The story goes like this: you bump into someone. That is the beginning, for all stories need one – for if there weren’t one, we would all be stuck, unable to know where to start, unable to know how this all came to be, unable to know what to make out of it. For meaning is derived from evolution, and so any story has got to have a beginning and an end, so we can see the progression, the growth, and the message within.
Your story is boring.
You bump into someone, as one does every day. No one can build a compelling story out of that. You bump into someone, and instantly fall in love. You bump into someone, and turn to apologize, and see your own reflection staring right back at you. You bump into someone, and they break their ankle falling to the ground. You bump into someone, and though they feel the bump, they can’t seem to hear or see you.
Now we can start.
Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a girl who didn’t know she was dead.
That is not a beginning. That is a premise – that is the state of things, the elements of the initial situation. The premise is not boring, if supremely unoriginal.
The story goes like this: The girl bumps into a boy. The boy falls to the ground and drops his torch and breaks his ankle. He looks up to find no one before him. The boy picks up his torch and limps away, and the girl yells at him to stay put, yet he doesn’t hear a thing. So the girl catches his arm to stop him, and that, that he does feel.
They are in a cemetery, that should be mentioned at some point. It’s Halloween, and the boy is a fourteen-year-old idiot who came hunting for ghosts. He finds one, and he runs away as fast as he can. The girl stays behind and looks around her, and perhaps, perhaps comes to the realization that she has become stuck in a world that isn’t hers anymore.
The story ends there. It is not a very good story.
Your story is about ghosts. That is a given, since you wrote it for Halloween. You do not, however, have a very clear idea of what kind of ghosts your story is about.
That is a problem.
For you see, there are as many different ghosts out there as there are grains of sand on a beach. That means the number is high. That means the number varies. And so the very first task of anyone trying to write a ghost story is to pick up the grains, one by one, to study them, to unpack them, and then to make a choice.
Have you made your choice?
Here is a story. The story is called quantum mechanics. The story is called Everett’s Many-Worlds Interpretation. The story is called daughter universes.
It is a very well-known story.
Here is the premise: in quantum mechanics, particles do not obey to physics’ usual laws. They are weird, tiny little grains than we can only study through probabilities. For in quantum mechanics, there is always a chance that a bird flying fifty feet high can cross a building three hundred feet tall and emerge on the other side unscathed, without ever having changed its flying height. A chance in a trillion, perhaps; but a chance all the same.
And here is the interpretation: that the universe, when confronted with a choice, multiplies itself rather than actually singling out an outcome. That in a trillion universes, the bird dies – except for one, where it lives and continues its flight, wholly undisturbed. Everything that ever could have happened differently did – in another universe.
And so, any experiment will reveal what outcome came to be in our own, definitively not lone, universe. And yet physical calculations will reveal echoes of other possibilities, ghosts of other universes closely pressed to ours, hanging so close – just a particle apart.
The interpretation is hated in the scientific community and adored in Hollywood, for that is the law of drama-filled parallel-universes theories. That does not matter much to a writer at a loss for inspiration.
The story goes like this: one day, a woman goes for a walk and bumps into someone. That someone is her, though she does not know it. She does not see or hear anything, yet she felt something, like someone having stopped abruptly right in front of her, like a bruise deep within herself. In this universe, she is alone. Yet in another one, right besides hers, that very same woman has just stopped dead in her tracks for a reason yet to be uncovered. She too felt a bump, a split, right where she was standing.
That story is just beginning, yet we will leave it at that. It is, quite obviously, a lot more complex than it ought to be.
Your story is convoluted and unnecessarily snobbish. Cut it. Cut it. Cut it.
You have written pages and pages of words, black ink of white paper, and when you take a look back it is nothing but tiny little flecks on a black sheet. Was that really the story you wanted to write?
Here is another story. The story is called parallel universes with no shits given to science.
It goes like this: a man bumps into someone and is thereupon transported into another universe. That is called a swap, for purposes of the audience understanding the plot, even though it has never happened before and has thus no particular reason to have a name. In order to simplify the storytelling, the man will henceforth be called Thomas.
