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: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.
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.