Monday, March 26, 2018

What’s the “Point” in a Story?

When I worked at an airport restaurant in one of the most expensive tourist towns of the country, I would constantly have people upset over the prices. This wasn’t distressing. In some cases, it was reasonable. In others, it could actually be highly entertaining.

Turns out, when the parents would act up, they would be teaching their children the “appropriate” behavior. The child would take whatever reaction the parents have and emulate it tenfold. So as his son throws his arms in the air, screaming, “Fifteen dollars for a burger?!” the previously irate father would blush bright red and usher the blustering boy away.

Mimicking is how we learn, and when we are new to something, we tend to look around and see what others are doing in order to figure out the “best” manner to approach it. You can see this often in artistic classes and first manuscripts in which the painter/writer/director tapped into his subconscious and emulated whatever it thinks that artform is supposed to be.

Which, in other words, most first manuscripts are great samples of what’s going on in the literary world at that time.

They’re often exaggerations or a patchwork of common trends, sort of a simplified epitome of the genre. Completely unknown to the new author, many of our first deviate less from the norm than our later works.

And this is a good thing. Asking too many questions before you really understand anything can leave the beginner completely overwhelmed. It’s important to have a general, if arbitrary, idea on where to start, and in many cases it’s correct to think that other people know what they’re doing. Reinventing the wheel takes up a lot of time.

But what’s interesting is that, like the child in the airport, it’s often the amateurs trying to emulate the greats that really reveal some of the problems with the artistic world’s attitude about “good art.”

In college, my theatre professors would insist that Absurdist Theatre was the most intellectual triumph of the early 20th century, cherry picking their opinions on whether or not a writer “had to mean it” for something to have meaning. When their student coughed up a strange, experimental piece that was “about whatever you want to be about,” clearly the author’s intention mattered. But when shown proof the creator of the great masterpiece did not mean the intense metaphor the professor was pushing down our throats, “the playwright doesn’t know what it’s about.”

Meanwhile, my creative writing professor got into a knockdown argument with a fellow student about a critically successful story that seemed to just go off on tangents.

“It doesn’t have a point!” she said.

“Who says a story needs to have a point? Does all art have a point?”

I considered this. What is “the point” of the story? What is “the point” of abstract art? Theatre? Anything? I certainly have never had a critic of anything say praisingly “There is nothing to talk about!” unless they were discussing Seinfeld.

I agreed with my fellow student. Something seemed missing from the story, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it, “not having a point,” felt like the best way to say it.

I’ve had stories that I’ve written like that, things that I felt, “This is missing something.” Some sort of point, some sort of reason why I’m telling the story. But what that is, and how to add it, is more complicated.

Sometimes, when discussing or considering whether or not something is “necessary,” I use the example of regular old conversation, and how some stories come off as that guy who just starts rambling on and on with no clear direction, boring the living crap out of all his listeners. Or when someone approaches you and says something seemingly out of the blue and it’s not clear the reaction they want. Or when you start talking about something and then you realize, with horror, that you don’t really know how to end it. All of these have a sense of, “What’s your point?”

It’s one of those things that we recognize it when we see it—or don’t—but trying to put one In where it isn’t is difficult.

When it comes to others’ short stories that miss this certain something, an obvious issue is a lack of either emotional or intellectual impact. A good story leaves you with a feeling—happiness, sadness, eeriness, even relief—or taught you something you didn’t know before. Even bare-minimum, it changes your perspective on the characters from beginning to end. Maybe it gave you a light-hearted laugh.

It doesn’t have to be intense or deep (as in an erotica book isn’t expected to enlighten you on the starvation in Ethiopia), but there has to be something that changed the reader’s current internal dialogue.

This is harder to see within my own work because reading something from a first impression is always going to be different than when you’ve worked and reworked a piece that you had a general idea of what was going to happen. Sure, things surprise you, but it’s not always what’s going to be surprising to a reader. Things sometimes make me laugh or upset or yearning, but it’s not uncommon for me to grow tolerant to the effects of my own words, being overly exposed to them. Sometimes, a lack of impact might be just because it’s no longer new to me. Or, because there really is a lack of impact. It’s frustrating sometimes to tell.

Also, I’ve read books that lacked a reaction, but it felt “complete.” They followed a story formula or at least made it clear what they were trying to do, and even though it wasn’t successful necessarily, it didn’t make you baffled as to why they were talking.

I think if a story finishes with some sort of impact, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t have a point, but it’s clear it’s not the whole issue.

A part of it is a bit of a character arc, but sometimes the point of the story can be that people never learn, such as in television shows like Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the audience is watching terrible people not to relate or root for them, but to see them get their comeuppance. In which case, I suppose the comeuppance would be it. But there’s also books in which horrible characters end up getting what they want and not changing anything about themselves, being sort of the point.

The absence of a character arc seems to be a powerful statement in itself, as long as it makes sense within the framing of the story.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have a writing tip about how each part of your story should be tied together with a “therefore” or a “but.” It doesn’t compensate for more complex storylines with subplots, but it is a good idea how to see if you’re rambling or not.

What’s interesting to me is when it comes down to why we engage with people socially at all. I’m not one much for frivolous social interaction, and tend to need a purpose in approaching someone. Commonly, as I rarely reach out just for the sake of chatting, people often look at me, waiting for what I want when I don’t really have a purpose to talk to them outside of their company. I think, though, that most people seek some sort of validation whenever they interact, even if it’s just the joy of being able to make others laugh.

Why do we tell each other stories? Oral or literary? What are we seeking?

Validation? Yes, but I think the readers need to get that from the writer, and if it reads the other way around, it doesn’t fair well. Readers want some sort of validation for their choices, or proof that the hardships of their life aren’t due to them being a special grade of stupid.

I came to a conclusion when I wondered why I allowed negative thoughts to permeate my mind, and realized how important problem solving is to me in order to intellectually stimulate myself and keep from getting bored. That tied into the question on why a story needs conflict to be interesting. I understand (and have no desire to do otherwise) that fiction is bad without it, but what makes positivity and good things without consequences so unenjoyable to read? Why do we actively seek out bad realities to fantasize about?

A good story doesn’t necessarily need to solve a problem. Most of the New Yorker’s fiction doesn’t. A lot of it just talks about a situation, leaving you with a feeling of, “What the hell did I just read?” They have a problem, but it isn’t necessarily solved or outright explained.

But, as someone who reads to be entertained first and foremost, I’ve realized that a key element to a good story is a problem to chew over. Something that I feel can be solved, and not in a deus ex machina, but by the agency and skills of the characters. I like seeing how people fix things, believing things can be fixed, and avoiding the hopelessness that life sometimes brings down on you.

There’s a lot of controversy when it comes to the point of writing, so it becomes a question of avoiding hypocrisy and trusting your own sense of judgment. I don’t understand or like many of those “existential” pieces I’ve read over my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean my judgment is an end all. I think every story has to have a point, however there’s a lot of flexibility in what that actually means.

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