Story Muscle

I get my ideas from my story muscle.  Grrrah!

Almost everyone has one.  They start really forming when you get object permanence: during a baby’s first games of peek-a-boo.  Maybe earlier.  But definitely by then.  The toy was gone!  What happened to it? This is a story.

  • Beginning: there was a toy, and it went away.
  • Middle: I looked for it.
  • End: There it is!

But the story muscle really starts to rear its ugly head during the terrible twos era.  Why?

  • I wanted the toy.
  • I tried to take it; then I tried to manipulate my parents into giving it to me (try/fail cycles).
  • I grieved over the loss of opportunity, and was punished.

Toddlers live in a very Kafka-esque world at times, I think.

You see different phases of it throughout development, but it all goes back to trying to make sense of the world.  Why is this happening to me?  What will happen in the future if I do this?  What should I do?  How can I best be happy? What is the best way for my group to live, so that I, and by extension they, can best be happy?

Our breadth of storytelling widens as we get wiser: we like to gather stories about people who are like us, but who are not us.  People who are like us, but who can do things we could never do.  And sometimes even people who are not like us and are the more fascinating for it.

We do all of this subconsciously, most of the time.  I mean, who sits down and says, “What is the best explanation for why weather happens, that will make the most people happy?”  Not “what’s the best weather to make people happy” but “how can I best explain the phenomena that is ‘weather’ that will allow the maximum amount of happiness?” At times it’s “Zeus did it”; at times it’s “you’re being punished for your sins”; at times it’s “weather is geography in motion”; at times it’s “we don’t know…want to help us find out?”  And so on.  The answer largely depends on what your audience is willing to accept at the time.

Now, writers.

Do writers have stronger story muscles than most people?  No.  I mean, think about some people and how firmly they cling to the stories in their lives.  “It’s not my fault.” “You have to do it like this.” “There’s only black and white.  Gray is a lie.”  These are the people with strong story muscles: reality has been defeated, change is not allowed, and if something happens out of their control, they never see it coming, because it’s not part of the story.

Writers, they tend to live in the gray, as far as I can tell.  We all have some non-negotiables of belief, but most of us enjoy watching other people to find out what they’re like and what they’ll do–rather than deciding we already know.  I would say our story muscles are dexterous rather than strong.  One of the thing we eventually learn is that if you write essentially the same story over and over, it gets boring.  We have multiple stories (and multiple POVs, from our characters) in our heads, multiple templates to lay over the world.  Again, there are some non-negotiables, but they vary from person to person: one person’s fiction is inevitably influenced by their ideas on spirituality; another one’s fiction, on their ideas on justice or love or whatever.  I think these non-negotiables tend to center around genres.

To a romance writer, the non-negotiable may be, “Love is important” or “People are happier when they’re in a satisfying relationship.”

To a science fiction writer, the non-negotiable may be, “If you don’t know, try to find out” or “When possible, PUSH THE BIG RED BUTTON!!!11!!”

The non-negotiables seem to change over time, in people, in whole genres, even in society at large, which is kind of neat, actually.

Readers develop a similar flexibility–which is why I think writers must read books and keep reading them–and why people who are heavily invested in the strength of a particular story try to control the books that people read: they see flexibility as a lack of strength, which, really, it isn’t, but it can undermine stories with a lot of plot holes in them.  The stories that we absolutely love at ten or twelve are the stories that sometimes disappoint us, as adults.  As we get older, Barney is a really annoying guy in a synthetic dinosaur suit.  But some stories get richer as you question them: Santa is a story you can enjoy as an adult, even though you know there’s no fat guy at the North Pole.

I know that my favorite characters never existed; I know that the worlds they live in aren’t real.  And yet they are rich stories for me, that influence how I see the world, and how I act.  I mean, imagine what the world would be like without your favorite book: a sad place.


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  1. Liz

    The only kind of exercise I enjoy is the kind that builds my story muscle. 😀

  2. De

    That cracked me up.

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