Introduction: (REWRITE AS OF MAY 31 2002)
Narrative in a "freeware" prosody? Isn't prosody just about the play of foot and line, with figurative language tossed in for more advanced stuff? Maybe so, but poetry whose author is facile with only foot and line will be a glass from yesterday's party. Narrative, commentary, wit, or epiphany -- these are what you put fresh in the glass, so how it's approached is not honestly detachable from prosodic practice.
Though it may be surprising to some, we live in a renaissance of narrative poetry in English. After decades of lack of interest from editors and poets (with exceptions such as Louis Simpson, Theodore Weiss and the late Roger Hecht), narrative, whether brief, long, in meter or in free verse, has re-emerged. In a short list, David Mason, Richard Moore, Andrejika Hough, F.D. Reeve, Frederick Turner, Dick Allen, Carolyn Raphael, Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, Frederick Feirstein, Vikram Seth, the author, Michael Lind come immediately to mind as poets who've written and published book-length poems, plays in verse, poems of a thousand lines or more, shorter narratives of the kind developed by Robert Frost early last century, and dramatic monologues. Craig Raine has even had stupendous publisher advances for several of his book-length poems. Of the major journals today, as opposed to five to ten years ago, it is hard to find an issue where this is not at least one dramatic monologue or short narrative poem.
One can guess causes. Storytelling in glossy magazines has vanished. Most popular films are variations on the same couple of stories -- true also of genre and much of trade fiction. The theater has divided into audiences for musicals, monologues, and dramas aimed at specific claques; like the movies, the American theater makes no pretense at being an arena for the ongoing cultural narrative. Targeting enormous audiences, such storytellers can and do ignore significant details of lives as lived in a particular place and time. Commercial television is a somewhat different story. While serial comedy factories still have assembly line writers turning out a thousand one-liners an hour, there are production companies, such as HBO and Showtime, Thames Television and BBC in England, and several of the Turner networks, that present original teleplays, some in serial form, such as Homicide, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, others in movies and mini-series, such as the giddy To Play the King and Prime Cut, or in full-fledged films, such as TNT's intriguing biographical drama of George Wallace, or HBO's startling biographical drama of Roy Cohn. In bestselling trade fiction, the staples are as limited as the movies, at least at the level of top selling authors like Tom Clancy and a dozen others. However, to judge by current books in the mid-list, or lower-selling lines, of books, there is an audience interested in stories more engaging and complex than the one about the good guy with the big gun. There are many novels of far greater intrigue than an arms race, a romantic hallucination, or a spy adventure in the Middle East. There seem to be publishers whose editors like narrative poetry. That's a big change from the open hostility of the Modernist movement and its audiences toward narrative in poetry.
Poetic storytelling (the term narrative borders on pretentious) was abandoned by the Modernists. They excused this with rationalizations about fractured reality, about the supremacy of formal, abstract elements over such Philistine considerations as character, plot, and scene, what Expansive poets mean by content, and the place of poetry as opposed to that of novels, plays and movies. A few American poets continued on oblivious, including Frost, Robinson, Cullen, and Jeffers in the first half of last century. Others, such as Theodore Weiss, Roger Hecht, and Louis Simpson, picked up the narrative torch after the Second World War. But the signposts of Modernism, such as Pound, HD, Stevens, Williams or Eliot (except in his plays) in the first generation, or others, such as Robert Bly and John Ashbury much later, turned their backs on recognizable storytelling, preferring the fragmented "sequence," if any approach at all. Most poets who continued working with formal prosody, such as Wylie, Millay, Bogan, and Winter, did little with storytelling, preferring the formal lyric as their free verse contemporaries preferred the lyric in prose. Of the formalists who came to prominence in the 1950's, few have explored narrative beyond a few poems, such as Richard Wilbur's stunning dramatic monologue from 1976, "The Mind Reader."
They had their reasons and their audience. Fashion, esthetic, and critical considerations do matter. All of that is past; the Modernist movement's founders as well as the first, second and not a few of the third generation of their disciples are dead, their major monuments securely in historical anthologies and published books, most out of print. "Do their reasons and methods apply to us?" is the real question. We might start with this question:
What Is A Story?
Maybe some samples would help, moving from the simple to the complex.
