I know, I know: most of what I write, here or elsewhere, would be considered rather “off-axis” by readers and writers with mainstream sensibilities. But I write first of all for myself. Consider it a purgative that doesn’t produce messes on the bathroom floor. And let us quickly leave that unfortunate metaphor, and proceed to the substance of today’s screed.
I have that old Howard Beale quote uppermost in mind just now:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’
My morning’s survey resulted in a “Future Columns” folder with twelve links in it, all of them marked “Must address this.” It had been empty before I started to go through my news and op-ed sources. The collection was composed entirely of stories that had me aflame with righteous fury. If one of your loved ones has an Irish temper, you really don’t want him to encounter the number of incitements to rage that I experienced so far this morning. Trust me on that.
One story was about the “disaster” some clown foretells from the threatened government shutdown. His main concern was for the LGBTQ crowd and its “rights.” With that to top off the slag heap, I was barely able not to scream:
I’m not sure how I managed to refrain.
So I’ve decided to write a little about storytelling.
The imperatives of storytelling are uniform across all media. Whether you’re producing a short story, a novel, a screenplay, a poem, a movie, or some other form of narrative, you must obey the same commandments:
- Give the audience what it wants;
- Don’t waste its time or effort.
Fairly simple stuff, really. Yet a lot of would-be storytellers never quite get it. Some are led astray by their admiration for something some other writer has said, or has done. Some fixate on an aspect of technique that should remain subordinate to the telling of the story. Some are unable to give their chosen tale the right pacing, or the right emphasis, or the right collection of characters through whom to tell it. In this as in other complicated undertakings, there are many ways of failing to honor the two commandments enumerated above.
The commandments should evoke questions:
- What does the audience want?
- What would waste its time or effort?
Today I’d like to focus on the first of those questions, because I think once it’s been answered, the answers to the second one will become utterly plain.
There’s an old movie – it was released in 1971 – that provides a striking example of “what the audience wants.” Its plot is pretty simple, really. The viewpoint character is a teenage boy on a resort island during the summer of a year of the Second World War. As is the case with many teenage boys, he’s anxious to taste the pleasures of the flesh. In this quest he comes in contact with a slightly older woman, whom he tries somewhat clumsily to impress. (Hey, he is a teenager.) Late in the movie, after the protagonist has had some awkward experiences with a girl his age, the woman receives word from the Army that her husband has been killed in battle. She turns to the teenage protagonist for what Robert A. Heinlein called “the only way to console a widow.” Shortly thereafter, the woman leaves the island for home; the teenager will never see her again.
It’s not an exalted movie, really. It’s told in fits and starts. Some of the dialogue rings strangely in a contemporary ear. The music, while catchy, is a bit syrupy. And the scenery on the island is beautiful enough to be distracting, though I doubt any filmmaker would prefer boring or ugly scenery for his story’s backdrop. But it gives the audience what it wants, in quantity. Stanley Kubrick, himself no slouch at storytelling, called it one of his favorites.
The audience wants an emotional journey: people going through changes that affect them deeply. All else is either technique or irrelevancy.
If the story you plan to tell can evoke the reader/viewer’s emotions, and if you can “stay out of the way” in telling it, it will work. It will give the audience what it wants. That’s no guarantee, of course, that your audience will be large. I’m the opposite of a promotion and marketing expert, as my circulation figures testify rather loudly. But I know stories.
Yes, there are traps and pitfalls. Yes, it’s possible to be overly dramatic, or overly maudlin. Some narrative techniques are unsuitable to some stories. Some writers indulge in stylistic arabesques that distract the reader from the story being told. But these are consequences of inappropriate (or inappropriately applied) technique. They proceed from how the story is told. The proof is in this: There are only three basic stories. All of them are about what makes a person change:
- He can change as a result of introspection;
- He can change because of an interaction with others;
- He can change because of a challenge presented by his world, whether or not he meets it successfully.
The story told by the movie I described above is of the second variety. Writers discussing the storyteller’s art sometimes call it the Boy Meets Girl story. And though stories of its kind have been told innumerable times, it remains as fresh as the sunrise.
Excuse me? What was the movie I was talking about above? It’s Summer of ’42, starring Gary Grimes and Jennifer O’Neill. It’s available on DVD, and from Amazon Prime as a rental. And if I ever write something half as affecting and memorable, I’ll call myself a writer.