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nancylebov asked an interesting question about my last post.  She said, "This is another and probably very large topic, but if the story is absurdist or dream logic or something in that range, what does "making sense" mean? On the smaller scale, how do you evaluate a weird fantasy image to see whether it's a satisfying weird fantasy image?  It seems to me that a story like Alice in Wonderland requires some sort of coherence, but it's not world-building in the sense of making sure that the horses get the maintenance they need and the trading town has something to trade."

Most of the time with high school students the "making sense" I'm talking about concerns their non-fiction essays, but making sense is also important in fiction. You're right, though, to point out that there are all kinds of making sense we're dealing with, and sense isn't the only story value that makes reading worthwhile. The story has to make sense within its own parameters, and the author has to do enough that a reader feels the story is internally consistent and satisfying. Since we have all kinds of readers, it's possible that only a subset of all readers will be happy with the story's sense, while others feel that the story fell apart for them. Kelly Link strikes some readers that way (they don't follow her "sense"). Monty Python has issues with "making sense" for some of the audience.

I think the author has a tough time evaluating her/his own "sense," in the construction of a weird fantasy image. Once again, the test has to be an audience. The only rule in writing that seems universally applicable to me is "The story must work," where "work" means that no matter what else happens or whether a reader can tell you what the "sense" of a story is or not, that at the end the reader feels that getting to the end of the piece provided more payoff than the effort put into reading it.  The more experienced a writer is, the greater chance she will be able to judge her success, but literary history is filled with stories of veteran writers who spectacularly misjudge their own stories.

Since I'm interested in publishing my stories, the acid test is does my story work for an editor who would be willing to give me money and page space for it, but I trust the editors of the magazines I submit to to serve as highly trustworthy uber-readers who represent a broad range of understandings.

Alice in Wonderland is a great example of a story that does not make sense in the same way that a fantasy story does that tries to be mimetic, but it does make sense within its own boundaries. Alice, the point of view character, falls into a world with completely different rules than the one she came from, but a lot of the story seems to me to be about discovering the rules of the world. People are constantly explaining to her why things work the way they do, so even if she doesn't get a full explanation, the reader understands that the world at the bottom of the rabbit hole has rules and is consistent within itself. The story has internally valid verisimilitude.

And then you have to remember that all discussion of fiction theory is terribly subjective.  Tossing around terms like "mimetic" and "verisimilitude" doesn't make what I'm saying any more valid or profound.  There are many ways up the mountain.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 24th, 2008 01:30 pm (UTC)
Tim Powers has said magic in fiction is an effort to activate ancestral fears-- like the way chickens who haven't seen the sky for many generations will still be frightened by what looks like the shadow of a hawk. If that's it, then maybe the only way to find those effects is to be sensitive to what moves you for no apparent reason.
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