A long time ago I used to work at Starbucks. One of my favorite coworkers was this quintessential hipster girl who studied English at the university, and whose worldview was in many ways the compete opposite of mine. We amiably debated and discussed various different stories as we closed together, but nearly always disagreed. I still remember her looking at me in mild exasperation, saying, “Stories aren’t supposed to be happy! Stories are supposed to reflect life, and life isn’t all puppies and kittens and rainbows!” Or something like that.
Now, disclaimer: I do agree with her that stories shouldn’t be all “puppies and kittens and rainbows.” I cringe at the Hallmark Special types of movies just as much as the next guy, but that isn’t because they are happy; it’s because they are sappy. And to me, sappy rings false. What matters to me most in a good story is:
- That I get “sucked in” and lose myself. This means there must be at least enough consistency in the world of the story that I’m seldom jarred by the idiosyncracies;
- That I enjoy it. This usually, not always, means I need to feel at least satisfied, if not happy, at the end of it; and
- That it doesn’t put ideas into my mind that will influence me in a way that I consider to be negative after the fact.
On getting sucked in:
I used to lose myself in stories so completely that I’d jump and gasp and cringe at every plot twist. When watching movies with me, friends would cast an amused glance at my rigid expression and whisper, “Calm down!” I don’t do this quite as much anymore, though, because of an unintended side effect of writing: I can’t help analyzing the construction of the story now. (Maybe this is a good thing, since I listen to a lot of audiobooks while I’m driving.) But I’ve never been one of those people who has a hard time stopping a movie or abandoning a book if it doesn’t hook me quickly. After all, there are SO many stories to devour, and so little time to do it in! I don’t want to waste time on stories I don’t love.
When my Starbucks friend told me that stories weren’t supposed to be happy because life wasn’t always happy, my reply was, “That’s precisely why stories ought to be happy! We can be sad about real life; who wants to pay good money for it?”
I’m re-listening to “Little Women” in my car right now, because it was one of my favorites growing up. ***Spoiler alert***: I’m just getting to the part where Jo refuses to marry Laurie, and as soon as I get there I’m going to stop listening. (That way I can pretend she later goes back and accepts him like Anne of Green Gables later accepted Gilbert. It always upset me that Jo went for the stuffy old professor, while selfish Amy got Laurie.)
Maybe things do sometimes end “all wrong” in real life, but why does that mean they have to do the same in entertainment? As long as I believe the ending, as long as it’s in character, I like happy when I can get it.
There are exceptions to this, but only when sad endings are also somehow bittersweet or redemptive. I do love “Les Miserables” (the on-stage musical version is best, but the book was also terrific), and the title is pretty much a spoiler that it’s gonna be a tragedy. But it’s a hopeful tragedy. There’s sacrifice for the sake of love. There’s repentance. It’s not just miserable for misery’s sake.
I think there’s a great deal of power in a good story, because unlike in an outright persuasive argument, the audience approaches it with his or her defenses down. This means the “morals,” if there are any, can creep in to the mind of the audience unawares. We can become desensitized to certain ideas we might prefer to remain vigilant about. I’m certainly not advocating external censorship, but personally, I do think it’s wise to pay attention to the messages of the movies I watch, the books I read, and the music I listen to, because I know those messages will eventually influence how I think. There are certain ideas I just don’t want in my head, if I can help it.
So what do you think makes a good story?