This post came about after some thinking from a comment on No Man an Island. The link to that discussion is here. My thoughts on the subject seemed larger than a comment on a chapter there, so it’s here as one of my rants.
I really enjoy the online community of readers and writers, and the opportunity the Internet affords for discussion. Having comments on each chapter of my book, NMAI, has helped me to become a better writer. I think it has also made my book more accessible and enjoyable for the audience. I also take some pride in the fact that my most frequent commenters all seem very well read, and some of them are in fact writers themselves.
One of the commenters, Lethe Bashar, asked about whether I had every considered providing episode summaries, every few chapters, in order to be more accessible to new readers. He himself has done this on his online story. I think that it’s a great idea for an ongoing serial, or episodic story. Comic books and television shows have this quality, and often have captions or clips to summarize previous stories that are relevant to a current issue or episode. It lets new, casual viewers jump into the storyline that long-term viewers are already aware of.
For television shows, which can have lifetimes surpassing decades, it is necessary to be accessible in order to draw a large audience. Comic books have the same longevity. They can’t expect someone new to buy the first issue, or rent the first season. They have to give them a reason to be interested NOW. Online comics and serial novels can have the same thing: their characters have rich “lives” with multiple episodes, and new readers can enjoy new episodes without having to read all the history. And, the neat thing is that internet stories have archives, so you can always spend the time to catch up. You don’t have to go buy the first issue from twenty years ago at great cost, it’s freely available.
I respect that kind of storytelling. Smallville, X-files, ER, Superman, the X-men, whatever. I like ongoing stories that have interesting “right now” episodes that are complete and tell a short story, but also have underlying subplots, character development, and over time build a mini-mythology.
However, No Man an Island is not designed that way. Form and function are inextricably linked in any medium. Any story has a beginning, middle and end. A series stretches the middle, so that the meaning of the overall story plays out over a long period of time, as underlying themes. The episodes in between, however, are like short stories. They have their own beginning, middle, and end, and they have their own small meanings. These small pieces contribute to the overall meaning, but can also have a meaning of their own, and exist semi-independently.
There is nothing independent about the structure of NMAI. From the very first line, everything builds towards the final sentence. It constantly refers to itself, builds its own symbolism, and ties events in one time period to seeds planted in another. Chapters might be “out of order” regarding chronology, jumping from 1994 to 2001 to 3000 B.C. and then to 2015. But the meaning of the plot is going in order, the way it is meant to be understood, the emotions it is meant to evoke.
It’s part of the tradition of literature, stretching back to Aristotle’s Poetics, where he discusses the function of plays. He defines art, and its purpose. Art causes the audience to respond with feeling to the object on display, whether in painting, sculpture, literature or theatre or music. Tragedy’s function is to create a catharsis, taking the awful things of life and giving them structure and meaning, so that the audience might suffer with the characters, and then resolve the suffering and feel better.
No Man an Island is a journey for the audience, from one step to the next. They are being led to experience particular emotions, ideas and understandings. To some extent it is supposed to be a spiritual labryinth, in the meditative tradition. A place to let go and be lost in an experience, that leads you inwards to some central enlightenment, before leading you back out into the world. Chants do the same thing, like the Jewel in the Lotus, the rosary, or a Muslim’s five times of prayer a day. Structure leads our minds to a point of thoughtless understanding of the whole.
If you read only a part of NMAI you miss steps. Some chapters might indeed be interesting on their own, for their own sake. But you would miss out on the greater structure and meaning and emotion.
In other words, an episodic story is like a quilt, each piece has its own appearance, meaning and history. Together, they create a whole, but they also have a meaning when they are apart. But a complete story, like To Kill a Mockingbird or Hamlet, is like a painting. You aren’t going to understand it by examining the brushstrokes — you have to step back and see the whole thing. Then, the individual moments or brushstrokes can be appreciated for their technique and placement. But individually they mean nothing.