“Story. Dammit, story!”

John D. MacDonald typingIn his introduction to Stephen King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift, John D. MacDonald explains what it takes to become a successful writer. Diligence, a love of words, and empathy for people are three big factors. But he sums up the primary element this way: “Story. Dammit, story!”

And what is story? It is, says MacDonald, “something happening to somebody you have been led to care about.”

I want to home in on that something happening bit. It is the soil in which plot is planted, watered, and harvested for glorious consumption by the reader. Without it, the reading experience can quickly become a dry biscuit, with no butter or honey in sight.

Mind you, there are readers who like dry biscuits. Just not very many.

MacDonald reminds us that without the “something happening” you do not have story at all. What you have is a collection of words that may at times fly, but end up frustrating more than it entertains.

I thought of MacDonald’s essay when I came across an amusing (at least to me) letter that had been written to James Joyce about his novel Ulysses. Amusing because the letter was penned by no less a luminary than Carl Jung, one of the giants of 20th century psychology.   

Here, in part, is what Jung wrote to Joyce (courtesy of Brain Pickings):

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page … You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way … Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter …

Now, I’m no Joyce scholar, and I’m sure there are champions of Ulysses who might want to argue with Jung and maybe kick him in the id, but I think he speaks for the majority of those who made an attempt at reading the novel and felt that “nothing came to meet them.”

I felt a bit of the same about the movie Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston. When the Oscar nominations came out earlier this year it was said that Aniston was “snubbed” by not getting a nod. I entirely agree. Aniston is brilliant in this dramatic turn.

The problem the voters had, I think, is that the film feels more like a series of disconnected scenes than a coherently designed, three-act story. The effect is that after about thirty minutes the film begins to drag, even though Aniston is acting up a storm. Good acting is not enough to make a story.

Just as beautiful prose is not enough to make a novel. Years ago a certain writing instructor taught popular workshops on freeing up the mind and letting the words flow. The workshops were good as far as they went, but this instructor taught nothing about plot or structure. Finally the day came when the instructor wrote a novel. It was highly anticipated, but ultimately tanked with critics and buyers. And me. As I suspected, there were passages of great beauty and lyricism, but there was no compelling plot. No “something happening to someone we have been led to care about.”

Of course, when beautiful prose meets a compelling character, and things do happen in a structured flow, you’ve got everything going for you. But prose should be the servant, not the master, of your tale.

Let me suggest an exercise. Watch Casablanca again. Pause the film every ten minutes or so, and ask:

1. What is happening?

2. Why do I care about Rick? (i.e., what does he do that makes him a character worth watching?)

3. Why do I want to keep watching?

You can analyze any book or film in this way and it will be highly instructive. You’ll develop a sense of when your own novel is bogging down. You can then give yourself a little Story. Dammit, story! kick in the rear.

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17 thoughts on ““Story. Dammit, story!”

  1. The “why do I care?” component is critical. It’s what keeps me reading books, even ones I wouldn’t ordinarily read.

    Example: I recently picked up a historical romance. I love historical, hate romance. I also don’t typically care for fiction solely centered around women. I find when a circle of women are written about in fiction they are catty, obsessed with things that don’t matter, and all-in-all people with whom I have nothing in common.

    Enter the recent novel: It was centered around a group of women who were, you guessed it, catty, petty, full of drama queen moments etc. BUT…I couldn’t put that novel down because the characters, especially the lead character, was written in such a way that I very much cared what happened to her. Even the tiresome romance angle was easy to read because the author made sure there was a lot more going on with that character other than “getting the girl”.

    I was very impressed with it. Making readers care about the characters is everything.

  2. I agree with BK. If you can engage the reader right away with the main character, you’ve hooked her into reading more. Even with TV series, it’s the characters that draw me in. I don’t watch Castle for the crime scenes. I watch it for the interplay between Castle and Becket. Some other shows I’ve dropped because the people are all unlikeable. Vikings on the history channel is one of them. It’s gory and violent and I don’t like the protagonist or any of the other characters. So I stopped watching it. With a story, you need to get the reader inside your character’s head and make that person likeable and sympathetic. Someone we can identify with based on their emotions. And BK, I hope you read more historical romance. It’s my favorite type of story to read and engages my emotions more fully than any other genre. I don’t care that the ending is always the same…boy gets girl. It’s how they fall in love and get to that point that varies each time.

  3. Great post~ I grew up on JDMacD’s stories and novels~ Travis Magee was my best imaginary friend…

    If I may add to this, as authors we should get out of the way of the story (dammit)~ I just started, and about 50 pages in finishes with, a novel that had way too many “lookit me, I’m writing in a kewl style” interruptions ~ maybe that’s why it’s considered a “literary” novel… but as I’ve read here on several occasions, anything that call attentions to us automatically calls attention away from the story.

  4. The “why do I care” factor is really helpful when trying to add suspense. Stephen King does this many times. Most writers would write the scene and be done with it, but he drags the suspense out when you’re deeply invested in the character until you’re suffering glorious agony. In your book “Conflict and Suspense” you have a lot of good exercises and points.

  5. Jim, great post. So helpful. I just started plotting the middle of my WIP. I wrote down the #1-#3. What is happening? Why do I care about the protagonist? Why do I want to keep reading? I’m keeping that list handy while I write.

