This is an article that talks about the power of story and attempts to define story. The power of story, and how story can even save your life, happens to be one of my favorite topics. I think stories may even be capable of saving the world.
Stories shape our lives. If you are involved in writing a story about something that happened to you, you give it a beginning, middle and end. You make sense of that event and that gives you life meaning. It also gives you knowledge, the ability to take the next step instead of floundering in the dark, the way people who don’t make up stories are doomed to do.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes on writing. It’s from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, which also is one of my favorites on writing. “But take hope for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural, on the borderline with telepathy. Just think: We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended….As writers we travel to other worlds not as mere daydreamers, but as shamans with the magic power to bottle up those worlds and bring them back in the form of stories for other to share. Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.”
Bear this quote in mind the next time you stop to ponder if story—if what you create every time you sit down at the computer—matters. It’s so important for us to tell our stories, to be the chroniclers of what we see. Remember that someone must shape events to give them meaning, and that task falls to us as writers.
After September 11th, I, like so many others despaired. And that despair encompassed my writing. What value could writing possibly have in the face of such evil? What use was it to create something so intangible as a story, when firemen and police officers risked their lives to save others? I thought and thought about this and finally remembered what my charge as a writer is: to chronicle what I see and feel and hope that I can touch, and possible help, someone who is thinking the same thing. Validation for this came from the fact that the essay I wrote out of this despair was consequently published in a national magazine.
One of my other favorite authors on writing is Robert McKee, whose book called, simply, Story, was immortalized in the movie Adaptation. I have to admit I’ve never gotten all the way through his book—its nearly 500 pages long, full of dense prose, but I’ve read excerpts of it and I’ve gone back to what he says in the first chapter over and over again when my own inspiration flags. Here’s what McKee has to say on story:
“Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life? But the answer eludes us, hiding behind a blur of racing hours as we struggle to fit our means to our dreams, fuse idea with passion, turn desire into reality. We’re swept along on a risk-ridden shuttle through time. If we pull back to grasp pattern and meaning, life, like a Gestalt, does flips: first serious, then comic; static, frantic; meaningful, meaningless. Momentous world events are beyond our control, while personal events, despite all effort to keep our hands on the wheel, more often than not control us.
“Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s question from the four wisdoms—philosophy, science, religion, art—taking insight from each to blot together a livable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in the traditional ideology diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.”
McKee goes onto talk about our enormous appetite for story in all its forms, TV, movies, novels, memoirs, advertising and says that because of this vast appetite the story arts have become the world’s primary source of inspiration. His comments then degenerate into a rant on dishonest storytelling (James Frey probably should have read his book) and says that when society is awash in shallow, untrue stories, it degenerates. He quotes Yeats, saying, “The center cannot hold.”
I hope that McKee’s comments energize rather than depress you. I think they will when put in the context of another book I recently read, in which the author avows: “The MFA is the new MBA.” My friend Mary-Suzanne got me to read the book just by uttering that sentence from it. Daniel Pink devotes a whole chapter to the importance of story in his book titled A Whole New Mind. His thesis is that it’s a whole new world and this world will be dominated by right-brainers instead of left-brainers, as has traditionally been the case.
He cites the three “As” as harbingers for this shift: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. In a world where we have abundant choices, it’s no longer enough to offer a serviceable product. That serviceable product will compete with many others, and as such, it must either feature a better design or be marketed via a story. Pink says it’s useless to wring our hands over outsourcing to Asia and replacing of jobs with automation. Instead, he says, “We must perform work that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that computers can’t perform faster, and that satisfies the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual demands of a prosperous time.” Pink presents six aptitudes that will be essential in this new era: Design, symphony, empathy, play, meaning and…..story. Pink has a whole section titled “The Story Business” in which he not only profiles Robert McKee but calculates that story is worth about a trillion dollars a year to the US economy. (This is based on his calculation that persuasion in the forms of advertising, counseling consulting, etc., accounts for 25 percent of the gross national product. If story is an element of at least half those efforts, than you get the one trillion figure)
He talks about how organizations are now hiring people to chart the storytelling culture of their businesses and cites other examples to buttress his argument that storytellers are the new MBAers. Of course, all of us know the value of story of we wouldn’t be sitting here trying to figure out how to write them. So now that we’ve taken a look at the overall theory of story and its importance in our modern world, let’s get down to defining them. Which, like all things related to story, is more difficult than it would seem. We can start by defining them by word count.
