Story 3 : To story or not to story.

I don’t believe in right and wrong – at least not in creative endeavour. A much more useful concept is cause and effect.

Let me illustrate.

I had occasion to speak with a Bosnian writer in Sarajevo. He was working on a story that was troubling him because he’d included certain expressions in French – which he’d learned while taking refuge in Paris during the Balkan war, and on which the story was based. He knew that if he wrote it all in Bosnian he would lose the nuance that these French expressions delivered – and in so doing would put the very sense of the story at risk. But, that if he left it how it was he would certainly alienate his non-French-speaking readership – for whom the material was principally intended.

In short, he was troubled by the question of right and wrong.

My response:

If precision is important to you, leave the expressions in French, and live with the fact that you’ll be pissing off a whole lot of people. If maximising readership is important to you, present it entirely in Bosnian, and live with the fact that the story may no longer hold water.

Decisions have to be taken. Cause and effect applies. Simple.

The telling of stories in writing is like this.

You can play around with form, but you cannot deny it. Story structure doesn’t exist because writers invented it – it exists because the human organism craves it. If your aim is to furnish a story, your aim is to nourish your reader. The sooner you acknowledge this the better.

A lower risk taking writer will start at the beginning, go through the middle, and end at the end. A higher risk taking writer might start elsewhere. Taking risks in writing is neither brave (and to be sought after), nor stupid (and to be avoided). It is simply a decision, with results that ensue. Cause and effect.

And incidentally, what is the risk here? The risk is that the story structure can be so deformed as to be lost. Doing what? Letting the reader go hungry. Not a good thing.

I took some risks in the writing of my first novel milk + honey. I consciously decided to write from the middle of the story, constructing a style of narrative that would naturally give the reader enough details of the beginning so as to be satisfying. Then I specifically cut the ending short, believing my readers had enough to finish the story themselves. They did, but they weren’t always happy to do so.

I had friend and playwright, David Spencer, give it a read through. I like David’s writing, I’ve got a lot of time for him, and his central critque was – I guess – to be expected: it should be 20% longer. Translation: finish the damn story.

I didn’t take his advice. I accepted the result of the choice I’d made, which was to irritate those readers who were unwilling to co-author the ending with me in their imaginations.

So be it.

Homework: write a one paragraph story (for an example, see my blog Story 1). Then … screw around with it. In every way you can imagine. Start it in different places, don’t tell the whole of it, trim it down to the bones, fatten it up. Go wild. The results will startle.

When you do this you start to see that story isn’t just a super-structural issue. It invades every division of the writing we care to imagine: chapter, paragraph, sentence …

But more of that next blog.

Until then, if you’re game, post the results here.


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