What makes a good story? I have a class right now where we are focusing on that question. Last week, we brainstormed a list of over twenty qualities that need to go into a story to make it work. Last night, we brainstormed a list of the deal breakers, the fatal flaws. Despite these lists of actual, measurable qualities, I find it still comes down to that certain something, that intangible quality, the je ne sais quoi that makes a piece move a reader viscerally.
When a piece of writing has it, I feel it inside. Good or bad, my body responds physically. Something involuntary is happening on the level of the autonomic nervous system: heart rate, blood pressure, clenching or releasing of muscles and organs. That is what makes a story exceptional. We read the opening paragraphs of two stories in draft form and two exceptional, already published stories. We ended with one of the published pieces, and I made a little involuntary sound like mmmh. The difference between draft and polished story was palpable and obvious. The draft pieces hit me like a Hershey’s Kiss, and the published pieces were like the first bite of a hand-crafted dark chocolate truffle as it melts over my tongue…mmmh.
I just picked up the current issue of Ecotone (6:1, Fall 2010). I read the editor’s note, which ends with a mention of Terry Tempest Williams’ essay. This mention was so tantalizing that I went straight to the Williams piece and read it first. In “A Disturbance of Birds,” she writes about being diagnosed with a cavernoma on her brain, something that could affect her ability to comprehend language. I was rapt, and not just because I fear my ability to handle language being taken away. As I read Williams’ essay, I was aware of slowing down to take in every word, of images forming in my mind, of the play of language. When I finished reading the essay, I made a sound, mmmh, and held the closed journal to my chest. I did not clutch the journal out of sympathy for the author, or to comfort or be comforted. It was a reflexive act, an involuntary response to the movement of language on the page, and its movement of me.
And then I got in my car. As I drove down 35W, a flock of pigeons came toward me, then banked to the west. They looked very much like the image that spreads across the essay’s title page. They brought me back to the essay and Williams’ many images of birds. Or, more likely, more importantly, having just read the essay, my experience of Williams’ words made that everyday flock of pigeons relevant and beautiful in a new way. My experience of the essay and my experience of the pigeons, of the world around me, connected in a meaningful way.
Reading lesser prose, whether fiction or CNF, is the opposite experience, has the opposite effect. When I read something I’m not particularly enjoying, that lacks in craft, I find that I have to be the engine of the piece. It’s like this: Reading “A Disturbance of Birds,” I slowed down to appreciate the language and the language carried me through the piece beginning to end. Reading a story that is significantly lacking, I have to read to get through it. I find myself speeding up as I move through the piece, very much aware of time and space around me, of how many pages are left. I am working through the story instead of it working through me. It fails to transport me away from my here and now. It fails to move me. And when I get in my car, I forget it.
The question for all of us writers is this: how do we write stories with that je ne sais quoi? We can make our check lists of necessary qualities and objectively tick them off: interesting, flawed characters? Check. Attention to language? Check. Significant details? Check. But at the end of the day, we need to read the piece out loud, slow down, listen to the language, and ask ourselves: Hershey’s Kiss or truffle? Did I finish the piece and make that sound?
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