Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sex, Dreams, and Storytelling: My Artistic Philosophy

Before I get to the world building, I first want to state my philosophy of storytelling. The short form:
  1. A story is a collective dream. Likewise, a dream is a personal story.
  2. Storytelling is like sex, including something called a "climax". The lover makes love to (usually) one person, but the storyteller makes love to huge audiences.
  3. Story is conflict. Without conflict, there can be no story.
These three principles are the keys to my understanding of storytelling and my way of writing fiction. (Note: The first version of this entry was incomplete. I have now finished it.)

1. A story is a collective dream. Likewise, a dream is a personal story.
In the many years in which I studied dreams, one very important thing I learned is that dreams have a strict logic. This logic can be stated thus:
  1. Everything in a dream stands for something in either yourself or the outside world. Something can be represented in a dream by itself, or by a symbol.
  2. Every scene in a dream follows logically from the scenes that come before. What happens later, does so because of what happened before, no matter how illogical the scene and symbol transitions may seem.
  3. Every dream communicates a message.
Armed with the two logical principles of dreams, any dream — daydream, night dream, or story — can be interpreted.

Stories can be as simple in their logic as dreams. However, many stories are far more complex. This is because they are largely conscious constructions. Usually a story has a message to tell, consciously or not, because stories are a public extension of dreams. Usually the storyteller has a message consciously in mind, or the story has a "moral" (as Aesop's fables famously call it); but it doesn't have to be conscious if the storyteller's intent is as unconscious as a dream's. Dreams, after all, come from the subconscious and are in fact the way the subconscious expresses itself.

2. Storytelling is like sex, including a "climax". If a lover makes love to one person, the storyteller makes love to whole groups of people.
(Note: musicians are the same way. That's why we have rock stars. Janis Joplin once famously said that singing in front of an audience was better than sex with a man.)

Notice how a story builds up. As it progresses, actions that were effective earlier in the story have less and less effect. The conflicts get more intense. The tension increases. By the end, the tension becomes almost unbearable. The conflict reaches a point where no further conflict is possible; it reaches a point of no return where only one action is left, the one that determines the winner. Everything comes down to that final, most important moment, in which the all conflict and all tension are resolved and relieved in an orgasmic moment which is of course called the climax — which, by the way, is Greek for "peak". Sometimes everything is resolved in the climax, but usually there are a few loose story threads that must be tied up in a post-climactic resolution.

The resemblance to sex, from arousal to orgasm, should be obvious.

All good stories have the same dynamic of rising action and tension-relieving climax as sex. But just as stories are collective dreams, they are also the collective equivalent of lovemaking. A lover makes love to one person. A storyteller, on the other hand, makes love to masses of people, sometimes entire societies, at once. This understanding underlies my insistence on including sexual issues and controversies in all my stories. In a sense, all my stories are love stories, no matter how violent or terrifying.

Story is conflict. Without conflict, there can be no story.
Some people are determined to deny this principle. They want to write happy stories without conflict. It is as if they want to write about, say, the Buddha's enlightenment without Siddhârtha's serene victory over the archdemon Mâra under the bodhi tree and his later conflicts with his bitter archrival Devadatta, the hostile King Ajâtaśatru, and the entire Brahman priesthood. See? Even the story of the Buddha contains all the conflict needed to make a story!

The problem with stories without conflict is that they do not progress. They have no dynamism. They are static. This makes them descriptions. They may be good descriptions. But they are not stories. Not in the least.

A story is the conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist struggles to achieve their goals. The antagonist may be a person or institution out to stop the protagonist and stands in the way of achieving their goals; or the antagonist may be nature, or the protagonist themself standing in the way of their own goals. As the protagonist gets closer to their goal, the antagonist fights harder to stop them. The story ends when either the protagonist or antagonist wins. In a sense, story is like a sport. The ancient Greeks saw the close resemblance and called a story an agôn in very much the same way as the athletic games they so loved. The Dionysia in ancient Athens, when the tragedians and comedians staged their plays in competition, strongly resembled an Olympics of drama, complete with similar prizes.

Good storytelling consists of rising conflict. A conflict produces a gap between the protagonist's expectation and their reality; a story is a series of such conflicts producing these gaps until at climax the gap either collapses with the antagonist or becomes an abyss that swallows the protagonist.

If this sounds like a dialectical way of looking at things, it is. In fact, storytelling is by far the most dialectical of all the arts. The storyteller must be a true dialectician, constantly putting two opposing forces in constant conflict and resolving each conflict into an ever higher conflict until the final resolution at climax. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are the air a storyteller must breathe. Which suggests a fourth principle of my artistic philosophy:

Story is dialectics in action.

About that, I have too much to say. In fact, I'm going to write an entire book on it.

And that's where I stand. Now I'll get back to my stories...

Back to Spanner‘s World...

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