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Why Novels Are Not Stories

26 Sep

I recently finished what probably counts as a second novel. Like the first, it’s unpublishable. At least in my opinion. I like many of the parts, but they add up to the wrong whole. So now is the time when I sit around, working on the beginnings of other things and figuring out what I did wrong. (The sitting around is, right now, largely occurring when 1) I should be working on my online class and 2) when I’m practicing music. Otherwise I haven’t had much time to sit over the last few weeks.)

In high school, I read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners multiple times. It was practically my writing textbook. I still refer to it sometimes to reorient myself to what I should be doing. Fantasy is currently my preferred mode of writing, and O’Connor once said of herself and C. S. Lewis: “We both want to locate our characters . . . right on the border of the natural & the supernatural.” But this time it was C. S. Lewis himself  who diagnosed my problem correctly.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that my story became too much like a novel. Often the term “novel” is used for any story longer than 50,000 words. But according to C. S. Lewis, “novel” isn’t a good description of all long works. For example, Jane Austen’s long works were definitely novels. But J. R. R. Tolkien’s were not. What exactly is the difference between the “Story” of Lewis’s conception and the novel? In his essay “On Stories” (part of the Lewis collection Of Other Worlds), Lewis offers a number of characteristics that distinguish imaginative literature from the novel.

First, Story proper involves a strong attachment to atmosphere. (I have discovered since first reading Lewis’s essay that atmosphere is one of the major deciding factors for me in whether I like a story or not.) Lewis used the example of differences between the book King Solomon’s Mines and the movie based upon it. The filmmaker introduced a switch from entrapment in an ancient tomb to the danger of an underground volcano and earthquake. To Lewis, this was to change the Story–not the plot, but the Story itself. The book describes the cold quietude of a subterranean sepulchre. The movie–well. It is exciting. But where Story is concerned, the sacrifice of atmosphere for excitement is a devastating flaw. To write Story, and not a novel, sensitivity to atmosphere is absolutely vital–something the maker of King Solomon’s Mines apparently lacked.

Second, and to build on the concept of atmosphere, the story should have a feeling of surprisingness. Detective novels, for example, often offer surprises upon the first read. But a good Story should have a feeling of surprisingness upon the fifty-first read. I am no longer surprised by re-reading The Lord of the Rings. But the more I re-read it, the more its surprisingness increases. I gain the familiarity with the story to see just how much of a shock Gandalf’s loss caused, even though I am no longer shocked by reading it.

Third, Story is not character-focused. My reading tastes differ from my sister’s in this–she enjoys books primarily for the characters, while my tastes tend more toward Lewis’s in my sometimes ridiculous hunger for Story proper. Character development can, does, and must occur within Stories, but it isn’t the main focus. In The Hobbit, Bilbo definitely changes as a character. He must. But The Hobbit was not written to chronicle the development of a small and rather cowardly person into someone more brave and generous. It is focused on creating situations with a specific atmosphere–not character, and not even plot. Plot and character are important, but they are not the main point.

I think I succeeded more in regards to the first point, and less so in regards to the second and third. Can fantasies be written without adhering to these points? Yes. Finnikin of the Rock is a good example of a fantasy that does not adhere to the requirements of Story. The author, Melina Marchetta, acknowledges that she ignored the standard conventions of fantasy in writing the book. Did she succeed in writing well? Yes. But the result was a fantasy novel, not a Story. My initial reaction to Finnikin was indifference. I had no desire to re-read it–an oddity for me where fantasies are concerned. I did not fully understand why until I re-read Lewis’s essay.

Are novels bad? Of course not. But they are different from Story proper (for one thing, they are newer–Story dates back at least to ancient Greece, while novels are a modern innovation). Novels have different strengths than Stories. And understanding the difference between these strengths is vital to being able to write good fantasy.

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Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Fantasy

 

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