It’s easy to think that because life permits something, then story must too. After all, stories are allowed things like starships, unicorns and Dr Evil, so it would seem that stories are more capacious than life, holding everything life offers, and then some.
Well, yes and no.
Yes: stories get to have starships and unicorns, while life does not. But then again, life is permitted randomness, which stories basically may not have.
So let’s say you were writing a Manhattan-set rom-com. You’re getting to the denouement. Mr Lovely is racing through Central Park to greet his girlfriend, Fraulein Gorgeous, and ask her to marry him. We all anticipate that Fraulein G is going to say one ditzy thing, do one charming thing, and then say yes. We’ll laugh a little, shed a tear, then move on, happy.
But Life might have other thoughts. So, let’s say, in reality, Mr Lovely was racing through the park, when – oh, I don’t know – a subway tunnel collapses, or an ice cream truck hits him, or (why not?) an overflying airplane accidentally releases some blue ice, which falls 20,000 feet and splatters his romantically-inclined skull.
(Blue ice? Um. It comes from aircraft toilets and it shouldn’t leak, but sometimes does. In the 1970s, some blue ice struck a chapel in London and caused so much damage, the building had to be demolished.)
Now, because Life can and does release blue ice over major cities, there’s no reason in fact why the Lovely / Gorgeous romance might not be ended by a lump of falling waste. But a story can’t handle that.
Story demands a unity of logic and (ideally) a unity of theme too.
Take the logic part first. Although things can and do happen for essentially no reason, stories are our way of putting the meaning back in. That reason can operate within the boundaries of strict logic. (The detective got DNA results back from the lab, which led her to Bad Guy’s house, which allowed her to …) But it can equally well operate within almost purely metaphorical ones – ones that deliver thematic coherence to your story.
Take, for example, the war film, Bridge over the River Kwai.
In that film, Colonel Nicholson (the Alec Guinness character) is a British officer who has become a prisoner of war, held by the Japanese. The POWs are ordered to build a railway bridge to help the Japanese war effort. Nicholson – as a way to maintain his self-respect? as a way to show off the skills and resourcefulness of the British army? – becomes obsessed with building the perfect bridge. When Anglo-American commandos then prepare to sabotage the bridge, Nicholson becomes conflicted, seeking to protect ‘his’ bridge. In the concluding firefight, he is wounded and falls onto the detonator’s plunger, thereby destroying the bridge.
In one way, this is just a causally coherent explanation for how the bridge came to be built, then destroyed. But no viewer simply experiences it like that. There’s something about Nicholson’s journey – the obsession, the perfectionism, the death, the explosion – that gives a kind of coherence to everything that’s happened before. If you took out the two minutes of film around that final firefight and the destruction of the bridge, you’d have essentially nothing. Lots of prettily filmed events, but no story.
So the Lovely / Gorgeous romance + blue ice killing just doesn’t work as story. Yes, you could make that an opening scene. (The rest of the novel then becomes about Fraulein Gorgeous coming to terms with the random death of her beloved.) And indeed, life-changing random events provide the kick-off for plenty of stories.
Generally though, you are always – via strict causal logic, or metaphor – seeking to pull events into an orderly shape. In the end, you’re about creating emotional journeys and a sense of derived meaning.
Life just doesn’t offer that neatness.
Journeys don’t end until you die. And meanings come from us, and our story-making desire, more than from life itself.
The more dense you can make your storytelling – neat causal logic plus an overlay of metaphor and character journey – the stronger and richer your final story will be.
In short, life is great, but it’s baggy. If you want your story to look right, I recommend the corset. Breathe out, lace up tight – and don’t eat.