A Story for Every Day

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I once had the privilege of knowing an artist. Sculpture was his primary expertise, though he made wonderful drawing and paintings as well. He took me to an art gallery once, and I of course wanted to know his opinions on all of the various pieces. He was quite resistant to divulging that, though, simply stating that if I liked a piece that was reason enough to call it good.

He did at least explain to me one piece of criteria he used when evaluating a piece, though, and I was struck by what he said. He explained that he would never buy a work of art on the same day that he met it. Rather he would remember it, and then wait until he had a truly joyful day. He would come to look at it again in that mood and see if it still spoke to him as strongly as before. Still he wouldn’t buy it though, now he would wait until he had a truly heartbreaking day, then he would come to look at it again and see how he felt about it then. He explained that if something was going to be in his house, it needed to be a work that could speak to him at all times.

With that I understood why he didn’t want to influence my opinion on any individual piece. In the end all that mattered was whether it spoke to me or not, and whether it resonated with all parts of me, or only during one particular mood.

I’m sure you have heard the saying “this too shall pass.” This quote is attributed to a time when a monarch commissioned his wise men to give him a quote that would both cheer him when he was sad and give him pause when he was joyful. “This too shall pass” was the result of their combined wisdom. A saying that has not one meaning, but many.

Some of my favorite stories are ones I appreciate because of how they are able to speak to me at any point in life. Although I also appreciate how I have been able to find meaning in books that once I disregarded. But what is it that makes a story timeless? How do you write a tale so that it can fit to every mood and every day? Well, there’s a few different approaches that seem to work well.

 

Speak to Many)

The first approach is simply to broaden the audience you are speaking to. Caution has to be exercised here, though, making a story too broad can also make it meaningless. A story that tries to be all things to all people tends to be too unfocused to have special meaning to anyone.

But consider how A Christmas Carol works to make Ebenezer Scrooge as relatable of a character as possible. It uses flashbacks to extend its story over the entire duration of a man’s life. So many moments are captured that almost any male will be able to connect with the experience at one point or another. We have the youthful version that has no friends, the young man who has no money, the driven man who has conflicting interests, the old man who is full of regrets. Wherever you happen to be in your own life arc there is an Ebenezer Scrooge for you.

I certainly have returned to this story multiple times and often find it is different scenes that speak to me most each time. For an added bonus, this approach also has the benefit of making Scrooge a more interesting and rounded character, one full of nuance and development.

 

Emotional Paradoxes)

Another approach is to write in a way that evokes two emotions at the same time, a phenomenon that arrests a reader’s attention and prompts deep introspection. A slight variation of this is to evoke the two emotions so closely to one another that the first is not forgotten before the second begins. To accomplish this one must realize that an emotionally charged scene creates an aura that lasts longer than the scene itself. When George Bailey desperately pleads for a second chance at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, the shadow of his intense remorse still lingers even after he receives his wish in a moment of triumphant joy.

This enables the viewer to be feeling both emotions in the same moment, which disparity both confuses and fascinates the mind. If those two scenes had been separated so that they were experienced independently, then they still might have been moving but they would not have been timeless.

When our mind recognizes that we are receiving conflicting emotions it processes how this came to be. It looks for a meaning behind it all. For example, in this particular case one might conclude that because the happiness immediately followed the sorrow means that the former caused the latter. George Bailey was in a bind, and was only able to be happy because he was willing to first be sad, healed because he allowed himself to be broken. That learning experience makes the moment stick. Every time we see it the mind will remember the previous process, and either reaffirm the conclusions or else produce another interpretation.

 

Captivate the Imagination)

The last approach is to ask the reader to supply their own meaning. This is not to suggest that one should make a plot intentionally obtuse, but rather it is an acknowledgement that sometimes stories deal with elements that defy our human languages to fully express. Rather than try to find the right words, the author instead tries to find a way to replicate the right feelings. The reader will only be able to find closure by experiencing the story and then giving their own silent interpretations to it.

Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is an excellent example of this sort of tale. In this book a man wakes up in bed, reminisces on his life situation, and presently comes to discover that he has transformed into huge insect! A very strange plot follows, detailing the way he deals with this embarrassing turn of events, the burden he becomes on his family, and the tragic demise that eventually befalls him.

As bizarre as the story may be, one cannot shake the sense that it isn’t simply weird for the sake of being weird. There seems to be some sort of purpose behind it, some allegory or moral to be revealed. In some ways these sorts of stories feels like reading through a dream, and people have long believed that special meaning can be found in their night visions.

 

With my next blog post I’d like to try my hand at writing a memorable story, and I’d like to try to approach it with the third of the methods I’ve mentioned here. I want to write something that feels different and even dream-like. Something that is based off of a sense or a feeling that I do not know the words to express, but which emotion I hope to recreate in the reader. If I succeed, then we will be able to mull these inexpressible things together, and maybe some good will be able to come of that. Come back Thursday to see how it turns out.

Raising the Stakes

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Quality over Quantity)

There is a common misconception in storywriting where the more lives that hang in the balance the more important the story is. The classic scenario is a sequel that has to up the ante from the tale that came before, and does so by just expanding the region of impending destruction. First a village is being threatened, then a nation, finally the entire world. I’ve mentioned this trend in a prior post.