Simple: The woman, who had lived in and around the cave complex for twenty years, walked past the last fire one night. As she looked at stars she had never seen, and listened to the songs of insects, a lion crept up and bit her on the ass. The wound wasn't too severe, if a little bloody, and the lion was startled by her scream into running away. She returned immediately to camp, awoke her mate, and berated him for an hour for not telling her about the lion outside of the camp. The man told her never to leave the camp again, but when she laughed at him, knew that he couldn't stay awake twenty-four hours a day to make sure she didn't.
There's an arc from the woman's initial state, a virtual inmate of a cave complex, to her action to leave the camp to see what was outside, to a painful consequence arising from her ignorance about what lay beyond the camp, to a resolution where her husband learns that he has less power than he thought and where she learns that to act freely in ignorance is to court danger. We can draw a lot of conclusions about what will happen next. Of course, he could raise a club. What is usually abbreviated as Beginning, Middle and End is really Initial Condition, Action, Consequences, and, in this case, an open Resolution. This structure implies a movement through time. The initial condition has been going on for twenty years. The woman acts to change it. Her own ignorance, caused by her husband, at least partially, leads to an unforeseen lion biting her. Her resoluton to the consequence is to demand her husband to include her in a larger part of the cave complex's reality. His resolution is on two levels, to threaten, and to realize the emptiness of his threat. What happens next is not in the story; we can guess that, and we know that it lies further along in time. A major component of story, at least this one, is that it marks a passage of time, and that passage of time measures a period of change.
More complicated: A woman, who had lived in her household as mother and wife for all of her adult life, challenges both her husband's and her own preconceptions about what the limitations of her life as a woman are. Despite the intelligence, logic and passion of her arguments, her husband refuses to acknowledge the possiblity of a different view than the one he draws from society and history. And, in the end, she goes outside the home both to live and to look for a job.
Here, in an extremely brief summation of A Doll's House, by Ibsen, the protagonist's initial condition is that of a middle or upper class woman in the late 19th century, whose world is contained in ways similar to that of the woman in the cave complex. Her action, however, is not to leave, but to open dispute and argument over the social conventions held by both her and her husband. His action, consequence of hers, is to deny the validity of her arguments. And her resolution is to leave to find another life. His resolution is to accept it. We can guess what happens next. When the play was written, Ibsen didn't have to intimate much about what they might be. The possibilities for women working outside in the late 19th century were limited, not as much as a radical feminist might declare today, but nonetheless modest compared to a man's, especially if he'd been trained in a university or even in a professional school. It is more than fair to say that a middle class woman's life, even in domesticity, was both safer and likely to be far longer than an industrial worker's or a miner's, however. So, Ibsen's drama is very much in a place and a history, a town in Norway in the late 19th century, with specific mores and manners of living. Any play, no matter how universal it's described by critics, is also an artifact of the time in which it was written. For instance, it was assumed in Ibsen's day that the children would stay home with the father; now, not necessarily a good thing, the opposite is true. If the woman leaves, the children almost always go with her, so Nora's freedom, as construed then, the shucking off of all domestic responsibilities, would be considered odd or rash today. But, Ibsen's play, though it involves far more complex dramatic play between the characters, involving ideas as much as emotions, follows virtually the same path as the one set in a cave.
Smaller scale: A man and woman, who have lost their only child to an early death, engage in a bitter fight, filled with recriminations and accusations, about the character and quality of each other's mourning of this loss. The man berates the woman for carrying on far too long about this. The woman retaliates by blasting the man's emotional incompetence and carelessness. As she has apparently done before, and despite the man's begging, she leaves to find solace with someone else, leaving the man standing in the doorway.
Frost's "Home Burial," a poem of just over 100 lines, is a perfect little dramatic poem. The initial condition is one of emptiness and mourning for a dead child by a couple. Frost never quite says how long ago this death occurred, which has the interesting effect where it seems possible that this argument could be old, the marriage a petrified tree. The man action is to challenge his wife's mourning for so long. The consequence is the woman's accusation that the man is not able to grieve, that he knows nothing of loss, that he is empty. The resolution, which Frost makes clear is not new, is for the woman to leave for another's comfort and the man to stand back helplessly, making empty threats. It is clear that the place and history is rural America just before the automobile age. Initial condition, action, consequence, resolution, place and time -- it's as formal as a sonata, however different from any other story it might be. Frost's intimation of repetition makes the story all the more harrowing, because we can guess that this drama happens weekly, however neatly resolved in each instance.
