A perfect story guides the reader’s attention—his senses, thoughts, emotions, and imagination.
Once I was reading a story by a new author. The author had a fine imagination in many ways, but was terrible at guiding the attention of the reader. For example, when an important figure was to make a first appearance on a small planet, “it looked like the whole town had turned out.”
Now, consider for a moment what that means. How big was the town? What color were the people? What were they wearing? How were they acting? What expressions did they have? How did they smell?
The truth is that when I read the passage, I was flabbergasted by the lack of specificity on the author’s part. Not only did I not get a clue as to the makeup of the town on this alien planet, I was not shown any of the buildings, flora, or fauna. The author left a void for me to fill as a reader, and quite frankly it was too much work. I didn't finish the story. Life is too short.
A “perfect” story is almost always effortless for a reader. Writing one requires a certain genius on the part of the author, an ability for the writer to recognize what the reader needs and to supply those needs before the reader even becomes aware of them himself.
Not only will the writer recognize when the reader needs description, but he’ll recognize what the reader is thinking and feeling, and will work hard to carry the reader through an emotional and intellectual journey. These internal journeys are just as much a part of a story as the milieu. A perfect story will almost always have emotional highs, lows, and twists that the reader wouldn’t otherwise encounter. The same is true with the intellect. A perfect story doesn’t just make you feel profoundly, it explores ideas with the reader, and leads to some well-considered conclusions. Experts in learning theory will tell you that there is an emotional component to learning, that information “doesn’t stick” unless it is accompanied by strong emotions such as love or fear.
And I think that that is the great value of storytelling. It’s a teaching tool, one that can help enlighten and ennoble us. Recently I received a letter telling me about how a reader felt about my novel On My Way to Paradise. The reader said something to the effect of, “I don’t really recall much that happened to me from 1991 to 1994. I was in college, and every day was a blur of going to classes. I do recall that I fell in love for awhile—to a couple of girls whose names I can hardly remember. But I remember this book vividly. I remember it better than anything else that happened during those years. The events of the book, the people in it, the ideas that it explored—all became a part of me. I felt that I understood my life and the world around me so much better because of it.”
Now, I wish that I felt that way about all of the books that I’ve read. For me, it happened when I read Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, and Dune. As a younger child, I felt something of that when I read Swiss Family Robinson. I’ve felt it in films from time to time, with things like Elephant Man, Star Wars, and Remains of the Day. Each of those movies riveted me. Each of them transported me. Each of them enriched me and helped me understand the world to a better degree.
A malformed story, of course, is not effortless. How many stories have you read or watched that haven’t fed you with new ideas or insights? Countless stories. If you watched six hours of mindless drivel on television this week, the chances are excellent that you not only can’t recall what happened in all six hours, you can’t even remember what you watched. That’s because those stories didn’t engross you. They didn't enrich you or expand your universe. They might have performed some slight function as an emotional exercise, but in the end they weren’t memorable.
My online writing workshops have reopened, so if you would like to register, now would be a great time.
You can now preorder this year's Writers of the Future anthology.