George Saunders on Story
December 18, 2015 § 7 Comments
I think a good story is one that says on many different levels, 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.
Then all kinds of magic can happen.
The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.
As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Take a moment for a video break (it’s worth watching with your full attention). Redglass Pictures has made a small and beautiful 7-minute film–so much more than an interview–with George Saunders.
Saunders is best-known for his fiction, and he’s approaching craft from that angle. But what he says applies to essay and memoir as well.
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.
Let the story surprise you, Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story. Be ready to look underneath.
With nonfiction, looking underneath is often less interrogating our imagination and more out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.
We talk a lot in memoir about the “so what” factor–why should anyone else care what happened to you? Most of the time, readers understand when someone does something shitty. It’s not necessary to tell them how we felt when Mom slapped us or Dad came home drunk again or the doctor started with “It’s not good news.” They already know how they’d feel, and letting the reader have that experience by observing well-written scenes is more powerful than telling them our own feelings. By looking at actions and questioning them, rather than explaining the impact of those actions on the narrator, we take a big step towards answering “so what?”.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.