The Critics’ Corner discusses...
What Is a Story or Poem?
with Don Webb
What is the most basic form of a story or poem? What can readers expect a story or poem to do?
One of our contributors says he would like to write a story that answers questions but has no end. I thought, “That sounds like an ideal of life.” And yet, doesn’t every story or poem — if it really is one — do that?
High-school Geometry teachers have to teach students what a “proof” consists of. Given certain facts, including axioms, how does one prove, for example, that one figure is congruent to another?
Those teachers may be missing a bet. They could point out that they’re actually teaching a form of grammar, because a proof in geometry resembles a sentence. The proof’s “sentence” may be complex, but it is complete.
Of course, a proof is a special case. In natural languages, sentences are not limited to a geometry proof’s order of ideas and may vary according to function, e.g. a statement, question or command. But a proof has only one form.
Figuratively speaking, a proof uses SOV word order (subject-object-verb). The “given” (the subject) and “to prove” (the object) are followed by the argument (the verb). By convention, the object may be restated at the end as “Q.E.D.,” “that which was to be proved.”
Like a geometry proof, stories and even poems resemble sentences as well. Sometimes, though, Bewildering Stories receives “sentence fragments.” In prose, they’re called “vignettes.”
A “vignette” is, by BwS’ standards, not a story. It contains the “given” and, perhaps, either an argument or a conclusion but not both. We can even use poetry — a little nursery rhyme — as an example:
[Given] Hicory dicory doc. The mouse ran up the clock.
[Argument] The clock struck One.
[Conclusion] The mouse ran down.
Hicory dicory doc (= Quod erat demonstrandum, in this case)
The format belabors the geometry proof analogy, just so we don’t lose track of it. Of course, there are some hidden “axioms” in it, such as: “This mouse, at least, runs away from sudden loud noises.”
Is it a complete story? Yes. But remove any part of it, and it becomes a vignette, like a sentence fragment. It would have an effect without a cause or a cause without an effect.
Here’s a six-word “micro-story” that has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” It consists entirely of sentence fragments. Is it a story? Yes, it contains all three logical elements. In order, they are: the conclusion, the given, and the argument; or, in terms of the sentence analogy, object-subject-verb.
Again for the sake of brevity, let’s look at flash fiction. Arguably, the shortest form of flash fiction is the joke. But a joke relies on the audience’s being unable to guess in advance what is “to be proved,” namely the punch line. For example:
[Given] A man goes to an outdoor farmer’s market. He wants to buy onions. The farmer says he has no onions.
[Argument] The same man comes back the next day and asks for onions. Same answer. The third day, same as the first two. The fourth day, same question, but the farmer asks, “How do you spell ‘onions’?” The customer spells “onions.” “You forgot the ‘f’,” says the farmer.
[Conclusion] The customer says, “There ain’t no ‘f’ in ‘onions’.”
The farmer: “Precisely my point.”
We needn’t limit ourselves to nursery rhymes and jokes, of course. What about the kind of story that answers questions but never ends, one that has a meaning beyond itself?
In this issue, L. L. Richardson’s “A Reason to Worry” uses verb-subject-object order:
The story begins with the “argument”: Jim’s and Monica’s neighbor is arrested as a suspected member of a terrorist organization.
The “given” is Monica’s special nature and an account of what the terrorist organization does, and why.
The conclusion is a double one: Monica is a kind of super-android and is “not programmed” to worry about possible consequences. Jim is human and, naturally, does worry. The reader, who is presumably human, is invited to ponder: “What might happen to them?” And: “Can I think of a similar situation in which I might be worried?”
A lengthier example, one that uses SVO order: Bill Kowaleski’s novel Living Standards states the “given” at the outset, a near-future dystopian society. It is followed by the “argument,” a series of conflicts that are eventually resolved, to some extent, in different ways. The conclusion challenges the readers with implied questions: How do you feel about the ways in which the conflicts are resolved? How might we avoid such conflicts in real life?
Comparing geometry proofs, sentences and stories may seem fanciful. But is it, really? All three represent the way human beings think, namely in terms of cause and effect. Is there an infinite number of ways to shape a complete sentence or story? No, only three squared, i.e. nine. The modifiers account for the rest.