What Do We Mean By ‘Story’?

imagesRecently, over on Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove reviewed a short story collection by Tom Barbash.  As usual, I commented on my inability to engage with the short story form, even though I frequently used to include examples in my teaching.  In reply, Litlove asked me whether I enjoyed fairy tales, because were they not a form of short story, and I had to admit that I did, if only because I have frequently used them as material for analysis in my research work on narrative organisation.  However, something must have made me uneasy about this, something that then lodged in the back of my mind and which my few remaining little grey cells have been worritting away at ever since, until my concerns finally coalesced while I was out walking this morning.  I enjoy and have worked with fairy tales because they really are short stories whereas so many texts that are called short stories actually are not.

The fairy tale is, quite simply, a story that is short.  But, short or no, for the most part, it is a complete story.  To put it bluntly (although I would slaughter any student who chose to be quite so blunt) it has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.  Or, to be a little more precise, it follows the canonical pattern of exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and conclusion.

Let’s take as an example that well known short story, The Three Little Pigs. The exposition introduces us to the main characters and the salient facts about their current life style (i.e like so many grown up sons and daughters they are still living at home with their mother).  But, these pigs are about to strike out for independence and so at inciting moment they all go out into the world to build their own individual houses.  Yea for the pigs!

Now, at this point the story could go off in all sorts of different directions.  It could turn out to be a tale of sibling rivalry as each of the pigs tries to outdo the other two in terms of building the biggest and best house.  It could have a developmental aspect to it as, having built their new homes, the pigs then decide to launch out into the business world and give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’.  What this plot line needs is an igniting moment to point readers in the right direction so that they can find their way safely through the fairy tale forest to the end of the story.  And so, along comes Mr Wolf and in the space of a huff and a puff our tale becomes one of survival against the evils of the outside world.

So, through the development section we watch as pig after pig finds his house destroyed by the evil machinations of Mr Big Bad.  (Please, no comments about the way in which the figure of the wolf is wickedly maligned and that really they are all nice, kind animals who live a quiet family life and wouldn’t so much as hurt a fly.  This one isn’t after flies.  He’s after roast pig and he’s the baddie.  OK?)  Finally, however, the pattern is broken and at climax pig number three, bravely sheltering her (check out the gender correct version in the Storychest reading scheme) two brothers manages to build a house that defeats the evil intentions of the wicked wolf and we are left to follow the dénouement with bated breath as the villain of the piece tries to climb down the chimney only to fall head first into the pot and become the chief ingredient in the siblings’ housewarming party.  As I said before – Yea for the pigs!

And those three intrepid house builders then get the reward that they deserve because the conclusion of the story, the point at which we move out of the event line and let the protagonists sink back into a settled and tranquil life, is the one that we all know so well – And they all lived happily ever after.  The Three Little Pigs may be short but it is a fully structured story.

However, my suspicion is (and it can be no more than a suspicion because I haven’t done the necessary research) that most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort.  Rather they are parts of stories and we, as readers, are left to construct the elements that are missing.  Not that I’m suggesting that there’s anything wrong or indeed unusual about that.  I’ve done a lot of work with children on single frame cartoons which normally offer you either the climax or the dénouement of the story and you only understand what is funny or pointed about them because you are able to reconstruct the rest of the narrative from prior knowledge either of a specific situation or a well rehearsed trope.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing a political cartoon in the daily press and being completely unable to interpret it because we haven’t been following the particular news item to which it is related.

Perhaps this points to one reason that so many of us have a problem with the short story as a form; it demands so much more of us as readers than does the full-blown narrative.  It can also be much more tantalising, especially if the dénouement and/or conclusion is missing.  Some of us like our stories nicely rounded off.  We may not demand the happy ever after, but we do like to know what happened in the end.

Of course, this is the point at which I should analyse half a dozen so called short stories just to show that they are not – stories, that is.  But, as I’ve said, I’m not in a position to do that – yet.  Because if there is one thing that might galvanise me into action and finally get me reading short stories then it is the possibility of being able to analyse them to see what actually is happening in an organisational sense.  Sad person that I am, I love grammatical analysis at whatever the level of hierarchy might be appropriate.

