Traditionally storytelling is an evening pasttime. Work all day, and at night, rest, and tell stories. In the morning, get up and do it again. What difference do stories make?
Stories don’t make any difference at all, of course. But they give the reader a way to step away from their workaday world, and to escape a little. And sometimes they plant the seed of an idea. Message fiction can’t do that. Messages are more like the thunder from the pulpit, Sunday morning and come Monday, back to the grind. But stories germinate a little at a time. We tell ourselves stories all the time, like what we’d do if we won the lottery. What our cat is thinking as she stares out the window, just the tip of her tail twitching.
But it’s the stories that come from outside our brains that make us want to read. The transportation to new universes unimagined. Much of storytelling in the verbal sense is a transport to another time – the past. Science Fiction pulls from the past in an attempt to form the future, playing on human behaviour to interpret the technology that will come and how we will react to it. Most of storytelling is, at its roots, the study of human nature. A story without humanity or with characters who don’t act like normal humans will not connect with readers. One that draws us into a human’s story, with reactions we understand, have seen before – that one will keep you reading, even past the implausibilities it may contain. Done well enough, the most improbable story can be a lot of fun to read.
Which might be why fantasy does so well – beyond the allure of magic, which most readers recognize as wholly unreal – it’s a way to envision the human reactions to the inhuman. And it allows the storyteller to explore humanity in ways their audience might discount if they wrote it all out in plain language. Fairytales – the hard working youngest son (my favorite Ivans from the Russian tales, for instance) wins through, while the lazy sons lose out. That’s a heavy-handed message the storyteller was laying on, but when it’s told as a hunt for a stolen princess and a battle against a giant with the help of a raven who is himself an enchanted boy? That rises to the level of entertainment and then the story is remembered in the morning.
My First Reader introduced me to a TV show last night. I don’t watch a lot of television – my tastes and that of the mass media rarely coincide. But this was a fun show. As we were watching it together (listen, this is rare enough we’ve done it maybe twice before in three years) we were talking about the many things it got wrong. The environmental message was so thickly laid on and so inevitable it just made me roll my eyes. But what it got right was the main character, who is so straight you could use him for technical drawing. The First Reader, curious, looked up the show wiki, and I was enchanted to learn that the Mountie and his wolf were, among other things, based on Captain Carrot and Angua. So what is it that made me laugh, look at him, and say I’d keep watching this? The characters are fun. Yeah, there’s a message. Actually, having out in the open is nice since I can then take a look and decide to dismiss it.
It’s fun. It makes me laugh. It’s so far over the top that it’s totally implausible… and that’s why I’ll use it as background when I’m working (I have a few shows I do this with. Not only do they provide noise, but I can and do use them to develop my own storytelling skills. Writing isn’t the same as visual, but they are still stories.) It has a hero I enjoy, humor, and a strong sense of the silly. I don’t require all my reading to be silly. There are times I get into much deeper themes.
I was working on my library this week. Trying to get it organized, and be able to actually find things I need for research. While I was bouncing around carrying armloads of books, we had a friend over for coffee. To her amusement, and the First Reader egging it on, she pointed out that a large chunk of my library is devoted to death. Well, yes. Not only is it going to be an aspect of my chosen career, but writing… well, ok. I probably do own a lot of books related to death. Toxicology, the Body Farm, Working Stiff, Stiff: the Secret Life of Corpses… as our friend pointed out, should the First Reader die suddenly, at least he’d know why.
All of this is what goes into the story. History, humanity, death, life… and at night the stories are spun, so in the morning we can dream.