BY: ADRIAN SMITH
I’ve always lacked inventiveness in my short stories despite faithfully creating characters and narratives that mirror major events and expectations in my life. After explaining that to a friend who also writes, he recommended a video with George Saunders breaking down what makes good and bad storytelling. As Saunders explains it, a good story is “one that says ‘we’re both human beings, we’re in this crazy situation called life that we don’t really understand. Can we put our heads together and confer about it a little bit at a very high, non-bullshitty level?’” ‘Non-bullshitty’ is the operative word here.
The Tenth of December author explains how a bad story is one where “you know what the story is, and you’re sure of it, and you go there with your intentionality fixed in place.” In the video, Saunders compares the act of storytelling to a first date where one person comes in with index cards ready to use in conversation so that they don’t mess things up. He makes this comparison to point out how condescending it would be to your date to arrive with scripted prompts. The conversation wouldn’t be sincere at all. It wouldn’t work.
The point of a first date is figuring out how you feel about the other person and how you feel about your character in their presence in a natural and genuine way. Why would anyone go into a date with index cards ready to use as the night goes on? For the same reasons one would go into a story with set plots and conflicts ready to use to articulate their feelings. It’s scary going into things not knowing exactly what’ll happen. Especially when you want what you’re doing to go well and you’ve put your time, energy, thoughts and emotions into it.
In the same way that it’s condescending to a date if you bring index cards, your reader feels condescended too if what they’re reading’s been perfectly planned out.
The problem is that in the same way that it’s condescending to a date if you bring index cards, your reader feels condescended too if what they’re reading’s been perfectly planned out from the characters’ traits, to the writer’s wit, to the social issues and themes being brought to the forefront. All of these things must be genuine. They can’t be forced or carefully placed onto the page in a scripted sort of way. Your reader will pick up on it immediately, and although what you’re saying comes from the heart—it hasn’t been said in any way that makes the reader feel it’s sincere. And that won’t move anybody.
Instead, Saunders suggests writers have some idea of what the story is about; then, when you sit down to write it, you’ll find it’s your discontent with the sentences and the story you’ve written that urges it to be better. He explains that a good story isn’t created because you went into it wanting to write about something like a widower or a person feeling out of place in their surroundings—it happened because the sentences bother you enough that you revise them to satisfaction. It’s best to go into the writing hopeful, and generous, but not too pushy. You need to leave your ideas of the story at the door and instead go into it with your eyes open, as an observer. The best way to do that, Saunders points out, is to go out into the world and experience it, be in awe of it, and then come back with what you’ve learned and try the writing again.
Your view of the world changes as you get older. It’s strange, it’s unpredictable, and above all, it’s very hard to pin down. You need to keep yourself in awe of the world around you in order to come back with something fresh and honest for readers to think about. Every story is different. The process of sitting down to write one means keeping your eyes open at all times and being honest with what you see and what you’ve learned when you sit in front of that blank page.