The importance of story

One of the great benefits of renting movies is that sometimes David will look at me or I at him fifteen minutes into the thing and say, “I don’t care about these people. Do you care about these people? Shall we watch Zatoichi instead?” Hey, it cost us two bucks or less to get this dreck on our screen, and we can shut it off, mock it and put something else on without getting annoyed about the cost.

In Stephen Jay Gould’s book Full House, he talks about how modern artists and writers seek novelty, and how that changes – and renders more difficult – the pursuit of excellence. If the defining measure of excellence is novelty, sooner or later you will, I believe, lose excellence in the pursuit of novelty. Tell me, why are there currently two movies out based on the Snow White story? Why was the Hunger Games – a recasting of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur – so wildly popular? I believe it’s because Snow White, and the myth of Theseus, have plot and a strong moral compass.

Plot is important, and also simple at bottom. You can make all the jokes you like about “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back”, but it’s a pretty decent story line with a promise of happily-ever-after, or at least happily-for-now. (If you reverse “boy” and “girl” and add sparkly vampires you have “Twilight”) You can dress it up in doublet and hose or twentieth-century business suits or give it tentacles and set it in outer space, and it still works.

A story should also teach you something, or touch you somehow. I love the movie “The Thirteenth Warrior” (based on Michael Crichton’s book “The Eaters of the Dead”). I love a good adventure movie, and I love period pieces, and Antonio Banderas is easy on the eyes. But the main reason I love this movie is because every time I watch it, I want to be braver. It makes me want to face my fears, tackle my demons and behave like a hero even when I know I’m not one. Now, maybe if you watch it you won’t get those things from it. Never mind, it works for me. I don’t believe it would do that, though, if there wasn’t a story to follow, if the protagonist didn’t change and learn from his experiences.

I originally wrote my first novel draft as one for adults. I’m recasting it as a young adult because I realize that my own reliance on, and love of, structured plot and a strong moral compass make me far more suited to write YA than to write mainstream literature. I read a lot of young adult fiction, too, for the same reason.

Years ago I saw “Agnes of God”. So did my brother, though not with me. When I asked him what he thought of it, he told me he felt like the filmmaker had simply run out of film and decided to quit, and that the story had no proper end. I don’t know that I’d put it that bluntly, but I felt unsatisfied with the movie myself. I watch “Thirteenth Warrior” about once a year, but I’ve never felt the least urge to re-watch “Agnes of God”. Plot and moral compass – a good story needs them both.

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2 Responses to The importance of story

  1. Father Steve says:

    Instead of Agnes, watch “Catholics” (1973) instead.

  2. You definitely need both story & moral compass when writing, especially for YA. I do agree with you about Thirteenth Warrior. That’s one we have yet to get for our video library but we do like to watch it whenever it’s on TV, which is rarely. 🙂

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