I have deliberately avoided reading Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust because I don’t want there to be any more stories about Lyra and her family and the world of His Dark Materials. The trilogy told all the story it needed to, with an ending I found both unbearable (it was one of the rare stories that made me cry, at the end) and satisfying.
It’s this idea of satisfaction—and its good friend, structure—that Pullman addresses in his non-fiction essay collection Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.
Stories, as Pullman reminds us, are rituals. They come with expectations, and part of your job as a teller of stories is to understand how to create, manage, and manipulate those expectations.
This means understanding story structure, and how we’ve been telling stories since the earliest oral narratives were transcribed into books.
It also means understanding theme and language and context, in the sense that some stories have certain aspects that naturally belong to them—that are already part of the story, before you begin to write it—and if you try to fit in too many pieces where they don’t belong, or leave other pieces out, your readers become unsatisfied.
Here’s how he compares two different types of fantasy narratives, for example:
“Jack and the Beanstalk” is a republican story because the magic grows out of the most common and everyday thing—a handful of beans—and the beanstalk grows right outside the kitchen window. The Lord of the Rings is not a republican story, because there is no point at which it connects with our life. Middle Earth is a place that never existed in a past that never was, and there’s no way we could ever get there.
In this case Pullman uses “republican” to mean “of the Republic of Heaven,” as in “No story in which there’s an absolute gulf between our world and the story-world can depict the Republic of Heaven, because the republic can be nowhere but here.” (I should note that, despite Pullman’s atheism, at least half of these essays tie back to religion and Christianity.)
There is a particularly interesting essay in which Pullman writes about his struggle over whether to make His Dark Materials what he calls “obvious”—to reveal that several of the main characters are actually related, for example, or to have a character behave heroically when needed. Would it not be “cleverer,” or more realistic, to have his main characters be strangers to each other? To have someone falter at the crucial moment?
But he decided to embrace the obvious. The told-before. The expected and eagerly anticipated.
We shouldn’t be afraid of the obvious, because stories are about life, and life is full of obvious things like food and sleep and love and courage which you don’t stop needing just because you’re a good reader.
That said, I’ll end this by telling you about two novels I read recently.
The first novel, which shall remain unnamed, played its hand too early. At a certain point it became obvious how the woman seeking revenge would get what she wanted, and that she wouldn’t have any change of heart or anything, and I flipped to the last chapter to confirm I was right and then decided I wasn’t interested in reading any more.
The second novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was similarly predictable, in the sense that you know many plot points in advance simply because the main character is a time traveler. But I found it absolutely riveting. I didn’t know how the characters would feel when these plot points happened, or what they would say to each other, or how an event glimpsed by a jump into the future would play out when the characters reached it in the present.
I wanted to know what happened next, even though I already knew it, because I was interested in how it would affect these unique and sympathetic people—and how their story would affect me.
That’s been a part of storytelling at least since Aristotle gave it a name, after all. ❤️