What happens next

Some months ago, I read a rather sad and disturbing piece about a professor of Creative Writing at an English university (not Oxbridge). This fellow opined that his discipline was basically useless, because while prose style could be taught and learnt, he did not believe that anybody could teach the idea of story.

I think it was Ursula K. LeGuin who said something rather similar, if less fatalistic, on the other side of the pond. She said that in working with young would-be writers, she found that while many of them had an excellent grasp of style and mechanics, not one in a hundred had a feel for story – what made a good one and how to construct it.

I find this very odd. Perhaps these modern and sophisticated people have not had the advantage of being mired in ignorance and tradition as children, as I had, or (a much better example) G. K. Chesterton. We were fairly steeped in stories when we were small, and nakedly unsophisticated stories, too. There are more lessons for fiction writers in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ than on many a university campus. Since it seems unfair that wealth and education should be so unfairly disadvantaged, in comparison of poverty and stupidity, I shall offer to share my widow’s mite with the world.

A story (said I, in my most foolishly sententious tones) is a machine for communicating What Happens Next. A successful story is one which makes the reader, listener, or viewer care What Happens Next, and stick around with bated breath awaiting the outcome.

To demonstrate these propositions, I enlist the help of that celebrated storyteller, Kermit the Frog:

Here we see all the crucial elements of a good story in their most basic and unadorned form.

1. We have a character (Kermit) who wants to accomplish something, and is taking action to do so.

2. We have an expectation of how the thing is to be accomplished (the What Happens Next machine).

3. Things go wrong. What actually happens next is not what was supposed to happen next. Our character becomes unhappy and frustrated, but perseveres. We like and admire him for keeping on in the face of adversity. More to the point, if he gave up, he would never get to see What Happens Next, and neither would we.

It is important, at this stage, that what actually happens next should bear some kind of relevance to what we expected to happen. If it doesn’t, we have lost the thread of the story. To take an even simpler example than Kermit’s, we expect that two and two will make four; but even this can go wrong. It can go wrong in a way that naturally lends itself to a story: ‘Two plates and two plates only make three plates, because it was too many to carry and I broke one.’ It is the wrong answer, or an unexpected answer, but we can see how it is related to the expected one. Or it can go wrong in a way that is purely arbitrary, which is the death of story: ‘Two plates and two plates make – oh, look! Squirrel!’

Eschew the latter.

4. Eventually, we have a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes this will be what is called a Happy Ending. In this particular case, it is a tragedy with an O. Henry twist, as Kermit winds up losing his radio to the very machine he created to switch it on.

But there is no doubt that the story is concluded. The ‘slingshot ending’ beloved of modern littéraires, which leaves the outcome firmly in question, is a monkey trick, a piece of over-elaborate hackwork. It worked once – in ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ – when the whole point of the story was to startle the reader with an intriguing novelty. It was never likely to work again, except on persons who had never seen the trick done the first time; for novelty was the only thing it had to offer. Sometimes the trick will work as a joke ending, if the setup has been sufficiently complicated to keep the audience from expecting it. The film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had such an ending; but the ending was also a sight gag, and perfectly fitted the style and theme. It would have been disappointing to see the lead characters succeed, for they were bumbling fools who had never done anything right so far; it would have been heartbreaking to see them fail, for they were likeable bumbling fools. Better to go out with a laugh, by leaving them literally hanging in mid-air.

The art of storytelling, say I, can be divided into two parts. One is figuring out what actually happens next, and how it is in conflict with what was supposed or expected to happen. This is largely a matter of plotting; though it can be done in picaresques, and vignettes, and other plotless works – which is why story and plot are not the same thing. The second part is causing the audience to take a lively and abiding interest in finding out what happens next, so they will not put the book down, change the channel, or bury a battle-axe in the skald’s unworthy skull. That is a matter of Art, and too long for Kermit to go into.


  1. I’ve also seen at least one complaint from an sf editor that they were getting sent a lot of stories which were technically smooth but not interesting. I think the problem appeared well before the end of the story.

    However, I’m not going to blame literary criticism or something about the modern era. It’s at least as plausible to me that being good at story-making isn’t all that common a talent, though perhaps some blame can go to a culture that doesn’t encourage it.

    I’m bad at singing– it’s possible that I could learn to sing with a good teacher and sufficient dedication on my part, but this isn’t a result of academic theory. The innate talent just isn’t there.

    Technical smoothness is presumably easier to teach, so it gets taught.

    A talk you might like about Tolkien’s literary career– a little off from the current topic, but still both charming and frightening. It’s about how LOTR happened, and some hypotheses about why Tolkien never finished a long work after that.

