Choosing the Right Thread

Last week, Matthew Rettino of the excellent site The Vinciolo Journal, left a comment on one of my articles:

[I]t’s a genre that’s here to stay, for sure. One of the reasons being, that most of history is speculation. And fantasy is speculative literature.

As someone who is both a student of literature and of history, this highlighted something that I think I subconsciously knew but never really thought about, despite sometimes saying things like “History is written by the winners, or, the winners are the ones who wrote the history… it works both ways.”

Anything narrative (I almost want to say ‘anything written’) is speculative. When I set out to tell a story, even a story that actually happened and is grounded in reality, I’m not telling everything that happened. It’s impossible. I can’t know every single person involved, and what they were doing before the incident, and what they did afterwards, and what they thought about it, and so on and so on. (Yes, I know… Ulysses damn near does just that. And it took him 800 pages to cover one single day.) So in order to tell a story, I have to pick out a thread or two, explain why they’re important to my audience, and then tell their story. And that, as Matthew Rettino pointed out, is speculative. I’m telling a version of what happened, not what happened.

Conversely, think of how different a story would be if told from another point of view:

A young man is recruited into the military. He had a decent family life but felt like he was going nowhere, so he signed up. Training was hard, especially since one of his childhood friends was his drill instructor and treated him worse because of that, but he overcame and qualified for one of the elite forces. Just before his 21st birthday, he reports to his first command, the Death Star, on its way to the Yavin System.

Doing this with stories is one of my favourite things to do. I think about what happened to the other guy, especially if it’s the antagonist. What made him do it? What made her the way she is? What would the story be like from their point of view?

I finished roughing a story this morning that I hope works well with this theme. I recommend trying to do the same thing. You can make it something serious, like the excellent play Shylock did with one of Shakespeare’s troubling characters. Or just ask how Jenny felt having her number blurted all over the radio for years. The important part of any story is the version you choose to tell, and why you choose to tell it.

4 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Thread

  1. sybax says:

    Absolutely. This reminds me of two things: Wittgenstein, effectivly stating that nothing can actually be told. His two consequences are Wittgenstein’s ladder, whereupon you try to build higher understanding of your point by clarifying the misconceptions of your previous attempts, and his famous final proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” We, as fiction writers and poets, of course choose another path, accepting whatever interpretation our readers come up with. At least that’s my way of looking at it.

    The other thing i was reminded of is the scene in that other movie — Clerks, I think, or was it The Big Lebowski? — where that guys says: “Think of all the contractors on the Death Star! They weren’t evil. They were just doing their jobs.”

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