So, I am announcing The Short Story Project, in which I undertake to read one short story a week and do my best to analyse its narrative structure in order to see if my theory holds water.  The first thing I need to do is get hold of a good anthology because single authored collections are not going to work for this.  I need a range of stories by different writers and if possible from different nationalities and various time periods. I can go and have a good mooch round the library and local bookshops but if any of you have suggestions then they would be most welcome.  As the results, whatever they might be, become apparent I can report back on them here.  If I can keep it going for a year then I should have enough material to offer at least some tentative conclusions and maybe eventually even come up with enough evidence to support a move to rename the genre altogether!

Sorrow Bound ~ Indeed

imagesTwo years ago I came across a review for a first book by David Mark, a journalist trying his hand at crime fiction.  The review was excellent, the novel set in Hull, a city I used to visit as a consultant and which I know to have very specific social problems that might make a police procedural located there interesting, so I added a copy of Dark Winter to my library list. After I’d read it, while I thought it drastically overwritten (stylistically, less is so often more), Mark’s ability to communicate character and setting as well as a tightly organised plot had me enthused enough to ensure that I reserved his second, Original Skin, as soon as it was available.  I wasn’t quite as enthused about that but I still wanted a copy of number three, mainly because I liked the central character, DS Aector McAvoy, a gentle giant of a man who is tortured by the inadequacies of the police system to deliver true justice. Unfortunately, Sorrow Bound left me even less satisfied than Original Sin for several reason, but most especially because, like a number of crime novels that I’ve read recently, the author is not content with one crime or series of linked crimes but also feels the need for a second, ongoing, investigation that arches across a number of books.

There is nothing new about series fiction having narrative lines working at two different levels at the same time.  Last summer, while I was recuperating from a particularly nasty infection, I re-read all of Quintin Jardine’s Skinner novels, mainly because I wanted to spend time with his central group of characters and watch again their personal story lines develop over a sequence of twenty plus books.  However, for the most part, it is only those personal stories which occupy that overarching narrative.  The central crime is completed within each novel and thus it is perfectly possible to read each of those novels as a standalone and not feel frustrated because you are missing part of the story.

Recently, however, there has been a spate of works where at least part of the novel has been concerned with a crime that has been under investigation for a number of books and if you’ve missed the first episode in the narrative, that is the book in which the grounding for that enquiry has been laid out, then you can find yourself floundering as you try to pick up clues to a tale that began before you joined the audience.  If it were an ongoing comic strip then each new segment would be prefaced by a section labelled the story so far, unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across the novelistic equivalent.

In several instances this overarching investigation has to do with police corruption. I wrote about one such series earlier this year after I read How the Light Gets In, the ninth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels.  I really like Penny’s work but in this instance I not only felt that a reader new to the sequence would have difficulty appreciating what was happening in large sections of the book, but also that the author had got the balance wrong between the resolution of the corruption story and the investigation that was specific to this particular novel.  Nevertheless, this was the first time that I had felt that way and each of Penny’s books had offered the reader a feeling of conclusion where the main story arc was concerned.  In Sorrow Bound this is not the case.

Right from the off we have known that DS McAvoy has a police past.  He is shunned by some of his colleagues because he has been instrumental in bringing to light the corruption of a much liked senior officer.  What we haven’t known are the details behind that corruption, nor what McAvoy’s part was in revealing it.  In the first novel it is simply referred to as a reason for the uneasy atmosphere that prevails when McAvoy is assigned to the team investigating a series of apparently unrelated murders. By the time we reach book three, however, there is a suggestion that this story of corruption is an on-going one as we not only recognise that there are members of the force still in the pay of a local criminal gang but watch as one of the officers we have come to know and like makes a simply false move which lays her open to blackmail and the panicked compliance that comes with it.  This moves the corruption story into a much more prominent role than is usual and it runs alongside the crime specific to this novel pretty much on equal terms.  Where it differs, however, is in the resolution.

The book specific crime deals with the murders of a number of people each of whom have been instrumental in saving the life of a man someone certainly considers society could well do without.   This narrative has its complete arc within the confines of the book’s 300 odd pages and I have no problem with it at all.  However, the corruption narrative thread is not a complete arc; it is simply one episode in a much longer tale, or rather it is part of an episode because the novel ends at the episode’s, quite literally, explosive climatic point and we are left not knowing what the dénouement of this particular section of the overarching story will be.  Don’t miss the next exciting instalment.

