Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Adventures in story space

Hands up, people: who out there understands Hilbert space? Karen, if you wave your arm any more vigorously it's going to fall out of its socket. Good heavens, you're not in high school anymore. Show some dignity. For the rest of you (other than my quantum mechanically ept* wife), Hilbert space is a mathematical concept which has great utility in quantum mechanics. Here's the relevant bit from Wikipedia:
In quantum mechanics for example, a physical system is described by a complex Hilbert space which contains the "wavefunctions" that stand for the possible states of the system.
There. Doesn't that help? Let me bring this down to earth before I lose every last one of you. I believe there is a theoretical story space which is a fictional analog to Hilbert space. In other words, there's a 'space' out there where all stories exist side by side. Mathematically, the story space S is defined thus
I'm kidding, okay? Anyway, that's how I see storytelling. As writers, our job is to snatch stories from story space and get 'em down in print. Everything is out there, everything ever written, plus an infinite number of variations on stuff that has been written (and is being written, and will be written). Let me ask an easier question: any Jorge Luis Borges fans out there? (At the very least, Gabriele should be waving her hand.) Do you remember his story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"? Here's a quick reminder from enotes:
In the form of a scholarly article, it tells of one Pierre Menard, a French symbolist recently deceased, who had undertaken the absurd task of rewriting Cervantes' Don Quixote as a product of his own creativity.
This story -- as well as a few others in Borges' stable -- convinced me that Borges believed in story space. Pierre Menard didn't want to write just any Don Quixote; he wanted to write THE Don Quixote, word for word. Imagine picking up a grain of sand, then tossing it down again, not just on any beach but on any random beach in the world. Picking out that same grain of sand is considerably more likely than accomplishing Menard's task. What's the point? Well, we're not plucking just any story out of story space. We want the good ones, the ones that are entertaining, that perhaps bear a kernel of truth, that convince us we're a little bit better for having read it. But -- and here's the real point -- near every good story, there exists an infinite number of close cousins, some of whom are even better. The trick, I think, is to never lose sight of this fact. To use "A Pirate's Dilemma" as a silly example, I could have made Jack Sparrow the villainous British agent. Instead, I chose to leave Jack as a red herring** and put Hugh Grant in there instead. I did that because I thought it would be funnier, but I know, I have complete faith, that I might have pulled something even better out of idea space. I don't know . . . it boggles the mind what I might have done with Margaret Thatcher in that role. To continue with the sand analogy, I look at storytelling much as I look at beachcombing. I don't pick up every interesting piece of flotsam I find on the shoreline, only the ones which appeal to my own peculiar sense of aesthetics. That's the original story idea, but it doesn't have to stop there. With my imagination, I can picture a stone, a shell, a bit of bone that's even cooler than the one in my hands. Folks with far more publication experience than I have pointed out that you eventually have to stop editing and call it a story. Otherwise, you risk spending your life wandering the beach, picking up one piece of crap, tossing away another, perennially dissatisfied. Even still, sometimes it's fun to take that 'finished' piece of driftwood and wonder how it might be different. Better.
D. *You know -- the opposite of inept. **For you folks who aren't crime novel buffs, a "red herring" is a distractor, something to divert the protagonist's attention from the truth.


Anonymous fiveandfour said...

You know, something I've thought about occasionally over the years is why it's possible to have such a seemingly endless/infinite variety of songs in the world, especially considering the relatively limited number of notes that are used. I'd never thought of this in terms of stories, but it seems the same thing applies. This idea of Hilbert space as applicable to art helps explain this phenomenon in some ways for me.

But man, if I were an artist how would I ever feel comfortable that I'd plucked out of the space the exact right thing with the perfect characteristics? I'd likely drive myself nuts answering that question. I suppose there's some instinct you get, like how I *know* when a picture is placed on the wall just where it should be, but if not the implications of the mental stability of all the artists out there are frightening :).

Makes me feel more sympathy for the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways of the world, too, whereas before I mainly thought "grow the hell up already".

9/21/2005 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Art & writing: no place for perfectionists. At some point, I force myself to stop fiddling. Enough is enough.

More maddening still: if you ponder the implications of an infinity of stories, not only is there a perfect version of your story out there in story space, there are several perfect versions (of your story and its close relatives).

Someone is bound to ask, "What's your definition of perfect." I think you could only define "perfect" with respect to the author, since no work will be perfect to all readers.

