Friday, July 10, 2009

Why We Tell Stories

The last book I read was Homer's The Iliad. If you haven't read it (and you should), it does not tell the story of the fall of Troy. It is instead the story of the death of Hector at the hands of the hero Achilles, beginning nine years into the Greek siege of Troy when Achilles becomes angry at Agamemnon (lord of the Greeks) and refuses to enter the battle, sitting in the shade of his ship while Hector leads the Trojans in a general slaughter of the Greek army. Toward the end of the story Achilles holds a funeral for Patrocles, his best friend who was killed by Hector on the battlefield. The funeral rites are described in great detail, which pretty much brings the dramatic action to a full stop, right when the story was galloping along thrillingly.

I had to ask myself why Homer would do this. What dramatic purpose did the detailing of Patrocles' funeral serve? None, as far as I could tell. It was then that I remembered something important: stories are told for a variety of reasons. The epic poems of Homer, for example, serve many purposes. They are histories, they are morality plays, they are hugely entertaining stories and they are religious and cultural instructions to the audience as well. Homer stops the forward action of the story at Patrocles' funeral because one of his themes is that all men are mortal and die. Our fates are written for us and are unavoidable. Death is the most significant fact of life, and the death of Patrocles was far more important to Achilles than his own death would be (Achilles has known since before he left home that he would not return alive from the Trojan war). So Homer shows us how we celebrate the deaths of our friends, and how important funeral rites are to his culture, and demonstrates for his audience what the proper way to grieve is. So there is a strong cultural, pedagogic element to Homer.

Which is fine. C.S. Lewis claimed that the point of literature was to ennoble the reader, to make us into better persons and that stories instruct and challenge us when written well. The Screwtape Letters is hi-larious fun, but also very moral in a nice, subversive way. So Lewis and Homer both wrote not only to entertain, but also to teach.

I have no such pretensions. I don't think I've got anything to teach anyone, so my stories lack any sort of lessons, even in a subliminal way. I do, however, want to think out loud, as it were, about things. Which means that in my stories, I like to leave the plot behind now and then and digress, or linger over things that are not dramatic and open doors that would otherwise stay shut. Because, you know, I like to think about stuff and I like to read books that are about more things than the central action. I'd like to write books that are thoughtful, beautiful, subtle and layered and have at their core ideas rather than just dramatic conflicts.

The problem is, while I know that books like this are being published, I don't think publishers are necessarily excited by these books. They don't make a lot of money even if they win prizes and critical acclaim. Agents and publishers are not constantly saying, "You know what we'd like to see more of? Thoughtful and enriching tales about the life of the mind." What they're saying is, "Zombies! Or vampires! Or wizards! Or--just bring me the next Stephanie Rowling-King, damn it!"

Which is why, I think, that I won't be quitting my day job no matter how many titles I manage to get published. I tell stories to talk about ideas, not necessarily to supply pleasant diversions and move a lot of units. My heart is more with Thomas Hardy than with Tom Clancy, and nobody reads Hardy in this day and age.

The point of this? Really, it's that I need to remember why it is that I want to write: to explore ideas about humanity and culture. There is a temptation to strip away everything in my planned books that is not dramatic action, that might get in the way of the drive to the climax. I must resist that temptation, because I would hate some day to look back and see that I am the author of books I would never want to read.


  1. Oh, dang. I thought we told stories to get out of trouble ;-)

    I have a lot of respect for your writing and your intellect, you are a gifted thinker. I also respect your choice to target a minority market, many would just go for the dough.

    I try to infuse thought-provoking themes into FATE'S GUARDIAN, even though it is a suspense/thriller. Quandaries regarding morality, or circumstances that play more to the psyche than raw action are my favorite parts.

    For example, as a 10-year-old Gil (my protagonist- but I think you are familiar enough with the story to know that) witnesses the death of his best friend by her father's hand. That's a good action scene, but that part that engages my mind the most is what comes next: her father's house burns down, and he is invited to stay at Gil's house. There is no action, other than breakfast, but it has more tension than the murder scene.

