Of Dogs and Narrative Structure

My partner and I make our dog, Jubel, work for his meals by doing a series of tricks beforehand. Jubel has several in his repertoire including running to his bed, rolling over, “shaking,” playing dead, and more. This morning with his breakfast I sent him to his “den,” a cubby hole that he likes to hang out in upstairs. Jubel went, and immediately came barreling back downstairs. Because I talk to my dog, I told him, “Get back up there! Just because you know how it ends doesn’t mean you get to skip to it.”

Which I realized made an object lesson for narrative, for stories. Humans rely on stories. They help us make sense of our world, our cultures, our fellow beings, and ourselves. And a familiar story heard again brings pleasure. Children love to have their favorites read to them over and over (and over). Ancient peoples gathered around the fire to hear familiar tales recited for the umpteenth time. Modern people eat up romantic comedies or heroic adventures, stories intaken with no doubt as to how they will end. Like Jubel, we often want to rush to the finale and we enjoy the certainty of the outcome.

And the uncomfortable reality of stories is that the only true ending is with everyone and everything dead and gone. Any other ending merely happens because the storyteller chose to finish her tale somewhere before the end-end. As the Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

“There’s a design at work in all art—surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral, and logical conclusions. … It never varies—we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies. … Between ‘just desserts’ and ‘tragic irony’ we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent.”

But the pathway need not always be the same. Each day Jubel’s sequence of tricks varies, and it varies as well depending on who’s making him work for it. The ending may be the same but the components in the middle and how they are put together, change. That is the job of the storyteller, deciding what will get the story from beginning to end.

That is what people mean when they say “it’s the journey not the destination” when it comes to stories. It’s not to say that endings don’t matter. I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek before because it’s not the point of narrative to represent some literal truth about the inevitable death of all life. Like any narrative component an ending can shape how you see the world. But the ending only matters in context, in light of what led up to it, in relationship to what came before. And that’s where the pieces that get you to the ending matter, and where the teller deserves the most respect and scrutiny.

And so, while Jubel’s meal-time routine is as sure a thing as a Nancy Myers movie, he’s still going to have to work through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune before he gets his breakfast.

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