Filling in a form: Traditional stories don’t match real life

An idea I’m working through: that there is a form (not some universally existing Platonic form, but a pattern, an outline, a blank structure — even a Mad-Lib sheet, to be crude) for traditional stories, and that stories that “work” fit this form, and those that “don’t work” are those stories that try but fail to fit into this form. Of course, there are lots of fictions that don’t try to fit into this form at all, and I’m for now calling these “nontraditional stories.”

In a way, this isn’t news — I remember hearing, probably as a high school student, that there’s a certain structure to story: characters, plot, setting, rising action, climax, denouement, etc. And I know there are certain story structures that are acknowledged as formulas — certain romance fiction, three-act movies, etc. I think I accepted this idea as a shorthand, jargon-y way to talk about novels in lit classes, but I also think I resisted the idea that all stories had to have these features, or they were failures. (It has taken me a while to realize that stories don’t have to all be traditional.)

But I’m now teaching a lit class, after having taught creative writing classes for several years, and we’re reading “Of Mice and Men,” and it’s such a short, tightly written book that I’m feeling like the seams are showing — I feel like all I’m seeing here is form, is how Steinbeck put this story together in an efficient,  maybe too efficient, way. I’m looking at this story as a nearly iconic example of the fiction form — by which I mean, this story also feels mannered, empty, cold. It feels like I’m supposed to admire the architecture of the writing here. All hail Steinbeck, master of form. He’s got distinct (not complex, but distinct) characters here, bouncing off each other in a tight proximity — as if he put bees in a jar and shook the jar just to see how pissed off the bees would get. And so a woman gets killed and a mentally disabled man gets “put down” in a fashion that parallels how an old dog is “put down.” Great. Thanks, Steinbeck. Sure, his story is plausible, and I’m not saying he tells the story clinically — there’s pathos and drama there, and sadness, and etc. But it still feels so … artificed, so set-up, so much like the author is like God, pitting these characters against each other.

All this is to say that perhaps Steinbeck was a master craftsman at filling in the form, the Mad-Lib of story, and yet, this seems to bug me all the more. Because what I’m realizing is how artificial the story form is compared to how I have experienced being alive (and now I’m older than Steinbeck was when he published “Of Mice and Men” — not that Steinbeck’s wrong, but that I might be equally right).

I remember taking fiction-writing classes in college and finding it difficult to come up with reasonable conflicts, especially in my stories that grew out of my real-life experiences (an approach I wouldn’t now recommend to a young writer, but at the time I was obsessed with how Kerouac had turned his nonfiction experiences into fiction). Now, today, as I become aware of the traditional-story form, I’m thinking, shoot, I was going about it all wrong. Why didn’t I pick characters and conflicts from the start? Why try to be realistic and still fit into traditional form? (Here, I’m thinking of trad-form not only as what we encounter in formal fiction, but also this may include many of the daily anecdotes we tell each other. When I meet someone who seems to tell stories that have no point, or that don’t directly get to the point, I suppose I’m expecting that person’s anecdotes to conform more clearly to story form.)

But maybe if I only told stories where there were clear goals for each character, and clear obstacles/opponents, and conflicts, and these conflicts were external — well, I’d be writing action movies or other genre fiction. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with genre fiction, or traditional stories. I don’t mean to throw those out and not use them at all. But I’m starting to see their limits. And I’m starting to see that I’m much more personally interested in both reading and writing stories that don’t follow the traditional story form.

Here, I’m defining traditional story form as that narrative whose outcome/resolution can be causally explained in terms of characters and situations. In “Of Mice,” we can see why George killed Lennie, and why, even though this may have been a sad or tragic outcome, it also “makes sense” in the story logic — that is, readers likely find this ending satisfying. Also, traditional-form narratives have a purpose — a “point,” as in, what’s the point of this story? What’s the theme — and the narrative sets expectations (through mood/tone, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc.) to serve/reveal that purpose. “Of Mice and Men” has a serious tone throughout, and killing and death and Lennie’s problems are mentioned many times. We readers are surprised, but are not unprepared, when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and then when George kills Lennie.

I’m not saying that the set-up dictates the ending, necessarily, but as the story goes along, perhaps it narrows the range of likely (reasonable, satisfying) outcomes. Maybe Lennie didn’t have to die, but he wasn’t gonna marry Curley’s wife and head for Niagara Falls, either.

And had Lennie died from any cause not connected with the other characters’ intentions, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying, either.  Had Lennie been bitten by a rattlesnake as after he killed Curley’s wife, that wouldn’t be a satisfying conclusion, because that would seem too random, would be a cause that wasn’t provided for earlier in the story.

But this is the limitation of story — we expect there to be reasons. We are satisfied when there are human reasons and causes for things — that is, when the good are rewarded and the bad (or in Lennie’s case, the hapless and dangerous) are punished.

