What makes a good story?
In NPR’s StoryCorps, “A Father’s Memories of Auschwitz” Debra Fisher tells of the final time she asked her father about his experience in Auschwitz. As a child, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, Fisher had a hard time recognizing the camp described by Wiesel from the description her father had always given her. Her father never wanted his daughter to know her father suffered. But when her father was hospitalized, and she knew she was down to her last chance, she asked again. The strength of the story she tells comes from the imagery she provides of her father kicking off his blankets, and the brief but effective dialogue, and the catch in her voice as she tells her story.
Does that mean a story must be sad to be good?
In NPR’s Story Corps, “As First Dates Go, This One Was a Doozy,” Sigmund Stahl tells how he met his wife. Stahl had a list of names he’d consider asking out on a date, and a friend asked him weekly if he’d called anybody. Stahl finally broke down and called the girl at the top of the list. Sitting down together for the first time, he asked what she’d like to do, and she indicated she wanted to see Deep Throat. Not familiar with the film, he took her to see it – “There was a line around the block.” At the end of the evening, alone in his apartment, Stahl realized the gumption this woman had, and he decided to call her again. The strength of Stahl’s story stems from the unexpected. Stahl is 82 when he tells the story, and he was married to that girl for 30 years.
Imagery, effective dialogue and a twist. The catch in Fisher’s voice and Stahl’s marriage to the young woman he took to see Deep Throat are indicative of truth. How do those qualities hold up against Ernie Pyle and George Orwell?
Pyle, in “The Death of Captain Waskow,” describes the captain as “young” with an air of “sincerity and gentleness.” Members of his company share their experiences with Captain Waskow and Pyle places the reader in the scene by describing the night as Waskow’s body was brought back. Pyle earnestly describes the numbers of dead bodies coming down the mountain and admits he did not know them all. But when Waskow’s body came down the mountain, the members of Waskow’s company responded. They cursed, they apologized, and when it was all said and done, they went to sleep. Pyle uses imagery and honesty to share a single moment, and while there were other dead that evening, Pyle was clearly struck by the difference in approach to Waskow on this particular evening. That is another part of what makes a story.
Sometimes there is simply a singular inexplicable event or circumstance that needs re-telling, and telling it honestly is all it takes to tell the story well. Another important factor in telling a story well is self-awareness. Not self-consciousness in a paranoid sort of way, but an awareness of the self and how we view ourselves.
Orwell, in the opening of “Shooting an Elephant,” indicates in the first sentence that “I was hated by large numbers of people,” yet one gets the sense that Orwell recognizes he is not singled out by this hatred. In addition to this self-awareness, an effective story is also one that has the benefit of perspective. Debra Fisher, Sigmund Stahl and Orwell all have the benefit of time from when their stories occurred to when they share them. Pyle too has a certain perspective, but Pyle’s comes from having been in Europe for a lengthy period of time and witnessing death; his story is more immediate than that of the other three. Orwell’s story re-emphasizes the role of imagery. It is strong and detailed. We know the author’s thoughts, and we know what the author sees, hears and smells: “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him.”
The story told is good when it must be told. It must be honest. Its teller must be aware and conscious. Imagery puts the listener or reader there alongside the storyteller. But overall, I think truth is the most important. The teller must know the truth and the reader or listener must believe the teller.