Monday, January 2, 2012

Is story important in a story?

If you're writing a story, the story is the only thing that matters.

I have an ongoing good-natured debate with many of my writing friends about what it is that makes a good story, and to me the answer's always been totally obvious, it's there in the question: the story.

But it seems most people have some other viewpoint, usually that it's characters that matter, sometimes description or dialog gets mentioned but it's generally a two horse race between story and character.

Well, I realized something after much contemplation of why someone would argue against the idea that a story is the most crucial aspect of writing a story. I realized that I think most people, when they're having this discussion with me, are probably thinking about what they like in a story.

And that is a wrong assumption, I think. If you're writing a story, the important thing isn't what you like in a story, but how best to go about writing a story. So: I've got a bunch of random thoughts that may illuminate.

Firstly: I'll stand firm on my opinion that story is the key thing about a story. Aside from the obvious intrinsic tautology. I think that as an audience member, I want there to be a good story in my entertainment, be it film, stage, book, campfire, or a friend telling me about a dream they had. Without a good story, any of these things becomes tedious very quickly.

My favorite example of what makes a story comes from, I believe, Hemingway, and I'm not even sure what prompted him to say it now (too lazy to research), but in answer to some question about the essence of a story, or perhaps tragedy in particular, he replied with this complete story: Used baby shoes for sale, never worn. --Well, that is a complete story, and frankly it's one that has stayed with me. It's not just technically a story, it's a good one.

So: to start with the minimal base case, there's a story –I'd argue a good one. What are the characters? Really there aren't any. So: good story, no characters.

Lemma 1: you can have a good story without characters.

...and I will admit a bias, as most of the stuff I write doesn't really have characters in either the classic sense or in the more ethereal sense of my current essay. I write stories about things and animals and processes...

On the other side of things, you can't really construct a story with characters that doesn't have elements of story in it. Because if you have somebody say something, or think something, those actions are in fact story, in at least a technical sense. So there's no real example possible of a story that is just character. However, in the more conversant/practical sense, consider Confederacy of Dunces. Just for example. Fact is: I don't end up reading a lot of character driven books, because they're horrible. I never finished Confederacy of Dunces. It was boring. Neat character though. Trouble was, the 'story' such as it was was mainly a guy walking around bouncing off of stuff. Boring. Not a good story. Or: there's the movie example I always throw out in discussions: 9½ Weeks. All characters, no story, bleh.

Lemma 2: you can't have a good story without a story.

That actually seems complete enough for me. Q.E.D.

But: There's that deeper issue that's entrenched in the debate and often goes unconsidered: that there's a difference between reading (or being in the audience), and writing/creating.

My opinion is founded on the way I work, so it might help to illustrate: My method/approach/process is to first come up with an idea, and then turn that into a story in my head, broadly. Then I sit down and start typing, and all along I follow my broad story, trying to get to each key structural component of the story. Along the way there are characters and settings and dialog and such, and I've been complimented on some of these in my writing. But to me, those are incidentals. i.e. they are there to help get the story to a plot point. If I need a certain character or setting, I put one in. For example: In my most recent novel, the viewpoint character was a cat, and around page ten I needed him to get through a door or something. So Mr. Allison was created: Building superintendent (so he could be there at any time I needed and have keys and such). Sure, he said stuff, and did stuff, and people have commented on him in various ways, but he wasn't key, he wasn't my focus, I had no investment in him and I put as little work into him as I could get away with while still having him do what I needed from him, to advance the story.

To rehash/paraphrase and point something out: even though all my focus was on the story, I ended up with a character for free. Not only that, but the character and his relation to the story was organic and flowing, because it was tightly coupled to the plot/story to begin with. No loose ends about things he said or thought, no problems with consistency of tone. Easy as could be. Because everything about him was the minimum required by the plot.

So what? Well, if you are a writer, this argues for concentrating on story, rather than character. Just from a practical point of view it's the most economical approach. And it leads to easier revisions. It's easier to fix issues of character after the fact. Usually changes are simple and localized. (i.e. you realize that something the character did wasn't necessary, so you cut it out.) As compared to changes to story at revisions, which can be monumental (not least because you have to make sure the characters/dialog are consistent with the change in story).