But of course, things happen all the time in real life that have no cause in human behavior. Tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes regularly kill people. Young, healthy people get brain aneurysms and die. My dad was killed when he was a passenger in a truck hit by a much bigger truck. What bugged me when this happened, a few years ago now, is that there was no story there. There was a scientific explanation for why his body ceased living, of course, but there was nothing he did, no intentional move or even mistake he made, that led to his death. (And whenever I’ve heard people say, in situations like these, something like “no one can know God’s plan,” it’s always felt like complete bullshit.) And further, this death was no satisfying ending for any overall narrative of my dad’s life; my dad had some problems he was working through, and then he got killed, and — huh.

So we can study traditional stories as the — what’s a good metaphor here — magician’s device that they may be, so long as we’re clear that traditional stories have not much to do with how one may experience real life. And yes, there will still be lots of popular books and movies and nonfiction narratives that will try to fit into the traditional story form. And I can teach my students how these work, and maybe that will spoil some of their surprise in encountering these stories, but education shouldn’t just teach kids to fill in these forms, but to also take these forms apart, see how they work, and understand that they are forms.

But I think what has become clearer for me today is that not all stories are failing stories if they don’t fit the traditional model. And maybe I prefer those stories that don’t try to fit the mold, that don’t try to end clearly and cleanly — those seem to have more legitimacy to me, at this stage in my life, in my intellectual development. Perhaps some people like the idea that life can be tidy, some people who prefer to know exactly how everything comes out.

Far be it from me to end this post tidily.

P.S. (Here I lose the tidy ending): I suspect, after recently talking to some family members who appreciate fiction more than I do, that at least some people who read genre fiction do so in order to get absorbed, get their attention absorbed, into the story. My wife reads historical romances, she says, so as to forget about the stresses of the workday at her law office. I get that. I also read to relax, but I tend to read news articles online or New Yorker profiles, (‘cuz that’s how I roll.) Whether we’re reading genre fiction or news articles, my wife and I are both reading things that we don’t have to think too hard about. The forms of each are familiar to us, and because these forms are familiar, we don’t have to think too much about them. We can mostly accept whatever the words are telling us.

But perhaps the forms mean different things to us individually: I get annoyed at fiction that feels fake, and my wife doesn’t want the stress of having to read about problems in the world. Maybe we have our preferences of form because we agree at a fundamental level with the assumptions and conventions of each form. I’d rather read mediocre writing about the real world because, well, it’s about the real world, and maybe my wife feels the opposite.

P.P.S.: A few minutes after posting this, I’m thinking that one could read this whole frustration with fiction as some misplaced grief I still feel over my dad’s sudden death. Could be, maybe, but I don’t think so — I was frustrated with fiction for several years before he died. But, I do recall being especially frustrated with the idea of story, and how my dad didn’t get to finish his, after his death.

P.P.P.S.: And to clarify, I don’t mean to say that all traditional-story writers have it easy. But I do want to say that I think that I’m more interested, as a writer, of realizing the limits of old forms and of trying out new forms, than I am in completing the task of trying to fill in the trad-story form.

3 responses to “Filling in a form: Traditional stories don’t match real life

  1. There’s the accepted notion that by the time a children reach the age of 5, they’ve absorbed their culture’s story form. While this notion is based on assumptions, I believe that when one is not a trained storyteller, one is drawn to stories that do have a point, that are tidy, that appear to have some resonating meaning. Precisely because life is so untidy and can appear to have little to no point, readers gravitate toward something that will help them “make sense” of it all. Trained storytellers may become bored with the traditional and seek to strike out in a direction unknown. Although finding a direction to strike out in that has not yet been blazed is a challenge. Good luck.

    • Thanks for your comment! I hadn’t thought about how children absorb these stories, but what you said makes sense — I’m sure there’s a lot of what we expect stories to be (including those stories that are anecdotes told in casual conversations) that comes from a semiconscious structural expectation. I am interested in reading (and writing) new story forms, but as a teacher, I’m noticing with how little impact experimental fiction seems to have had on our larger culture as well as on our curriculum. Traditional story endures in a prominent role as the publisher’s and moviemaker’s bread-and-butter. As such, I must confront trad. form and show my lit. students how these stories function. I really appreciate what you wrote about tidy stories as a way of seeking meaning (or, in light of my post above, I’d say real life experiences are sometimes pushed into the mold of trad. story and the parts that don’t fit get trimmed out, like the Procrustean bed).

      • From what I’ve gleaned from readers, while they can admire the thought and effort (as an intellectual exercise) that goes into making a new form, it tends to feel like the form grabs all the attention at the expense of the story. New forms attract critical acclaim, but don’t necessarily find a broad readership because (I’m going to generalize here) the majority of readers want the focus to be on the story, not form. I hear you about the traditional story and Hollywood. I was tremendously disappointed at how American Hustle ended, all tied up with that cute little bow. But then it’s a comedy, and one shouldn’t demand too much from this form, even if you’re the great Shakes.

        As far as trimming is concerned, yes, it’s Darwinian.

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