Monday, April 26, 2004

Book Memes, Two.

PZ Myers has three book memes in one post. One of which is The List, which I've already discussed, but I'll take on the other two. First is simple: what are my rules of what constitutes a good story?

I guess I'd lead off by saying that I don't think there are any "rules" for fiction; better, probably, to try to describe what characteristics are common to stories I love. With that in mind, here I go:

1. Don't depress me. This is big: I don't like stories that are just depressing. But this does not rule out sad endings, because "sad" does not equal "depressing". Likewise, "dark" (or "gothic" or "downbeat") also do not equal "depressing". Schindler's List is a terribly sad movie; Seven is a depressing one. I guess the difference is that sadness can still seem to serve a purpose, whereas depression is without purpose: it's just there. I don't want a story in which characters are subjected to just one damn thing after another, with no hope at all for a respite or even a good lesson learned beyond "Life sucks". If I want "Life sucks", well, I'll just look at, you know, life.

2. Engage my emotions. This goes hand-in-hand with "Don't depress me". Even though I don't want to feel depression after reading or viewing a story, I do want to feel something. A story that is the emotional equivalent of an unsalted saltine cracker is not a story for me.

3. Tie up your loose ends. Unless you don't want to. I tried coming up with a better way to say this, but I can't. I love both kinds of stories I'm talking about here, really: I love it when everything ties up into a neat little package, and I also love it when a story lets some things stay open, as if to suggest that the story was really just a segment of someone's life that we've just watched. Guy Gavriel Kay does the latter a lot; John Bellairs does the former. Either works.

4. But if you're gonna tie up your loose ends, be careful about it. Too often, a "no loose ends" book or movie starts to feel like one: about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through, you start to notice a relentless pace at which one thread is tied up every few pages or minutes or so. And then there's Neal Stephenson, who leaves everything in the air until the last ten pages, and then whammo! It's all bundled up with duct tape and baling wire. That's not satisfying, really.

5. Great stuff along the way will make me forgive a crappy ending. But the stuff along the way had better be really great.

6. Beware the surprise ending, or the shocking revelation. I love being surprised in stories, but the surprises have to arise logically out of the content of the story, so even if I didn't see it coming, I can still reexamine the story and see the clues and note the construction by which the surprise or revelation comes. A great example of how not to handle this is the movie Basic Instinct, whose final shot reveals whether or not a certain character is the murderer. The way the story has been constructed, it could have gone either way and made equal sense. That's bad storytelling.

7. Show me something new along the way. Discovery is cool. And it doesn't have to even be something totally new; it can just be a new way of looking at something really familiar. Don't be ordinary.

8. The word "said" should comprise at least 97% of your dialogue attributions. And for the love of God, please don't use "ejaculated" as a verb of dialogue attribution. I can't read about someone "ejaculating" a sentence without thinking of that one scene in There's Something About Mary.

Finally, I can probably distill all this into a single, three-part rule: Don't bore me, don't make me feel bad for having been told your story, and don't do anything that breaks the spell you're trying to weave.

I could probably come up with lots more, but you probably get the idea. You probably also get the idea that I'm a pretty permissive reader. That I am, and I've never made any bones about it: I tend to like lots of stories, of different kinds, told in different ways.

No comments: