People like a good story. I find that this often leads to embellishment and distortion, which to be fair, is not always a bad thing. But that aside… what makes a good story? I spend hours of every week working this out with literature students [and then there is of course, the illustrious book group.] Here is what I have worked out so far:
- Some people want a tidy story: Shit happens. Shit is resolved. You have no questions about any shit.
- Some want a happy ending story: Same as above only everyone is smiling about shit, and they probably stepped in the shit right before they realized they were really happy.
- Some people want tragedy: It is all shit, covered in shit and then people walk away feeling like their shit is a little less shitty. Or they just weep and sometimes that makes shit better too.
- Some people want a story that is inexplicable: “That is some crazy shit and now I feel better about the shit I cannot work out in my own life.”
- Some people want dark shit, fanstasmic shit, funny shit, sick shit, romantic shit, horrifying shit, tru shit, puzzling shit, poetic shit, easy shit, deep shit.
I think that the kind of shit you like in your stories probably says a whole lot about you. And the parts of stories that you identify with most must be indicative of the shit you are dealing with in your own life, or I may be projecting my shit here. There are few things I find as satisfying as seeing how someone can give words to something that I have felt in a less articulate way for ages. I can clearly remember instances as a small child where I would examine my activities and life as a book or a movie. Most significantly I considered, on a very regular basis, how said activities and life would look through the eyes of another. [This may have contributed to unnecessary self-consciousness and/or self-absorption, both of which I admit to freely.] Would the Story of Me be good value? Stranger than fiction? And who would be my Narrator?
Describing narrative voice is one of the most difficult things for me to teach my literature students. I find myself wanting to use USSC Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous words about porn: I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it. That is clearly inadequate. It is easy enough to determine the narrative perspective; but the subtleties of tone, mood and voice are far more abstruse.
In the movie Stranger than Fiction, Harold Frick finds that his Narrator has become the dominant voice in his inner dialog. In order to determine who this narrator is, he sees a professor of literature who devises a list of questions to try to identify the narrative voice.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: I’ve devised a test. How exciting is that? Composed of 23 questions which I think might help uncover more truths about this narrator. Now Howard… Harold, these may seem silly but your candor is paramount.
Harold Crick: Harold. Ok.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: So. We know it’s a woman’s voice. The story involves your death. It’s modern. It’s in English and I’m assuming the author has a cursory knowledge of the city.
Harold Crick: Sure.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: O.k. good. Question one. Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything. Gum, money, a large wooden horse.
Harold Crick: I’m sorry?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Just answer the question.
Harold Crick: No.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes to which you, let me finish, to which you may or may not have been invited?
Harold Crick: No. No, no, no.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Well is it possible at one time that you were made of stone, wood, lye, varied corpse parts? Or, earth made holy by rabbinical elders?
Harold Crick: No. Look, look. I’m sorry, but what do these questions have to do with anything?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Nothing. The only way to find out what story you’re in is to determine what stories you’re not in. Odd as it may seem, I’ve just ruled out half of Greek literature, seven fairy tales, ten Chinese fables, and determined conclusively that you are not King Hamlet, Scout Finch, Miss Marple, Frankenstein’s Monster, or a golem. Hmm? Aren’t you relieved to know you’re not a golem?
Harold Crick: Yes. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Good. Do you have magical powers?
I am not confident that these questions would help me to discover who my Narrator is. [I would, however, be open to suggestions because it could end up like some sort of personality quiz and I love that kind of shit.] I think that the individual a person selects as their narrator may be a definitive identifying marker. For example, if someone says their Narrator is Nicholas Sparks, I know I probably won’t have a whole to talk about with them. If someone says their Narrator is Dan Brown, I probably will not talk to them. If they say Alfred Hitchcock I might run away from them. Ironically, if they said Poe, I would probably hang around. I would follow someone who said their Narrator was Camus, just to check that shit out. Someone narrated by Dave Eggers would be a good ride.
I would want to be around the person narrated by Carl Sagan until they were tired of me.
In my case, my Narrator has always been somewhat aloof. My Narrator has an often sardonic sense of humor and thus far seems intent on maintaining an inappropriate amount of dramatic irony. My Narrator collects stories and remembers idiosyncrasies in an almost punishing way. My Narrator thinks that it/she/he is writing a bestseller.
Here is a story outline my Narrator came up with:
- You will be raised by a village before it is cool to say that
- You will be restive
- You will hear a circus music in your head when you try to explain your family to people
- You will travel all over the world from a very young age and be fearless of everything except permanence
- You will give the benefit of the doubt to all the wrong people and be too harshly critical of those who deserve better
- You will watch everyone around you do all the things you thought you should
- You will make one minuscule change in a rather mundane situation
- Then your story will really begin
What kind of shit is that? [The Narrator is opting away from calling the story The Butterfly Effect on the grounds of contamination by Ashton Kutcher (sorry Lorenz.) The most likely title at this point is Urban Legend.] And obviously, my Narrator has a penchant for prefaces of largess. Am I writing the story or is the story writing me? Is it like one big game of dominoes where a single conscious move makes all the difference – or are there larger synchronous forces at work? Which came first, the story or the story teller – it is hard to tell. With such seamless coherence, I wonder if it even matters.
More importantly, let’s get to the screenplay and the soundtrack. That’s where the money is.
No, no. It’s not schizophrenia. It’s just a voice in my head. I mean, the voice isn’t telling me to do anything. It’s telling me what I’ve already done… accurately, and with a better vocabulary.