This is a “reprint” of a “lost” post (you’ll notice on the list of my posts that there’s about a year’s worth of stuff that never made the transition to the new blog). Don’t know if the references are still available (for instance, Nick Kaufman’s post, but you should google him and check out his new site and friend him on facebook and read his stuff, anyway), but I think it’s still relevant.
Even if you read it before, you probably won’t remember it from years ago, so it’ll still be as new to you as to the rest of you just dropping by for the first time. Here goes:
The idea of “dark matter” has been banging around loose in my head for quite some time. For a quickie definition, Wiki says it is invisible energy whose presence “can be inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter.” It’s there, we think, we just can’t sense it other than the effect it has on things we can sense. Dark matter and dark energy apparently account for most of the mass in the universe.
I also like this Wiki tidbit, attributed to David B.Cline, “The Search for Dark Matter“, Scientific American.: “It has been noted that the names “dark matter” and “dark energy” serve mainly as expressions of human ignorance, much as the marking of early maps with “terra incognita.””
I like the dark matter metaphor for the kind of force that makes a story, or any piece of art, great. The “force” exerts an influence inside the work, and on the people experiencing the work. We know it’s there, we analyze and argue and deconstruct, but still, the nature of that dark matter eludes us, or changes with the times and cultural context. This dark matter engages the reader/viewer/etc in ways hard to define, but fun to talk and think about. The easiest example is Shakespeare.
Of course, excellent Storytellerunplugged entries over the years have addressed the issue of giving a story dimension, depth, importance. Like many others, I struggle to develop a story into something about more than what it appears to be, trying to find connections, meanings, layers (thanks, Dave), imagery, resonance, theme – the names for various tools go on and on. The idea of “dark matter” connects many of these concepts for me, but I’ve never been able to come up with a “unified theory” to explain how and why. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Recently, my fascination with dark matter was justified (at least in my own head) by an interview with a Fang Lijun, a Chinese artist who defined his work as dealing with the invisible. (The art critics out there will rightfully cringe at my misappropriation of his concept, just as scientists will protest my profound ignorance of dark matter. I plead guilty, but that’s what inspiration does – takes and mutates. Sorry ‘bout that.) Beyond the politics, I found the idea of the “invisible” a bit more inclusive and energizing.
“Horror” (whatever that is, and please let’s not get into that right now) uses terms like the sublime, the cosmic, and others to get at the kinds of things I mentioned above – imagery, resonance, the nature of the story’s layers, etc. But my attraction to “horror” spills into fantasy, science fiction, literary (sorry, not so much mystery, because I like mysteries that remain so). So invisible for me begins to take into account all the things we don’t see in our reality but which have an impact in our lives – big, “real” movements and policies and natural forces, yes. But there’s also plenty of other influences, from psychological to subtle supernatural (yeah, I know, no difference, really).
I had a brief affair with “dark” as a catch-all word, but, like “horror” or any genre association, it’s too limiting. But writing about the invisible – there’s something that for me captures the issues raised by writers who distance themselves from genres.
The tropes are fun, for whatever genre you’re using – from rockets to murders to the existential despair of college professors – because they give something for the reader to hang on to, but really, for the stories that stand out, there’s something else going on. The things going on in those stories, the background, the mood, all the storytelling tricks of the trade, have a relationship with something much larger, lurking inside and all around the story and the reader.
Let me try to be a little more concrete. Nick Kaufman talks and makes others talk about Cormac McCarty’s The Road in his latest www.darkscribe.com column. The discussion focuses on whether or not the book is horror, and the nature and blending of genres. But what’s also interesting to me is how many things people think the book really is about, and the uses of the “real” and the “fantastic” in telling a story.
In a seemingly simple story about a man and a boy struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world with very few joys and even less hope, there’s a hell of a lot of depth, resonance, meaning, layers, and all that other good stuff. There’s past and future, the moment, primal survival and nurturing and protection, savage violence, and, well, yeah, even more stuff.
There’s a universe full of “dark matter” bearing down on the events of the story; the action has a relationship with the invisible, inside the story’s world, and outside, that draws us in and makes us wonder and question and think. Like Lijun’s paintings of faces, screaming and otherwise, the story is more than about itself or its immediate source material.
