Minimal Stories

Here is an exercise in literary theory.

Here is a straightforward question whose answer remains unsatisfactory even after millenia of consideration: what is a story? Clearly, a story is a less general form of communication than a narrative, which is a set of sentences which are related to one another in a time sequence. The art of narrative requires making some connection between the sentences so that they make some sort of sense in relation to one another, whether that consists of a list, such as the residents of a neighborhood, or a logical inference of effect from cause. Story requires something more than a sense of connectedness. It requires, to use Aristotle’s terms, a beginning a middle and an end or, to put it another way, a sense of exposition, climax and completion. A story therefore always involves suspense and the release of suspense, and not having these leaves disappointed the person hearing or reading the story. Supposedly, a great actor could read the telephone book and keep an audience enrapt but that is only because the actor would be able to bring suspense and release to the nuanced reading of any name. Sometimes the actor might pause over syllables, sometimes he or she might find a metre in a name, sometimes the actor could vary pitch or emotion. But mostly a telephone book is only a list and not even a narrative because the listing is alphabetical, which is a way of being arbitrary rather than a way of constructing a narrative whose sequential unfolding is meaningful, as when the list of begats in Genesis or elsewhere result in David or some other prominent figure.

The question for the student of narrative is how narratives are constructed so that they can accomplish the end of connectedness; the question for the student of story is how stories are constructed so that they can accomplish the end of the suspension of suspense. And that is already to sidestep the ways in which Aristotle’s formulation, the best that we have, already begs the question by assuming we understand, can formulate rather than just experience, when beginnings and middles end and when middles and ends begin. Perhaps I can advance the discussion by considering how to answer another question key to the understanding of story: what is a minimal story? What is the least that has to be done in a narrative so that it can be experienced as a story?

A minimal story, as what has been said makes clear, is one which sustains suspense and then ends it. An event is anticipated and then takes place. Pavlov’s dog anticipates being fed because a bell has been rung, and then he salivates. That is the story. People, however, are unlike dogs and so do think and so the question is whether there has been a cognitive intervention between stimulus and response, and that is what makes it a story. Both children and adults know that they are living in and telling stories even if only friends or parents might find them interesting. I was waiting for diner to arrive and then it did, or I was waiting for my date to arrive and then he did. The stories can be dressed up with the details of anticipation. I could smell dinner cooking in the kitchen and my stomach was so hungry, or I changed my dress three times or I went to look out the window. But the kernels that make it a story are already there.

A bargain is a very simple story that is a game in that there are antagonists none of whom may do what is expected of them. At its simplest, a bargain involves an offer that is made and then either accepted or refused. The offer provides the suspense. Will it be accepted or refused? The question is answered and so the suspense is released. The story is over, though it can be made more complicated by introducing counteroffers and the possibilities of bluffs. Both parties can calculate how to arrive at a point of compromise or how to maximize mutual gain or do any of the other things made familiar by game theory. It is also possible to add tone: the sweat on a competitor’s brow; hesitancies or slips of the tongue. The idea of drama itself is no more than the elaboration of this idea of complicating what had been a simpler matter. One speaker steps out of the chorus to make comments and so the idea of the speaker as a personification is born. Two speakers step out of the chorus and so the idea of dialogue is born. Multiple interchanges between multiple characters plus the idea of multiple incidents set at different times and places makes the Elizabethan drama step out of a medieval everyman allegory.

It is possible to move in the other direction and simplify a bargain, A person does not bargain but simply has announced to him a finding, an outcome, the suspense felt as that announcement unfolds. Adam does not bargain about the rules of Eden; they are announced to him by God. Noah does not ask God to withhold the flood, but simply complies with the command God has given him to build an ark. Indeed, so grave and unquestioned are the pronouncements of God, so prior are they to the idea of bargain, that the willingness of Abraham to bargain with God over the fate of those who live in Sodom and Gomorrah is treated by the Bible as a central moral event which earns Abraham not merely a new name but a standing as the first of the Biblical patriarchs. Abraham defines his people not just by acknowledging God to be an invisible God, but rather because he disputes with Him. What all of these great stories have in common is their simplicity: a moment of suspense created by a command or a request, and then a response, whether of acceptance or challange.

The drama of Exodus is created in a similar way. Moses asks the Pharaoh to let his people go; the Pharaoh refuses. That makes it a story. This story is built into a larger story by having the Pharaoh asked ten times and ten times refusing, each time more significant than the last because a more dreadful response is made by God to Pharaoh’s refusal. Repetition leads to a climax where Pharaoh finally relents,the stakes get higher, where matters turn even worse for Pharaoh when he changes his mind and chases the Israelites to the Red Sea. It is also possible for repetition to work the other way. Resistance to repeated blows becomes weaker and weaker, though for most authors that is too harrowing a story to relate. Kafka was brave enough to do just that in The Castle, K. becoming preoccupied with one procedure or another without appreciating the horror of the downward slope he is on.

