Friday, December 5, 2008

Catalyst

causality--the inertia of story; characters behaving as they do because they are driven by their emotions, their beliefs, or their responses to dramatic events and other relevant pressures within a story. In many ways, the defining concepts of story and the American legal system are similar; each is propelled toward a decision, solution, allotment of judgment by some relevant precedent. The rules of procedure are based on what happened before, past events, past thinking, past behavior. In the law, this reliance on the causality of precedent is referred to as stare decisis. In dramatic narrative, the effect of precedent resides in backstory.

In a dramatic narrative, characters and concepts are in a steady condition of clash. It is not enough for two characters to confront one another with disagreement, each must reek and sound of his agenda to the point where the reader can sense its presence. Even if a character does something "Because I felt like it," the reader must be able to sense the plausibility of that character doing so. No amount of simple action for its own sake can cover up the lack of causality. Story with event but no causality is mere episode, inviting the adjective episodic.

A helpful mnemonic device for causality is the word "because." Story happens because someone wants something, because some one doesn't want something to happen, because in some field somewhere, an ox is being gored and because its owner is not going to let the matter pass.


Schrodinger’s cat—an existential conundrum proposed by the German physicist, Erwin Schrodinger to demonstrate the dual nature of matter; another useful, more literary-related way of looking at the famed Frank R. Stockton short story “The Lady or the Tiger”; an illustration of the role played by choice in fiction.

Schrodinger’s posited a cat is locked in a box, along with a radioactive atom that is connected to a vial containing cyanide. If the atom decays—and it surely will over time--it will open the vial. The cat, inhaling the cyanide fumes, will be killed.
When the box is closed the observer does not know if the atom has decayed or not. This means that the atom can be in both the decayed state and the non-decayed state at the same time. Therefore, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time - which clearly does not happen in classical physics.

The parallel between the cat and a given story is waiting to be drawn, so let’s draw it. When asked to list vital constituents of a dramatic incident (story), writers will supply such ingredients as character—“How can you have a story without character?”—and such other elements as plot, suspense, and reversal. It is the rare, thoughtful professional who will add one of the key qualities inherent in the fiction of the twenty-first century—ambiguity. (Odds are this metaphorical professional will have read the short fiction of Anton Chekhov, who dispensed with the heavy-handed moral or thematic finality of the short fiction of his contemporaries.

If we imagine story and Schrodinger’s cat to reside on opposing sides of the equal sign, we can “see” and "feel" the power of ambiguity in story. Fiction with the built-in element of duality provides an opening for reader participation, that condition where the reader feels not only close to the characters and events but becomes immersed in the outcome.

Since about 1902 (picked because James Joyce's Dubliners was published then), endings—conclusions, or payoffs—in fiction, particularly in the short form, have tended to move away from the highly visual, seemingly inescapable conclusion, drifting toward uncertainty, opaqueness, and choice. Some of this tendency can be related to the uncertainty of the times in which the stories are set; some of this tendency reflects a closer understanding of human affairs. When we consider the movement away from the fables of Aesop and, more recently, the short stories of O. Henry, we welcome Erwin Schrodinger and his ambiguous cat into the dramatic arena.

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