Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Good Stories

“Stories I love operate on three planes at once--the popcorn element that gives you that swept-away feeling; the propulsive engine that enables readers to experience a thrill and be satisfied at the end; a depth that prompts you to an understanding of the author’s intention.” (Words from Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

I fell for Mr. Percy’s insights upon first reading them. He seems to understand and admire the layers of fiction quite well. Let’s consider them.

First, Percy suggests that the stories he loves are those that carry him away. This is the treasured characteristic that others have called escape, the freedom to unlock the four walls that confine and step into uncharted territories invented and imagined by another. At first, the lay of the land confuses, disturbs, and perhaps, frightens, but persevering, readers understand the signs and signals. They know which way leads north, south, east and west. They’ve grown familiar with the local dialect and special vocabulary. They recognize the residents and recount the history of the place and its people. They live anew, refreshed, differently in this land invented by “…the magic of turning scratches on a page into words inside …[their] head[s]” (John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

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Second, Mr. Percy believes that good stories gather speed, perhaps like a roller coaster car that slowly clicks upward, pauses at the top of the arc as if taking a deep breath before plunging over and racing to an end to release enthusiasts back into their lives, relieved to have survived their brushes with danger on the curves, sated and prepared to step back into their routine. In other words, readers journey with authors, slowly at first as they learn to trust and understand each other, but stories that compel, that draw us onward, are those we don’t put down or if we must, put down reluctantly. We readers stay up past our bedtimes to read another page and look forward to an uninterrupted block of time in which to finish a book, hoping as we do that we will not be disappointed. 

We don’t want to find red herrings--those unexpected solutions to a mystery or thriller, the characters that have never been introduced. Equally disappointing is the tried and true, the cliché; e.g., the butler did it. We seek to be informed and delighted, prepared and surprised. Fine literature ties up loose threads and delivers, but sometimes, what we find in the end is still subject to multiple interpretations, a tad ambiguous.

The Giver by Lois Lowry is an excellent example of such ambiguity. Junior high and middle school students often wonder if the boy dies in the end, never reaching the better world that he seeks. Others assert that he surely finds that better place after all. Such ambiguity challenges readers to re-examine the evidence as the author presents it and infer from that evidence a truth, and this is key to Mr. Percy’s third characteristic: good stories are more than a series of events; good stories exist on at least two levels, the literal and the figurative.

Authors intend to show us some truth about the human experience through the specific, concrete people and actions he or she imagines. That truth emerges and engages readers who then “…discover that …[their] longings are universal longings, that …[they’re] not lonely and isolated from anyone. …[They] belong” (F. Scott Fitzgerald). They too have wondered about the many degrees of love explored by Shakespeare and Hosseini. They too have pondered the hatred and brutality portrayed by Conrad and Golding. They too have yearned for one other, for acceptance, and for understanding. They know, through reading, that they are not alone, that theirs are universal musings, experiences, and longings.

Good stories are all of these: stories carry us away, draw us onward, and fulfill us. Find them. Read them. Then write them.

Reading Challenge:

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Writing Challenge:

Identify each of Benjamin Percy’s good story traits in the title you are currently reading. Critique the story you’re reading using each of the three traits.