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Three Guys in a Bar

For a story to have what we consider a proper ending, it is not enough for the “real-life” events to come to an end.  Instead, some form of coherence has to be brought to the reader’s attention again.  The most primitive form of this is used by an essayist who repeats his or her main points at the end.  You may be thinking, What?  I just read your essay.  Why do you think you have to give me an abbreviated version of it?  But as with almost every choice in the world, we have to ask for alternatives.  Here there are two alternatives.  The essayist could just stop writing, except that that would annoy the reader: the essay doesn’t end, it just stops.   The other alternative is for the essayist to  seed the essay early on with some form of coherence that can then be repeated or revised to create an ending.  Unfortunately, the second choice isn’t at all easy to learn, unlike the practice of giving a summary at the end of the essay.  Still, as we will see, there are many kinds of coherence that will satisfy our mind’s demand that a story “make sense.”

So let’s look at two stories, one with only a series of events and the other with a coherent ending.

“How’d you get your DUI,” someone asks.

“Well, I was staying off the main streets and going through an alley but I guess the telephone poles were out too far into the alley or something because I ran into one and somebody called the police.” 

Here we have a series of events that come to an end.  This works just fine in a brief anecdote; it is completely unacceptable in a lengthy story.

And here is a brief anecdote with an ending based on a form of  coherence.  This story is real: we were there.  The speaker betrayed no grasp of the irony of his account:

Luis: “Yeah, I got my DUI along here.  The cops just always seem to home in on me!”

Us: “What happened?”

Luis: “Well, I knew I was too drunk to drive, and I was afraid of getting stopped, so I pulled into that parking lot, and there were a bunch of cops there.”

Us: “You hid from the police in the parking lot of a donut shop?”

Here the dose of coherence at the end is provided not by a motif seeded into the story early but by a cliché supplied by the reader.  “Cops frequent donut shops.”  As long as we all agree on this, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not—it still works as an acceptable form of coherence.  It gives form to the story and prevents it from just stopping when nothing more needs to be said.

Then what is coherence in writing?  Coherence is merely an element in a story that triggers the reader’s recognition that there is something known there.  Our brains want everything new to be tempered by the known, and for a story to end properly, there has to be a jolt of something familiar and connected.  Aristotle referred to this phenomenon as “unity,” and we would happily follow him in this except that the forms of “unity” are so incredibly diverse.  The more respectable forms are things like logical connectedness and plausibility.  But often, forms of coherence are simply mindless tricks to convince the reader that he or she is in the presence of the known.  The leitmotif is one of these.  Rhyme is also.  When a word in a verse is rhymed, the reader suddenly finds the known in the unknown.  Consider the following poem that Copernicus probably wrote about dawn:

Night is in extremis,

Then dies.

Cradled in morning light:


The poem depends on the reader’s sudden realization that of course Copernicus could redo the idea of a sunrise.  But this is far less effective without the rhyme.  The rhyme is seeded early, then enables an ending that is a jolt rather than just the last words of a very short story.  In other words, the rhyme, by reintroducing the known, reinforces the completeness of the ending.

If you ask how many forms of coherence there are, we have no answer: they are constantly being invented, and they don’t even have to be contained in the story itself, as we saw with the example of the cops and the donut shop.  The coherence may be contained in what we can think of as the “cloud”: all those beliefs and assumptions that we share.  Among these are the little frameworks on which so many jokes are based: “There are these three guys in a bar…”

The seeding of coherence in a story makes it possible to take your story pretty much anywhere.  If you announce early on that your story took place on Venus back when it was a balmy vacation-spot, your reader will go along to find out what it was like.  You can’t solve a narrative problem by suddenly inventing a new superpower for your hero, but it is taken for coherence rather than cheating if you let the readers in on the superpower early, then spring it on them and the villain when it is most needed.  This is why the reader has to be shown early those neat little devices that save the day for James Bond: it would be incoherent if he suddenly surprised not just the villain but the audience by pulling an explosive carnation from his lapel and inviting the villain to sniff it.

The savvy movie-goer knows, of course, that if the carnation is introduced early, then it’s going to come up right when James Bond needs an explosive carnation.  It seems as if you could introduce a whole bunch of such devices, then choose among them, to keep the audience from knowing what is going to happen.  But our minds reject this as incoherent: we really don’t want dead weight in the story—anything unrelated to the action.  The audience won’t allow this, just as they won’t allow the storyteller to show them a villain at the end of a mystery who wasn’t given a formal introduction early on.

But what does coherence have to do with vividness, which is after all the subject of this site?  By now it should seem obvious that coherence, which requires the known, can only be the enemy of vividness.

This is a little bit true, but as with most things in the world, the reality is way more complex than our ideas about it.  Still, for now we’re going to look at coherence as the enemy of vividness, and rhetoric as the toolbox we use to repair the damage that coherence does to the liveliness of our narrative.  Later we’ll see how storytellers can spring unexpected coherence on their audience, thereby actually generating newness with a technique that always brings up the old.

Storytelling would be so simple if our brains didn’t require coherence. Imagine that Arthur Conan Doyle is writing one of his Professor Challenger novels, and halfway through he realizes for the first time that Professor Challenger is really a pompous egomaniac.  Experiencing a sudden boredom, he fears for his readers and his sales.  Another of his characters, Dr. Watson, makes a suggestion:

“Turn it over to Sherlock Holmes,” he says.  “Make him the main character.  He’s a pompous egomaniac too, but at least an interesting one.”

But Doyle is stuck with Professor Challenger: to switch main characters would be incoherent, a violation of unity.  This is not to say that a literary tradition cannot evolve in which this is possible, only that none had done so yet in the particular literary forms used by Doyle.

Coherence and contrast together make up plot.  The reader wants both the new and the old, at one and the same time, so the author finds ways of renewing the old characters and pieces of story.  A simple way of doing this is what we call “plot by revelation,” where (for example) the author reveals that the bad guy is actually the good guy and vice versa.  And all of a sudden, the entire story becomes new while remaining firmly anchored in the old.  As we shall see later, this kind of plotting has serious limitations, which is why it isn’t used all the time.

But the most important thing to remember—

Them: Hi!

Teresias,: Who the devil are you?

Torkulweef: Ebreesh and Etslor.  They belong to us.

Teresias,: This is exactly what I was just saying you can’t do in a composition.  You can’t introduce the unknown suddenly.  If you wanted to bring in your damn relatives—

T’weef: Multiple personalities, if you don’t mind.  They’re much closer than relatives.

Teresias,: —then you needed to introduce them unobtrusively early on, so that the reader encounters the known instead of an annoying surprise.

T’weef:  Oh, we did.  On the home page.  They’re the twins.  And they’re hardly annoying at all.

Teresias,: What the devil do they want?

T’weef: They want you to tell them a story.

Teresias,: What kind of story?

Them: A fairy tale.

Cassandra: Is it okay if it’s a true fairy tale?  Maybe with leitmotifs?

Them: Of course!

Cassandra: You’re on.

And now you can read either Teresias’s tedious analysis of lively passages from literature by clicking here or Cassandra’s fairy tale about princes and wizards and magical spells—with leitmotifs—by clicking here.  We can’t speculate on how true the fairy tale is but can only refer you to the musings of that great epistemological theorist Al Capone, who famously asked,

What is truth?  Who wants to know!?

Originally published in another dementia on October 09, 2011