Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 7th, 2017

The white rabbit objective

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The White Rabbit by John Tenniel

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 24, 2015.

On July 4, 1862, the Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Thames with the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Here’s Dodgson’s own account of what took place that afternoon:

Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream—the three little maidens and I—and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit—whether it were at times when the narrator was “i’ the vein,” and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, more because she had to say something than that she had something to say—yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.

The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of which the computer scientist Alan Perlis once said: “The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.”

Today, however, I’d like to focus on the stories that weren’t written down. We have Dodgson’s word that he often extemporized tales to Alice and her sisters, but the vast majority were forgotten as soon as they were told. What set this one apart? You could point to any number of possible factors, but I’d like to nominate one element that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves: the White Rabbit. Dodgson himself hints that the rabbit played an important role in the story’s composition: “That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” When we look back at the original story, it’s striking how quickly it gets down to business: the rabbit appears in the second paragraph, and Alice sets after it in the fourth, and by then, we’re off and running. And what the rabbit provides is a narrative thread, in the form of Alice’s curiosity about it, that allows Dodgson—or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll—to introduce a series of disconnected episodes. He doesn’t emphasize the rabbit unduly: in practice, he gently reintroduces it once every other chapter or so, whenever the story needs a little nudge. And the result is as pure an example as I know of the principle that every story should be structured as a series of objectives, and that the best way to sustain the reader’s interest, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, is to have the protagonist want something right away.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This may seem like a rather clinical way to look at Alice, but it’s also a trick that every oral storyteller knows. The other great example here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which emerged from the stories that A.A. Milne told to his son. When you browse through the books, you can’t help but notice how the most memorable chapters are all structured around a single concrete objective: Pooh wants to get some honey, or to find Eeyore’s tail, or to figure out what Tigger likes best. Pooh himself is hardly a model of a driven protagonist, but for a bear of very little brain, he knows what he wants. And when I tell my improvised stories about John the Pig to my own daughter, I’ve learned how useful it can be to follow “Once upon a time there was…” immediately with “And he wanted…” It’s a courtesy both to the listener and the teller: the former gets something to pique her interest, while the latter has a narrative framework on which he can fall back whenever his invention starts to flag. If you know what the protagonist wants, you usually have a rough idea of what comes next. And it often makes the difference between a story worth remembering and one that evaporates before your eyes. (On a similar note, I went through a brief period of experimentation with Story Cubes, which consist of nine prepackaged dice printed with images—a clock, a magic wand, a man with a parachute—designed to encourage the same kind of storytelling: you toss the dice and try to come up with a plot that connects the nine random pictures. And your chances of succeeding are much better if you introduce the words “And he wanted…” as soon as possible.)

This becomes even more clear when we compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel. Readers may prefer one or the other, and I actually think that Through the Looking-Glass is by far the greater book. (Not surprisingly, it has played a significant role in my own life: my first professional publication ever, the novelette “Inversus,” was an extended homage, and my novel The Icon Thief ends with the image, which I lifted directly from Carroll, of a pawn making it to the other end of the board.) But it’s also emphatically a written novel. Instead of the clean, linear chase after the White Rabbit, we have the imaginary chess game, which is wonderful, but could hardly be invented on the spur of the moment. Unlike its predecessor, Looking-Glass takes its time to get going: it opens with a sleepy scene of Alice curled up by the fireplace in midwinter, and she doesn’t enter the looking-glass world for several pages. Even when she’s on the other side, she does little more than look around at first, and her objective, when it finally appears, is fairly abstract—she wants to become a queen. The result bears the same relation to the previous installment as the second half of Don Quixote does to the first: it’s a richer, more mature work, written after its characters had already become famous, but it lacks some of the charm of the original. Each story bears the mark of its origins: one in a boat in a lazy day on the Thames, the other in the study of an Oxford mathematician. And if Carroll had started with Looking-Glass rather than Wonderland, the story might have been forgotten at once. I wouldn’t want to live without either, but we have the White Rabbit to thank for both.

Quote of the Day

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I was attacked for my utterly unwarrantable assumption that a man’s life and his work are interrelated—an assumption which has been made by Milton and Wordsworth, by Tolstoy and Dickens, and in short by every imaginative writer who has expressed an opinion on the matter, but which continues to be stigmatized as unimaginative by the academic critic, for whom the imaginative faculty appears to be a kind of conjuring trick, blessedly unrelated to human experience.

Hugh Kingsmill, The Progress of a Biographer

Written by nevalalee

March 7, 2017 at 7:30 am

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