Larger scale: During and after national celebrations for a huge victory, a small group of men worries that the leader of the victory, and of the nation, is a danger to the survival of a just government. He is hugely popular and he has gladly taken on the powers of a dictator, to which few object. Extensive debate ensues between them. They confront the leader, who dismisses their complaint with grave contempt, which seems clear evidence that the group is right in their fears. They become a conspiracy against the leader. And, finally, in a terrible, public moment, the group murders the leader of the nation on the floor of the Senate. Among the many consequences, the group is called before an angry public forum to testify as to the reasons for their action. During that, particularly after a funeral oration by a strong partisan and friend of the murdered leader, a near riot ensues and demands are made to destroy the conspirators, both in body and property. Not long after, the first of them, a poet, is murdered by a plebeian. A hundred senators are put to death. And, in the ensuing civil war, the rest of the conspirators are killed and the dead leader's partisan and a new emperor take over the nation. The final resolution is that the conspiracy and its purpose, to rid the nation of imperial rule, are utterly defeated despite having fulfilled their initial aim.
Of course, this is a rude, simple plot summary of Julius Caesar, with nearly thirty characters, five acts, and enough bloodshed, usually onstage, to satisfy an audience for Friday the 13th. But it follows the same arc as the story about the woman in the caves. The initial condition is a group concerned about the future of Rome (place) at a time in its history when it seems triumphant. Their action, after lengthy consideration and confrontation with the leader, is to decide to kill the leader and then to do it. The consequence is that the state erupts in civil war; the resolution is that the conspirators end up as dead as the leader they assassinated and last vestiges of the Roman republic are terminated by the ascension of Octavius. The ability to sum up like this, called a pitch in the movie business, is surprisingly important. Few stories will work that can't be summed up in brief, even if the result severely shortchanges the excitement, emotional depth, and complexity of the finished work. An amusing, and very educational, game is to give pitches for any story you can think of in literature, the movies, the theater, or in epic poetry. Even the most fragmented, convoluted story, such as the Snopes trilogy by Faulkner, can be subjected to this. And it is arguable that if a story can't be pitched, it isn't a story at all.
If it can be summed up in a paragraph, a pitch, why bother telling the story? Why not just produce endless Cliff's Notes, including for future literature, as Stanislaw Lem did in Imaginary Magnitude? If you write stories, you already know. A summary is not a story. Cliff's Notes were invented to help people get by in coursework where they didn't want to read required books. Audiences aren't meeting requirements; they're selecting what story they want to see or read. They don't want to know about the story; they want to see it happen. Academic literary theorists have said for a long time that analysis of stories and their parts is the only thing that matters to modern readers; this is of course self-serving nonsense. What they want to do is to elevate themselves, and their coursework and books, above the work of storytellers. It is evident that only forced audiences will accept such terms. Offer a theatergoer, a novel reader, or a lover of poetry a choice between an essay on a work and the work itself, and the free choice will almost always fall on the side of the real thing.
If, as some say, the number of story variations can be boiled down to a couple of hundred, why create new ones? Why not go the route of symphonic music at Lincoln Center, and only play the greatest hits? That's easier; we know that stories not only represent a passage of time, but that they occur in different times, and in different places. The same story told in different times and places will be different. There is no need to worry much about repetition, even in an author's own lifetime, if attention is paid to those differences. QED.
Today, for instance, Nora might construe the company she works for to be a dollhouse, and think about becoming a mother and homemaker, with a dot.com run out of her living room; the consequences might be just as distressing to her partner. Modern medicine might have prevented the death of the child in the Frost poem, or modern pscychotherapy have assisted the parents after the child's death. We might like to think that a modern democracy would prevent a modern version of Julius Caesar, but it might have happened in 1963. This leads to an obvious point:
A Writer Can't Read Enough Stories
Little discussion needs to be had about this. The more you see how other writers have succeeded, whether for the screen, the stage, the reading circuit or the page, the more you'll understand how to make your own story work, how to make the sonata be a different piece of music.
