Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Story Logic of Things Not Seen

'The road to the Stars" in Bentley Kansas |
Photography by @jaxsonpohlmanphotography
How do you describe something incapable of being expressed in words...things that are ineffable?  The ineffability of ideas is what the storyteller must conquer daily. 

For most writers this comes instinctually. But a closer examination of ineffability can be revealing and improve our efficiency. 

Let's start with a story's theme...okay, okay, the story's moral premise...


Hostility leads to making enemies; but
Love leads to making friends.

With nothing more I'll bet you could come up with a story about that... or at least draft a log line. 

But could you do this? Could you describe for me the IDEA of hostility? or the IDEA of love?

No, I don't mean what hostility or love looks like when practiced in life (e.g. making enemies or making friends). The moral premise already tells you that. But what I mean is, can you describe the idea, the thought, the value? 

Ideas, thoughts and values are ineffable. That are not things we can sense with our six physical senses (sight, smell, touch, hear, taste or balance). The materialists among us would be tempted to say that such ineffable things don't exist, because ideas, thoughts, values or even God can't be sensed, at least with our  physical senses. But ideas, thoughts and values do affect us, and often physically. But where are they? Where do they exist? Can you point to them? See them coming?

As storytellers we know that ideas and insights exist. We rely on them for our physical reality, because it is the thought, the value, the idea that animates our lives and our characters. We might say it is the ineffable that are the first movers of who we are as humans. 

The mathematician can ponder a proof for years...and then suddenly the insight occurs and a solution reveals itself. Such insights have revolutionized civilization. Gravity, Pi, String Theory. While we can describe the resulting formula you can only describe the insight with words that express vague, rhapsodical terms that sound more like a religious experience.

But the insight is real.  Reality is found in the value that anchors a character's arc, that nails the conflict, that motivates action, and allows consequences to be physically experienced. And yet such reality, per se, is incapable of being seen. We CAN describe a character with a mustache sitting on a rock by the side of a road outside Bentley, Kansas at night starring at the Milky Way. But we CANNOT physically describe the value that put the character in that place, lost in his dreams. There you go, DREAMS. You can try to describe a dream, but they're really beyond explanation. You'd have to have been there.

So, what do we, as storytellers, do with the ineffable? Well, we have to treat them as real, as the absolute logic behind our stories. But they are invisible. So, we "struggle to find similes for what cannot be said directly..." we look for visual motifs that symbolize ideas, "personifying the forces of nature and hunting everywhere for metaphors and analogies." (W. R. Inge, Studies of English Mystics as quoted by D. Elton Trueblood in The Trustworthiness of Religious Experience. Friends United Press, Richmond, Indiana. 1939).

Are ineffable things real? Do they exist? The materialist or atheist, if they are to be consistent, would have to say, no. But stories cannot exist without the ineffable. Indeed civilization would not be very civilized without the reality of ideas, values, and insights. 

I hope you won't let the irony of this escape you. One of the first rules of storytelling is SHOW, DON'T TELL. But logic demands that our stories begin with and are motivated by what is not seen...the ineffability of ideas, values, and insight...that which make our stories connect with the reality of our readers and audiences. In fact, without the ineffability of these things, there would be nothing to see, smell, taste, hear, touch or run to or away from. Our lives, and our characters are only real (in a physical sense) because of the reality of the ineffable (that which is not seen). 


2 comments:

Alice Fleury said...

We can't see the wind, but we can see the effects of one, or feel it on our skin. We can't see happiness but know when we are. And love could be kindness and not sexual. What you're saying is to describe it by the surroundings and feelings inside of us?

Stanley D. Williams said...

Alice, my intent was not to remind writers to describe ineffable concepts with physical world smilies and metaphors (although that is the only ways to do it), but to think more concretely consequence and effects of the ineffable, but to get writers to recognize that ineffable things are as real as the stool and rock..and thus not shy away from talking about them as real.