Down the Rabbit Hole

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Wandering Thoughts)

The story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens with a girl who is bored. Thus it is an easy thing for her fancy to be captured when a white rabbit with a waistcoat and a pocket-watch goes running by! And when the rabbit disappears down a hole, she is all too eager to continue following this thread of curiosity. Thus begins her literal journey “down the rabbit hole.” And after the popularization of the story, it also became her figurative journey “down the rabbit hole” as well!

As a result, today we use the term “down the rabbit hole” to describe taking a train of thought for as far as it will take us. Each branch of science is based on this idea of beginning with an initial question, and using it to find other deeper questions, following them one after another, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

Like Hansel and Gretel.

In that story we have another fanciful tale, one about a brother and sister who follow a trail to get back home. But when that trail runs cold, they resort to another: that of their own curiosity. After wandering down that path for a while, they still make it back to their destination. There are many roads to get to where you want to go, though of course, as the Cheshire Cat says, “if you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”

Which might sound like a waste of time, but don’t forget Bilbo’s advice that “not all who wander are lost.” Because even if you don’t know your destination, you’re still sure to reach it “if you only walk long enough.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Lord of the Rings. Clearly taking hold of a string and pulling on it to see where it goes is a common thread in storytelling.

I do apologize for that appalling pun, I assure you that I am very ashamed.

Perhaps there is no mystery as to why so many stories wander down the paths of curiosity. Many of these stories only come into being by that exact process!

Very often I begin a story with no more than a white-rabbit-in-a-waistcoat idea, which I then follow as far is it will go. Thus many stories uncover the next plot point at the same time that the author does, and the character’s epiphanies are really the writer’s. Literary heroes are very glad when the author finally figures out how to save the day, because only then can they do the same!

 

Uncovering the Next Level)

A story that ends at the same depth as where it began is not only dissatisfying to read, it is uninteresting to write. Alice moving from the White Rabbit to a Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter to the Queen of Hearts is almost as fun to read as it must have been to invent.

Sometimes a writer doesn’t know which caves of the mind will open up into wide ravines, though. Sometimes an idea looms promisingly at the beginning, but quickly dead-ends, or turns cycles back into a repeating loop. I won’t call out any specific examples, but I know more than a few tales that began with imaginative premises, only to pinch off into unoriginal conclusions.

So let us consider a more positive example instead. In the 1999 film The Matrix, Thomas Anderson is a lowly computer programmer who is more than a little bit like Alice of Wonderland. Just as she was, he is bored with life, and looking for something to chase after. As with Alice, fate intervenes, and introduces him to a hidden world, one that operates by rules entirely different from his own. It would seem that the filmmakers were quite aware of this similarity between their work and Lewis Carroll’s. They even wink at the parallel when Anderson’s journey begins by following a woman with a “white rabbit” tattoo.

When Anderson follows this lead, he discovers superhuman beings that are able to defy the laws of nature and physics. This is strange. Then it is revealed that nature and physics are themselves entirely artificial, able to be bent by those that recognize them as nothing more than parameters within a computer simulation. Stranger still. Then Mister Anderson breaks out into a world controlled by machines, where flying ships cruise dark tunnels, and humans jack into the simulation to fight the master program from within. A world that Anderson ultimately merges with, and becomes able to rewrite the entire code of at will. Strangest of all!

The film remains fascinating because each new idea goes deeper than the one that came before, while also remaining totally connected and relevant to the preceding moments. Curiosity is constantly piqued and then satisfied in repeating succession.

 

Further Measures)

Another way of progressing down the rabbit hole is simply to follow from action to counter-action to counter-counter-action all the way to the logical conclusion. A story doesn’t have to be a fantasy to start pulling on a string, it can just begin with a choice that will yield a series of consequences.

The Iranian film called A Separation begins with a very volatile opening. A husband and wife are strained by being unable to agree on whether they should leave the country or not, and from this tangled outset the film follows many threads at once.

The wife is naturally frustrated, and decides to leave the home for a time. Therefore the man naturally has to hire a caretaker to watch his invalid father while he as work. When that woman neglects his father, he is naturally upset, and forces her to leave the premises…which may or may not have resulted in her falling and suffering a miscarriage.

Naturally the man is anxious to validate his innocence in the matter. Naturally the caretaker and her husband are offended at the suggestion that they lie about the cause of the miscarriage. Naturally follows naturally. Pride begets offense, offense begets defensiveness, blame goes round and round, all the way to the film’s sad, but all-too-real conclusion.

It is a tragic end, but we have systematically pulled the string length by length, so we buy its escalation completely.

 

Last Thursday I posted the last segment of a story, which delved deeper and deeper into the subconscious of a man processing trauma. On Thursday I will do my own take on following a rabbit hole of natural consequences. The story will open with a problem, and then propose a number of solutions to it, each delving into deeper and deeper levels of cruelty. The conclusion will be horrifying, but hopefully also fascinating. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.