03 February, 2006

Narrative causality

In the discussion about implausible coincidences in plots, Rick said:

"Though maybe it is much the same thing as the current convention by which the hero defuses the bomb just as the bright red timer readout reaches 00:00:01."

I said I thought this was an example of Terry Pratchett's concept of narrative causality and promised to post an extract. Here you go:

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.

Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.

Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling...stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.

And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.

So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Stories don't care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.


Normally the future is branching off at every turn and it's only possible to have the haziest idea of what is likely to happen. But here there were stories coiled around the tree of events, bending it into a new shape.

-Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

This concept seems to me to be much more complex than deus ex machina, where events are altered by the interference of some external power, whether that be Fate, Providence, the gods or the author. The story itself has a desired and desirable shape.

Does this concept explain why some plot twists and some endings 'feel right' while others don't, as Ian Hocking and Bernita have both been discussing recently? The hero has to save the world in the nick of time, because it wouldn't feel right if he failed, or if he succeeded with several days to spare. Success in the nick of time is a pleasing story shape, in the same way that some geometric shapes are inherently pleasing to the eye, such as the 'golden ratio'.

Does it also explain why the beginning is always the hardest part to write, since the story hasn't yet got a shape?

What do you think?


Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
Echos of the gods and we are chained.

Bernita said...

Addendum: And thank you particularly for posting a clearer version of something that I in my dim way was trying to articulate.
You've taken away some of the dark tinted glass.

Carla said...

Don't thank me, thank Terry Pratchett. He is, I think, a much under-rated writer.

Rick said...

This is brilliant (and yes, a due hats-off to Pratchett).

This relates muchly to comments I made here:


Don't know how to post a link; I split the URL so as not to overrun the margin - and yeah, I misspelled "archetypes!" :(

Diana Wynne Jones famously deconstructed standard fantasy tropes in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. In all, her comments are brutally on point, but some of the conventions are just plain right. A good example is her discussion of royal guards in the service of a Good king:

They are very smart and well trained and their drill is as crisp as any you will see. But they are human. At some point you will encounter them in a relaxed mood, joshing their captain, swearing merrily and recounting touching anecdotes about their young children. They are the salt of the earth, like their King, but there will probably be a time when they have to arrest you. When this happens, they will tell you how much they regret it and not give you any chance to escape. (emphasis added)

This is exactly as it should be, in fundamental story terms. Bumbling decent-chap kings may have inept guards, but the Aragorns of any world are served by guards who take pride in their service, and no, they won't let you escape. Doesn't even need to be a good king - Louis XIII was so-so at best, but would D'Artagnan and the Musketeers have permitted you to escape? Don't bet on it.

There are a bunch of places around the Web that list bad SF/F conventions, and doubtless for other genres as well. But it might be a useful service to have a double list, of standard ploys we can do without, but also classic story elements that remain valid no matter how many times they've been used before.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm getting really pissed at blogger for eating my comments.

Ok, let's try again.

Lol, if Athos did the arresting, I wouldn't even want to escape.

Royal guards are a historical reality, after all, so it's no wonder they play a prominent role in books.

The Byzantine Emperors recruited their Varangians from Scandinavia because those guys had an 'old fashioned' sense of personal commitments (all that handgenginn maðr stuff) and weren't involved in the intrigues at the Byzantine court.

The Roman Emperors had their personal guards, too (evolved maybe from the lictors) though those guardsmen sometimes developed a bad habit of stabbing emperors in the back. Literally.

It went on from there - the guards, and sometimes also the backstabbing.

In my NiP Kings and Rebels, Kjartan is handgenginn maðr of King Magnús which at one points brings him into a nice conflict between his loyalties towards the king and his obligations towards his brother. Roderic, during his exile, joins the personal guard of Duke Heinrich of Saxony - on a basis of mutual liking since Roderic can't become Heinrich's vassal.

My Pictish chiefs have their armour bearers (a nucleus bodyguard) and the Gothic Kings their Sworn Men. And some of the rich Romans hire ex-gladiators as personal bodyguards.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Does this have something to do with the "7 basic plots" that Christopher Booker writes about in "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories"?

From the Amazon.co.uk blurb: "This remarkable and monumental book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of 'basic stories' in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling. But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are 'programmed' to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology."

I've no idea what the 7 basic plots are, though. Does anyone else here? If the book is on the shelves the next time I visit the local public library, I might skim it to find out, though at 700 pages I won't be reading the whole book!

Bernita said...

I am so glad you began blogging, Carla.

Rick said...

Gabriele - LOL on Athos!

Sarah - I've seen various listings of X many basic plots, from three (Heinlein: "If this goes on," "the little tailor," and "the man who learned better") to thirty or thereabouts. But the longer lists tend to distinguish among plots that sound essentially similar to me.

It is interesting how some genres are defined by the plot (romance, mystery), while others are defined by the setting (hist-fic, SF).

Carla said...

It seems Blogger ate one of my comments too.

I don't know what the 7 basic plots are, though I think one of them is 'The Quest' (which apprently covers everything from Gilgamesh to Lord of the Rings). I'm a little sceptical about broad generalisations, because I always think of a book that doesn't seem to fit any of them, or fits more than one, and I never know whether it's me being dim or the generalisation not being useful. Perhaps whoever finds out first can post a link, or a list, and enlighten the rest of us?

About the double list - I take the point, but I bet you wouldn't get agreement as to what went in which list. Or else everything would go in both, with a 'It depends...' sort of qualifier. One man's cliche is another's classic story element. Perhaps if you like the genre/book it's a classic story element, and if you don't it's a cliche? :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, if I remember correctly, mixing of the 7 basic elements is a typical feature. But I've only read second hand about the book.

Rick said...

I agree with Gabriele - I don't know anything about this particular book, but mixing of basic plot elements is the norm, and probably inherent in any long form such as a novel.

Carla, you're right that everyone would disagree as to which conventional tropes (in any genre) are classic story elements and which are cliches.

Along these lines, I just discovered Sarah's blog, with her lists of Required Elements in medieval, Arthurian, and ancient-setting stories!

wil said...

I think there is definitely something to the limited number of basic stories/myths/archetypes/plots idea (this discussion brings to mind Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces).

Pratchett's Narrative Causality strikes me as a reification of this "basic stories" idea.

Carla said...

Wil - yes, definitely related to the basic plots idea but not exactly the same. See the next post about Sarah's 'Seven Basic Plots'.