The Importance of Story, Part 1

I’ve just read LIFE OF PI and wondered why this book became the critics’ darling. Although it’s touted as an example of Magical Realism, I couldn’t see anything magical about it. Okay, the premise — teenager escapes sinking ship on lifeboat containing uncaged zoo animals — is weird, but not what I’d call magical. And the reviews I read universally lauded its spirituality, its connection to religion. Again, I’m scratching my literary head. Spirituality? Why, because the teenager in question can’t decide between three religions and so practices them all? Please.

Anyway, I’m not writing a critique of LIFE OF PI. But I have to mention it beause the book brings up an interesting notion: that story is the backbone of reality, and not the other way round. In other words, reality, as we perceive it and relate it to others, has within it a certain amount of built-in fiction.

I should note that Yan Martel, the author of LIFE OF PI, does not put forth this argument. Instead, he offers, in the final chapters of the book, an alternative to the story he has been telling throughout the length of this novel. It is an alternative that is more believable than the original narrative, but less satisfying, less identifiable to the reader. One could almost dare to wish to hope that one might experience firsthand a little of Story #1, the original, novel-length story. No one, not ever, would trade places for a nanosecond with the narrator of Story #2 (the more believable version). Even the fictional character to whom the narrator relates both stories eventually choses Story #1. Why? Because it is more palatable, more identifiable, more entertaining, more hopeful.

Thus do we craft our stories, both on paper and in our lives: We seek to establish meaning and purpose to seemingly random events, and so subtly change this fact, that reaction, this sequence, that time frame. We become — that is to say, we, as writers, must become — like those Pollyannas everyone knows who say that “Everything happens for a reason”.

The truth is, things only happen for a reason if you — the writer, the narrator, the relator of the story — create that reason and then insert the events that prove it.

This is what separates fiction from reality: Fictional events are crafted with an eventual purpose for those events in mind. The volcano erupts because it will teach someone (the protagonist) a lesson, or bring two characters together in a love bond, or provide an obstacle for a character to overcome. Fictional events never occur in a vacuum, for the sole reason that such randomness would be useless in the context of a story. In a novel, everything that happens has meaning. We can do this with our lives, too, as did Victor Frankl (see previous blog), or not. But there is no such choice with a novel.

Is this, then, the artist’s search for meaning, or mere artifice? Either way, it is essential to creating a believable and compelling novel.

More about the role of Story later.