Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Greek drama has it: David Vann on our ancient programming for story structure

Protagonist/Antagonist: one is the other's shadow

What makes a satisfying story? Neil Gaiman’s answer to this question (given in the introduction to a short story anthology he edited) is: one in which the reader constantly asks, ‘what happens next?’ For others the essential feature is the ‘story arc’, though what we mean by that has become hazy – to say a story lacks an arc is often just a way of saying it didn’t satisfy. Another definition is given by Kurt Vonnegut in this now famous youtube video.

David Vann’s explanation of what makes a satisfying story is that, in Western culture at least, we are programmed to expect a structure laid down by the ancient Greeks. In the masterclass he gave for the Word Factory in November, he argued that Greek drama – tragedy in particular – epitomises the shape our minds seek when we engage with a story. When, as a writer, we do not follow Aristotelian dramatic conventions, we are going to disappoint our readers, unless we compensate in some way. This compensation might take the form of stylistic fireworks, or humour.

Some of the key ideas Vann discussed, in relation specifically to short stories, were the following:

Unity of action: focus on one dramatic situation, with no need for subplots.

Unity of place: the action ought to be fairly contained in terms of location, thus forcing characters to confront one another without relief.

Unity of time: the story should take place in a limited amount of time, again to force confrontation of the crisis. Back story, if it has to be there at all (which in theory in shouldn’t), should be limited.

Protagonist/Antagonist: often these are versions of the same person, which is why the latter so frustrates the former. The protagonist’s problem should come from within, rather than being entirely external, even if it is activated by a stranger or a situation.

Taboo: some sort of social rule – however minor – is broken, creating crisis or insight.

One observation from Vann that I found particularly interesting was around the inherent problem with beginning a story in medias res – starting in the middle of the action and then backtracking to describe how this point was reached. This is currently quite a fashionable way to begin both short stories and novels – how often are we told to begin right in the action? However, the backtracking part thus becomes ‘slack’, in Vann’s opinion. The reader is bored, waiting to get back to the essentials of the story. 

This in medias res approach is just one of many that buck the classical idea, and what I have thought about most since this masterclass is the huge range of short stories that do not obey the classical rules, and yet are absolutely brilliant. Of course, Vann was only giving us one way to make stories satisfying, and his comment about needing to compensate when you break the rules stuck with me. 

It seems that, for many short stories, what is truly great about them is how far they are pushing that compensation – providing gorgeous writing, profound psychological insight, instinct-prodding strangeness, absurdity, sheer beauty – to create marvellous things that break the rules. Many modern short stories are not complete ‘stories’ in that they tell a tale, start-middle-end. I am not the only writer/reader who loves playing with ambiguity and unresolved endings, for example. But thinking about these aspects of story-writing as tricks that better compensate for the lack of a classical story really made me consider how well they better work, in order to still satisfy the reader. Otherwise, they can be a way of letting yourself off the hook as a writer, telling yourself, ‘but not all stories have definite endings!’ 

Vann said he believed that the classical story structure is in us all, which is why, when we write without thinking about it, that is what we will often produce. However, his case for learning about the theory is that, by planting it in your mind, you may bring good story shapes to the surface, and hit them sooner, rather than digging for them. This struck me as the best argument for learning about literature whilst also trying to write it that I have ever heard.

Thanks, Word Factory and David Vann for such illumination. For interested readers and writers, there will be a new programme of masterclasses up on the Word Factory website in the new year.

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