Okay. Let me take another tack. I’m Fiction Editor for Space and Time magazine, a small press publication older than some of you other there. It’s so old it published my first story 35 years ago. Along with a “merry band” of associate editors, I read a lot of stories by a wide range of writers, from stone cold pros to people sending out their first stories. Can’t buy everybody’s story, and reasons for rejection vary.
The easiest rejections to make, the automatic ones (very rarely to the stone cold pros), are for stories that are only about the events in the story. The characters have no past, no future, no relationships beyond the other characters (if any) in the story, no needs or wants besides the immediate conflicts (if any) driving the story. There’s no hint of a larger world, no tension inside the story’s world with forces and characters just outside the plot line, and no tension in relationship with the reader’s world.
These kinds of stories are, indeed, “generic.” They are often heartfelt, sincere, and there are often clues about what initially made the writer want to put words down on paper – an idea, an image, a piece of action, a particular piece of the puzzle that sparkles with a little life, that received more attention than the rest of the piece.
But the kind of story I’m talking about, as a whole, (and I quote from my personal library of rejections, which I stopped collecting after 1,000 – but hey, I’ve had over 250 stories published, and most of those early ones certainly did earn more than a bundle of rejects), doesn’t “hang together.” It doesn’t “rise above the other stories under consideration,” doesn’t “engage” or “stick in the mind.”
The easily rejected story doesn’t have a bit of dark matter. It has no relationship with the invisible.
I don’t think most writers can map out a story’s invisible aspect, any more than critics can definitively identify the story’s dark matter. I do think you can listen for it, in the details you pull out of the air (things you just “happened” to notice and use), the odd things you drop in for no reason, the “dead ends” you run yourself into. Lots of writers go on instinct, teasing out character developments and plot points out of things happening in previous sections of the story. More follow plot outlines they either change on the fly, or are able to inhabit, fill out, and electrify with life because they don’t have to worry about where the story’s heading. Different writers, different strokes. The point is, for successful stories, there’s a sense of something more going on in a story than you can put your finger on.
More hooks to hang your hats on:
The invisible references the unconscious, the mythic, wonder and mystery, the subterranean, the ethereal.
The visible events of the story – what the characters do and say to each other, the conflicts and their outcomes – are influenced by the dark matter of the writer’s life. Let it flow. Put it in there. You don’t have to name names. But make it personal. Make the story mean something to you, beyond a nifty speculative idea or engineering concept or quirky character with snarky lines. Let the story reflect some of the things that give you joy and pain. You don’t have to understand the how and why of those sources. Maybe it’s better if you don’t, because if you think you do, you might be lying to yourself. Yes, there’s a surface layer of a character’s motives which should be clear to yourself and the reader, if those motives have an impact on the story’s plot. But you don’t have to explicate every last little mechanical detail of what’s going on in those characters’ heads.
The mechanics of someone going from a to b to c, with a few clichés thrown in to dress the background, becomes almost immediately mind-numbing.
Tension is not only found between characters in conflict heading merrily for a showdown and plot resolution. It’s in the setting’s background (I’m thinking Campbell) and in the sensory details. It’s in the bits left hanging, unresolved, apparently quite ancillary to the plot, brief intersections with other aspects of the story’s world that helped the plot move along , deepened a character’s motivation, grounded the reader in the physical details of a scene. There’s the tension of which character is going to “win,” and there’s the tension, often invisible, in what that victory or defeat really means, inside and outside the story.
Well, by now I’m sure many of you are thinking the point of all this is pretty damn invisible. Sorry. I guess I’m just trying to translate what I’ve heard so many writers talk about over so many years – theme, conflict, meaning, layers, what have you – into something personal that I can use in the fight to be a better writer. For me, thinking in terms of “dark matter” and the “invisible” helps. On the other hand, I haven’t earned fame or fortune thinking like that, so be warned. Mileage may vary.
Still, stories I like, the ones I recommend that Space and Time’s publisher buy, the ones that have stayed up on my shelves for decades, as well as on the shelves of people much smarter than me, I think deal on some level with the invisible. At least, that’s why I like them. I hope mine manage to do the same, every now and then.