Friday, November 4, 2011

Story Logic and the Kitchen Sink

I woke up this morning and got hit in the head by a kitchen sink.
Er, let me explain that.
I used to write stories for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Edward Ferman – the editor and one of the truest gentlemen ever to grace the offices of publishing – once told me that my stories contained everything but the kitchen sink. Understandably worried – I was feeding a family of four by writing stories – I asked him if that was bad. He said, “No, it just may be your best asset.” (Which could be avoiding the question, if you think about it.)
So I began taking his advice to heart.
I began throwing in the kitchen sink.

To explain that, abide me while I switch hats to that of a professor, which is my “regular job.”
Begin with a pop quiz.
Answer the following. Neither is a trick question.
1. What is the image on the right?
2. Which item of the following does not fit with the others? hammer, saw, house, screwdriver.

The answers:
In the 1930s, when working with illiterate peasants in Uzbekistan, a great Russian educational theorist, Alexander Luria, made a startling discovery: People who cannot read cannot think abstractly.
This is not to imply, which Western culture unwittingly does with its typical ethnocentrism, that oral folk – nonliterates in Western tradition – somehow are sick, being ill-literate. Rather, oral folk think in concrete, real-world ways. Technically, their thinking is called “situational logic.”
The Uzbekistani peasants could not recognize the circle as a circle. They would say, “It’s the top of a water jar” or “It’s the end of a log.” And there was only a 25 percent chance that they would decide that house does not fit. They lacked the ability to group items by traits. Rather than realizing that three of the items are tools, they might say that saw does not fit. When asked why, they would answer, “I left it outside the house.”
Many literate people see such thinking as silly, superficial, or sophomoric. They do not realize that Western thinking is the result of the written word – a new change of human consciousness and thus not the result of basal intelligence – and that it has limited usefulness.
Probably as a byproduct of the Greeks’ greatest invention, the only true alphabet ever created, the human mind changed during the first millennium B.C. This new type of thinking so infused the Western mind, especially after Greek thinking and Christianity became linked through the Gospels, that even how we think of cognition reflects our love affair with the written word. We talk about context and being literal.
That mind change makes it difficult for Western peoples to think holistically, to see all the variables that a situation involves. Until the computer began to change everything (and if you think that your kids don’t think like you, then you’re probably more right than you realize), Western peoples thought lineally, sequentially, akin to chapters in a book.
But how we think was not the only byproduct of the alphabet. The other was a change in what form of logic is elevated as being important. This change is so pervasive that most Western peoples do not even realize that there is another form of logic.

The logic the Greeks’ love of abstraction produced was the syllogism, the most famous is the one Plato published: All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.

So what does this all have to do with a kitchen sink?
Aristotle was Plato’s star pupil. Aristotle disliked the direction in which Greek intellectual culture was going. He pointed out that syllogisms do not work in the real world. If Plato were right, Aristotle said, then the following is true: Women who are pregnant are pale. This woman is pale. Therefore this woman is pregnant.
By contrast, Aristotle advocated what is technically called “enthymematic logic.” It combines situational logical and syllogistic logic. Also known as evidentiary logic, it combines Western thinking and non-Western thinking. Expressed as a triad, Aristotle said, it analyzes a situation and then expresses it in a syllogistic-like form: Some women who are pregnant are pale. This woman is pale. Therefore this woman is pregnant.
However, the Greeks so worshipped the syllogism that Theophrastus, who inherited Aristotle’s school, threw out the enthymeme – which Aristotle had called “the heart of communication” – and steered the school back to the syllogism. Ever since, the syllogism has been what most Western people think of as “being logical,” even though it is a school-learned, artificial construct, rather than a natural way of thinking.
To make matters worse, in tenth century Byzantium, Greek monks copying over Aristotle’s manuscripts were so imbued with love of the syllogism that they assumed Aristotle was wrong. So they changed the master’s manuscript. Today, if you look up enthymeme, the dictionary will tell you that it’s “a truncated syllogism” or “a syllogism missing a premise.” Neither definition is correct, and what was perhaps the most powerful tool ever invented for communications fell by the wayside.
Skip ahead 2,300 years. About a decade ago, Walter Fisher – one of the finest minds working today in communications theory – announced that narrative, rather than the syllogism, is the basis of human logic. Narrative is so fundamental to human understanding, he says, that he calls us Homo narrans.
But narrative is not story. Narrative is usually just a retold incident. There is a basic difference between narrative and story. That’s why most people cannot write story even if they have an excellent ability to string words together. They confuse the two concepts.

