What is a story like? Is it a game of catch, a bullet in a gun, or a bitter sugar-coated pill? What is it? There are so many ways of thinking about a story. And how we think of it tells a lot about us. However, one must resist favouring one metaphor over another, as much of it can be reduced to a writer’s or a reader’s subjective imagination. What I’m interested in are the implications of such metaphors on storytelling.
The metaphors we use to convey what a story is or what it should be shapes how stories are made, narrated, and received.
For example, if we see stories as games, then the reader is recognized as an active agent in creating it. The responsibility of meaning making is divided more fairly between the two parties when compared to the ‘bullet in a gun’ metaphor. It resembles the idea of text as seen by Wolfgang Iser, an advocator of Reader Response criticism. He says:
Texts not only draw the reader into the action but also lead him to shade in the many outlines…so that these take on a reality of their own. But as the reader’s imagination animates these “outlines,” they, in turn, will influence the effect of the written part of the text.
The ‘game’ metaphor suggests an activity to be more performative and takes into consideration contemporary notions of ‘fan theories’ and ‘fan-fic’ which the other metaphors don’t.
The ‘bullet in a gun’ metaphor illustrates perfectly the principles of Chekhov’s gun. Anton Chekhov suggests everything that has no relevance in the story should be removed. Any unnecessary details should be avoided, and all plot points that cannot be resolved shouldn’t be introduced in the first place. This metaphor stresses upon the economy of language above all else. Adverbs and adjectives are inherently evil and a meandering subplot is necessarily a point of criticism. Stories that end with an ‘Ah ah moment” or an epiphany, closely follow this metaphor. Flash fiction also fits the criteria quite well in my opinion.
The metaphor of ‘sugar-coated pill’ also has its connotative meaning. The idea emphasizes more on the substance than the form. As Horace says, “Delight and teach”, which implies that the main purpose of art is only to make an idea or a message more palatable to the audience. Style of an author ultimately is just a ploy by the writer to entice the readers into opening up and perform certain actions or imbibe certain qualities, e.g., Aesop’s fables tell stories only to teach moral lessons. Members of the Aesthetic movement would have staunchly opposed use of such a metaphor to describe a story. Author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov writes:
There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.
So, it’s conclusive to say that metaphors we use to describe stories deeply influence our standards of judging what makes a story ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We get different types of stories depending on how we see a story. Once this idea is understood, Le Guin’s essay ‘The Carrier Bay Theory of Fiction’ becomes easy to grasp. In my next post, I will provide a detailed analysis of the essay and some critical opinions about it.
Here is a PDF file of the essay: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction