Tim O’Brien on ‘mysteries of fact’

“It is my belief that plot revolves around certain mysteries of fact, or what a story represents as fact. What happened? What will happen? Huck and Jim hop on a raft (fact) and embark on a journey (fact) and numerous events occur along the way (facts). On the level of plot, this narrative appeals to our curiosity about what may befall these two human beings as they float down a river in violation of the ordinary social conventions. We are curious about facts still to come. In this sense, plot involves the inherent and riveting mystery of the future. What next? What are the coming facts? By its very nature, the future compels and intrigues us—it holds promise, it holds terror—and plot relies for its power on the essential cloudiness of things to come. We don’t know. We want to know.”

“As with plot, I believe that successful characterization requires an enhancement of mystery: not shrinkage, but expansion. To beguile, to bewitch, to cause lasting wonder—these are the aims of characterization. Think of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness. He has witnessed profound savagery, has immersed himself in it, and as he lies dying, we hear him whisper, ‘The horror, the horror.’  There is no solution here. Rather, the reverse. The heart is dark. We gape into the tangle of this man’s soul, which has the quality of a huge black hole, ever widening, ever mysterious, its gravity sucking us back into the book itself. What intrigues us, ultimately, is not what we know but what we do not know and yearn to discover.”

“The object of storytelling, like the object of magic, is not to explain or resolve, but rather to create and to perform miracles of the imagination. To extend the boundaries of the mysterious. To push into the unknown in pursuit of still other unknowns. To reach into one’s own heart, down into that place where the stories are, bringing up the mystery of oneself.”

From Tim O’Brien’s essay “The Magic Show,” collected in Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.

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