Then there's the issue of what it is a written story does. It's not a script for actors. There is no collaborating genius on stage/screen expressing the characters for you. Everything about the characters has to be generated in the reader's head (and that's a whole other essay). You as a writer have two broad approach to take to developing a character in your reader's mind. Elicit or describe. To demonstrate and try to persuade, here are a couple of examples:

To the amazement of everyone on board, Cindy heaved the pilot aside and took the controls. She untangled the headset from the corpse and wiped it on her leg, just to be safe, and then she keyed the mic on the stick and requested landing clearance.

* * *

Cindy was a plucky seven year old. She had blond braided hair and she usually wore farmer overalls. People thought of her as a tomboy, but really her style was driven by her inner obsessive compulsive nature, she wanted her hair kept in place, and the overalls were secure clothing that provided plenty of storage space, should it be needed. She had lived her entire life motivated by being prepared, and this had included playing flight simulators on her computer, just in case. And here she was, being proved right once again. "Out of my way, fellow travelers, I know what to do."

So there's a story centric bit and a character centric bit. One eliciting, one describing. Both from the same scenario. One is more effective, flowing, natural and good.

...and the fact is: going full out for describing a character is in fact a biography, not a story, but that's an aside really.

When describing a character, you always run the risk of conflicting with the character that has formed in your reader's imagination. Consider this extreme illustration:

Conjure up in your head the main character of the last book you read. Now: suppose I were the author and I now told you that that character only had one leg, was seven feet tall and drooled whenever they talked. Changes things doesn't it? In fact: I'll bet you're thinking: but that's not how the character is! --Exactly. Because I've just described something that doesn't jibe with the character as you have them in your head. It creates dissonance. So: if you're going to go for creating a character explicitly, you have to do it really well, because each new thing you add, you increase the risk of clashing with your reader's version. Better and easier to strive for the minimum you can get away with.

Another aspect of story vs. character that relates to your job as a writer is that the reader may be able to fill in the gaps regarding character traits, scene settings, object descriptions and so on, but they probably won't go a single step regarding the story on their own. They almost totally rely on you as the writer to guide them. How often have you read a story and thought to yourself that you knew what was coming next? Probably sometimes, and that's part of the fun, but the fact is that it is a rare and noteworthy event. And imagine if the writer just skipped over the next scene, since he figured you knew what was coming anyway... It shows that in general, you expect the writer to give you all of the story. I've gotten feedback on occasion that one of my characters isn't well enough described, and where the complaint is valid, I've remedied the situation by inserting a couple of lines of description. It infrequently happens, and when it does, it's trivial, in the writing sense, to address. On the other hand, on those occasions where a reader has gotten lost, lost the plot, so to speak, they usually don't really provide feedback even. Usually they'll just stop reading. It's a really big deal. It means I've totally failed in my job as a writer. I know I've written lots of things like this, where the story failed, and that's one of the big reasons that I focus so strongly on story, because if there's a story fail, you've alienated somebody, insulted them, and you get a black hole of feedback. To this day, fourteen books in, I still consider it the most important feedback, almost to the exclusion of everything else, if someone reads one of my books. The number of people (or rather the percentage) that finish reading one of my books is the key. My ultimate goal with writing is to reach a stage where people will pay to read my stories, but my immediate goal is to write a book that everybody I give it to reads it. --And here's the point of that little ramble: I've had lots of people put down one of my books because it was vague, confusing, dense, boring, or obscene, but I've never once had somebody stop because they felt that one of the characters was incomplete or less than compelling. So as a writer, I have to concentrate on story, because without a compelling story, the reader will never even see the characters, no matter how compelling.

And then there's a big lurking issue regarding wanting to write character-centric stories. Of course we love to be in the audience for a great character, but the truth is that as writers, we're generally solitary types who don't get out much. We probably don't have great characters in us to push on the reader. Odds are, my reader knows a more interesting Mr. Allison than I do, so if I insist on them seeing my version instead of theirs, I'm most likely going to lessen the interestingness of the character. Yes, maybe you know somebody really compelling, or you've created a really compelling character, more interesting than the one your reader knows. But statistically, you don't. You hardly know any interesting people. You're spending too much time writing.

And that's a good thing. If you're a writer, you're good at writing, at eliciting a reader's imagination, of leading them along on an adventure in their head. Do that. Tell them a story, the best way you can. And keep it in mind that you're doing what you do for them, not for yourself.

Dave DeHetre

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