Earlier, I talked about one attribute that the perfect story will display—honesty. You can’t layer a tale with a thin veneer of factoids and give it the verisimilitude that it needs to be a “perfect” story. Nor can you skimp on your plotting and characterization and hope to arouse a stunning emotional response.
Today I want to talk a bit about content. I think that a perfect story eventually, at some level, has to be measured by the effect that it has upon the world. Does it make the world a better place? Does it have a positive impact on the reader? I think that a perfect story must have a good impact.
I don’t mean that a story needs to be “preachy” in a namby-pamby sort of a way. You can portray vile evils in a tale that still has a powerfully positive impact. Yet I believe that a story should contain genuine insights into life and the human condition—whether stated or not—that actually benefit the reader. For example, I’ve spoken before about how a tale is an emotional exercise. It provides a way for readers to release stress. This is every bit as necessary for a human being as physical exercise, and it sits at the root of all forms of entertainment. So a perfect story would fulfill the measure of its creation. Here’s part of a fan letter that I once got from a fellow named Daniel in Alberta, Canada: “Your books have lived with me through thick and thin... I absolutely love your books and I crave reading them.... Everything about your books captures me and I just wanted to let you know that you have changed my world. Through all my hardships reading your books has helped me so much. . . .” He’s obviously recognizing that my Runelords series is helping him perform that emotional exercise, though when he first picked up the books, he didn’t know what they were for.
Now, that’s just one reader, and by no means does he represent everyone. It’s hard to know just how many lives you touch as a writer. Certainly the number of people you touch and the number who purchase your books aren’t always the same. I was in Canada a few years back attending a convention, and a librarian told me that a survey there had showed that my book, On My Way to Paradise, was the third most frequently checked-out book in the Canadian library system at the time. I’d had no idea. At the same convention, the Russian publisher of the novel made it a point to let me know that in a national survey of what was the best science fiction novel ever written, On My Way to Paradise had been voted number two as Russia’s favorite SF novel of all time. Now, in both countries, I have no idea how many readers I have. Library readers don’t show up on sales reports. In Russia, I didn’t get sales reports. Even if I had, they don’t mean much in a country where novels can often be resold a dozen times before they are simply passed around for free. One sale in Russia might occur for every twenty readers. In short, I have no idea how many people have been touched by my stories. I’ve written some 50 novels, many of which have been published in twenty languages or more and then shipped to hundreds of tiny countries around the world.
So we learn about our effect on others in bits and pieces. I also once got a little note from a woman who mentioned that she was at church and a schoolteacher got up and spoke about how she had been having a terrible week, becoming irritated and grouchy, until something that she had read in a book had changed her perspective—and her life—enough so that she was able to be kinder and more compassionate to the school children that she was teaching. The woman who wrote the email said, “When she mentioned the name of the book, Dave, I realized that it was your book, and I just had to tell you.” Not only do our stories touch our readers, they go on to affect the lives of others that our readers touch, and so on. Every story that we tell is a stone thrown into a quiet pool. The stone sinks silently to the bottom, even as it sends complex patterns of ripples rebounding from every shore.
Once I did an interview with a fellow who said something to the effect of, “When you began writing, did you ever stop to think that you would become one of the most influential writers of our time? After all, your books have touched millions of people, but beyond that you’ve trained dozens of other bestselling writers, like Stephenie Meyer and Brandon Sanderson. . . .” He went on to point out that by doing so I was having a vast effect upon the upcoming generation of writers, not just the people that I’ve taught personally but also upon their fans and their imitators.
To tell the truth, I’d never thought about it before. I’ve never imagined myself to be “influential.” I live in a quiet neighborhood, and I’ve always imagined that I am a rather obscure writer. Yet when I was confronted by that insight, I realized that, yes, my stories and my teachings have quite literally had some sort of impact upon billions of people at this point in my life.
You do things, and you have no idea how profoundly they might change the world—and it’s just starting. I’m still writing books, still teaching. The effect that we as writers have on this world won’t end in our lifetime. It may well ripple down over the course of centuries.
So the question becomes, what kind of effect will your stories have on the world? Will they make it a better place, or worse? Can a story that touts debauchery as a virtue or greed as the point of one’s existence or violence as the best means for ending conflict be considered a “perfect story” no matter how beautifully it is written?
Not in my book.