In developing my concept of three essential elements of literary storytelling (recently published in How To Write Your Best Story, Crickhollow Books, 2011), I did a lot of consideration of why we are drawn to the work of famous writers, past and present.
While there are plenty of ways to analyze (and over-analyze) great literary yarn-spinning, my goal was to put my finger on a simple approach to storytelling skills that the emerging writer could use immediately and effectively . . . to better understand the nature of a good story and how to write one.
One of the literary luminaries I turned to was Anton Chekhov, a Russian writer considered to be one of the greatest short-story writers of all time.
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was a master storyteller, a beacon to those who followed his glittering lead, such as Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver (two writers who considered Chekhov one of the greatest influences on their own work).
Here is the beginning of Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” (Yes, it begins with an evocative description of place, an approach dear to my heart, as you may know by now. Weather, no less.)
The whole sky had been overcast with rain-clouds from early morning; it was a still day, not hot, but heavy, as it is in grey dull weather . . . when one expects rain and it does not come. Ivan Ivanovitch, the veterinary surgeon, and Burkin, the high-school teacher, were already tired from walking, and the fields seemed to them endless.
Then, Chekhov delivers a compelling line:
“Last time we were in Prokofy’s barn,” said Burkin, “you were about to tell me a story.”
Ivan Ivanovitch begins to tell his story – “Yes, I meant to tell you about my brother” – but just as he lights a pipe, the rain begins . . . and we have to wait as the duo tromp to a nearby farm, wash up, and retire to the drawing room.
And only when the lamp was lighted in the big drawing-room upstairs, and Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch, attired in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, were sitting in arm-chairs; . . . and when lovely Pelagea [a beautiful maid-servant], stepping noiselessly on the carpet and smiling softly, handed tea and jam on a tray – only then Ivan Ivanovitch began on his story. . . .
The hook has been baited. We all sink into comfy arm-chairs in the mind’s parlor . . . and wait for the story.
At first, the story (about Ivan’s eccentric brother whose goal in life is to own a farm with gooseberry bushes) seems to be just an odd tale about a goofy person. By the end, though, Chekhov brings it home to a core human issue: what is needed for a person to be happy?
How is happiness earned?
And to what extent is it ever truly deserved?
Chekhov’s storytelling technique strikes with delightful efficiency the three elements I believe are essential to a good story:
1. Intriguing Eccentricity.
Why am I telling you this story? Why do you want to pause to listen? The beginning of a story is, in a nutshell, something odd that kicks it off, some a curious starting point. Something odd that happened.
Think of the start of Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Pa going with that axe?”
Or the beginning line of “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol: A most extraordinary thing happened in Petersburg on the twenty-fifth of March.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – 1984, by George Orwell.
It was Mrs. Packletide’s pleasure and intention that she should shoot a tiger. – Mrs. Packeltide’s Tiger, by Saki (H. H. Munro)
Why does Gregor Samsa awake as a giant bug in the first line of The Metamorphosis? Why is Dorothy’s Kansas home struck by a tornado in the first pages of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Because a good story starts with something very odd that occurs.
Give us a start to your story that makes us sit up and take notice that something out of the ordinary has happened . . . or is about to.
2. Delightful Details.
After the first line, the success of most of the rest of a story is based on a simple question: What happens? But the trick is to season that with delightful details (just as a cook delights in sprinkling herbs and spices into a dish to make it taste wonderful).
Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 starts with an odd occurrence, but then right off the bat he establishes the delightful details that signal that you are going to enjoy reading this novel:
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
From the “great python” to the “flapping pigeon-winged books,” Bradbury writes with an intrinsic command of details, like a master chef looking around his kitchen and reaching for a fresh spring of tarragon. And like a wonderful meal, a lot of the enjoyment of reading comes down to enjoying each bite.
Although often you’ll hear that plot is one of the most important features of a story (and yes, you need a plot that works), still . . . consider that for most readers, the wonderful writing of the details of a story in a way that makes you enjoy each page . . . trumps all.
Consider Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not the plot, it’s his storytelling skill that has made these works so beloved over the ages. He is master of the play of words, the frolic of language, the techniques that beguile the heavy gait of plot. And he knows how to wrap up a story well at the end. As poet Howard Nemerov noted, the clever bard “tells the same stories over and over in so many guises that it takes a long time before you notice.”
Beginning writers too often believe that the plot is the thing, and so they craft intricate plots . . . that often do not pay off until far too late in the story, if at all. The truth is that while plot is important, it does not have the intrinsic appeal that many beginning writers think it does.
I often compare it to eating a wonderful meal. While a chef indeed wants to set the order of the dishes so they appear in an orderly fashion, in many ways, it comes down to the question of how tasty the food is on the tongue.
3. Satisfying Surprise.
At the end, a good story arrives at some worthwhile point of meaning that the story holds . . . not necessarily a moral, but an answer to why the tale has stuck in the head, why it is worthy of taking all this time to tell it.
This should, ideally offer both a bit of surprise, but in a satisfying way. You need to avoid the problem endings: the predictable end, or the unbelievable deus ex machina, or the pitiful fade where the story just drifts away. All leave a sense of disappointment.
To discover the traits of a wonderfully satisfying surprise ending, you only need to read O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” It is a classic story about a Christmas for an impoverished but loving couple, Jim and Della Young. It’s a surprise ending, but logical to the fullest. O. Henry was known for his clever plot twists. But it’s not a random twist. Note how perfect the ending is. Della and Jim Young surprise each other with Christmas gifts that fit the story like a glove. The effect is to leave us nodding, smiling, a bit surprised, yet saying, “But of course!”
Do you know what the core theme of your story is? You need to know because this is a logical source for the surprise at the end. The theme of “The Gift of the Magi” is love and the gift of giving. The surprise ending speaks to that theme.
Surprise only means that you didn’t see it coming. It doesn’t need to be something that makes you jump with shock. It simply means the ending wasn’t so predictable that we felt that we didn’t really need to read the story to its end.
A good story is about something that we care about. As Eudora Welty wrote in a review of the now-classic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, in the New York Times Book Review:
What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.
A book like Charlotte’s Web is not just about a spider and a pig and a barn. Or as author Jane Yolen noted about Huckleberry Finn, it’s not just a story about a boy and a slave on a raft.
A story first catches you with an odd occurrence. Then it fills the middle with the delight of delights. And by the end, it delivers the third element of a good story: a satisfying surprise. It’s the pay-off, our reward. It wraps the whole thing up nicely, like a gift box tied with a ribbon and bow.
Three Elements for Your Story’s Success
These three elements are at the heart of the time-tested storytelling techniques that great authors use to turn their works into bestselling books, to win major literary prizes, and to delight generations of devoted readers.
This article is by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.