If you are like me there are things you know but you don’t realise you do until someone else explicitly puts it into words. They are ‘unknown knowns’ – not because we refuse to acknowledge them but simply because they have not yet explicitly been put into our toolkit of concepts.
A recent one for me was the concept of significance in story. By this I mean that the action, speech, encounters and locations in a narrative are not simply incidental moments, they are profound in that they are some of the building blocks of the story you are telling.
It took a character in the compelling Westworld TV series to bring this into focus. Why did people like visiting Westworld, the character asked? What fulfilment did it bring them that was lacking in their lives? The answer was significance. Visitors engaged with Westworld so strongly because every conversation, every encounter, every host they met was significant. For the human visitors Westworld was a gateway into a realm of stories. Each word and deed meant something and the way they responded steered them into and through one or more of those stories.
It struck me how similar this was to LARP (Live-Action Role-play). One of the great appeals of LARP is that the character you assume is filled with significance. You, along with your companions (some of whom may be your friends in real life) are not only involved in important events, often opposing great injustice, evil, or sheer nastiness, your words and deeds will make a real difference to the way the whole game world turns. You all, as you negotiate, chew gum, and take names, have significance.
True significance brings consequences. Fights are not always won, not everything goes your way. Make a mistake and you or other characters will die. When that happens a persona you may have spent years inhabiting, one that has developed their own web or relationships with other characters, is gone.
If the Westworld concept has a flaw it is exactly that – the park guests really can act without consequence and I think that, as players, makes them lack sincerity. For them there is no jeopardy in what they do. A bug or a feature? There was certainly emotional consequence for some. I could now very happily go down a very deep rabbit hole about what this implies for The Man in Black, because at least he took it all seriously; and how the journeys of hosts like Dolores and Maeve are not only an attempt to gain autonomy but also to claim a degrees of significance for their own actions. On the one hand guests enjoy free action without consequence, while the hosts suffer consequences without free action. Westworld is, after all, a nested rabbit-hole of stories within a story within a story.
It used to be a source of wonder to me that a person could pretend to be another person. Much later I realised that everything in human society is a story. We are our own stories, people tell stories about us, about history and science and politics, and everything. I think we humans may only really do two things: we match patterns (I’m fairly convinced everything we do and think is driven by pattern-matching)and we tell stories about them.
I didn’t write any fiction while I was a table-top roleplayer. I’d considered it, and perhaps everyone who reads voraciously and has adventurous daydreams has those thoughts, but at the time I never seriously wanted to. I enjoyed the playing, but I also ran my own games. I built worlds, I created conflicts and challenges to the best of my abilities. Looking back, I can see it was a different way for me to tell stories for the characters everyone else wanted to play. A short time after I stopped gaming I started writing.
That gaming and reading and later on LARPing helped me learn a lot about telling stories, as indeed did reading and watching good TV and film and theatre.
Subconsciously I knew things needed one form or another of significance. For me significance is profoundly important in story, just as important as all the other necessaries — including character, tension, and situation. Everything in a story should be significant. Not necessarily profound, or deep, or earth-shaking, but simply relevant to the story you are telling. And hand in hand with that significance for your characters there must be consequence. If there’s no risk, no potential or actual price, the moment is inconsequential and there is no tension. And what happens then? Reader, I stopped reading.
You can find significance in structure too. Another series I enjoyed was The Witcher, except that not only did it jump back and forth through the narrative timeline, there seemed to be no reason for it. I’ve seen this in fiction too, also often without bringing much to the party beyond an illusion of intricacy. Compare these to Westworld, which also dances back and forth in time, but with great success. The revelation that certain events preceded or were preceded by others was intrinsic to the narrative. It wasn’t just a clever sleight of hand, it was the best way to tell the story.
Why is significance so compelling? Perhaps it’s born of frustration with our own lives, perhaps we all want to be heroes and have grand adventures. For me I think living in a world where my actions lack significance gives me the freedom to decide what is actually important to me. Although there is always risk and consequence I also know I’m fortunate to be in the position where I have choices in my life. In fact I can choose to be insignificant, and that’s quite a nice thing. Some days the sun shines and I’m perfectly content growing parsnips in the garden as opposed to being sent off to fight the dread Lich King and risk my soul being enslaved in perpetual torment for all eternity. But perhaps that’s just me.
Previously published on BSFA Focus magazine #71 as ‘The Significance’
David Gullen has sold over 40 short stories to various magazines, anthologies and podcasts. Warm Gun won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards. His latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, is available in print and ebook. Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press.