Thomas lives the life of another man, in another universe, for an undetermined, undisclosed period of time. He freaks out at first, and thus a lot of dramatic tension and plot points ensue, yet that is not the point of the story. Thomas lives and eats and walks in the shoes of another man; one who was present in this universe, before they bumped into each other somehow. The other man is called Oliver. The other man loves roast chicken and yellow sockets and giving his friends a hug, and he left behind a gaping hole that Thomas feels too small to fill. That is closer to the point of the story, yet we still aren’t quite exactly there yet.
The point of the story is the following: Thomas falls in love.
This should not be possible, he knows, for people do not fall in love with ghosts, for people do not fall in love with lacunas, with empty outlines of vanished men. Yet Thomas falls in love all the same. He falls in love with the man who used to be in his place, through videos and notes and discussions with his loved ones, and that is not an easy thing to do, to love a ghost whose body and life you snatched away unknowingly.
As seems obvious, Oliver has, for his part, bumped into Thomas just as Thomas bumped into him, and has thus also been transported to a new universe – Thomas’ universe. Oliver, however, does not fall in love with any ghost during his stay, be they of Thomas or otherwise.
Until, of course, they bump into each other again, for that is forever the destiny of soulmates – to bump and cross and just ever barely brush each other, over and over again until the grand finale where the universe finally lets them be reunited. Oliver goes out for a walk and bumps into someone, and suddenly becomes aware of another universe – his universe – coexisting right next to him. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Thomas. And so, Oliver is left to watch and try to figure out a way to communicate with Thomas – to reverse the swap, to get his life back, for Thomas has a quite an unpleasant one. And thus, he falls in love. Cue the pain, the longing and the heartache.
The story does not end there, yet there is no need to go further, for everything is said. It is romantic, far-fetched, and rife with plot-holes. It is however aiming to be cute, which almost automatically erases most of these flaws.
No, you say. No. No. No.
Your story, you say, is about loss and grief. For what is the lesson of love, except that we are more than we thought, for what is the value of anything, if not measured against what we would pay to keep it? Happy endings, you say, are for people too scared to ask how much their happiness is worth to them.
Your story does not have a happy ending.
Bitterness, they say, is not the epitome of literature that some think it to be. For what is the point of writing, is not to help escape a grimmer, duller reality, for what is the point of a story, if not to make you dream? Happy endings, they say, is hope. Happy endings, they say, are for people brave enough to make something beautiful out of desperate situations.
Are you sure you made the right choice?
Do you want yet another story?
Here is one last story. The story is metaphorical, which is always the best thing a last story can be.
The story is about us. Humans or ants, tiny little particles crawling across the surface of the Earth with no real purpose but our own volatile desires. The story is called idealism.
Idealism, funnily enough, is also the name of a branch of philosophy which argues that you can never be certain the rest of the world exist irrespective of the action you exert on it. For that is the limit of human consciousness – for that is the limit of any system of thought. Who is to say that you are not the one and only center of the universe? Who could prove, truly prove, that the world existed before you were born, that the world won’t collapse once you’re dead? Cogito ergo sum, or, in other words, the only thing I know for sure is that I exist.
The story goes like this: a man walks down the street and bumps into a girl. She is small, with colorful bracelets circling her wrist and a cast around her ankle. The man does not care, for she is not important to him, for he is master of the universe and has decided that she did not matter. He does not look when the girl falls, he does not listen when she cries out in pain. He is right, in a way. He is the only real person to ever have existed, and all the rest, the girl and her cast and the hard ground she fell on, and but mere shadows of a world created just for him, illusions and ghosts that don’t really exist outside his sphere of influence.
For if he hadn’t been there, walking down that street, bumping into that girl, who’s to say she would have existed at all?
At one point in the history of men, a wise one probably noted that the best way not to see or hear someone is to be so convinced of your own importance you stop looking for another point of view.
The story, as ever, goes like this: you bump into someone. The rest is up to you.