Well, that is alright when that next instalment is going to be available next week, whether that be in the comics of our childhood or the soap operas which currently litter our television screens, but for me, at least, it isn’t alright when that next instalment is, at best, a year away.  Furthermore, it is a hundred or so books away, a hundred plus story lines, a hundred different narrative arcs that will populate my mind in the interim and make it difficult to recall the information that I’ll need to make sense of the next book in the series.  The only other time I have come across anything quite as blatant as this was in Ariana Franklin’s A Murderous Procession where a major character is stabbed in the final scene and we have no knowledge of whether he will live or die.  I got annoyed about that as well.  You may not feel as strongly about this type of ending, but I think it is cheap.  If you need to try and catch me with that sort of hook as a way of getting me to come back and read your next novel then you aren’t doing a good enough job in the current one.

I warn you now, that I think I am going to have quite a lot more to say on the ways in which crime fiction series are developing, not all of it, thank goodness, quite as vitriolic as this, but I would be really interested in what you think about it and whether it enhances or detracts from your pleasure in the individual novels.  Perhaps we might get a conversation going and deepen our appreciation of the levels of narrative at which these stories work.

How the Light Gets In ~ Louise Penny – or How to Handle the Double Narrative

18296867Every year I treat myself to one particular book to be read over the Christmas period as a real personal indulgence.  Usually this will be a crime or fantasy novel from a series that I already know and relish. After all, isn’t that what Christmas should be about – spending time with those loved ones you only manage to meet up with perhaps once a year.  This year the book I’d saved was the latest in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series, How the Light Gets In.

This is the ninth full length novel about Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide for the Quebec Police Force and it takes him back, as so many of the novels do, to the village of Three Pines, so small and hidden away that it is not to be found on any map.  Given that it is at the centre of so many murder enquiries it is a wonder that Three Pines is as attractive as it is but one of the main reasons I go back to Penny’s work is so that I can spend more time in the company of the people who live there and hanker yet again for the chance to browse round Myrna’s bookshop and toast my toes over a log fire in Gabri and Olivier’s bistro.

Set as it is just before the Christmas holidays, How the Light Gets In is particularly appropriate for this time of year.  However, there is nothing very Christmasy about the atmosphere in Gamache’s homicide department.  Most of the agents he has trained up over the years have been moved out and his erstwhile second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, will have nothing to do with him. Those who have read the previous novels in the series will be aware what has brought about this situation and will be eager for a resolution.  However this is not a book you can pick up if you are not already familiar with the internal politics of the Quebec Force, which have run as an undercurrent through most of the preceding eight novels.  And therein lies a problem because, while the book does have a murder mystery that needs to be solved, that is of secondary concern compared with the final denouément of the struggle between Gamache and his superior, Chief Superintendent Francouer.  Indeed, the death of Constance Ouellet, the last survivor of a set of Quintuplets clearly based on the Dionne Quins, gets fairly short shift even though the culprit is eventually identified.  It is little more than a convenient narrative device to enable the final scenes of the internecine struggle to be played out in Three Pines rather than through the corridors of power in Montreal.  If you want a parallel, think about the judicious placing of the last Horcrux in Hogwarts School itself so that the ultimate battle between Harry and Voldemort can not only take place in the setting that readers know and love best but also involve all their favourite characters.

Ah yes, but the placing of that last Horcrux is more than judicious, it is also perfectly logical within the over all story.  There is nothing contrived about it.  Everything we have encounter up to this point has indicated that Voldemort will have involved the school in his destiny in some way or another.  So when Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem turns out to contain a part of Voldemort’s very being the showdown at Hogwarts can be woven seamlessly into the narrative arc of the final book.  It is all of a piece.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the plot lines in How the Light Gets In. Satisfying as the conclusion is for the reader who has made the journey with Gamache from day one of the series, even the most avid Penny fan is likely to have a problem accepting the overall shape of the story.

There are several different ways that a writer can go about structuring a string of novels intended to act as a series.  Some are simply a sequence of one off tales each involving the same location and characters but without any noticeable line of development running from book to book.  I suspect that those are rarer than we might think – I’m certainly struggling to come up with one at the moment – because in order to engage us with the main protagonists the author is more than likely to give them a personal back history and an ongoing and developing set of relationships that see those characters grow and change as the series progresses.  For example, those of us who have read our way through Peter Robinson’s novels have mourned with Alan Banks over the breakdown of what we first knew as a happy marriage, followed him through several more or less disastrous affairs and now settle down comfortably with him at the end of a difficult case in the cottage home that he has made for himself in the Yorkshire Dales.  However, at no point does the state of the Chief Inspector’s personal life take over from the murder investigation that is central to the plot of any particular story.  You don’t need to know his personal back story to follow the narrative line of any individual novel.

