Mark Twain once said, “I like a good story well told.”
We’re with you there, Mark. Whether that story comes in the form of a book, a news article, or over a drink with a friend after work, stories are pretty much universal.
It’s the “well told” part of this statement that interests me most, though. What exactly does that mean? Especially in fiction, is there one way to tell a story well?
Linear, cause-and-effect narratives are fine. Third-person omniscient narration is cool. And the Hero’s Journey works. But when you find a story told in a weird, out-there sort of way, it can really make things feel fresh.
What am I talking about here? I’m talking about present tense. I’m talking about all-dialogue. I’m talking about non-linear narratives. Let me give you a few examples.
I just got finished reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. It’s about a woman who survives a brutal attack by a time-traveling serial killer, and then devotes the rest of her life to stopping him. Not one for the kiddies.
It’s not the typical cut and dry, one-scene-into-the-next thriller. First thing: it’s written in the present tense, which is somewhat atypical for genre fiction. Present tense works perfectly with this story, though, because it gives everything a sense of immediacy. It’s as if the events of the novel are unfolding before us in real time, sort of like news story (she was a freelance reporter, by the way).
Furthermore, present tense works best with quick sentences and short chapters, which we see a lot of in The Shining Girls. Beukes writes her chapters in jabs, like hits to the mouth. We zoom in on one character, end on a resounding note, then move on to the next. Certainly an economical approach, here.
Could Beukes achieve the same effect using traditional narrative styles? Maybe, but I don’t think it would’ve been quite as effective. There’s no distance to the events with present tense—it’s happening instead of having already happened.
Another weird narrative comes in David Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? The plot: an unremarkable man kidnaps an astronaut in order to ask said astronaut all sorts of existential questions.
Okay, that probably already sounds pretty weird. But it gets weirder.
Eggers’s book is written entirely as dialogue. It’s sort of like a stage play in that sense, only without even so much as stage direction. Like in The Shining Girls, this makes things move very, very quickly. Though it’s a roughly 200-page book (which isn’t super long to begin with), it reads as though it’s half that length.
The best part about this all-dialogue style is the way it puts the characters’ voices right in your ear. After a while, you can imagine distinct accents and inflections for each of them. Furthermore, the dialogue takes on a special weight, because without description to back it up, every line has to do more to move the story along. In addition, the dialogue also needs to perform such mundane actions as orienting the reader in the space, a function usually performed by description.
The last weird narrative style I’d like to discuss is that of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Perhaps the weirdest of the three, Slaughterhouse centers on the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII veteran who’s trying to adjust to postwar life. But that can be tough when you bounce around the moment in your life because you’ve “become unstuck in time” (which has to be one of the coolest lines in literature).
Billy jumps from moment to moment in his life, from the war to troubled times at home to an alien planet, all of them decades apart. The narrative cuts between all of these times and settings in an almost unpredictable pattern—definitely not the style of most books.
But the genius here is that we become disoriented, just like Billy. If the story was told in a normal, linear manner, we’d know exactly when we are in time, i.e. the events on page 100 are happening after those on page 50. As written, though, we’re just as unstuck in time as Billy. It’s an effect that really couldn’t be achieved otherwise.
So what makes a good story well told? Like any good question, there’s no single answer. It might be a classic structure, or it might be something a little more unusual. Whatever the structure, it’s not just what happens that makes a story great—it’s the way in which it happens.