While one can readily see the sonata-like movement of any story that succeeds with an audience or reader, even stories artfully sliced and diced for the illusion of fragmentation, what makes some stories good and others bad? Take an example from a previous column in this journal, this one about a real story:
The week of the 26th of April, 2002, reporters in New York and elsewhere in the world convinced themselves and many readers and viewers that terrorists had struck again on 19th Street in Manhattan where a sign maker's building had partly collapsed after an explosion. By the time a serious reporter asked questions, probably thousands of New Yorkers were experiencing flashbacks to September 11th, 2001; emergency services were activated all over the city, with helicopters bobbing noisily overhead. FEMA was probably sending a team. The reporter's questions were relatively simple; they always are. What did you see? What was going on in the building? What in the building might have caused the explosion? People answered that they heard a loud boom, and saw clouds of steam and dust, followed by streams of other people onto 19th Street, about thirty of them injured, one seriously. All of the students in an adjacent school had been evacuated without incident. There was no major ensuing fire. There had been a boiler repair crew in the building for about a week. The sign manufacturer used highly flammable paints and chemicals, some stored near the boiler. Two hours after the panic, it was settled by answers to the reporter that, while the boiler hadn't failed, an explosive mix of chemicals illegaly stored there had ignited. Somebody made a mistake; somebody didn't read the law or make sense of it; there was a spark. Nobody was killed; lots were injured. Lawsuits will soon be pending; an arrest may be made. It happens with relative frequency in any city. Does this have any applicability to narrative?
What the reporter did to the first "story" was to explode its plausibility with one of the simplest, most tiresome, but most necessary task; the reporter researched. He then was able to substitute a plausible, and in fact true, alternative story. What is the difference between this and a lot of popular movies, where we know beforehand the story isn't the least bit plausible?
Plausibility there is often replaced by whiz-bang special effects and impossible physical feats (not unknown in poetry of the "exploding" line either). While in Star Trek or Babylon 5, some effort was made to explain an exception in physics which allowed faster-than-light travel, in a contemporary action or science fiction movie, any concept that occurs to a moviemaker is simply put up there. The razzle-dazzle is impressive, but behind the loud booms, huge flashes, flying bodies, zooming starships, flashing light sabers, and falling buildings, plausibility doesn't exist. What's shown is known to be not possible either in theory or in technological practice now or in any foreseeable future. Instead, the story is carried by effects, by a charismatic acting company, and by cutting so fast between scenes that viewers don't have a chance to say, "hey, this is completely idiotic." While, in the movies, the effect is evidently much desired, given the ticket sales for such extravaganzas, its value lies not in storytelling but in its capacity to temporarily obliterate sense with sensation (there is again a stunning similarity to certain kinds of poetry - Jorie Graham comes to mind, as do certain varieties of performance art and poetry slams). We call that entertainment or escapism. We'd be stupid to deny how much people like to be entertained or to escape their sense of being insignificant or weak by imagining themselves to be super-beings. One can in fact see in such stories an allegorical quality about the audience. But most such entertainments are not stories in any sense that's been understood for thousands of years, not only in exalted literature, but in genre fiction and in the most ordinary drama. That is to say, if you can sell a total fantasy, go ahead and write it; you might make a bundle. But if you want to write stories, work on plausibility.
It is true that a story, even a newspaper story about a real event, is never real. When reporting on a special forces raid in Afghanistan, no audience would tolerate three hours on how the unit trained nor complete and unexpurgated footage of the attack. They would be so bored by the former and so horrified by the latter that there would be thousands of phone calls, letters and e-mails to station managers and editors. So, the story is condensed; brief reference is made to training and preparation while most attention is paid to what took the least amount of time and accomplished (or not) the most significant end. The hours or days of boredom waiting are ignored (why so many combat veterans find stories about war laughable; the worst thing they remember, aside from the violence, is the stultifying boredom in between one action and another). A highly condensed report is cut together to show existing conditions, time and place, actions, consequences, and resolutions. (A news story is, in a sense, as artificial as a drama.) In a good story, we may be introduced to a few soldiers to humanize the account. And, people watch and think afterwards that they know what happened, as some may after watching an entirely fictional account. In political terms, they probably do. Provided the reporting team has given enough detail of what was intended and what happened, viewers or readers may believe it as a complete account. In those details of intention, action, time and place, consequence and resolution, are found the keys to a good report. If they are lacking, no reader or viewer has any reason to believe a word of it. The details anchor the story, as does their verification, by images, by personal accounts, or by statistical overviews. But the power of the story is derived from the reporting team's abstraction of an event, just as playwright does in writing a drama.
