e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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About books: Story

As time permits, over the next few (durations not specified) I'll be posting some thoughts on Story, some ideas on what makes books "good" or "bad" in various ways, some thoughts on the craft of writing outside of Story, and how writers can use both good and bad writing to improve their own. 

Well over 2000 years ago, Aristotle set down his observations about effective storytelling in the Poetics.  When I first read it, in college back in the '60s,  I had already written a lot of poetry and fiction.  Not very good poetry and fiction.  So although it was assigned to our class for other reasons, I read it from the viewpoint of the aspiring writer.  At the same time, in Greek class, we were reading the great Greek works--Homer, of course, and Sophocles, and I made (not very effectual) stabs at Euripedes (whose Bacchae I loved in translation) and Pindar.  Later, when someone told me about the "skeleton plot," I recognized it as Aristotle's observations on successful story-telling, updated. 

Aristotle noticed that the audience responded best to certain elements in plays--interesting, compelling characters (royalty, he said--but now we find others interesting too) who had a flaw that interfered with their ability to deal with the problem facing them....in tragedies, the flaw caused the catastrophe, working out from character through logical consequences in the plot, and in anti-tragedies, the flaw was overcome with a resulting "eucatastrophe."   Whichever ending, tragic or triumphant,  had to feel "right"--had to evoke, in the audience,  the awe of justice done, and the pity (for tragedies) or  joy (for triumphs) appropriate to the climax.  That release of pity and awe, he thought, was the great gift that a perfectly told story could give.

In modern terms--an interesting but imperfect character is faced with a problem and eventually (but after reverses, all of which must "fit") either overcomes the difficulty through his/her own efforts, or is "sunk" by his/her own incapacity, his/her own "fatal flaw."   Aristotle also recommended a "unity of place and time"--this imposed by the nature of theater, because audiences will start chatting to each other out of boredom if you try to cram too many changes of time and place into the same performance (though Shakespeare showed it could be done...)   In modern storytelling terms,  this means starting where the story starts, and getting right into it--not dragging a reader/listener through a long drawn-out introduction.

Remember--Aristotle did not spin a literary theory out of his own imagination, the way Plato did for The Republic.   He was an observer; he collected data.  What he saw was that one way of telling a story worked for the audience--and others didn't, or not so well.    Modern research in neurology, backed up by clinical observation, is that humans are hard-wired in a way that makes classical story-telling work across age groups, cultures, languages.  Some cultures like tragedies--the hero (and maybe everyone else) dies.  Some like happy endings--the hero always comes out alive and saves the day.  Some like a mix.  Some like the problem (whatever it is) to be permanently solved, destroyed, gone forever.  Some like to leave menace in the finale--maybe the hero got away *this* time,  but the monster is still in the woods, so you children be careful.  But the basics--one or more characters readers/listeners want to find out about, a problem that must be engaged,  the struggle (successful or unsuccessful) to do that, using the character's own strengths and weaknesses, and an ending that feels "right" in terms of the character, the size of the problem, etc.--are part of what makes us human.

So when I'm talking about the essentials of Story, this is what I mean: without character, without plot, without a problem, without  the motivational glue that holds them together...you don't have a Story.  You may have an anecdote, or a character study, or a problem in search of character and plot--but not a Story.

Other literary virtues exist, and are important in creating a written Story...but none of them are sufficient without the essentials.   Vocabulary, spelling, grammar, syntax, prosody, pragmatics, metaphor, all the rest--excellent tools to have in your toolbox, but by themselves are heaps of words, not Story. 

Tags: writing

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