  2. Having written myself on the nature of stories (shameless plug), I find your write-up very satisfying, as pertinent as it is deceptively simple. I do disagree with your opinion on endings: is the ending to Inception bad only because it’s ambiguous? Give the reader something to think about, I say. Something to dream about. Space in which to write fan fiction of your work. 😛 Unless of course you’re talking about “clever” twist endings in the vein on 1950es sci-fi; those can go die in a fire as far as I’m concerned.

    That said, it has been my experience that quite a few would-be storytellers fail to understand the nature of stories in a very specific way, and as a result their movies (because this is especially common in Hollywood) are a chain of set-piece scenes that happen because they’re supposed to, with no rhyme or reason. Whether that stems from a misguided desire to be clever, or a failure to understand causality — read: a belief in fate — I couldn’t say. But it is a commonality that’s perhaps worth investigating.

  3. My son and I have been slowly making our way through the “classic” Western movies. He recently suggested we watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and we did so this past Sunday. In my opinion it was a great example of what our host is discussing in terms of missing Story and characters you care about. It has Style out the wazoo. The direction and acting are both exemplary. By half way through I cared so little for any of the characters that What Happens Next was not a concern of mine. That movie should have been a 30 minute documentary. On YouTube. Needless to say, we do not recommend it as a Classic Western.

  4. Stephen J. says:

    This reminds me of what J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, once wrote on the Lurker’s Guide website about story, a marvelously pithy sentence that has stayed with me ever since:

    “‘The queen died, and then the king died’ is not a story. ‘The queen died, and then the king died of grief’ is a story.”

    • The trouble with that one: I heard it long before Straczynski used it, but not in the form that he did. The form that was floating around when I were a lad went like this:

      ‘ “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.’

      This, I think, is nearer the truth than Straczynski’s formulation. He misquoted the original, and in so doing, lost the original point.

      • Stephen J. says:

        To be fair to JMS I think the misquote is actually mine; the way you phrase it is awfully familiar, and if I misremembered how JMS said it, it’s odds-on I forgot that he properly attributed it too. So this goof is on me.

      • Stephen J. says:

        Whaddaya know — I just looked up the original JMS post, and no, it was exactly how I first wrote it *nor* did he attribute it properly (to E.M. Forster, according to Google). So it’s *not* on me. Huh.

        (This is a disquieting feeling. I’m so used to second-guessing and hedging myself that I’ve forgotten how to cope with being right.)

        • Oh, you and me both, Brother.

          Thanks for doing the legwork and coming up with the attribution. Of all the people I’ve ever heard quoting that line, not one credited it to Forster – until today.

      • Jay Allman says:

        Forster vs. JMS: They seem to be only words apart, using “story” to refer to different things.

        If you look at the Forster quote in context, he is using “story” as a synonym for “narrative”, and he says unflattering things about it. He calls it a “tapeworm,” “the lowest and simplest of literary organisms,” that only has one merit–“that of making the audience want to know what happens next”–and one fault–“that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” Story is the sort of thing that captures “cave men or a tyrannical sultan or … the movie-public,” who cannot comprehend anything higher or better than “and then–and then–“. It is designed only to satisfy curiosity, which is “one of the lowest of the human faculties.”

        But plot, Forster goes on to say, is a narrative whose “emphasis fall[s] on causality.” That is the nub of the difference between “The king died and then the queen died” and “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” “If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?'” Unlike a story, a plot “demands intelligence and memory also.”

        JMS uses “story” to refer to Forster’s “plot”: “As someone noted, ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is not a story; ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a story. Cause and effect.” Notice how JMS, like Forster, aligns causality with the second example. The difference between the quotes is only terminological, not substantive. Whether you apply the word “story” to the first example or to the second is irrelevant; the point Forster and JMS agree on is that the second embodies causality, and is a richer sort of thing than the first.

        Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, in PDF form: http://ell.ibu.edu.ba/assets/userfiles/ell/Aspects%20of%20the%20Novel.pdf

        The first Google result on the JMS quote: http://www.jmsnews.com/thread.aspx?id=_but

        • I think the crucial thing isn’t so much story as it is creating the desire to turn the page. _Finnegans Wake_ has a smallish but very devoted audience because Joyce doesn’t just get those people to turn the page, but to turn the pages again and again.

          Story is a good method of getting people to turn the page, but even that isn’t a simple matter.

          C.S. Lewis has an essay about not liking _The Three Musketeers_ even though it’s very plotty, but loving _She_. What he cares about are the fine moments and scenes which appear in some stories.

