Some of the earliest storytellers looked up at those distant pinpoints of light and both identified and created patterns—which is the beginning of storytelling. Using this pattern-finding ability, various societies detected not just three stars, but a shepherd, a messenger to the gods, a foreshadowing of winter, the three Wise Men, a symbol of yahweh’s power, a swordsman, a hunter.
That’s an awful lot of stories, gleaned from all over our planet, evoked by random stars that barely represent any pattern at all. But this isn’t surprising because, according to Michael Shermer, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.”
We invent stories to entertain, explain the inexplicable, cement social cohesiveness, cope with adversity, and even defy death. “The patterns we perceive,” John Verndon says, “are determined by the stories we want to believe.” So as a novelist, you want to reveal a pattern that illustrates whatever you’d like readers to notice, consider, or even do.
This, of course, is the fundamental use of a pattern to convey beliefs. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the pattern takes the shape of a journey down the river, one beginning with total naivety on the boy’s part, ending with a glimmer of understanding that slaves are not property or “Other”—but fellow humans, and being “sivilized,” as Huck puts it, isn’t just confining. It’s down right dangerous.
This sort of episodic story structure is out of favor these days. But the strategy of transforming random events into a coherent pattern is certainly not. Most novels, contemporary or otherwise, use pattern to reveal a different way to see the world.
Patterns shape Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is a distant beacon symbolizing different things to different characters, but to them all, it’s out of reach, even when you get there. How you think about the lighthouse controls what you’re able to do, as Lily discovers when she’s finally able to complete her painting.
Novelists have always used imagery to compare and contrast characters in terms of moral or aesthetic values. Images not only cement theme but bind disjointed events and details into a coherent whole. Recurring patterns can unite an encyclopedia range of illustrations and tangents, as Jonathan Franzen does in The Corrections or Chad Harbach in The Art of Fielding.
~ Causality and morality.
Perhaps it seems a little dated to have all the good guys win and the all the bad ones wind up behind bars. Yet The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Kim Edwards) reminds us to be careful what—or whom—we discard. Writers like Shauna Singh Baldwin, Kiran Desai, Chitra Divakaruni, Chang-Rae Lee, and Colson Whitehead remind us, much like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, that treating others intolerantly yields intolerable cruelty.
The novel remains a moral instrument because a passion for justice underlies the human storytelling drive. Always has. If fiction is as random as reality, or as cruel as the underdog losing and tyranny triumphing, how can the novel achieve its ultimate purpose? The novel remains a source of hope when the world outside the book’s pages seems mighty hopeless.
But that hope must be earned. If heroes win simply because they're lucky, fiction merely replicates the world readers seek to escape by reading about heroes? Most novels trace just causality. Be brave, oppose immorality, capitalize on resources you never knew you had and you can right wrongs, acquire human or divine salvation. Repair the broken world.
Fiction satisfies us most when looking back on the one we just finished, we detect a subtle pattern. The journey involved maturation from obvious mistakes to misfortune to finally achieving happiness and victory due to better, wiser, more generous choices. Novels serve the same purpose as constellations. It’s not just dark and distant out there. Orion looks down on us.
Tip: Stories do their work by revealing hidden patterns.