The Art of Story

What is your favorite book or movie?

Why is it your favorite? Maybe you are into action stories with shoot ’em up scenes or exciting sword fights. Perhaps a good romance catches your fancy, you know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. What about stories based on true events and real people? Is it tragedy, comedy, drama? Or is it the characters themselves you love exploring?

If you are anything like me, that is a difficult question. Too many books, movies, and plays have captured my heart and imagination for me to narrow the answer down to just one. I might be able to give you a top 20 list, but even that would be pushing it. I love everything from history to comedy, science fiction to fantasy, and lots more between. Well, if it isn’t the genre that sets a good story apart, then what is it? This idea of story has been on my mind lately; that happens when you put your hand to writing a novel.

Working to create a good story begs the question: what makes a good story in the first place?

There is a short scene from the movie Out of Africa that serves as one of my inspirations to write. In it, Karen, Denys, and Berkeley have just enjoyed supper together. Karen, known for her storytelling prowess, takes a line from Denys and proceeds to invent a story that enthralls her guests late into the night. First and foremost, then, a story must engage the reader, or, in this case, the listener. Stories are meant to entertain and capture the imagination. In Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, the author explains: “There are natural storytellers and there are wordsmiths, and their methods are quite different.” Chapter Heading: “Can Writing be Taught”, page 14. I am a wordsmith; storytelling doesn’t come as easily to me as it did to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen, if you want to get technical).

I learned a long time ago that words have power, and I love words.

Words influence, they can create an emotional response in the reader or hearer; words can actually change people. Movies are nothing more than words come to life before our eyes and ears. I read like I’m watching a movie. A true artist has the ability to make the reader transform words on the page into images and sounds in the brain. I can still see the children sitting in their virtual reality playroom and hear the lions feasting on their parents. I read The Veldt, from The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury probably 35 years ago, but the images remain crystal clear today. Now that is some powerful writing!

Certainly, I don’t remember every book I’ve read the way I do Mr. Bradbury’s very short tale. In fact, I remember little of the rest of that collection of short stories. Why did The Veldt make such a lasting impression on me? Because it elicited an emotional response; Bradbury’s words combined with my personality type brought us together on an emotional level. In other words, his story touched me somewhere inside. I still remember it because emotions burn memories into the brain. That’s why you can smell something and experience a powerful memory laced with all the emotions that come with it – sometimes against your will. It’s also why you want to read some books or watch some movies over and over again – to recapture the emotional response – be it fear, happiness, anger, or love.

Walt Disney understood the makings of a beloved story. In the movie, Saving Mr. Banks he says something profound about human beings and storytelling:

George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

Hope.

Now that is a powerful word, and the stories I love are chock full of it. Assuming Hollywood got it right (a big ask, perhaps), P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) had a difficult (dare I call it ‘tragic’?) childhood. Here is a short exchange from the movie:

Walt Disney: I think life disappoints you, Ms. Travers. I think it’s done that a lot. And maybe Mary Poppins is the only person in your life who hasn’t.

P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins isn’t real.

Walt Disney: That’s not true. She was as real as can be to my daughters, and to thousands of other children – adults too. She’s been a nighttime comfort to a heck of a lot of people.

And there you have our obsession with story. It really is quite simple, isn’t it? Life disappoints, we want something (someone) that doesn’t, a “nighttime comfort” if you will. Even when we know it isn’t real. But, wait a minute, if it isn’t real, then it isn’t hope. What’s truly sad is that somewhere along the way we lost the meaning of the word ‘hope’ altogether. We have turned ‘hope’ into ‘wish’, but hope didn’t start out that way. Hope started out as ‘know’, something you could sink the teeth of your faith into. I believe the need for hope is universal, and hope as a theme makes good story no matter the form. What if we look for hope in a story (be it fiction/fantasy or history/reality) because we know instinctively that it represents something that is very real?

From The Shawshank Redemption, to Liar, Liar, to Seabiscuit, hope – the kind that anchors – is the draw.

I would like to share with you two of the most powerful images of hope I have ever encountered from a writer’s pen. There are probably hundreds of examples I could give from the millions of words I have read and heard, but these stand out. The first is a line from The Return of the King, book 3 of The Lord of the Rings. I will give it to you as the movie line and then from the book:

Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn’t.

In the last chapter, The Grey Havens, Frodo’s final journey:

“And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

The inevitability of death drives our need for hope.

If everybody dies, is hope enough? Well, maybe that depends on what you are hoping for. There is only one object truly worthy of hope: redemption. Jonathan Safran Foer understood that. In the final chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (please don’t waste your time on the movie – terrible; the book is phenomenal), Foer describes redemption as he sees it. People fall up, back into the Twin Towers; the bomb implodes and the planes fly backwards; and so on throughout history, until finally, Eve places the fruit back on the tree. As people stuck in forward, linear time, isn’t the only logical meaning of redemption the complete reversal of all the evil ever to exist in the history of the world? That is my hope.

But there is a more immediate need for hope than just believing there is life (and redemption) after death. It has been said that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The capacity for evil in the human heart is more real than we like to admit. Ferguson, Isis, 9-11, these are proof of the evil escaping into the world from the hearts of ordinary men and women every day. We live in a scary place. We live in a world that forgets that
the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. – Mordred, from Merlin, Season 5
But story can influence and even change the hearts of men. Consider the movie Cry Freedom. I had the privilege of watching it in a packed theater in 1987. The movie, recounting the true story of Donald Woods and Steve Biko during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, had no happy ending. Biko did not live through his final beating. Woods did not expose or overcome the evil of his day (not by the end of the movie, at least). It is the only movie I’ve ever seen that while the credits ran, not one person moved. 200 or so people sat, stunned, while the credits rolled. No one spoke, no one stood up, no one could. Where was the message of redemption in Cry Freedom? In the ones who saw it or read it. The message was for the audience: “be the change that you wish to see in the world”, to borrow a good one from Ghandi. The movie left us asking ourselves if there was something we could do to make a difference half a world away. The movie inspired. And isn’t that what hope is all about: inspiration?

We need inspiration to believe in ourselves.

We need Harry to defeat Voldemort … Frodo to destroy the ring … the boy to get the girl … and Mr. Banks to be saved, because then we can believe that … the Hitlers of the world can be defeated … our addictions can be overcome … and love is worth giving up everything for.
I doubt I could write a story to capture hearts like The Lord of the Rings, I may not have the literary genius to create a character as universally loved as Mary Poppins, but I would like to tell a little story of redemption, of hope, of good triumphing over evil, of love winning, because that is not just the greatest story ever told, it is the only story worth telling.
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