About Story Units

Story Units

Story units in my brain.

I have a review coming out in a couple of days where I use the term “story unit.” And I’m putting this here is a kind of footnote so I can link back to this spot when the review is posted.

A story unit is my way of referring to a granular chunk of narrative that is separate from the words used to tell the story. You can think of a story occupying layers. There is subtext, text, and then narrative wrapped up in a pretty package of context. As a writer I find very simple schemes useful as long as they are kind of right. For instance, the mantra: “subject, verb, direct object” has been very helpful for me as a kind of writerly Prozac.

These pieces of narrative are called different things by different people depending on their discipline. I have tried several times to read about narratology. Since I write stories it would seem to make sense that studying the “science of narration” would have something useful to say about the writing of stories. I believe it does, but the texts I’ve read came from a discipline intent on distancing itself from the various competing forms of linguistic theory and an assortment of structural, post-structural, formalist, and neo-formalists theories. These various academic and ideological fights were so old and entrenched that I couldn’t make any sense out of what I was reading. A few times I’ve met writers and academics who have know their narratology, such as Trevor Dodge and Peter Donahue. But when I mention, okay, help! I want to know what is in these books. They seem kind of exahusted by it and change the subject. These are both reasonable people and I figure they would tell me what was there if from a writing stand point there was anything there.

Charles Mudede in Seattle was also interested in narratolgy and he was willing to tell me what he know. But I had no idea what he was talking about mainly because I think he finds these various old Cold War ideological fights kind of sexy. I just find them confusing.

But I find the use of an abstraction for narrative useful. By this I mean separating story or what happens from the way the writer writes the story that happens. These exist as two separate things. A film adaptation of a book for instance is typically not the same story. But it is more of the same story for instance than another book or another movie. That is they share some element. Some of the same things happen. I have seen movies “that are faithful to the book.” For example This Boy’s Life, the movie is very similar to the memoir This Boy’s Life. Both are composed of same set of shared “story units.” Spike Jonz/Charlie Kaufman’s movie to me is a riff gap but depends on there being a well understood concordance between a movie, a novel, and what is being matched between the two texts is what I am referring to as story units.

This is an old idea. The recognition of the seperation of story from the voice of the story teller probably goes back to the Greeks. But more recently, Vladimir Propp‘s Morphology of the Folktale was published in 1928. He analysis plot elements (my attempt at an easier phrase here is “story unit) was useful to both Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. Levi-Strauss called these elements, mythemes, which strikes me as a catchy way of talking about it, but catchy in a kind of Malcom Gladwell gloss, so I didn’t want to use that. I find Barthes essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” incredibly useful, but unlike many of Barthes essays after reading it, I quickly forget what I’ve read. It is this essay that made me think Narratology would have something useful to say and that maybe I would remember it. But no. I can’t drink enough coffee or turn off enough music to keep of focused on even an introductory text to narratology.

This separation is an important idea in oral forms such as folktales. A folktale has two components. There is the recipe for the folktale, that is ingredients suc has mythmes or story units or whatever you want to call it, and their order, and then there is the execution or telling of the folk story by the story teller. Each oral telling of the folktale is different. Saussurian linguistics would call this this langue (system of signs or language) and the prole (speech act). Ron Silliman’s talk on the sentence, The New Sentence, (MP3) explains how this works. In his talk he reads a transcription of two people talking for about a minute. In the course of the talk they say a number of things. Silliman points out that it is possible in making a transcription of hteir talk to actually create 64 different grammaticaly correct construtions from the transcript. The act of transcription then or capturing is itself a process of generation or creation. There is the langue, the recipe of story units and there is the prole the transfer of this into spoken language. Written language as Silliman demonstrates in his talk is a different, but related to prole.

Silliman’s archeology of sentence definitions undermines the sense of my subject, verb, direct object. A far looser definition is called for, a sentence is langugae betwen two full stops. That is, anything wiht a capital and a period composed of words is  sentence. If my repetition of the same word in the same sentence would cause my middle school essay teacher caniptions, this would send her right onto the playground with her bong.

But this ends up being a very useful way of thinking about it for me. A narrative is composed of “story units.” A story  composed of story units is executed in utterances. This capture of utterances can be transferred or composed in written language as a sentence.

What I am trying to describe here is a gestalt. Ultimately what I want to arrive as a writer is story that seems like an organic entity as natural as a pinecone or starfish. I would rather leave it to the linguistic naturalists to find out if my starfish is composed of story units and utterances, that my novel is actually just a gigantic pile of a certain length with something the mater with it.

So me this ends up being a very workable schema. It is loose and probably wrong. But it provides certain paramaters. I can do something with it.

It is also allows me to article something that is been bothering me for some time, but I have not been able to write it because I didn’t know how. I took a class from Gary Lutz in 2004. (Wow, that was a while ago.) Anyway, Lutz in his class focused on altering, defacing, and creating interesting shapes out of sentences. It was a very useful class. Lutz himself has sat through Gordon Lish’s workshops a number of times, and Lutz’s fantastic collection Stories in the Worst Way has become I think a key text for a lot of writer who are completely willing to submit to the logic of the sentence and its syntax. This may be an obscure audience in the general population, but online you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who is a disciple of Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, or Lydia Davis.

Lutz has continued to write even more formally engaged, but paradoxically more and more remote texts in I Looked Alive and Partial List of People to Bleach. I admire Lutz’s writing. I also find his thoughts on grammar itself pragmatic and useful and count his proscriptive grammar, The Writer’s Digest Grammer Desk Reference, as it’s subtitle says, “The definitive source of clear and correct writing.” When you are looking for an umambigious and cogent explanation of a finer point of American English syntax or usesage, I think this is the best resource.

There is however more to the a short story than the sentence.

This shouldn’t be news, but it feels like it to me.

Recenlty in reading the great collection of filthy Ozark stories Pissing in the Snow after having reviews a number of collections of short stories that have little concern of what they are about and deep and exciting concern for how they write about not much of anything at all, collection such as Dawn Rafel’s The Year of Long Division and Rick Rofhie’s Father Must, I had been gradually subsumed by this sentence-mania.

I appreciate a sculpted piece of sentence art such as the twisted paperclip compositions in Diane Williams collection Excitability or the stuff she publishes in Noon. But in general this type of work sacrifices too much for prolonged engagement. That there is a shared aesthetic and even a short hand for writing in this mode tends to indicate that it is no longer even experimental, but rather, like all successfully experimental work, has aged into a convention. The syntactically excited work  focuses on the sentence to the exclusion of  narrative. Narrative is might even be seen as the occasion or unfortunate byproduct of sentences. It sacrifices many of the pleasures of narrative for novel patterns.

Raffel, Rofhie, and Christine Schutt, for example, are short story writers who can manage to focus on a sentence and tell a good story, in terms of the novel it seems like a more difficult act to pull off. The short short is just to short to create more than a sliver of narrative. In narrative size matters to a degree. A novel is simply bigger than a short story. A significant paragraph or three will never be a significant as a novel. I am reading Janet Frames Towards Another Summer and she gets it. The novel was written in 1963, though. So it makes me wonder if “forward progress” is even possible. Why is progress “in the writing craft” even necessary?

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  1. Rediscovered Reading: Pissing in the Snow by Vance Randolph - Fictionaut Blog - November 16, 2009

    […] follows each story with notes about the collection and variants based on different structures of story units. In reading these stories, I became aware that the stories were composed of words, but they were […]

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