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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 159 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: A quote for discussion  (Read 4247 times)
Gordon C. Landis
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« on: April 07, 2005, 11:32:37 PM »

OK, it's kinda serious stuff, and can be seen as Nar/RPG related, so maybe it doesn't have to be in the Birthday forum.  But I'm interested in some free-wheeling reponses, so let me toss this out there:

"My *message,* if I have one, is simply that good stories are worth reading.  Why? Because, in my experience, they expand us. How? By engaging us in extremely specific individuals experiencing extremely specific dilemmas which we would not have encountered otherwise, but which (precisely because they are not us) can increase the range of what we're able to understand and (perhaps) empathize with. Polemics, by definition, is about generalization.  Story-telling, by definition, is entirely consumed in specifics.

"So you could--if you were so inclined--say that my stance as a story-teller is one of "existential humanism." But that is not at all the same thing as saying that my stories are *about* existential humanism. My stories are not *about* anything except my characters and their emotions; their dilemmas and their responses to those dilemmas.

"The observations that we can make about a particular story, or about stories in general, after we have experienced them have the potential to be very educational: they can continue the process of expansion. But they also have the potential to be very misleading because they can confuse the observation with the experience."

I'll attribute the quote before the Birthday forum closes, but I want to avoid contaminating at least the first comments with that info.

Gordon
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xenopulse
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« Reply #1 on: April 08, 2005, 06:26:57 AM »

My political philosophy professor used to think that way, which is why we had students read 1984, Brave New World, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in Politics 200.

So I would disagree with a claim of specifics. Good stories can be very thematic, using the characters as a means to conveying something. Sure, the characters are still interesting, and their dilemmas touch us on a personal level, but overall, there's a theme there, a basic point that's being explored.

Power. The meaning of life. Individuality versus society.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #2 on: April 08, 2005, 06:31:37 AM »

Goddamnit, I am going to have to make this a standard rant, or definition, or whatever: in terms of how we use premise round here, it's a question which can only be asked in the general, and answered in the specific.

A good story shows how the author addresses the chosen premise: it shows us the premise as a problematic issue of the human condition and one way of dealing with it.

So, err, yeah.
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Pete Darby
Brendan
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« Reply #3 on: April 08, 2005, 07:15:43 AM »

Christian, I have to disagree with you:  a good story is about characters and situations, though a theme may seem to inform the way they interact, upon interpretation.  As Pete put it very well, the story is an answer to the Premise, but that doesn't mean it's an answer to only one thing.  The reason the question-answer model of Premise is confusing is because people tend to assume that a question must precede an answer; I prefer to think of it more like Jeopardy, but with multiple ways to be right.  "Winston imagines that Julia is being shot full of arrows."  "What is the effect of oppression on the human soul?"  "What is the psychosexual conflation of violence and love?"  "What is the imagination's response to the banality of hate?"

Anyway, my own freewheeling response:

Theatre was one of my majors.  During our senior seminar course, the professor kept challenging us to tell him why theatre--that stale old nag--still mattered.  We have movies and cheap books, after all!  What's special about people doing the same thing in thick makeup under hot lights?

The answer I took away from it was that the first responsibility of any artist is to trust, and to teach trust by example.  I don't mean gullibility or naivete, but a faith and an expectation that other humans will do good and do it well.  Theatre is a form of trust at every step of execution--the author who must believe that troupes will perform his text well, the director who must believe in his actors, and actors who must believe in each other, in their tech staff, and in their audience.

The payoff is the intensity of connection between everyone at a performance.  Everyone is simultaneously learning and teaching each other what it is to be human, even--especially--at the moments when the stage is silent and the audience is hushed.

People who talk about "participatory theatre" as if it were something different have missed the point.

Role-playing isn't theatre, but there's a reason Forge stance theory uses theatre terminology.  Nar play in particular is an act of intense trust on the part of all its participants; if you want to fulfill that trust and have your own fulfilled, well, you probably already know what the payoff is like.  But you don't get it by saying "the conflict between pragmatism and devotion."  You get it by saying "I reach for my gun, but hesitate."

Also, for some reason I think that quote is Orscon Scott Card.  Not to spoil anything.
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xenopulse
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« Reply #4 on: April 08, 2005, 07:54:47 AM »

Brendan,

Quote
a good story is about characters and situations, though a theme may seem to inform the way they interact, upon interpretation.


When Orwell wrote 1984, he set out to write about his experiences regarding revision of history and abuse of power. We know that from his accounts. He did not "find" the theme "emerging" as he wrote about a character he had in mind. It's not a matter of interpretation. 1984 was written with a specific thematic purpose. So was Animal Farm.

And Brave New World. Huxley wrote a letter to Orwell and wrote, "I think my book describes the future of humankind more accurately than yours." To which Orwell replied, "I was not writing about the future. I was writing about the present."

I am not saying they have a claim to the only way a theme can be addressed. I am saying that they set out to write a story in order to make a point.

Now, there may be other points in there, other themes, and whatnot. There may be many specifics that have nothing to do with the theme/issue/premise being explored. So yeah, Winston is a complex character who can be interpreted in several ways.

Maybe we're not even disagreeing very much here. All I mean to say is that some authors do write books with a purpose that is prior to the characters and that does not simply emerge through interpretation, but upon which the whole story is premised.
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #5 on: April 08, 2005, 09:19:42 AM »

I think I'm gonna have to agree with Brendan here.

A good story IS about characters and situations. You can have a greater purpose, a theme to address, in the telling, but that doesn't change what the story is about. A story that tries to focus on anything else will, I think, fail to address the theme well, fail to illustrate anything, and fail to be a "good" story.
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~Lance Allen
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xenopulse
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« Reply #6 on: April 08, 2005, 10:29:08 AM »

Here's the issue. Does an author:

a) first determine a theme/topic/point/premise, and then develop characters and situations to convey it; or

b) create characters and situations, and then (maybe accidentally) develop a theme/premise/statement through them.

Both happens, in different cases. That's all I'm saying.

Whether the resulting story is "really about characters/situation" or "really about theme" is a non-issue. That's a matter of judgment. A good story needs both. Of course[/] you need strong characters and situations to explore the theme.
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #7 on: April 08, 2005, 10:46:13 AM »

Right, I wasn't trying to say that both didn't happen, or that either method was wrong. I think we're pretty much in agreement at this point, though I'm inclined to say that addressing a theme isn't particularly vital to a good (read: enjoyable) story, though I suppose that at least incidental theme happens no matter what you write.
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~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
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Brendan
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« Reply #8 on: April 08, 2005, 10:57:44 AM »

Quote from: xenopulse
Here's the issue. Does an author:

a) first determine a theme/topic/point/premise, and then develop characters and situations to convey it; or

b) create characters and situations, and then (maybe accidentally) develop a theme/premise/statement through them.

Both happens, in different cases. That's all I'm saying.

Whether the resulting story is "really about characters/situation" or "really about theme" is a non-issue. That's a matter of judgment. A good story needs both. Of course you need strong characters and situations to explore the theme.


Ah, I think we're saying different things.  I'm well aware that many authors, Orwell and Huxley included, set out to write a book about Grand Idea or Question X.  Many other authors set out to write books about Character Y in Situation Z.  What I'm saying is that the order of precedence, from the author's POV, is irrelevant in the case of a good story.

Themes such as "constant surveillance grinds away one's humanity" can exist outside the context of a story.  I just stated a theme right there.  It didn't need a story to express it, though I could write a story to do so, if I wanted.  Predetermined theme is neither necessary nor sufficient to generate story; conversely, story is not necessary to express a theme, though it is sufficient.

On the other hand, I couldn't possibly write a good story without details.  Details don't make a story by themselves (although they can suggest one), but I think it's still reasonable to say that details are necessary but not sufficient for story, and story is sufficient but not necessary to express details.  This in turn supports the statement that "story-telling, by definition, is entirely consumed in specifics."

Finally, I agree with you that authors often create stories with a premise--a question--in mind.  This is not necessarily the question that the reader will answer; unless you've got the author reading over your shoulder and telling you what it's about (which would make for a polemic, not a story), the reader's own questions and answers are both generated at the time of interpretation.

Do some texts point very strongly toward certain questions and answers?  Certainly, and that's not a bad thing.  But if you had a thousand people read 1984 and then asked them "what it's about," unless they've read lit crit of it beforehand, I guarantee you no two of them will give exactly the same answer.  But if you ask them "what was the name of the character who laid the trap for Winston," they're all going to say "O'Brien."  (Except the two contrary theorists who say it was Julia.)

This is why I say that a storyteller creates details, and the reader interprets theme.
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #9 on: April 08, 2005, 11:47:13 AM »

I would say the point of the quote (as regards the discussion thus far)  is that if an author takes the generalization-first approach, and then fails to created a story that is consumed by specifics, then they have in fact created a polemic rather than a story of the sort that the quote-author (Stephen R. Donaldson) is pointing to.  A polemic may be "worth reading" as well, but not for the reasons Mr. Donaldson is citing here.

It's actually that reason - specific individuals experiencing extremely specific dilemmas - that I find more . . interesting about the quote, rather than an insight/opinion about the place of theme in the author/reader/critic spectrum.  Not that that's not also intersting - great discussion, guys, and civil even though we're in the birthday forum!  I doubt we're going to work out that issue in the few hours left here, though . . .

Gordon
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xenopulse
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« Reply #10 on: April 08, 2005, 12:03:45 PM »

It does seem we're mostly in agreement. What rubs me the wrong way is the "entirely consumed in specifics" part. That's like saying that patterns don't exist anywhere, that a story has no structure, no overarching plot, nothing but single specific sentences. That doesn't seem to follow from what you're saying.

If you replace the "entirely" part with "mostly," that might do it :)
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #11 on: April 08, 2005, 12:48:00 PM »

Quote from: xenopulse
If you replace the "entirely" part with "mostly," that might do it :)

Hmm.  I obviously I can't change someone else's quote anyway, but . . . in the context of "why are stories (as opposed to polemics - which can be  seen as a more directly and practically "educational" communication) worth while,"  I think Mr. Donaldson is saying (and I lean towards agreeing) it is  because the story itself is entirely concerned with its' own specifics.  Are the patterns/structure/plot of a story anything except what the specifics add up to?  At least in looking at where the value comes from, I think the answer is no.

Gordon
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