The science fiction and mystery writer Kate Wilhelm, who has written a fine book on writing titled, Storyteller, says that in the genres, short stories can’t top out any longer than 7500 words, but I’ve read others who say stories can go as high as 10,000 words (which greatly relieves me as my stories tend to be long which is why I prefer writing novels). Wilhelm also says that a novelette is between 7500 words to 15,000, a novella from 15,000 to 40,000 and a novel is 40,000 words and up. The standard word per page count has always been 250 words per page. These days, with different fonts and typefaces, it’s all over, but if we use that standard we can get some approximate page counts.
Assuming the short story is in the 7500 to 10000 word range, that puts as at the 30 to 40 page range for the maximum length of a short story and that sounds about right to me. But beyond length are there any other qualities that define a story? You could write a character sketch 30 pages long, or an extended anecdote and it still wouldn’t be a story. The definition of story may ultimately be similar to the famous old saw about art: I don’t exactly what it is but I know it when I see it. You know it in your gut, right?
We could actually sit around and debate this all afternoon, so here’s a couple definitions for you to chew on while we move on. Research on the internet netted me this one from someone named Alex Keegan: “It is something that can be read in one sitting and brings a singular illumination to the reader, sudden and golden like sunlight cracking through heavy cloud.” Katrina Kenison, who has edited the Best American Short Story series for years, says the guiding light by which she did her work was the following, defined by an editor named Martha Foley many years ago: “A good story is a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling he has undergone a memorable experience.” Wilhelm defines a short story thusly: “A successful short story is a marvel of compression, nuance, inference and suggestion. If a novel invites one to enter another world, the short story invites one to peer through a peephole into the world, and yet the world has to have the same reality as in a novel. It is truly the universe in a grain of sand.”
Perhaps we can start to come up with some elements of a short story. Keegan says a story illuminates one facet of human nature. A character undergoes some event and experiences something which offers him change. I think “offers” the chance to change is a key word here—because in a short story, your character might not change, but he must be given the opportunity to do so. Rust Hills, who was the editor at Esquire for years and has written a book on short story writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular talks of “the loss of the last chance to change” and whether or not a character accepts that chance or declines it. Hills says a character must change in some way over the course of a story, even if that change is subtle. A character can be presented with an opportunity to change and not take it—and the reader understands that this will be his last chance. By not choosing, he is choosing.
No redundancies, no flashbacks, no applying novelistic techniques to the short story. A story must have a moment of truth—or what Rust Hills calls the last chance to change. Something important must be at stake for the characters, there must be moment of truth, and someone has to react to it. This is the difference between an anecdote or a character sketch and short story—it has that moment of truth.
Of course, whether you are going to write a short story or a novel, you have to know how to tell a story, which is the underlying theme of this essay. And whether you are creating a big world for a novel or a little world for a short story, there are some basic tools you can use to help you create those worlds.
First is the story question, the all-important question that guides the entire story or novel or screenplay. What is it that the protagonist wants so badly that she will risk everything to get? This is your north star. After writing my first novel, which I’m still writing, and struggling with issues of structure and an unclear story question, I vowed never, ever to write a novel or a short story without a clear and compelling story question. My most recent novel had one, and any time I got lost in the plotting or the storytelling all I had to do was return to it and I could easily get myself back on track.
Here’s a simple way to design a story question: A LIKEABLE CHARACTER overcomes INSUPERABLE ODDS and BY HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHWHILE GOAL.
Another way to think about it is: Will (protagonist) (verb) despite the efforts of the antagonist? Note the simple idea that this means the character must want something. We all know what the most important element of a story is, right? Conflict. There’s no story without conflict. How do you create conflict? By having your character want something and not allowing him to get it. That simple, that complicated. It’s at the heart of every great story and the more conflict you can give a character, the better. The late Kurt Vonnegut said, “Have you characters want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.”
How many of you have had the experience of being deeply touched by a piece of writing? I’d venture to guess all of you, or you wouldn’t desire to be a writer yourself. Think of how that emotional moment changed you, if even for a minute. What a powerful, wonderful thing the written word is and how damned lucky we are to worship at its gates. Next time you are sitting at your computer and the words refuse to come, remember this and be grateful that you are a writer. And furthermore, remember that the very act of writing is not only saving a life (perhaps your very own!) but it is also actively saving the world.