There are simple forms of story that do not make use of the idea of the bargain. Competitive sports also tell very simple stories. Some of these are competitions. Runners race against a common metric, distance or time, and the one who wins is the one who does best on that metric. There may be tactics employed so that some runners  pace others or shield those behind from the wind, and some runners may run to the front while others hang back and depend on their finishing kicks. Tactics, however, are no substitute for speed and stamina, even if sportscasters, so as to elaborate the story of a race, carry on about side issues.

Team sports are zero-sum games, or what Georg Simmel would call conflict between groups rather than competitions against an outside measure. One side wins when it outscores the other side, whatever the other side may score. So a baseball team can win 7-6 or 7-0. The difference in the score doesn’t count and there is no score that has to be achieved to win, nor any ideal score that opponents can vie for, as is the case in bowling. The only thing that counts is the score. Everything else is a means to the end of scoring. Athletes are often complimented for their grace or balletic maneuvers but the point is that they score the basket or the home run not that they look good doing it. Moreover, this central part of the experience of sports, the score, is visible. The ball goes into the stands; the runner gets into the end zone; the basketball goes into the hoop. There is none of the contemplativeness that goes into the creation of art or literature even if people work hard at trying to portray the creative process so as to make it visible: Rodin’s thinker; Chopin flushed with inspiration. Successes other than those in sports contain their ambiguities. A President may be elected and people may or may not engage in buyer’s remorse. In short, in sports, scoring is both visible and definitive.

Much of what makes sports engaging is this last fact. Sports is a very simple story. People score or do not score; teams win or lose. There is suspense whether a team will score or not; the suspense is resolved when that happens or fails to happen. That does not mean there cannot be a great many incidents in a game or that there a great many sidebar stories about team members or the balance of talents on the team, one strong on pitching, another strong on power. Every game can be a little different. But the stories do not provide an explanation of the scoring, only of the relative strength of the two teams, of which team might be expected to win. What happens is that one team goes ahead of the other; the other team catches up and goes ahead or does not quite make it.

Consequently, the spectator does not have to know a great deal about the sport to follow the story of a game. The spectator know that a pitcher is getting roughed up because he gives up so many home runs or has a win stolen from him because he gave up a home run after having held the opposing team to very few hits during most of the game. But the spectator does not have to know if the pitcher is having mechanical problems with his delivery (unless he reads of that fact in the sports columns of a newspaper) or if his past performance against a particular hitter was not very good, or if the outfielder who might have caught a ball was playing too far in, or whether that was because the outfielder was not properly directed where to place himself by a dugout coach or because he had a mental lapse. The spectator need be concerned even less with whether a shortstop is better moving to his right or his left. Baseball insiders need to know these things but most sports reporters rarely comment on such things because they presume their readers are more interested in color commentary if not just in who wins or loses the game. They comment on athletes who are philanderers, on the morality of drug use, on whose statistics compare well to those of now retired athletes.

The same thing is true of much popular entertainment. We hear phrases about brain surgery on medical programs and a smidgen of legal talk on police dramas so as to provide some flavor but are mainly concerned about the drama of life and death of the patients and the love affairs of the doctors. It is different with serious literature where knowing as much as possible about the subject matter and nature of the story immensely intensifies the appreciation of the story. It helps to know how much of natural science Milton knew if you want to appreciate Paradise Lost. It helps to know what a bildungsroman is if you want to appreciate The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Art requires endless education; sports do not. Indeed, critics are so concerned with complex literature such as the subtleties of the Iliad or the resplendence of the Nineteenth Century novel that they become preoccupied with its attendant features, such as the personalities of the characters, the nuances of the class structure that obtains in England at the time, even to what the streets and houses in one or another English city look like, that they neglect the straightforward or simple stories that underlie the literary efforts. The Iliad is about a war that has many casualties; Oliver Twist is about a pauper boy whose life is taken over by a gang. Moreover, critical attention focussed on the historical qualities of a story neglect what Georg Simmel would call the formal properties of social life, which are all the things that are true of social life that flow simply from the fact of interaction and therefore are true in all times and places. Looking at simple stories shows the extent to which the art of the story makes use of purely formal aspects of social life, whether that is competition or bargaining, two formal processes already mentioned here, or to courtship or to the relation of father to son, a lover to a beloved, or social classes and age cohorts. It is worth mentioning that Freud, a contemporary of Simmel, was very interested in retelling the story of human life by consulting some of its formal features.