Big and Small Minds)
I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.
He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.
But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?
Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?
They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.
Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.
And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.
But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.
And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.
And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.
And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!
As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.
Keep Your Story Consistent)
Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.
And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.
A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.
After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.
I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.
Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.
If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.
I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.