A perfect story coalesces. Its many parts eventually form an organic whole that makes sense to the audience and reveals more than has been told.
A good story may take pages and pages to tell. They contain so much information about characters, settings, conflicts, internal thoughts, ambitions, and fears that they cannot be told in a single sentence. So the author resorts to giving the reader hints, in leading the reader along. Eventually, though, those hints come together in a cohesive whole where the reader shouts “Aha!” and experiences a revelatory moment. In short, the reader takes the author’s hints and reconstructs them into a completed story.
Let me give you an example. There is a joke that I heard several years ago that goes like this: “When I die, I hope to go peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did—not screaming and praying like the rest of the people in his car!” There you have it, a small story in one sentence. One can immediately imagine the grandfather, his face resting in perfect repose. But it’s not until you reach the last word of the sentence that you realize that he’s in fact relaxing in a car. Only then can you imagine the shouts and cries of others in the car—perhaps the old man’s wife and friends—as they try to climb out of the backseat and all grab for a the steering wheel. You might well imagine their dismay as the vehicle slams into an oncoming logging truck or goes veering off a cliff.
In short, the audience members in this case will easily construct in their minds a story that is much longer than the one that the author invented. That is often the case. Somerset Maugham used to say that all that it takes to create a tale is 1) an incident that leads to an effect 2) accompanied by the motive of the protagonist. Thus, he said, that “The child died, and the mother died also,” is not a tale, but that “The child died, and then the mother died of grief” is a complete story. Personally, I’d argue him on the point. I don’t think that a single incident quite makes a complete story, but one can certainly imagine a complete story arising out of an incident. In short, the reader can construct a tale with a small bit of information.
Indeed, my novel In the Company of Angels examines that basic tale—of a child dying, and then the parent dying of grief—over two major story arcs. In order for the incident to truly become a story, it requires the protagonist to recognize what is going on, to take steps to avoid his or her fate, and then to either accept his fate or avoid it. In my tale, a starving Samuel Gadd watches his youngest son die due to the complications from starvation. As a result, Samuel gives up portions of his food to his other children—and starves to death. His wife, seeing what he has done, resolves to live in an effort to save the rest of their brood, and goes through horrendous trials and a magnificent change because of it.
Still, I believe that Somerset Maugham has the gist of it. As authors, we construct tales in bits and pieces. I might tell you a bit about a character in one sentence and then contradict myself in the next. I might tell you that my protagonist is a saintly old priest, for example, who once killed his own brother. Now, as a reader, you are left in a quandary. Which portrait of the character is most accurate? How is this to be resolved? Was the priest insane at the time? Did he change after the event? What’s going on?
As authors, we have precious little ammunition to use when we try to keep a reader engaged. One bit of ammunition of course is mystery. We keep the reader flipping the pages by withholding information. Perhaps, for example, we will mention the priest’s murder on page one, and not explain when or why he murdered his own brother until we get to page 457.
Another bit of ammunition is very similar—suspense. Suspense, as I’m using it, is that pleasurable feeling of anticipation that a reader gets when he or she is reading a story. Now, that sense of anticipation can arise from any pleasurable emotion. For example, if I’m reading a story that is beautifully written, where the imagery is stunning, where the author’s world creation leaves me breathless, where characters come to life—then the author’s performance on the page alone is enough to create a sense of suspense. There might be very little happening in the actual story. The author might spend three pages describing a storm as it sweeps off the coast of Florida, into the cypress groves, and hey, if it’s done beautifully, I might love it. But eventually I’ll get bored. So maybe the author moves next to a scene in a small resort, where a tired writer meets a beautiful woman beside the pool and strikes up a conversation. Hey, this situation could lead somewhere interesting, I might think, and so in anticipation of some other emotion—such as romance—I keep reading.
Of course, we can create all kinds of suspense in a story. We can promise to answer some of life’s mysteries for a reader. We can promise a thrill of victory, self-discovery, or the detection of untold riches.
However, it’s not until all of our important promises are fulfilled that the story truly resolves completely in the mind of our reader. So the story must eventually coalesce, it must resolve to the point that the reader understands every nuance of the tale. This gives us something that is very rare in real life.
In our own stories, we are too often merely actors who know only our own parts. The inner workings of others around us are unknown and pretty much unknowable. Even a small incident, such as an argument between two uncles at a Thanksgiving dinner, often never makes any sense. Perhaps one of them believes that grandpa hated grandma and often wished that he could afford a divorce. The other uncle remembers grandmother as a warm and affectionate person, and believes that grandpa just didn’t show much affection. Other family members, upon questioning, never noticed the strained relationship at all and have to wonder if either uncle recalls the past clearly.
In short, a perfect story offers us something exceedingly rare in life, a fulfilling sense of enlightenment, of certainty. A story is often something of a manual for life. Through it we examine various conflicts, compare the strengths of character and weaknesses of various characters in dealing with the conflicts, and to some degree learn how to manage our own lives better in the process. So creating a full story requires more than just assigning motives to various acts. Somerset Maugham was correct in the direction of his thoughts, but certainly not in the degree. We crave to know more than just the motive behind an act. We need to know the outcome and all of its attendant reasons. In short, we as readers are searching for something very close to enlightenment, with all of the pleasure that that entails.
I have a new short story in a new anthology: Asylum Archives
I have two live workshops up on my site. If you are interested, you can learn more here.