*Research in progress.
Lately I’ve been having–or, rather, subjecting other people to–conversations about how to make stories that are better than well-crafted. I’m at this weird point where I acknowledge that becoming better at my craft is going to be a lifelong project…but there’s something more out there to writing than just craft.
The first part of this realization came with understanding that writing isn’t just about the story that’s on the page; it’s about what happens in the readers’ heads. For me, this came in the form of doing research about con artists, brainwashing, cults, etc., and realizing that a lot of what these people do to cheat and bamboozle their victims is what I’m trying to do as a writer: create a lie so plausible that the person will fight their own best interests to defend it.
Granted, the most a writer’s probably going to do to you is keep you up all night when you have to go to work in the morning. But still. There are writers that I will drop hardcover money on a preorder, no questions asked. Who wouldn’t want that kind of irrational loyalty?
It’s something more than the run-of-the-mill reaction to a decent book: “Oh, that was good.” Reader sets book aside, moves to next book on TBR list.
Some writers get to jump a reader’s TBR list.
And, above that, what makes a story endure over time, across cultures?
Here’s what I’ve been putting together lately on the subject:
- There are classics in every genre, in every art form. (Lee mentioned classic cars. Yes, of course cars are an art form. Huh.)
- Not everyone likes every classic that they’ve been exposed to.
- The work that wins awards isn’t necessarily the work that endures (which might be why there are such things as lifetime achievement awards).
- The difference between a classic and a cult classic is hard for me to define. It seems like classics were popular on release (or reasonably so), while a cult classic overcame obscurity. I saw a definition online that was something like, “a classic is loved by a large number of people, while a cult classic is loved by a large number of people in a narrow field.” …and maybe that’s a better definition. Not sure yet.
- Tons of stories have been based off Joseph Campbell. And aren’t classics.
- Not everything that’s a classic is based off Joseph Campbell. It might be that Joseph Campbell supporters accrete all other stories and backsplain them into being based off Joseph Campbell.
- Classics don’t just happen because they’re pushed by the gatekeepers: think of all the movies that sank despite huge advertising budgets.
- The biggest driver of sales–at least, in the back streets of indie promotion upon which I often lurk–is word-of-mouth. Not advertising, not promotions, not sales, not contests. These things are all damage multpliers to word of mouth. One form of this thinking is the “1000 true fans” idea.
So far, all of that is mostly about what a classic is not. It is not a specific type of story, told according to a specific type of formula. It is not bought and paid for; there is something intrinsic to the story itself–but it doesn’t hit every single person the same way, and that’s okay. (Universal emotions not required.) A story can be disliked by some people and still be a classic.
But what are the traits of a classic, then?
- The story has to be reasonably technically proficient, although it does not need to be above-average in every respect. There are lots of problems with, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And yet it is a classic.
- The story has to affect your emotions and engage your mind to the extent that you suspend disbelief. This is harder than it sounds. For me, most published stories–good, competent stories–don’t do both, or, often, either.
- The story spreads via word of mouth.
- The story has to stick with you. It’s can’t be just Well, that was good. It has to endure.
- The story itself–or a quote or scene from it–becomes shorthand for expressing some emotion or concept.
- Annnnnd probably a bunch of other points that I haven’t considered yet.
Between The Avengers and Firefly, I’m going to say that The Avengers is a good movie, but it’s Firefly that’s the classic. It’s a hair of difference–they’re both technically very good, and I would say that some of the scenes in The Avengers are more technically proficient as writing than anything in Firefly (the fight scene over Loki that Cap has to break up). Both engaged the emotions and suspended disbelief for a large number of people, me included.
But it’s Firefly that’s the more memorable, and that has entered the language. Browncoat. Firefly invented a new word. It might not be around forever, and it’s not much more than “A fan of Firefly, tending toward some fairly anti-establishment views,” but it’s a new word. And the only thing keeping Firefly off the air was that word of mouth took time that Fox didn’t want to give it. It’s to the point where you are mocked at writers’ conferences if you can’t discuss story elements via Firefly, although I would argue that The Avengers makes a more useful example most of the time.
You can control for making a story technically proficient.
Can you do anything about the other points?
I think you can. Some writers write one classic and that’s it (they may write many very good things, too, just not classics), but others can hit it over and over, even if they don’t hit it every time. Stephen King: there’s a reason he’s popular, and it isn’t because the publishers promote him. (Granted, some of his books carry the weaker ones.)
Is there a science to it? Probably not–and yet there are probably some principles.
For one: probably a story with integrity is more likely to become a classic than a story that is merely technically proficient. That is, a story in which all the elements are used in harmony with each other, as required to handle the story: the plot matches the characters matches the language matches the conflicts matches the themes. The example that pops into my mind here is Little, Big. But that’s kind of obscure, so…Dumb and Dumber. The plot is stupid. The characters are stupid. The themes are stupid. The jokes are stupid. There isn’t an element of that movie that isn’t stupid…except for the technical proficiency that went into every element of making that movie as stupid as it was. I busted a gut. Their dog van…
Compare that to The Mask, which was a good movie made in the same year, but not one to endure the generations. (Yes, 1994. It’s an entire generation.)
I’m pretty sure integrity is going to be important (even though, at the moment, it’s almost always beyond my deliberate control).
But the element that I’ve been working on the most lately is memorability. Memorable scenes, memorable characters, etc. Right now this is a laborious process. I write something, then I go, “Was that memorable,” take the most memorable elements, and rewrite it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Does this mean I understand what my readers will remember?
Nope. I’m just barely getting to the point where I get what I’ll remember.
It’s frustrating. Ego-busting.
I used to be able to get away with a single pass, when I was shooting for technical proficiency–sure, I had to clean things up, but I didn’t have to tear things out two or three or four times to get even start getting close to what I wanted. I hope this phase doesn’t last forever; it’s annoying. But…it seems to be working. The stories that I do this on sell faster, anyway, and I can tell stories apart without having to go back and check on them. The earlier stories where I did this accidentally are the ones that I still like, even though I can see flaws all over the place.
No idea, yet.
I have a long way to go, and, honestly, every time I touch on this I feel like an arrogant idiot for pretending that I know, or can reasonably guess anything, but it keeps coming up: How do I sell more stories? How do I get them to hang around longer? How do I build a fanbase? If I kind of get how each element of a story works and can write it more or less competently, what is the next thing?
Right now? Memorable.
I’m putting together a list of resources related to this topic (and post-craftsmanship topics in general). I haven’t gone through all of it, mind you.
Here’s what it looks like so far:
- Story, by Robert McKee
- Plotto, by William Wallace Cook
- Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman
- Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, by David Farland
- Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
- Story, by Robert McKee
- Tales from the Perilous Realm, JRR Tolkein
- The Writing Excuses Podcast
- The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
- The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us
- Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions
- The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
If you can think of more that I should add, please let me know!