Friday, August 13, 2010

Theory: Story as Model

Free-form Friday

When we make a model of something, it emphasizes some aspects of reality and suppresses others. That selective representation is an essential property of a model: if the model were a perfect representation of the thing being modeled, it would be a copy, not a model.

Why would we prefer the imperfect copy that is a model to the full fidelity of reality?

A columnist in Scientific American wrote,
“When the hard-nosed behavioral scientist James March taught his famous course at Stanford using War and Peace and other novels as texts, he emphatically was not teaching a literature course. He was drawing on works of imaginative literature to exemplify the behavior of people in business organizations in a way that was richer and more realistic than any journal article or textbook.
In other words, the very function of a model is to make something clearer than it might be in reality.

Speaking on a panel at the 2010 Provo Library Childrens Book Festival, Brandon Sanderson said, "Fantasy is like an experiment: human characters are the control, and the fantastic (world) is the experiment."

In other words, speculative fiction, for which the fantastic setting isn't just that--a setting, is a model, to one degree or another, of reality. And the function of the fantastic is to make some element (presumably the subject or theme of the story) clearer.

But it's not just speculative fiction. Stories depend upon a selective narrative. That is, we don't want to hear about all the ordinary things that happened between the interesting sequences. Imagine how tedious a first person narrative would be if we had to slog through everything the character did and thought during all their waking hours. Instead, we like to hear the heroes realize they can cut the bad guy off at the pass, skip the twelve hours it took to actually get to the pass (unless we get a quick shot of them riding through a dramatic landscape), and get on with the showdown at the pass.

As I think about the story I want to tell, I find it helpful to think of the story as a model and consider what I should emphasize and what I should omit to make the story clearer.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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