Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Taking Story for Granted

By DeAnna Knippling

This blog post is a struggle for me, because I think I’m going to put my foot in my mouth and say something asinine, but it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: story.

As writers, we think we know what we’re getting into when we talk about stories. We write stories, we read stories, we follow news stories, we tell anecdotes at dinner, we make up stories about the people we see wandering around the buffet or the airport, in all their varied glory. We question what we hear: “That doesn’t sound right.” We judge movies based on their story: “What a lame ending.”

We jump to conclusions about people. We read intonations into emails that aren’t there. We gossip. We fight wars based on stories. We believe based on stories. Researchers struggle to remove story from their work, calling it “bias.” We watch Penn & Teller routines, and they can explain to us how they use audience expectations to fool them--and that’s story, too.

Songs are stories, only half of which (at most) are told via words, even if it’s something simple like, “We went to a club and danced so well that other couples were jealous.” If songs weren’t stories, then Fantasia never would have been made. Muzak's web page description reads:  "Founders of piped music and the science of how music affects customers."  Marketing?  Based on creating a story for customers about how your product will improve their lives.

Stories surround us. So, as writers--that is, as experts on stories--we should know what stories are, right?

You can describe a story. Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings--except when they're out of order. There’s a character arc--except when there isn’t. There are characters--except when the character isn’t a character at all. Things happen in a story--except when they don’t.

You can look up the definition in a dictionary: a history, an account of events, a fictional narrative, a rumor, a lie, a news article. But the definitions don’t cover the entirety of “story.” You could define “story” as worldview and as irrational bias; as trickery and as truth. And you wouldn’t be wrong.

I think story is so fundamental to how human minds work that we take story for granted unless it’s labeled as “entertainment.” And when you take something for granted, it’s hard to think consciously about it.

An example: Is Twilight a good story or not?

You probably already have an answer: “I loved it,” “I hated it,” and the guardedly cautious “I’ve heard of it but I haven’t read it.” All three of those answers have power, but they aren’t answers to whether the story’s good or not--just whether or not you liked it.

Another example: Is Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998) by Diana Wynne Jones a good story or not?

This one’s harder; most people haven’t even heard of the author, let alone the book. (She also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle and a lot of other good books.) And yet, with Dark Lord of Derkholm (along with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland [1996]), she slaughters the high fantasy genre and the pettiness that a lot of its writers catered to at the time. Her books have had a powerful undertow, one that you’ve felt, even if you didn’t know it. If you’ve heard of Neil Gaiman, then you’ve felt it.

Another example: Are books written by women good stories or not?

Maureen Johnson talked about this issue recently:
When I hear people talk about "trashy" books, 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. When I see or hear the terms "light," "fluffy," "breezy," or "beach read"... 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. 
She challenged people to come up with male-authored books that had female-author covers on them and vice versa, and readers responded (a.k.a. “Coverflip”).

...And those are just three examples. To my eye, Twilight shows that we have a hard time separating our prejudices from our ability to judge story; Dark Lord of Derkholm shows that it’s possible to change a story (high fantasy's default form of good vs. evil) across a genre without readers knowing where the change came from; “Coverflip” shows that we tell stories about stories to influence other people on how to feel about them.

And I’m sure there are other lessons--other stories--that you could take from these three examples, too. When we argue, we try to convince each other to agree with our take--our story--on a given issue by emphasizing the parts that support the story, and deemphasizing the rest.

I’m no different; neither are you.

Story’s so ingrained in us that we don’t see that we’re telling stories, even when we are. When we tell the truth, we don’t realize that we’re also telling a story (unless we’re listening to a six-year-old; then it’s obvious that “telling the truth” and “trying to conceal the fact that it wasn’t the cat who broke the lamp” can be one and the same). When we judge a story, we don’t realize that we’re at least partially judging the story based on another story (“Romance novels are stupid”), or a thousand other stories (“This romance novel just isn’t all that romantic, compared to my favorite authors”), rather than objectively. When we wake, we find our dreams powerful, even though they often make no sense whatsoever and feel like they come from a foreign place rather than ourselves.

Augh, I’m still struggling to get at what I mean with this post. My meaning keeps flipping out of my hands as I type. I think what I’m trying to say is that the issue of “story” is more complex than we can consciously get at, and that we, as writers, take for granted that we know what the word “story” means, and what story is. And yet if it were that simple, we’d all be Stephen King, or Stephanie Meyers, or at least not terrified by the thought of having to write a synopsis or log line.

What I do know is that there is more to this “story” business than following Joseph Campbell templates, or writing up character descriptions, or editing to perfection. Maybe story has more in common with “lucky writing pens” and cruising for inspirational cat pictures on Facebook than we know. Maybe we should be spending more time on the Internet, rather than less, and spending more time enjoying the stories we want to enjoy, and less time letting other people talk us out of following our story instincts.

Nah. Cat pictures are stupid, Facebook is a waste of time, lucky pens are a useless crutch, and, clearly, the New York Times Book Review always knows best.

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.