So everyone has a few books, movies–stories–from childhood that don’t bear examination. My childhood went on longer than most in that respect (and is still going on), and so I’m going to use the first Dragonlance series as my example here, which I didn’t read until early college. I was an English major, and was being thoroughly trained to think I should have known better.
Than to read them, than to like them.
I ate them up in huge gulps.
Recently I went back to reread them. It was a hard thing, because they didn’t catch me up and pull me in the way they used to. They were no longer perfect books. I saw them in a harsher light than I ever had back in college, under the thumbs of people who were trying to instill a love of complexity and richness in words in me.
They still had something, though.
Character–they still had character. And plot. That great big arc of plot. I reread them and enjoyed them and cursed them for trying to tell an eight-book story in three books (they later went back and filled in more than eight books in side trilogies–which I never read). They stuck with me in a way that other, supposedly better books never did. The Dragonlance books had something that stayed with me, year after year, change after change.
They were still good books. I remembered almost everything in them, twenty years later. I remember them better than I remember most of the people I met in college, and most of the things I did. And that is saying something: more real than real.
But the person who had made them into perfect books was me.
I filled in the gaps. I wanted so hard to believe that I repaired all flaws, added all omissions, and elevated what was slapdash. I didn’t just suspend disbelief but roll up my sleeves and get to work. They left me a lot of heavy lifting to do, and I did it with a will.
The more I learn as a writer, the more tolerant I become of problems in books. Some things are still hard to swallow. I still feel a clench in the gut when I pick up something I know well, and it falls apart upon examination, when I realize just how much of what made that book wonderful was my imagination smoothing over the gaps in what a writer actually put on the page. But I forgive most of it.
There is something there that lasts beyond my analysis, beyond any conscious judgement of plot or character or description or pace.
I’m a writer. And I’ve loved reading as far back as I can remember. I spend a lot of time just listening to people, figuring out how to push their buttons so they will open up and tell me stories.
But what is story?
I’ve been familiar with story all these years, and yet when I try to look straight at it–the better I get at writing, the more I realize that I can’t see it that way.
Story is when you can relive a book twenty years later. Story is when you quote movies in a conversation. Story is when a falsehood comes up in conversation and you burst out laughing because you read a book that skewered that particular lie so thoroughly that you’ll never be taken in by it again. Story is something that lives in you after the book or movie or whatever is gone.
I believe is story. Fanfic is story (like Looney Toons parodying Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath). Wanting to escape your real world and live there is story. Story is a t-shirt, a meme on the Internet.
Not plot, not something you can get at consciously. Something for which you will do whatever heavy lifting is necessary.
Where am I even getting with this?
Maybe, as kids, we were wiser than we knew. I’m comfortable with that statement. Or: Writing classes didn’t teach me much about story. Literature classes, okay, some of them did, but not the writing classes. Also a comfortable statement. How about, “When working on writing a good book, maybe there’s more to it than you can really analyze.” Also okay.
But–there’s also this uncomfortable feeling that goes with this.
Story rides in your subconscious first.
This means I may never be able to consciously control a story. It’s so deep that I can’t get at it. Maybe I can dig out my channels so that story can flow out unimpeded, but all the analysis in the world won’t give me story. Faith might give me a good story. Practice. But not analysis.
I don’t like that.
And yet – some writers find out how to do it consistently. Some writers have a book or two that you remember. One series maybe. But some writers do it over and over and over. They have hits and misses – and yet. Story in every one of them.
I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. But it feels like those are the ones who also don’t leave a lot of heavy lifting for the reader, either. Well-crafted books don’t necessarily make for a good story, and a good story doesn’t necessarily have to reside inside a well-crafted book…but for consistency, it seems like having both is the way to go.