    The greater theme for the story brings up the question of fate vs. free will, a spiritual question that none of us can answer with true authority.

  2. Scott, You bring up so many thought-provoking ideas here. I don't exactly know where to start. Well, first, your book that I read is quite educational in the sense that it teaches me more about language and more about history. I think multicultural books do that, which is perhaps why they are or were popular.

    I don't try to teach morals or anything in my stories, but I recently had lunch with a good friend of mine, and she gave me one of the highest compliments on my book that I've ever gotten. She said she was afraid that if she continued to live her life as she was doing she would turn out to be like one of my characters. I loved that. I've had readers argue over which of my characters were likable or not likable, but I'd never had someone reflect on their own life based on what I wrote, and I must say that I would love to be able to do that again sometime in my life.

    I do think those readers that appreciate digressions and lessons are still out there and are still hungry, but I wonder if they are now turning more to non-fiction books, where the information is supposedly more trustworthy. I personally think fiction writers are part of the blame for this. For example, if I get lazy about researching certain details about a city in Thailand that I'm not familiar with, then readers will know that they should use my book to learn from, that they should instead get some reference book. In that sense, if we want to regain that trust, we have to work harder to put as much non-fiction in our fiction as we can.

  3. Thanks for mentioning trust again, Davin! I think it's important to set the precedence of the story up front. If it's all action and no reflection for half the book, then just jumps into all this deep stuff later on, that'll throw the reader.

    Scott, talk about thought provoking! I love this post. It opens up so many doors, and helps me see more of what I'm aiming to do with my own writing. I love to entertain, but at the same time there's always this pull back to ideas I want to explore. I'm not sure most of my readers would see these ideas. I keep them pretty subtle. But they're there.

    Then there's this other side of me that wants to write super boring stuff that nobody would like. I usually keep that work on my computer. One day it might work. For now I've gotta get the action out.

  4. Last night I was talking to Mighty Reader about a section of my novel that I want to change around, because it just doesn't work for me. Something is lacking, though I'm not sure what, nor do I know what I will do to it. Mighty Reader pointed out that even if the section didn't pass my arbitrary criteria for dramatic purpose, it did expand on one of the themes I had going in the book, and to be honest I didn't consciously realize I was talking about that theme until she told me. Now, of course, I want to go in and expand upon that theme, but I won't, because it's nice to have subtle things going on.

    Part of my current thinking is a confusion caused by the books I have planned. I had thought that I'd be one of those people who wrote about modern life, telling broody urban tales about brooding urbane people, I guess. Instead, I've got:

    Sideways Hamlet in 1600
    The Devil in Baltimore in 1900
    Adultery in Austria-Hungary in 1790

    followed by something heavily influenced by the ancient Irish Fenian cycle of stories. None of this is what I thought I'd grow up to write.

  5. Rick: "her father's house burns down, and he is invited to stay at Gil's house. There is no action, other than breakfast, but it has more tension than the murder scene." Wow, that's a scene I want to read!

  6. Your last sentence really nails it for be the author of books you want to read. That is what inspires my children's book ideas sometimes...."I wish there was a book about/like this......." And so I find myself writing the stuff that I'd like to read. (Because really, that's about all any of us can do.......or write the books that NObody wants to read....ugh.)

    Yes, I've written a few of the latter, luckily no one will see them but me.


  7. Ye ask and ye shall receive. This is just the breakfast scene, there's a section prior when Mr. Flaherty first arrives. This follows the dream passage I posted on my blog...Email me if you'd like to read more

    Gil awoke, exhausted. He rubbed his eyes and pulled his fingers through his damp hair. His faded blue pajama shirt stuck to his back from residual sweat. He shrugged his shoulders to pull it loose.

    Gil climbed out of bed and went into the bathroom. He avoided the mirror and went straight to the commode. He stood for a while before the stream started to flow; his body had put out a lot of water during the night, and his need to go was not urgent. He finished and washed his hands, looking down so he would not have to face his reflection.

