In order to improve as a storyteller, it helps to have some sort of understanding about what storytelling is. And yet it is surprising how much confusion there is on the subject.
For an object lesson in missing the point you could do a lot worse than refer to the account given by the famous populariser of neuroscience, Steven Pinker in his book, How the Mind Works.
Don’t get me wrong, I rate Steven Pinker very highly and love his writing, but I think he slipped up here.
‘Fictional narratives,’ he writes, ‘supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.’ (How the Mind Works — Steven Pinker) That is to say, fiction acts as some sort of self-help manual for the various contingencies we will face in life.
In support of his claim he cites Oedipus Rex, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Alice in Wonderland. This is odd, because each of these examples directly refutes his thesis.
For a start, two of the scenarios — a man turning into a cockroach, and a little girl falling down a rabbit hole — are impossible. And the plot of Oedipus Rex is so unlikely it has probably never happened to anyone in the history of the world. So why would you need a manual to help you cope with such a predicament?
Imagine for example you kill a man in a quarrel at a crossroads and inadvertently marry his widow and sire two daughters by her. Then by a miracle of fate you become a king. Later, after a long benevolent reign, fate reveals to you that the man you slew was your father, that you have been sleeping with your mum for the past twenty years and your daughters are also your sisters.
Is this the sort of contingency you need to plan for? Is the likelihood of it happening to you so pressing that you need a manual on how to cope?
If so, what advice does the manual provide? (Spoiler alert!) Oedipus ran from the stage, found his wife/mum hanging from a tree and used her brooch to gouge out his own eyes. Is that a helpful solution?
Or take Metamorphosis, Kafka’s grotesque fable about Gregor Samsa, a man who woke up one morning having turned overnight into a cockroach. What does Gregor Samsa do? Not much really, except suffer and decompose. But you don’t need a guidebook to teach you that. We do it all the time. It’s called the human condition.
It’s certainly true that great works of literature can teach us things, but not with mundane fortune cookie didacticism. They act as vehicles to great artistic truths that enter via the portals of the soul. It’s called wisdom. That’s why such works endure and why Oedipus Rex is considered by many to be one of the towering achievements of world literature.
The trouble is, no one can teach you how to imbue your text with wisdom, but you don’t need to. The vast majority of people who pick up a book and get lost between the covers do so for a far more mundane reason.
They do it for the way it makes them feel. The revelation that Oedipus had been sleeping with his mother all those years fill us, like him, with horror.
But here’s the strange paradox of reading. We love it. It’s a delicious sort of horror.
It is this paradox that gives reading its peculiar hold over us. It gives us the opportunity to participate in another life, a more exciting and interesting one, one moreover that doesn’t hurt.
Think of all those people openly weeping in the street on the day of Lady Di’s funeral. The UK had never seen anything like it before. For a day, the proverbial stiff upper lip was swept aside and replaced by a nationwide outbreak of public weeping. Let’s be honest, though. Many of those public weepers were clearly distraught. But one or two…(dare we say it?) were enjoying themselves. It was a great day out.
People were phoning each other to say how upset they were.
Normally, when someone you love dies, you don’t behave like that.
Someone coined the term ‘grief lite’ to describe it. It’s the difference between weeping over the death of Bambi, and weeping over the death of your dog.
It’s the reason for the following paradox. If your neighbour’s 14 year old daughter broke up with her boyfriend and committed suicide, you would be appalled.
But when Juliet Capulet does it you watch over and over again with a delicious thrill each time.
Fiction represents an improvement over life in one vital respect: suffering is transmuted to pleasure.
So for writers the lesson is clear. Make your readers weep. They love it.