Yes, a fiction is, by definition, not real. It is a symbolic artifact abstracted from imagination, research and experience, whether by a single author or by a moviemaking team. And yet, a fiction onscreen, onstage or on the page, if done effectively, can invoke real emotions and thought despite the fact that its matter is falsified by an author or by a creative team. How could something inherently unreal do this?
It is remarkably similar to a successful news story. We believe that such a thing could have happened in the circumstances portrayed, based on what we already know and what is given to us in the work. It is plausible. For instance, consider the following:
In World War II, did the U.S. government ever rescue siblings from combat? Yes. Any military researcher and a lot of casual readers of history, nevermind veterans, could tell you that. What would have happened to your unit had an officer arrived with orders for you to do that in the middle of the wildest, deadliest and most terrifying day in your life? A mix of humor, distraction, and befuddlement -- any veteran can tell you that. What would have obstructed the mission? It's in the middle of the biggest war in human history. What would the response of a soldier whose own unit was in the fight of its life have been? Astonishment, guilt, and probably refusal, as any combat veteran would probably tell you. What circumstance might have so altered the mission that it ended both catastrophically and gloriously? The war intervened, as it often did on any mission. Private Ryan... smoothly answers each question in succession, questions that could have been asked of anyone who lived through Normandy and the war in Europe. That it's answered by a generation of moviemakers who never served there doesn't mean a thing; they asked the questions; they did the research. Its plausibility arises out of the sticking close to answers that not only our fathers and grandfathers might have given, but that we might have given. What about Julius Caesar?
The verse is magnificent. Acting is sometimes dazzling in its production. Design can be subtle or overpowering. But the play depends on contingencies of plot, themselves the outcome of considered action, not on technical virtuosity. For instance, on what circumstances would it be justifiable to overthrow a government whose leader is both a hero and hugely popular? Each of the characters in the evolving conspiracy is driven by a question as fundamental to a monarchy as to a democracy or even a dictatorship. It's a dynamic anyone who pays attention to politics understands. In any government, someone or some body has to have executive authority, the power to take action in the name of the state. If there is no urge to collective action, there is no need for either a government or a leader, which is why governments often weaken in peacetime. If this authority, once given, is subject to casual annihilation, where a leader is killed over a disagreement, authority itself will become meaningless, as it did for a long time after 1963 in the United States. Subject to such terror, no leader would do anything. It is also a matter of historical record that a leader who is victorious in war, whether Dwight Eisenhower or Julius Caesar, will receive huge popular acclaim. What would that leader have to do to justify his or her removal by violence? Much of Julius Caesar is given over to characters debating the merits of the case, and by the resolution of the debate in Caesar's assassination there is little doubt, other than Mark Antony's, as to why it was acceptable to the conspirators. Most of it has to do with Caesar exercising too much power with too little restraint by his colleagues, the people, or the good of the state itself. The plausibility, however, lies not in the brilliant argument by the characters, which is unique to Shakespeare, but in the questions they are attempting to answer, which are familiar to most adults. As a narrative poem, this drama is a virtuoso performance by an Old Master, but we wouldn't pay it the least attention if it didn't resonate with questions we have all asked. This is not to say that either it or Private Ryan... were teaching exercises or that they were in any sense real; they weren't intended to be and they aren't; they are stories.
Plausibility, then, is about the connection between what's merely represented and what a larger audience holds as common sense or common experience. Nightmare on Elm Street is not about plausibilities; it's about splattering blood and a completely unreal protagnonist. To a moderately sophisticated audience, even among juveniles, the most likely responses are screams and laughter. Julius Caesar, despite its fabulous remoteness -- two millenia have passed since he was killed, five centuries since the play was written, directly engages deep concerns about the nature of power, the fallibility of even the most heroic human being, and both the dangerous will of mobs and of small groups who think they have better answers than the whole state. Shakespeare's play is not about the heroism of the assassins, but about the terrifying instability of a state that depends on such action for its political life. It can be taken as both an argument for a stable monarchy and for nonviolent democracy, and has been for hundreds of years. And yet, it's just a work of art, a story by a poet following storytelling conventions which he did not invent, who, nonetheless, had the good sense to base his fiction on likely contingencies, on believable answers to believable questions. What about science fiction?
