Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Deep Story

In my latest novel, In a Suspect Universe, I introduce the concept of “Deep Story.” 

In a series narrative, like a set of novels with the same protagonist (say a detective who solves murder mysteries), or a television program with the same characters who have a weekly task to perform (like a group of agents investigating peculiar phenomena), there’s the typical surface story that concludes at the end of each novel or episode. The murderer is found, the crime explained, the phenomenon identified (maybe not always fully “understood” but at least the incidents are brought to a closure). 

But in some recurring series there’s also a story beneath the story, one that you only get hints of, one that’s never resolved at the end of any episode. We learn about it only in increments, providing an undercurrent that does not carry the promise of inevitable closure, a recurring mystery that might get further away from an ending even when the show’s approaching it. It has a different appeal from “resolution,” more like a knot that’s always being gathered but never quite tied.

Deep Story!  

The X Files was a perfect example.  We got our weekly dose of bizarre local phenomena—yeti, vampires, bumps in the night—independent and self-contained episodes. But underneath them we kept returning to the deeper mystery:  the cancer man, Mulder’s sister, government collusion with alien invasion.  This is not like a traditional story with beginning, middle, and end. It has only sporadic and non-linear hints of a vast amorphous undercurrent of events that happened, that are happening, and that will happen (if all very clandestine).  


It deals with conspiracies, covert associations, hidden secrets that “you don’t want to know,” that reek with the warning they’re “better left alone.” You want a traditional surface story to be laid out and examined, but a deep story you almost feel should be left untouched. It’s safer that way. It’s too big to be resolved, too out-of-control, too beyond rationality, too against the reassurance that all mysteries can be ultimately solved.  Instead of us longing to get closer to the answer, we become more wary, or more frightened, or more confused the more we “understand.” It’s forever unwinding, unveiling yet one more secret but remaining just beyond our grasp. 

And  it keeps us feeling there’s “mystery” in the world, leaving us with something always beyond—that the truth is even more “out there” than expected, that something haunting still exists to give spice to our otherwise sensible and “explained” lives. It promises more even when it delivers, and its “explanations” are usually just indicators of more to come.  

And somewhere while writing In a Suspect Universe, I realized that the story of Mykol Ranglen is part of a bigger story, a “Deep Story”—the phrase is even used in the book. The story’s incidents do get resolved; the conclusion pulls the novel’s incidents together (and I confess I love the ending). But I realized, while working the story, that more is going on, that a whole underside lurks beneath. 

I didn’t want to get into it too deeply in this novel, since too many questions would become frustrating, and this book wasn’t the right place for addressing the issues. But small hints that did come up I left in, little indicators that more-is-going-on than what the protagonists fully learn. 

Maybe it was just because I was watching the new version of Twin Peaks at the time, a series that lavishes in deep story. Indeed, in David Lynch’s work, the deep story almost drowns the surface story, infiltrates it and finally replaces it—making his work often baffling, since such a story only flirts with final clarification. I didn’t want to go that far in my book. And I have at least two more books in the Mykol Ranglen series (maybe three), so I have room to work on the deep story that’s been introduced and to move it forward.  

But then, in the end, is a deep story ever resolved?  

Both yes and no.  

You learn more about it. Secrets are revealed. But in many ways the solving of some issues leads to even more questions. As one case is closed, another opens—and the world takes on its mysteries again.

I don’t know yet how far I’ll go with this in the books. But a huge subterranean current, dark and weird, is flowing now through the connected plots, and it certainly will touch the later works.  

Oh, such devious fun fiction writers do have with their readers! 

They torture us. Yet we come back for more. 

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