In the Western tradition, story consists of a logical attempt to solve or resolve an emotional problem. The “logic” is not syllogistic. It is diachronic.
Diachronic logic is telescopic. It unfolds like an old-fashioned spyglass or, for us Alaskans, like a cup used in camping. Unless it’s experimental fiction, then it consists of a series of (false) solutions the protagonist attempts until at last she arrives at a final possibility.
The reader can look back and see that everything was planned, that nothing was extraneous, that everything led irrevocably to that final, satisfying conclusion. In terms of communication theory, such diachronic logic is narrative expressed as enthymematic logic. In romance fiction, that becomes Girl falls in love with boy, boy loses girl because he’s a dunderhead, girl must resolve the situation and bring them back together.

Except I push the envelope. I stretch the logic. I am constantly upset with myself for doing this, because it adds a thick layer of difficulty to my writing life, but I seem unable to think otherwise. Or maybe I just can’t say no, even though I am professionally trained in enthymematic logic and thus should know better.
It happened again this morning.
I am writing what started as a simple book in which an American physician right out of med school goes to Madagascar as a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders and falls in love with a Malagasy primatologist. He is dedicated to saving the aye-aye, an ugly but highly affectionate lemur that is being slaughtered because of the superstition that if it points at you, then you or a family member will die soon. The two run into difficulties, but through her efforts they resolve the difficulties, and they live happily ever after among the lemurs.
All fine, I think – except that other entities, all of which are real people and/or events, have demanded to be let into the mix:
A Hungarian Count who escaped from Siberia by seducing the warden’s daughter and stealing two Russian ships, a queen who was so truly evil that she came back fifty years after she died and people danced in the streets until they died of exhaustion, a member of the Madagascar Mafia, and the fact that Madagascar is the world’s worst ecological disaster.
All the writing advice I have read has said to avoid side streams and alleys where research can take you. But every time I have done so, my stories have gone unnoticed. And those times when I have finaled for or won major awards have been when I opened the doors and embraced everything except the kitchen sink, working and reworking the plot until all the pieces that caught my interest are there and yet all (hopefully) contributed to pushing the plot to its climax.
But once in a while, the kitchen sink has come flying through the door as well, demanding to be included.
It happened again this morning.
According to advice I have gotten from essays, blogs, and friends, heroines in romance should not be severely flawed. Their hearts can be broken, but the pieces are all there. It just takes Mr. Right and the heroine’s gumption and often all the king’s horses and all the kings’ men to put her heart back together again.
This morning, though, my heroine told me that at age thirteen she saw her mother drown and now, at twenty-six, the young woman can engage in professional relationships – but personal ones allude her. She functions well in the office but is dysfunctional when she’s alone. Unknown to others in the clinic where she works, her smile is always outward, rarely inward. She is physically beautiful but psychologically misshaped.
So is the story still within the environs of romantic fiction?
I don’t know.
And it scares me.

©2011 by George Guthridge


Anonymous said...

Every story is a challenge and from that challenge we grow. Sometimes the story challenge requires a sink and then again renovation may be required, like I said, to get better we must try and see what fits-or doesn't to make it the best story we've ever written.

LizbethSelvig said...

Hi George,
Absolutely fascinating "lecture" -- you must be a fun professor. But, your question is really a simple one and so is your answer. Can a heroine be seriously flawed? Yes. Is it still romantic fiction? Yes -- with a disclaimer. There are so many avenues down which romance travels. In straight romance, your psychologically scarred heroine must be healed enough by her hero that she can find a happily ever after. In women's fiction, she must use her scars to find growth and come to a "happily for now" ending. If you are Nicholas Sparks, her scarred past will help her lover find HIS way just in time for him to die and leave her alone again but better and more healed for the experience. All of these fall under the auspices of romance. I would say--you'll just have to find your portion of the romance audience once your heroine has told her story!

But what an important question! I enjoyed your blog a lot.

George Guthridge said...


The first question was supposed to have a zero, but the O I inserted didn't post.

The first question is supposed to ask: What is the image on the right? O.

Julie said...

Great blog, George. Let your heroine tell her story and she will help you find the right path (although I sympathize with you about research distractions & side trips!)
Flaws make memorable characters if balanced with enough redeeming qualites to allow reader acceptance. Just keep writing and see what developes.

Anonymous said...

I guess that is the story. How your Heroine becomes whole again. Thanks for the thoughtful blog. Lots to ponder.