In Frederick Turner's New World, one is presented with a remarkable society, post-Apocalyptic, which nonetheless has stunning parallels with familiar history. In fact, the closer one looks, the more it resembles the Iroquois Confederacy that preceded European settlement of western New York State. In the absence of a state and of a central government, people over time have evolved smaller forms -- sometimes called tribes -- to help meet collective needs, whether for security, agriculture, hunting, or society. In times of emergency, these tribes have sometimes formed loose federations with others to defend their lives, interests and territories. As a model of what life might be like long generations after a massive world war, it's more than reasonable. The heroic storytelling familiar to ancient tribal life, on which New World seems modeled, is made possible and plausible by the scale of both events and of social organization (a single warrior stands out in a community of five hundred in a way that an armored division stands out in a large nation; so does a great love between two people of different backgrounds). Post-Apocalyptic stories that don't pay attention to the way human beings have handled similar circumstances in the past will always miss; they will always seem contrived and silly. Turner knew very well that a world war now would leave nothing from the organization of nations that had preceded it. Even if a state survived in some way, it would be likely be held in contempt by its citizens for participating in such a calamity and be ultimately overthrown as a relic of a murderous past. One can also look at the European succession after the disintegration of Roman authority, where loose federations of local organizations sustained life for nearly a thousand years under the illusory guidance of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. New World, utterly contrived, a poem depending on words to invoke images, thoughts and feelings, is more plausible a picture of that kind of future than virtually any other story written on the subject. It depends on what is already shared knowledge about human choices in the face of profound adversity. Certain choices create consequences; a narrative logic will develop. If the choices are based on something real, the logic of the plot will be both coherent and believable.
There is a counter-notion that says that if a plotline is rigidly logical, one thing causally connected to the next, that plausibility will be a given. All a reader or audience have to do is accept the first assumption. In such a story, the first noticeable thing is that it's a closed system. Its only connection to the outside world, to the audience, is the first assumption. If that assumption is itself a prejudicial fabrication, as, for instance, the primary tenets of anti-Semitism, however coherently a story is developed, its entire basis is a lie. Creators hope that nobody knows that, depending on the prejudice of a mob, or on critics being terrorized into silence. If that dependency works, and critics are silenced, such a story may be accepted. In the real world, such a story would be called Nazi Germany. In the world of storytelling poems and movies, which depend on voluntary audiences, the only likely success for such a purely formal story will be with peers who appreciate the work as an artifact and not as a story. Such might be called a certain and substantial part of academic poetry. If that's your thing, don't bother looking out there. If you'd like to connect, however, ask some reasonable questions. It works on a story set in Watts in 1965 or on Mars in 2247.
Plausibility: Regarding the Contrarians
We have had a long period in both the arts, not only in the literary arts, but in popular arts, where plausibility has been thrown aside in favor of the totalitarian principle that anything is possible. The first and most important lesson a storyteller learns, in looking at the world, is this: that principle is a lie. It travels under different guises. Watch out for them. Many are as attractive as a good wine or a drug. It underpins romantic fantasy as surely as it underpins deconstructive criticism. What that principle is derived from is the notion that human beings are somehow not a part of nature, that we can construct our entire being, as it were, out of nothing. It is sometimes supported by gross misreadings of developments in physics, such as the observer problem.
In that, it has been known for a long time that observation of phenomena alters them, and in some way may even decide how they will play out. The original demonstration of this was the split screen experiment, where an electron gun was fired toward two slits with the object of demonstrating whether or not electrons were particles or waves. It was found that they acted like both, depending on how the experiment was conducted. It became clear to researchers that the mere act of setting up the experiment and running it in some ways created either a wave or a particle. This suggested to some outside of science that human beings make their own reality, that all realities, as a result, are suspect depending on which human beings describe them. But, ideologists who cite this artfully bypass the context, where the mind, eyes, and hands working the experiment were generated by nature, and as such are subject to nature's laws. Yes, those minds, eyes and hands created new phenomena, but which could only exist in the nature that they had evolved in. Indeed, nothing human beings do is anything more or less than an interaction of nature with itself, we as conscious elements of this world, not remote outsiders, and the most we ever do is to re-mix elements, including our constituent molecules, into different arrangements, but which, nonetheless, still follow the same physical law.