This can, of course, go wrong, especially if an author appears to become more concerned about the relationships between  their characters than they are with the crime that needs to be solved and which should be at the heart of the tale.  You may remember that I felt this was very much the case with Val McDermid’s latest Tony Hill novel, Cross and Burn, which seemed to me to have been contrived simply to reconcile Tony and Carol Jordan and bring the Chief Inspector back to her home force.  However, I don’t think it is this type of problem that concerns me where How the Light Gets In is concerned because I don’t think Louise Penny’s series belongs in this category.

There is another way in which a sequence of novels can be structured and while it is true that most often this type of organisation is associated with fantasy literature there is no reason why it shouldn’t be applicable to crime fiction as well.  Perhaps the best known example of what I’m thinking of is J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  Here we have what I like to call the double narrative at work in each of the seven books.  The primary narrative is the one which overarches all seven novels and at no time are we as readers in any doubt what that narrative entails.  After a number of preliminary skirmishes there will be a climatic encounter between Harry and Voldemort as a result of which the wizarding world will be changed forever.  Concurrently, each book has its own individual narrative arc that tells the story of one of those skirmishes but, and this is the key point, every one of those narratives functions as an episode in the primary narrative and its ultimate purpose is to forward the story as a whole.

This is actually very difficult to structure and to maintain.  To begin with the author has to know right from the outset where that whole sequence of episodes which makes up the primary narrative is going to end before they even start to write the first one.  This is truly a teleological process – the end drives the beginning and all that follows.  Well, we know that was the case with Rowling who has often talked about the way in which Harry’s story came to her complete during the course of a train journey.  However, then comes the really difficult task because if both the parts and the whole are to convince then the narrative arcs of both the overarching and the internal stories must be equally satisfactory.  All seven books must read as one story, but at the same time each individual book must work as a story too.

This is where I think Rowling’s real genius lies because she very nearly brings it off.  There is no problem with the first five books because their role in the overall story is that of the series of episodes that develop the plot and furnish the reader with certain expectations about the way in which the primary narrative is going to go.  Having each book tell the story of one school year fulfils this purpose admirably.  The problem comes with books six and seven, which in the overarching narrative have to signal the climatic elements in the predominant story.  They have to become what I would know as a zone of turbulence.  But how do you disrupt the main story while maintaining the coherence of the individual books?  It isn’t easy and I think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince very nearly gets away from her.  However, in the end she does manage  the juggling act and the two narrative levels work together very successfully indeed.

And this is what I feel Louise Penny was aiming for in her Gamache series – a double narrative in which the individual books prepare us for the cataclysmic outcome of the ninth novel.  The seeds of the dénouement of How the Light Gets In are sown right back in that first visit to Three Pines recounted in Still Life and further episodes are revealed in subsequent books.  The problem is that for the most part the elements that make up the ongoing primary narrative have not been integral to or integrated with the narrative arc of each of the individual novels.  With the exception of book six, Bury Your Dead, they have been secondary to the major crime that has needed solving and which has ultimately formed the central focus of each book. Consequently, when the author tries to bring the overarching narrative to a conclusion at the same time as recounting the investigation into a current murder enquiry it simply doesn’t work because that current case has nothing to do with the on-going internecine struggle that has now reached its climax and which in fact dominates the book.

To be fair, it is hard to see what else Penny could have done.  It would have been very difficult for her to have written a book that would have seen the establishment corruption lanced as effectively as it needed to be without also writing a book that would have made little or no sense to any reader new to the series.  The inclusion of the murder of Constance Ouellet is surely an attempt to get round this problem.  However, because that strand of the story receives comparatively little attention and is never satisfactorily wound up, the book feels untidy – not something I would ever have said about her plotting before.  The lesson is clear.  If you are going to have an overarching story that is at least equally as important as the novels that serve as episodes within that story you have to know where you are going from the beginning and plan accordingly.  There has been a lot of academic debate as to whether or not story is driven by the final cause; in series organised in this manner the answer is that it has to be.