Now there’s nothing wrong in a sweeping epic with massive armies clashing into one another and the fate of the entire world on the line. Writers just need to be sure that they aren’t falling for tired clichés, or trying to use “epicness” to compensate for an otherwise weak narrative. If the entire world is at risk it should only be because that is what is needed for the story to work.

The other thing writers need to be aware of when setting their sights so high is that this may not actually be the most effective method of getting your reader to care about your story. Quite frankly you don’t need genocide to give a story weight, you only need to threaten a single character that you have made me care about. That’s the key to truly giving your stories meaningful stakes: quality over quantity.

 

Examples)

Interestingly, this notion has been wonderfully illustrated in a comic-book movie of all things. In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the main protagonist is mortally wounded and Liz journeys to the Angel of Death to save him. There she is cautioned that his survival will ultimately doom all of humanity, to which she replies she doesn’t care, she just wants him restored. In real life this would be a choice of immense selfishness, but in the context of the story we, like Liz, care far more for the individual we know than the countless ones we don’t. To us the characters we have met and interacted with are actual persons and all the masses are nothing more than set dressing.

Consider also the deeply moving mistreatment of Tom Robinson, Jem, and Scout in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of these characters is menaced by a common foe in Bob Ewell. Though the entire story takes place in a sleepy, little town with only a few lives hanging in the balance, we feel greatly affected nonetheless. Not in spite of its quiet, low-scale realism, but because of it. We feel incensed at the prejudice shown against Tom Robinson because we know such injustices really do happen. We are terrified by Jem and Scout being attacked on the road from school because that is a very real fear for all with children.

And the tension is all the higher because of the close intimacy of the villain to his victims. Were Bob Ewell a war-mongering tyrant sweeping through the land with countless soldiers he would have been far less unnerving. There is something chilling about the frankness of a solitary drunk staggering through the woods at night.

Even when writing a story that is larger than life, you still need strong, individual characters that the reader cares deeply about. The bigger action will only be affecting insofar as it applies to those individuals you care for. Consider the film Patton, which features an epic scene where the general fields tens of thousands of men and machinery are against another army in vicious battle. This scene only lands because it has been preceded by one of Patton standing alone in the street, wielding a handgun against a swooping fighter jet. We care for the man’s commitment, foolish as it may be, and it is that which leads us to care about his triumph in the greater war.

 

Implementations)

In each of my stories during this last series I have tried to focus primarily on the small and intimate relationships over the large and abstract. Let us consider the ways I implemented smallness into the bigger picture.

With the Beast had a very limited cast of only five individuals. And one of those individuals, the reader, is an invisible observer of the other four. Essential to working with a small cast is that each must have a very distinct voice. John was the voice of wisdom and stability, William was drive and ambition, Clara was innocence and naiveté, Eleanor was compassion and concern. The very first thing I did upon introducing these characters was to illustrate these fundamental differences. If readers are going to connect with your core characters they have to understand them, and the more distinct those characters are the faster that understanding will be established.

The Heart of Something Wild also featured only a few core characters, but additionally an entire tribe stood in the background. Here I found myself in an interesting situation where I needed the audience to care about that tribe, but at the same time keep my work within the short story format. I didn’t have enough time to really bring the community to life for the reader, and so I used a compromise. I instead tried to earn the audience’s affection for the main character, Khalil, and then asked them to inherit his concern for the tribe. Whenever a reader makes a connection with a character, they will naturally come to care for the things that that character cares for, just as with Patton and his war.

In Glimmer I have had the same conundrum repeat itself. Reylim has come to Nocterra to ignite it and allow for countless generations to live their lives, and so the fate of the entire world really is hanging in the balance. I knew that it would be impossible to quantify the weight of that, so instead I chose to focus on individuals. I even explicitly state that the mission here is not about the world, it is about Reylim’s personal growth and development. I only ask the reader to invest in Reylim, with the understanding that the fate of the world will simply be a byproduct of her own development.

In just this last section I finally allowed Reylim and the reader to witness the lives that she was fighting for. I knew I didn’t want to do this with a meaningless montage of the masses, though, so again I limited myself, this time with a sample of three intertwined souls. Their story was meant to be a representation of all the rest of humanity, and as such incorporated timeless themes of love, jealousy, regret, atonement, and closure. In this way the focus of my story remained personal and intimate, but also made the whole world matter more.

 

It seems that people are excellent at extrapolating the masses from a small selection. Usually when we see a group of people all we see is a group, but when we see a single individual we see a representation of all mankind.

So if you want the reader to care about the bigger picture, all you need to do is extract from those masses a smaller representation of characters and make the audience care for them instead. And if you don’t have a bigger picture, don’t worry about it. It may make for a more exciting movie trailer to see huge armies pouring into one another’s ranks, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better story. There can still be a sense of epic importance in the struggle of an individual soul. Indeed, I would argue such stories are usually far more weighty than those about the thousands.

On Thursday I will post the fourth segment to the Glimmer story, and in it I intend to make the action firmly focused on Reylim and her own personal journey. I’ll see you there.