The number of variables in the highest level of interaction we know about, between each other, is vast, but, as in the simplest mathematical function, there is a limit. Further, and this is a thing obvious, further limits are imposed by the nature of life itself, regardless of what intelligence may be at work. In stories about sexual love, something obvious, and a great source of humor for ages, is the fact that sex evolved long before recognizably human intelligence did. Birds court; so do cattle, monkeys, horses, cats, and frogs. We don't see this in cities very much; most pets are neutered and wilder animals out of sight. But to imagine that there are not elements of pre-human sexuality in our own elaborate courtship rituals is to seriously limit one's ability to write about them. The same is transparently true when looking at stories about war. The extraordinary diplomatic dance of nations disputing boundaries and land, as India and Pakistan today, can be found in simpler choreography among birds marking territory. Even at the simplest level of intelligence, you will find threat, posture, marking, what might be described as trial or not quite violent aggression, precede real violence just as you can in the run-up to human wars. To miss this is to leave one's self outside the loop in writing a story about war.
The range of human interaction, then, is highly variable within a range of possibilities, a great range, to be sure, but one that is bounded by knowable limitations. To forget this is to fall for the totalitarian temptation, and to write pure fantasy. It may make you money, or gain you acceptance from an academic peer group, but it won't be a story.
Modernism and Fragmentation
For Modernists who still told stories in verse, the fragmented sequence was considered de rigueur. The justification was that there was no whole view on reality, that the best way to reflect the lives we lead or that other people lead was akin to a Cubist painting -- a hundred different angles, bits and pieces on the canvas of the page. They also suggested that abstraction, pure form and color, was the only art in any painting, that representations of reality were of essence false, that only abstractions were art. They skirted crucial questions for writing a story, however. Why?
First, a painting is a fixed image. Even a collage or a Cubist piece is one image in one place at one time. When Picasso went to large subjects, such as Guernica, the fragments were tied together; we have no doubt that the tortured animal and human faces are bound together in the agony of an airstrike. The painting "reads" like a film. It would fail otherwise. And what about abstraction as the only art?
All art is abstract, regardless of the subject matter. Even news reports are, in some sense, works of art. All language is contrived of symbolic representations of what the senses, memory, or thinking have converted from incoming messages. The genius of storytelling is that a writer fuses abstract, formal elements of plot with symbolic representations of characters and actions into a highly contrived object which, if well-done, is taken as a representation of something real. It is as if, when hearing a poet, we see what he or she is looking at. And yet the artifact produced is only an ordering of symbols -- pure abstraction. Why does it work?
Obviously, the symbols have to create associations from memory and imagination in whoever reads or hears them spoken. That this implies a (relatively) common set of associations and even of imaginative elements may offend some philosophies, but it's no news to a storyteller. We are all of the same species; we all share many of the same needs and desires; variations come about because of location and history, but they're variations. The greater portion of human life is not original. For believers in the politics of the personal, and in the art of novelty, this may come as a terrible surprise. It is, however, a great gift to storytellers, because then it becomes possible to concentrate on the interesting stuff, said simply enough in an old locution -- the spice of life; the details; the particular version of an old story. Believers in various revolutions may be offended by this, but revolutionary change is really only a matter of details. When the shooting stops, time and again, variations of the same old dramas and comedies emerge, unless they're restrained by violence, psychiatric intervention and ruthlessly enforced indoctrination.
As such, the notion of a fundamental change in human nature is plausible only to Romantics of the extreme left and right, or to hysterics writing fancifully about genetic research. How people solve essentially universal complications of human life vary widely, whether the division of the sexes, work, childhood, parenting, love and business, love and sex, need and desire, old age, birth, death, wealth, poverty, faith, disbelief, etc.. But our nature, evolved out of nature, places limits on those variations. Those limits, in fact, make storytelling possible.