          There’s a sort of typical fiction which is likely to appeal to a lot of people, but not everyone wants the same thing, and there are large groups of people who have different preferences from each other.

          • Jay Allman says:

            There are many reasons for “turning a page.” You may be entranced by the prose style. You may hunger to see “what happens next.” You may adore the characters and want to tag along with them. The search for storytelling technique can’t therefore be satisfied by saying that it’s just the trick of getting people to “want to turn the page,” for that’s an empty sort of explanation: In the spirit of National Lampoon, you could get readers to turn the page by literally putting a gun to their head and ordering them to turn it. If “getting the reader to turn the page” is the answer, then it’s best to simply say that there is no answer, that there is no such thing as “story”, only a collection of heterogeneous tricks authors can use to put an itch into a page-turning finger.

            But even that skeptical solution dissolves, for it leaves new questions: What are those tricks, and how do they work?

            It’s interesting that the most explanatory theories, like the one made by our host in this post, don’t isolate and delve into particular “tricks” or elements, but instead relate lots of story elements to each other. So it’s not just that there is a character, or a problem, or a series of incidents and actions. Rather, there is a character who has a problem that he resolves through a series of actions that transforms either himself or his situation in a way that fits his starting situation.

            In the Sesame Street sketch, for instance, Kermit starts with a problem and works his way to an ironically apt conclusion: He wants to turn on his radio, and ends with no radio to turn on. This conclusion satisfies because Kermit’s chosen means are so absurd that the ending–which is itself absurd–feels like a fitting punishment for his folly. And along the way we have not only the mounting tension of each malfunctioning part–a series of entertaining incidents and actions–but some fine but independent artistic expressions: the ingenuity of the machine, Kermit’s ingratiating personality, Jim Henson’s lovely acting. These latter might, in some cases, be enough to keep us watching or reading, but they don’t explain why we watch and enjoy this particular sketch so much.

            Off-topic: Thanks for the link to the Tolkien talk: very interesting and entertaining.

  5. Story isn’t that hard! Read anything claiming to be a story. If you’re bored by two or three pages in, it’s either literary (in which case, out it goes), or badly written (ditto).

    If it keeps pulling you along, it’s a story.

    If you get to the end, and the ‘author’ gives you ambiguity instead of and end, throw hard against the far wall, and never read anything by that ‘author’ again.

    Biggest example I can think of right now: Saul Bellow, Seize the Day. Horrible. No story. Things go downhill further and further, come to no end. I can get that in the news any day.

    I did throw that one – after swearing I would never read literary again. It was in a box of things my husband was forced to read for school. The only benefit was that it wasn’t too long. Prize-winner. Garbage.

    Beginning, middle, and end, and about something that changes in the life of interesting characters you invest in – how hard can that be? Try Rebecca, Dune, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jan Eyre… the list is long.

    • Sigh. ‘AN end,’ not ‘and end.’ Bad fingers.

    • Which raises an interesting question: Why are there so many people, skilful writers in other respects, who just don’t get it?

      • (Picking up and tugging an old thread)
        I suspect, on little actual evidence, that those skilled people are very deliberately not applying those basic tenants. Because they are basic and fundamental, and therefore only something to be sneered at and avoided. Much too bourgeoisie.

      • MFA programs.

        Writers who believe they are better than storytellers.

        Writers who think the masses have bad taste (and taste bad?).

        People who don’t sell many books – because no one wants to read endless beautiful boring writing that goes nowhere and illuminates nothing, and provides naugt the reader can use to live a virtual life and learn something.

        These people actually praise ambiguity – ‘so that the reader can decide.’ Wrong – if you don’t have the courage of your convictions – ‘this is life and what happens if you do these things’ – keep it to yourself until you decide. The real world IS ambiguous – and makes a very bad story: born, missed a lot of opportunities, fathered a few children, didn’t bring them up particularly well (or did), died. That’s life. You do the best you can.

        But you don’t get the chance to ski in the Himalayas or surf the big ones – what’s it really like? Or to get killed as a spy in Soviet Russia? Should you have chosen differently?

        A lot of fiction leaves people satisfied: if I’d done it that way, I’d have run into all those problems. I didn’t. Whew! My choices were better.

        That is not bad.

        I happen to believe each and every human is equally worthwhile, and many don’t get the opportunities. It makes me fractious with the elitist, especially those who inherited their money and got into X on connections.

        Getting off soapbox now. Just give me the d***** story – and tell me how it came out.

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