9/21/2005 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous fiveandfour said...

not only is there a perfect version of your story out there in story space, there are several perfect versions

One could say this is proven by the recently released movie The Aristocrats with the seemingly infinite variations on one lowly joke.

I can't pick a thought to stick with and iterate after that statement, so I think I'll just leave this alone now and go seek out some lunch...let my subconscious do the thinking for awhile.

9/21/2005 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

More maddening still: if you ponder the implications of an infinity of stories, not only is there a perfect version of your story out there in story space, there are several perfect versions (of your story and its close relatives).

Yikes, and here I thought I had left intertextuality, deconstructivism, discourse theories and all that literary stuff behind me when I finished my MA. Lol, not really, since I indeed use discoure theories to analyse Mediaeval texts, which is pretty much a new approach because most literature professors think those theories, because developed on modern texts, work only back to the 19th century at best.

And yes, I know and like Borges.

9/21/2005 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Gabriele: Intertextuality? Deconstructivism?

Too many big words. Unlike you Germans, we Americans cringe at any word containing more than 10 letters.

Here's one of those rippingly long German words -- I just found it on the web, looking for a home:


9/21/2005 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...


9/21/2005 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

It's funny - I only half agree with the way you see storytelling. (Not that there's any incorrect way, of course, to interpret what is basically a big-deal mystery.) Anyway, there's this Seneca legend - part of their creation myth - about the origin of stories, which is what I always think of: there's a sacred Story Stone and a boy stumbled across it one day. He made an offering to the stone of the birds he'd hunted that day, and the stone told him stories (stories of long ago, the world before this one) until long into the night.

Sidenote: What I loved most about this legend was that the stone even gave the boy a story to tell about what had happened to the birds, so he wouldn't get in trouble back at the village.

Anyway, according to the legend, all stories come from the stone, and it's our duty as humans - part of our negotiations with the gods - to tell them. Eventually, the whole village came around to listen to the stories, and the stone told them that some people will remember every word of the stories, some will only remember part of them, and some will forget them all. But each person must do the best they can, and tell these stories to each other.

Hi, long-winded much? Sheesh. Anyway, I think all the stories DO come from one place, but the variance is the storyteller - the person and not the words - beginning with how well they can hear that story stone and then all the other obvious factors, like personality, life experiences, education, blah blah blah. I guess the difference is that I think there's a finite number of stories, and an infinite number of tellings.

Which is maybe the same thing as you're saying, anyhow. So that's the end of my two bits.

9/21/2005 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Hi Beth,

I've never been too comfie with this notion that there are only N stories with an infinite number of variations. I think it's a product of the human mind, which loves to categorize and sort, and hates chaos.

Sometimes I suspect there's truth in this (the N stories theory) but then I read something which isn't like anything I've ever read. William Vollman's Butterfly Stories, for example.

Here's another thought: perhaps there are a limited number of stories for commercial reasons. (In the pre-commercial era, you still had to satisfy your audience.

Grog: . . . and then the wild mangrold charged Korg, squinching him with his horn, and Korg died.


Something like that?)

9/21/2005 06:39:00 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Yeah no, sorry - finite number of stories. There are like what - 7 of them, I think conventional wisdom says. Characters are wildly varied, and so is tone and word choice and more, and there may be different twists and turns long the way - but pretty much all the stories have been told and will continue to be told, over and over again.

I think most people reject the idea because they find it depressing, or limiting. I, on the other hand, consider it magical that the same things can be said over and over again, yet be different every time.

But see, like I said - there isn't a correct answer. This is how we perceive story. You and I are engaging in our own story now - the story we tell ourselves about Where Stories Come From. The same story with different interpretations, and we'll each continue to tell it our own way. You'll be all maths-and-science about it, I'll be all mystical. And we'll both be satisfying our respective audiences. :-)

9/21/2005 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

No, Beth, the only thing that satisfies my audience is pirate sex.

9/21/2005 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger THIS! Christine said...

So really, Hilbert space is a roomful of monkeys smacking away at typwriters.


9/21/2005 09:22:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

More fun than a barrel full of wavefunctions!

9/22/2005 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Yep, they all start with the Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. :)

And better don't ask me to explain intertextuality, it would need translating my HS Literature II thesis to achieve that.

9/22/2005 08:48:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

"Intertextuality" strikes me as a high brow way of saying, "Reading between the lines."

Someone should create a java applet that creates German words from English phrases. E.g., American politician whose hand is in the public's wallet and whose head is up his own ass.

9/22/2005 05:38:00 PM  
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