Keeping your story straight

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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And then what happened?
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It’s the essence of story. What happened next? Turn the page to find out. Then the next page; then the next. The author who can make you turn the page has a special talent.
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This is a talent that can often be belittled. It is not the virtue of the “literary novel.” You don’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the plot. But you don’t read Stephen King for the elegance of his sentences. You read for the story. You turn the damn page.
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It is a talent that I have come to admire, perhaps mostly because I do not possess it. I remember, some several years ago, I was in a book store and while moving among the Classical authors and the Library of America sections, finding a slim volume of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. The Michener I knew wrote doorstop tomes like Hawaii, Centennial, Alaska and Chesapeake. They were big, commercial enterprises, designed from floor level up to be best-sellers. I grandly dismissed him as a hack.
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But I opened Tales of the South Pacific and thought I’d peruse a page or two to see what Michener’s style was like,

perhaps to gather ammunition to make fun of him. A page or two. I didn’t need much. But some time later, I awoke to find myself standing among the shelves, oblivious to my surroundings, on page 27, flipping them over one after the other without even recognizing that I was sinking deeper and deeper into the story. What happens next? I had fallen into the narrative. He pulled me along like rapids on a river.

 

And I realized, there is a kind of genius to the ability to tell a story.
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I had often made fun of Stephen King. He is not an elegant writer. His sentences are often choppy, awkward and even simple-minded. But, geez, he can tell a story.
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King has made the argument himself that in the past, authors made their reputations on the ability to tell stories. We respect Charles Dickens as a classic, but in his day, he wrote potboilers that were enormously popular with those who wanted to know “what happens next?” King argued that the plot-driven novel should be better valued — and of course, that meant King’s own oeuvre.
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It has been 15 years since King was given a lifetime achievement award by the National Book Awards and gave an acceptance speech scolding academic writers and critics for failing to recognize the importance of story in literature. Those writers and critics did not take it well.
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Harold Bloom — the most erudite and ponderous of critics — complained, “The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. … What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”
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And compared with Joyce, or Flaubert, or Laurence Sterne, this is certainly true. Sentence by sentence, King can be clumsy. But he makes you turn the page. An hour later, you are a hundred pages in, and you don’t remember the time passing.
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As I said, this is a talent not to be sniffed at. Dickens had it; Victor Hugo had it; Henry Fielding had it. Jane Austen had it. What happens next?
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When film director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said: “A story.” Pressed, then, for what makes a good story, he said, with no hesitation, “A story.” He meant it.
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Why should we care? Beads on a string; beads on a rosary, we move from one to the next, chapter follows chapter, sentence follows sentence. What happens next?
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I don’t want to downplay the role story plays in simply keeping us entertained. From the earliest tales told in the cave around a fire to our uncle’s redoubtable blow-by-blow of the fish that got away, a tale fills the hours after work and before sleep. But there are other ways to fill that time.
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And there is the window that fiction gives us on the workings of minds other than our own. They can foster compassion and a wider understanding of the world. A really good character can persuade us they are real: Ask all those Sherlock Holmes fans who visit his “address” in London.
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As Shelley puts it in his Defence of Poetry, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.”
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A good story gives us those pains and pleasures. We internalize them and enlarge ourselves in the process.
But entertainment and empathy are byproducts of story. The power of narrative is found, I believe, in the very fact of one thing leading to another. The story itself is the hold it has over us.
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Consider: We live in a world of simultaneity — a chaotic chorus of seven billion human things happening at once in an infinity of extra-human activity. The world is a constant buzz, incoherent. If we listen to it all, it is white noise, undifferentiated.
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Yet, we live within ourselves as a single quiet stream surfing on the buzz. From birth to death, we understand ourselves to be a single thread, beginning, middle, end. We reassure ourselves that our stream is, indeed, coherent by comparing it with another stream: a story. If a tale being told, a novel being read, a TV show being watched is coherent, perhaps we are, too. This runs contrary to the latest findings of neurobiology, but it is as deeply embedded in our psyches as anything. Coherent narrative is how we make sense of chaos.
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“There is one story and one story only that will prove worth your telling,” wrote Robert Graves, but Graves was a crackpot. And yet, there is something in it: The one story is that of birth, life and death. Yet, it is the multiplicity of that story that reassures us. All that chaos can be combed out, like tangled hair, into parallel strands: Your story, your spouse’s story, Odysseus’s story, Humbert Humbert’s story, Carrie Mathison’s story — all laid out side by side to show that the singular flow, all in one direction, like the rosary beads told one after another, backs up our claim to the way we understand time, ourselves and our existence.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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