The Importance of Story

Because I had flu just after Christmas - the flu jab I had, back in October, didn't seem to have any effect on this bug, but perhaps, as friends said, it would have been even worse without it - I spent a great deal of time huddled up on the sofa with a blanket, a hot water bottle, a succession of cups of weak tea and numerous old movies. These included Gigi, Oliver, Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music and The Railway Children. I enjoyed all of them, cried at all but Singin' in the Rain, in fact cried buckets at The Railway Children (it's the 'daddy, my daddy' moment - does it to me every single time) and took the opportunity to consider current and future writing projects, in a vague, fluey, conceptual sort of way.
My agent now has a new novel from me, The Amber Heart. I've blogged about that and also about the proposed sequel, The Winged Hussar, here on Wordarts. I thought the Amber Heart was finished in November, but then it came back with suggested edits. Some were invaluable and some made me cross. But even the ones that made me cross were also very valuable, because when I calmed down, I could see that the person who had read it definitely had a point. All of it sent me back to the manuscript with a fresh eye. I didn't take everything on board, but I made a number of changes. In some cases he had put his finger very accurately on issues that had troubled me, but which I had pushed to the back of my mind - in one case it was a plot point that had niggled at me because I sensed that the character wouldn't have behaved like that. I needed her to behave 'like that' for the sake of the story but it didn't ring true. The comments from this particular editor, although not quite addressing that point,  allowed me to ask myself 'what if' something different happened. And suddenly, things became much clearer. So now, my agent has a newly tweaked  draft, (I finally hauled myself off my couch of pain to type up the edits) and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's either ready to go - or almost ready to go! But I'm grateful to the agency for spending time and trouble on this. There's no point in sending something out unless it's as good as you can possibly make it, no matter how much those rewrites make you want to tear your hair out.
As I lay and watched those old movies, another thought occurred to me. As I've matured as a writer, I've become more and more aware of the value of story. A few years ago, in spite of a good deal of success as a playwright, with awards won, and with a track record in all kinds of published non-fiction, as well as short stories and even poetry, I realised that I wanted to write novels. Not only 'wanted to' - always a dodgy thing to say. The world and her husband 'want to write' a novel and at least some of them think that if they tell you their fascinating tale, you will do it for them! But I digress.
I had written a number of novels and just about all of them were weighing down my shelves in manscript form, because that was as far as I had got with them. I didn't want to abandon drama altogether, but the balance was certainly shifting. The hitch was that so much of the feedback I was getting from professionals was pointing out that these novels were 'extremely well written - but a bit too quiet.' While I was struggling with this judgement, a successful writer told me that publishers are always looking for the holy grail of the 'beautifully written, stonking great story'. Sometimes they find it. 'But' - she went on - 'if they can't have that, then they will settle for the stonking great story every time.' That single comment - a lightbulb moment -changed the way I think about my writing. It also prompted me to get my head down and work on a couple of major projects, to plan a lot more and eventually to find an agent who would market me as a novelist rather than a playwright.
At Christmas, it struck me that all those movies washing over me in a great wave of entertainment were stonking great stories. I know film is different from literature. I know many people hate musicals. I don't care if you loathe The Sound Of Music (and I have lots of good friends who would say as much!) - but there are millions out there who adore it, and one of the reasons why they love it so much, and can watch it again and again, is because it is the kind of archetypal story that human beings the world over enjoy. It's like being a kid again. When you wanted that book read to you yet again, and woe betide your mum or dad if they skipped your favourite passage!
If anything, it's even more obvious with The Railway Children. Can there be any woman who has lost a much-loved father, who doesn't watch that scene on the station platform, towards the end of the Railway Children, and who doesn't shed a tear? (I'm told Field of Dreams has the same effect on many men, for obvious reasons.) Can there be anyone - however much he or she dislikes musicals - who isn't moved by the inevitability of poor Nancy's fate at the end of Oliver?  Well, possibly, but I think a percentage even of them may be resisting something deep inside themselves!
As a writer, it only surprises me that it has taken me so long to acknowledge the importance of story. I wonder if it's because I read English at university. Academia isn't too hot on stories although since I specialised in Mediaeval Studies, (full of stonking great stories, if you ask me) I wasn't your average English graduate. But then, of course, I started out with poetry and plays. And then, when I did start writing novels, I thought of the story as 'plot'. And it seemed difficult. I wasn't sure I could do it. And when I did do it, no matter how fine the writing, it all seemed a bit 'quiet.'  It was only when I stopped thinking about plot and started thinking about story that I felt myself on surer ground. I had stories to tell and some of them were far from quiet. So I wonder, if we stopped advising beginning writers to consider character and plot and point of view, and started advising them to try to tell their story, as beautifully, as entrancingly, as stylishly as they possibly can - but for all that, to tell us a story - they might find it just a little easier to discover their own voices. What do you think?


Bill Kirton said…
Great posting, Catherine and the final suggestion should be broadcast widely. Academia does great things for literature - releasing subtle meanings, uncovering layers which go unnoticed by the casual reader, helping texts to find their full richness. But it also kills it - throttling passages with petty analyses founded on the academic's own prejudices, according spurious significance to obfuscatory passages (probably because they haven't understood them) and, as you say, dismissing story as a very poor aspect of plot. We should be liberating writers, not corralling them. In interviews, when asked for advice for young or wannabe writers, my first answer is always 'Trust your own voice'.
Agree completely, Bill. And it becomes more problematic, the more academia involves itself in creative practice. Not that it shouldn't - but the experience of writers themselves has to be given due weight. It's taken me long enough to see the difference between plot with all its rules and the glorious possibilities of story!