By Mark York
Dear reader, I am a proud narrative analyst — no, that is NOT a title I simply gave myself; do not inquire about the subject further.
As a narrative analyst, I must assume that storytelling requires technique, or at the very least, little acts of intent to make it work. This assumption helps me sleep at night. What would a clockmaker be, after all, without the cogs and levers that make a clock work — do clocks have levers? I don’t know. That is why I am not a clockmaker. But over the years, there have been wounds to this sacred assumption, and the largest happens to be inflicted by one of my favorite novels: Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Theoretically, this novel should not work, but in practice, it clearly does. “Hitchhiker” is considered one of the crowning achievements of comedy, having breached nearly every medium (and its numerous quotes have breached the tongues of nearly every nerd). This creates quite the paradox in my analytical mind that, for my own sanity, I would like to explore.
But, perhaps I should slow down. What exactly does “Hitchhiker” do so differently in the first place? I believe this explanation begins with another source of mainstream satire: “South Park.”
Love it or hate it, this cannot be denied: The average episode of “South Park” is as smooth as butter. And if you peer behind the scenes, past the poo-jokes and paper cut-outs, you will find a clear reason for this. Take notes fellow writers, series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have popularized a method of storytelling that I strongly believe in, which will be referred to here as the “but-and-therefore” rule.
Here’s the basic gist: you take a story and filter it down to a raw outline of story beats. These are the most basic building blocks of a story, think “Frodo lives in the Shire/ Frodo lives with Bilbo/ Bilbo gives Frodo the ring.” Next, you read these beats aloud, and if you use the words “and then” between any of these beats, it can make for some rambly storytelling. Though don’t just take my word for it.
Think back to a time when you asked someone, perhaps an especially dull aunt, how their day was going, and she responded like this: “oh, well first I walked the dogs, and then I went to the market, and then I made a pit-stop at the bank, and then…” Isn’t that absolutely dull!? (No offense auntie.)
Instead, you want a story with “but”s or “therefore”s between those beats. Then, you get a story like this: “oh, well I walked the dogs, but I ran into Dave. He had that savage little pitbull, therefore, we crossed the street, hoping he wouldn’t notice. But as soon as I stepped into the road…” Don’t you wanna know what happens next? This is an aunt I could listen to! In the latter story, there were twists, turns, motivations — causality.
Oh hallelujah, causality! The word of the day. Causality is the one, crucial thing that differentiates the art of the story from the art of the to-do list. If we delve deep into the fundamental question of storytelling, “Why do we enjoy stories?”, we might find a similar explanation to why we are so entranced in Rube Goldberg machines. Of course, these engineering hodgepodges are far from efficient— we shouldn’t need ten mechanical steps in order to ring a doorbell, but there is just something satisfying about seeing each piece interact with the next. This too applies to stories, and the key word is, once again, causality.
But “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” strays from this tried and tested rule in the most extreme of ways. In this novel, the “and then” is as frequent as stars in the galaxy.
For reference, this is how the first few chapters go. Arthur Dent has a house. But, the government wants to tear it down. Therefore, he lies down in front of the bulldozers (this is all rather narratively sound so far).
… And then, it is revealed that Arthur’s friend is an alien. Ford Prefect, Arthur’s aforementioned alien friend, takes Arthur to a bar, and then he reveals that the Earth is about to get blown up. Meanwhile, the two-headed and three-armed president of the entire galaxy (you read that right) steals a spaceship. Meanwhile, back at Earth, Ford requests a pack of peanuts and a towel. And then they get saved by alien cooks… AND THEN SLUGS SHOW UP, you get the picture.
Though the “and then”s are not only present in the meta-level; the lore itself serves to enable this type of randomness. Our characters get around on a ship called the “Heart of Gold,” known for having the one and only “infinite improbability drive.” This thing, dear reader, is literally the plot-equivalent of a deus-ex-machina. The infinite improbability drive can, to put it simply, make literally anything happen, no matter how improbable it may seem. Through this plot-device, spaceships can literally teleport right at the exact same time and location when our main characters get ejected from a Vogon ship, conveniently scooping them up to safety. Through this plot-device, our heroes could be literally anywhere until the author (cough) I mean the infinite improbability drive (cough) decides to plop them into the next desired location. Our hitchhikers could turn into penguins, shrink to a few inches, snap back to reality— oh there goes causality! The infinite-improbability-drive is almost elegant in its narrative blasphemy.
Despite what the “but-and-therefore” rule might suggest, however, these constant “and then”s do not detract from the charm of this wonderful novel; in fact, it adds to this quality. You see, the differences are quite clear, comparing auntie’s morning routine with “Hitchhiker”’s earlier plot summary. While this approach to storytelling arguably makes this novel’s plot into a list of different events, these individual events are so fun, so engaging, that it is difficult to care.
In fact, this book as a whole is so, so fun. I love that our big, bad alien threats use poetry as a form of torture. I love that our characters, in the middle of being attacked by an entire fleet, decide to hold a seance. I love that the implied villains of this space-wide epic are a foul group of philosophers and psychologists, and oh do I love all the miscellaneous non-sequiturs, these lovable tangents that I could never hope to replicate (no matter how often I try) that have no bearing on the actual story but were written nevertheless. And they were written because they are fun.
There are two things that set “Hitchhiker” apart. One, Adams makes each event as wild and as imaginative as possible, and two, he squeezes in as many of these events as he can. The “and then” provides the author this kind of affordance, without him having to worry about pesky little things like “cause-and-effect” or “narrative structure”. Perhaps, that is all this novel needs.
For you see, Adams is not completely lawless. He still maintains, with utter sagacity, the most important rule of narrative: the rule of cool.
For those uninitiated, the rule of cool simply states that if something is cool, awesome or even the tiniest bit radical, it should be allowed. This is something even the most nuanced of artists or even the most bigwig of movie or video-game producers often forget in the pursuit of “art,” “perfection” or “marketability.” I have watched plenty of movies that follow narrative structure to an absolute tee, but some of them were boring. “Hitchhiker” is not.
It can be super easy for a writer — myself included -— to get so wrapped up in making things click, in planning ahead major plot revelations and in building intricate worlds or ethical dilemmas, that they end up losing track of a simple truth: Storytelling is fun. We like telling stories, and we like hearing stories. Sometimes, a “just because” is justifiable when the event itself is engaging and memorable. Of course, this does not mean we ought to disregard narrative structure. To the contrary, I hope that the “but-and-therefore” rule is helpful for any aspiring writers, and I certainly plan on utilizing it more in the future. But (there it is again), I do believe that us writers can lighten up from time to time. After all, throwing out a few, reliable rules gave us a story like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and my life would be a duller place without it.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.