    The sounds of breakfast were over, but the smells still lingered. Gil wondered what time it was. He went downstairs and into the kitchen and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Mr. Flaherty sitting at the table reading the newspaper. For all it was worth, the nightmare did not hold a candlestick to the reality of his situation.

    “Good morning Gil,” Mr. Flaherty said over the top of his paper.

    “Hi,” Gil managed. He climbed onto the counter to open the cupboard and get a bowl. He heard his brothers and sisters playing out in the yard and glanced at the clock. Nine forty-five. He hadn’t slept past eight thirty in…ever?

    “We didn’t get a chance to talk last night,” Mr. Flaherty started. Gil poured cereal and milk into his bowl.

    “I know you and Julie were very close. Best friends, probably. She talked about you all the time. What happened- what her mother did was an accident. A very sad accident. You know how her mother could be right? You saw her sometimes when she was…forgetful.”

    Gil nodded and took the last piece of bacon from a plate on the counter. He put it in his mouth and it looked like a big tongue sticking out as he walked to the table with his cereal bowl, slowly so he wouldn’t spill the milk. He set the bowl on the table as far away from Mr. Flaherty as he could and he climbed onto the bench and started chewing his bacon.

    “We’re all going to miss her,” a tear rolled down Mr. Flaherty’s cheek. “Julie was a good girl.”

    “I know,” Gil said as he finished his bacon and went back to get a spoon. He wasn’t really hungry; even more so he was not interested in talking about Julie with her father. But eating gave him the excuse to limit his stake in the conversation, so he took a small bit of his cereal and chewed it slowly.

    Mr. Flaherty set his paper down and watched as Gil fished a raisin from the bottom of the bowl. “She really wanted to play with you yesterday.”

    We did play, Gil wanted to say, but he didn’t. There were many things he wanted to say about yesterday, but he didn’t. He just kept eating his cereal.

    “If you ever want to go fishing with me again, just let me know. You’ve gotten pretty good at reeling them in. You’re a natural angler.”

    Gil did like it when Mr. Flaherty took Julie and him fishing, but the thoughts of walking to the river alone with him made Gil shudder. Mr. Flaherty noticed and sat back in his chair and picked up the paper. Gil took a final bite of his cereal.

    “It will take some time before you’re ready, I’m sure. I think it’s important, though, that we remember her.”

    “I remember,” Gil said and looked directly at Mr. Flaherty for the first time that morning. A mix of emotions spread across the man’s face, subtle indeed but evident enough that Gil could discern the sincerity in his eyes, offset by the guilt tugging at the corners of his smile.

    “Good,” he said and turned back to his paper.

    “Mr. Flaherty?” Gil asked as he set his bowl in the sink.


    “Do you remember?"

  8. I think that when writing to bring up ideas instead of explicitly teaching is a form of teaching. You understand that you do not have all of the answers and want people to figure them out for themselves. That is, of course not stay that there is anything wrong with having specific ideas of what you want to teach. Lewis is an interesting example. He often did not write with a moral in mind, but simply let the moral inherent to his story come out on its own.

    I personally write because I feel like there is so much that we have forgotten and left behind in our past. There is too much to be learned that must not be forgotten. I feel to an extent that is what many writers do. We write so we can remind ourselves and our readers of what we have been, what we are and what we can be.

  9. I really understand where you're coming from, but I find that for myself I want to entertain a general audience--write something that all my children could enjoy. This falls under the HUGE umbrella of books that I like. So that works for me.

  10. GAH, you are so noble, I love it. For the record, The Iliad is a billion times better and more interesting than The Odyssey. And Hector was my favorite character.

    Stephenie Rowling-King, haha.

  11. Definitely write what you want to read. Integrity!

  12. Icy Roses: I agree about the Iliad versus the Odyssey. Odysseus was a self-centered jerk. The nerve he had: sleeping with every woman he met and then demanding to know if Penelope had been faithful to him.

    Justus: What if I want to read royalty statements with large dollar amounts? What of my integrity then?