Sometime ago I wrote an open question on Quora about Octavia Butler. You replied that she owed her success as a writer in part because she had an important understanding of Story. Could you explain her masterful understanding of Story? Further, you remarked that because she mastered Story, she could keep us eagerly reading to find out more. I'm very much interested in these observations, because I'm writing my own novel. Could you explain these attributes in detail?


"Story" cannot be fully explained in a few paragraphs, but here's a start:

One definition of story: "An ordered presentation of causally related events." This means that incidents included in the account are connected, either to the main events or to important aspects of the main character's inner life. In other words, what happens matters. And the presentation of these events is put in a particular order by the author. Usually this means temporal/causal order -- what happens first is presented first. Flashbacks are allowed, of course, but in general time order guides the presentation; or, if the narrator is a character, the concerns of that character guide the presentation. Some very fine stories are told out of time order -- I think of I Am the Cheese, a brilliant fiction by Robert Cormier, which is told any which way, it seems ... until it all comes together and everything is made clear. But this is hard to bring off; the best course for a less experienced writer is to follow time order as much as possible, since this will be clearest to the reader.

Another definition of story: The Plain Tale, or What Happens and Why. The Plain Tale is the simplest version of the story -- it is the core story that is presented when a book is translated into other languages and other media. Since you can't preserve all (or any) of the original language, with its style and its quirks, what remains in the adapted/translated text is the Plain Tale. Remember, too, that the passage of time also translates a story -- the audience reading the text in 2021 brings a lot of different knowledge and expectations to a story written, let's say, fifty years before. Think of how hard it is to understand Shakespeare, since we live in such different times and the language has changed so much since he wrote. Shakespeare was a master of the Plain Tale; but his presentation has become more obscure through the passage of time.

Writers who concentrate on the manner of writing, in order to call attention to the excellence or coolness of their "style," miss the point. All their effort is spent on the very element that is the LEAST translatable. Octavia Butler was a wonderful writer, with a voice and a style among the very best -- but she never forgot that readers are looking for STORY, and so she always included a compelling Plain Tale, presented with complete clarity. You would have to work very hard to become confused at any point in a narrative by Butler. She communicated clearly and always had a moving, important story to tell.