One of the most amazing things ever found by archaeologists is a 40,000 year old flute made of vulture bone.
Here’s discoverer Wulf Hein playing the Star Spangled Banner on it. The point being that the US national anthem relies on a modern scale. The Ice Age dude who made the instrument nonetheless drilled the holes for stopping it in the right places to make it possible to play the notes and intervals required.
The flute is pentatonic, which is the basis of a lot of ethnic music – and of jazz music. So what is a flute doing, 40,000 years ago, that seems to work by the same principle? And not another scale like, for instance, Balinese slendro.
One possibility is that the tones we regard as pleasing – epitomised by the ‘well tempered’ scale introduced just before Bach’s time – are hard-wired. A mathematical study corroborates it – if you plot music on a grid, everything from Swedish death metal to Beethoven sits in one corner of the possible.
Much the same, it’s thought, applies to stories. There’s evidence that our cave-dwelling ancestors sat around the fire swapping tales. It’s been argued that – like music – the basic structure of a story is always the same; the introduction, the exposition, and the climactic denouement. From this, in the modern sense, emerges such structure as the Hero Journey – epitomised by The Hobbit, Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz.
Things such as character arc, and getting the right parts in the right places – which I keep trunking on about in this blog (and I’m far from alone) – are essential, in short, to meet a structure that’s innate to us.
Stories that don’t have it – that really miss the boat – may appeal to the author who writes them. But it’s rare that they’ll appeal to a reader. Yes, there are stories that flout the rules. But they usually have something else about them – an edge, a spark – that appeals to that innate sense of what is ‘right’.
A lot flows from experience. Experienced novellists can ‘pants’ a story – invent it as they go – and get the right elements in the right place. That’s a learned skill.
The biggest trick is getting that sense of ‘the same, but different’. This is what separates a mediocre story from a great one. The doyen, just now, is J. K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter novels have the right structure, whose themes and ideas are a mashup of two genres that normally wouldn’t go together. And she created something wholly new, wholly amazing, which captured a generation of kids – young and old.
How did she do it? By adding a dynamic that lifted the Harry Potter genre out of the mediocre. It made her books more than the sum of their parts as stories and derived genre works. The same, in short – but different.
It’s easy to say ‘do this’, of course – the question is how. And that’s what I’ll be tackling soon. Watch this space.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: More NaNo writing prompts and inspirations, more writing tips, and, well, more…Watch this space.