What is a story world, anyway?

[Research] (05.22.09, 1:10 pm)

Recently I have been shifting my focus from looking at story worlds proper to the mechanics. I think that worlds are still at the heart of the matter, but what a world is may need to be expanded a little. For adaptation, it is necessary to try to get underneath a text to understand what it is about. We can do this in two main ways, I think. The first is to look at aesthetics. Aesthetics is not just visual qualities or imagery, but is about emotional understanding. A work is understood aesthetically when it affects the reader at an emotional level. Aesthetics are experienced bodily and synaestheticaly. The second way to look at works is rhetorically. At the rhetorical level, the work is there to make an argument, to persuade, to say something about the real world. Rhetoric works at a more explicitly mechanical level, presenting an argument in allegorical or analytic form. However, the aesthetic works according to mechanics as well, but instead of using languages of causality, it operates using an emotional language. Both aesthetic and rhetoric are interwoven, and are part of a text’s mechanics.

Mechanics explains how a text works, what it does when the reader attempts to read and engage with it. It is not static and immutable, but is a system that the reader will decipher, play with, pick apart, imagine, theorize about, and understand.  I think that to answer the question of what is a text about, it is necessary to discover how it works. Some, but not all texts work through exploring a story world. A world is some sort of setting or stage in which the text exists and takes place. By its nature, the world must therefore exist beyond the bounds of the text. A story world may accommodate many possible stories existing within it, and may change along with the narratives themselves. The story is thus situated in the world. Because the actual story is about something, and that aboutness can be expressed through its mechanics, there is an intimate relationship between the story mechanics and the story world. Using the metaphor of simulation, we could say that the story world is a simulation of the mechanics.

This understanding of world is very valuable, but has some fuzzy edges. Namely, there is ambiguity as to how closely a world is connected to a story. If we view worlds as analytic tools, we do not need to be concerned over whether the story world technically includes all of the details of the story, but there become concerns when there are multiple stories set in the same world. Many authors make use of fictional universes and write stories that take place within them. These stories will likely have some degree of overlap in what they are about, but are unlikely to be the same, thus, there is probably some sort of core story world that is the base of this fictional universe shared by these stories, within which operates some set of mechanics that is general to each story. Each individual story with its own particular mechanics is a kind of extension of this shared foundation.

It is possible to apply the principle of the story world to other narratives, but in some cases the worlds that might result are confusing or perverse. For example, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a story that exists in intersections of story worlds, there is something there that ties them together but it is the very process of creating new worlds. The rest of the worlds are simply fragments, but strung together to produce a definitive arc. We could argue for a “world” that encompasses all of these simultaneously, but this would lead to a mess. We can still understand it as a coherent system with clear mechanics, namely, about reading and building new worlds with each novel fragment read. Another corpus that cannot be made into a world is the monomythic collection of Russian Folktales described by Propp. These are well defined formally, and each has a common morphology, but as a whole they do not make a clear world. We could imagine a world where each object or situation in the world can endlessly substituted, and the only thing that remains is the commonalities between the equivalence classes of the substitutions. This schizophrenic world does not exist in time, nor beyond the narrative on which it is based.

So it does not make sense to argue that every narrative or related collection of narratives have worlds, but this prompts a few other questions: What relations make narratives share worlds? Is it spatio-temporal? Is it theme, genre, or mechanics? What narratives may we safely examine as worlds, and when does it become problematic?

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