces fell together, the light of angry understanding filled his eyes. He backed slowly away from Vacca. “All those comatose agents we’ve been monitoring! You’re behind that.” he accused, his words dripping with venom.
“Phil, listen to me,” Vacca pleaded, moving forward to maintain their proximity. “I had to do it. It was the only way to stop the TPC. It’s wrong. What we’ve been doing for the past 130 years is all wrong.”
“Wrong?” Mantee barked. “The TPC kept the peace all that time. How can that be wrong?”
“Oh, we kept the peace, all right,” Vacca agreed. “But there’s a price. What’s the human race accomplished since the Global Directorate took over? Nothing. It’s been stagnating. And we — you and me and every other agent of the TPC — are to blame.”
“Bullshit,” Phil snarled as he edged closer to the door “Admit it, Ernie, you’re just a damn traitor. What do you get out of it Ernie, huh? Is it power? ”
“You don’t understand,” Vacca sighed, circling around to cut Mantee off. “We don’t enforce the peace, we never did. We prevent conflict. And the growth it brings.”
“Oh I understand,” Phil said bitterly as he realized he would never make it to the door. “You want Stinner’s job.”
Vacca shook his head. “Maybe I did then. Who wouldn’t? But that was before I saw what’s been going on — what I’m trying to get you to see — the TPC is rotting the fabric of society.”
“The only rotten thing here is you, Ernie. You’ve got a god complex. You know what’s good for everybody. Anyone who stands in your way gets tossed into the TimeStream without a paddle. Isn’t that it, Ernie?”
Vacca sighed again. “I give up. You just won’t listen.” He raised the Tors Synergizer and pointed it at Mantee. “Good-bye, Phil.”
In a desperate last effort, Mantee lunged, only to collapse in a heap at Vacca’s feet as the destabilizing effect of the synergizer hit him and his consciousness was tossed into the TimeStream.
“We were friends once, Phil,” Ernie said to the body on the floor. “I wish we could’ve been on the same side.”
Vacca turned his thoughts to the future. Phil Mantee was out of the way, but he hadn’t been Vacca’s ultimate target. That honor was reserved for his old colleague, Lara Everett Stinner, now the Director of the Temporal Planning Commission. Stinner wasn’t as skilled as Vacca, but she could pull any string she wanted, and deception was her favorite game.
Vacca pulled a card out of his pocket and tossed it onto the small table by the door. He pivoted smartly and left.
Copyright 2012 by P. orin zack