    I thought this morning, as I admired your “essay,” “What structure does JSB use for his posts that makes them so powerful?” As I think back I see EXAMPLE, ANALOGY. INSTRUCTION, and QUESTION. Any thoughts on your structure for a good post? Or maybe that’s a topic for another time?

    Thanks for another great teaching moment!

  6. Great post! Three excellent questions to ask. I usually write up a little summary of the story or novel I’ve written to answer #1, and to let me look at what happened without the actual word trees getting in the way of my view of the story’s forest. Why do I care about character X? There’s a book’s worth of knowledge in answering why–she’s interesting, “root-worthy”, heroic, relatable, cares about others, capable, fun to watch in action, ETC. Why do we continue reading or watching novel Y? Another ton of insight in figuring that out. At it’s most basic, as Stephen King put it in “Misery,” it’s the “gottas”, as in gotta find out what happens next. Stakes get raised? What happens next? Character’s trouble get even worse? What happens next? She confronts the villain? What happens next? Wanting to find out what happens next keeps me turning pages.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  7. Jim, I’d never heard that quote from MacDonald (who, along with many other writers who’ve passed on, is a favorite of mine), but I have to agree with it, as well as with your exposition. Thanks for the post.

  8. I have read all 90 of John D. Books, and every one of King’s (aside from the gunslinger series – couldn’t get past the first one of those.)

    I agree on everything you’ve said, Jim, but would add one point. Caring about the character who stuff happens to does not necessarily mean liking them. I just finished “The Girl on the Train,” currently #1 on NYT bestseller list. The protagonist is a (literally) falling down drunk, self-pitying, a stalker. The other characters are worse.
    It’s hard to find much to like about Amy and Nick in “Gone Girl,” but it’s the biggest selling book in our genre in recent years, if ever.

    There was a dustup last year when the Claire Messud said she was fed up with the notion that characters have to be likable. She asked the reasonable question, Would you like to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Hamlet? Raskolnikov?

    I do think characters have to feel alive, and real in order for us to care about what happens to them. The most outlandish things can happen to them and you can stay interested as long as they react like real people. A great example is SK’s Under the Dome. Put a bunch of cardboard characters under that dome and it would never work.

    • John, that’s a great reminder. A Lead does not have to be “likable,” though I do think a charming bad egg is always more interesting. If not charm or likability, there must be something else, and I think power is a good one. The bad Lead should have some sort of power over people, by way of intellect or allies.

      I admire your taste in reading, too. Thanks for the good comment.

  9. Thanks for this analysis, Jim. I couldn’t agree more! I love Carl Jung’s letter to James Joyce! I can think of a few people to mention this post to. 😉

    And Casablanca is still my favorite all-time movie! I must check it out again soon.

  10. I heart this to the tenth power.

    I have a stack of unfinished “great works” because they have no story. In all the genre vs. literature foo-fah that has gone on in the last few years, I wrote a satire blog post about the difference. However, I did sum it up in one phrase:

    “In genre, something has to happen. If nothing happens, it’s probably literature.”

    Now, I will say that I will never forgive Larry McMurtry. He tricked me into reading literary fiction with “The Last Picture Show” which was my gateway drug to the “Texasville” saga which led me to “Dwayne’s Depressed.” Yup, an entire novel about a guy who is depressed. Larry sucked me in and pulled me along with a thousand little stories of the map dot of Thalia, Texas. But those stories all coalesced and moved Dwayne’s life forward.

    I need to dust up the series with “Buffalo Ranch” (sort of like finishing my vegetables,) but the short bridge book to the finale fell into the literature trap. It was boring. It goes to show that even McMurtry can run out of story. It was the Return of the Jedi of the Texasville series. I moved on to something else.

    Brilliantly crafted characters and lyrical prose can only carry so far unless they are doing something that I find interesting. I totally understand the point of Waiting For Godot. I just don’t care.

    Thanks for the Sunday lesson! Terri

  11. Jim, I feel compelled to jump to Joyce’s defense. There IS a story in Ulysses, a very good story. It starts in the first chapter when we’re introduced to Stephen Dedalus, the impoverished Irish schoolteacher (and stand-in for the author), whose mother is “beastly dead.” We care about Stephen because he has a bullying roommate and a horrible boss, and because he’s tormented by his mother’s death (he refused to pray at her bedside and now when he looks at the green Irish sea he sees the bowl on his mother’s nightstand that held her vomit, the bile that came out of her during her death throes). And something DOES happen to him — he grows increasingly self-destructive until he visits a brothel and confronts his mother’s ghost in a drunken vision and banishes her image with a swipe of his walking stick and the famous cry, “Nothung!” In reality his stick hits one of the brothel’s lamps, and Stephen is about to get into big trouble until he’s rescued by Leopold Bloom, the other hero of Ulysses, who faces his own struggles in confronting his wife’s infidelity and the barely concealed anti-Semitism of his Irish friends. There are moments of drama in Bloom’s story as well, especially when he confronts the “Cyclops” in a Dublin pub. Although the confrontation is satirical — Joyce’s Cyclops is a one-eyed drunk who throws a biscuit tin at Bloom — it still makes for a good story. Yes, it’s a long book with many chapters full of difficult wordplay, but the main characters are so interesting that you definitely want to see what happens to them.

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  13. The heart of why we write, to create a protagonist whose story moves our readers’ hearts and minds. And mine, too! I have to love my Lead enough to make her/him suffer and then learn from it. Otherwise I’m a just a mean sadist. A grim thought!

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