Watch the scene above. And then watch the scene below.
For being similar scenes (the Trini and Kimberly scene from 2017’s POWER RANGERS is probably influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jackie Chan’s THE FEARLESS HYENA), the execution is vastly different. To me, the major difference in the scenes is that one stops at the idea and the other builds on the initial idea. And I think that escalation of ideas from an initial kernel to an exploration of multiple ideas is what elevates small moments in an overall story from good to great.
An idea is rarely enough to build a story around. A single thought or idea is usually pretty easily explored and can’t sustain the momentum needed to tell a compelling story. The chopstick fight, while only being a minute and a half long, throws a bunch of ideas at the audience, each building on the last, taking a single joke premise (as in POWER RANGERS) and elevating it into a truly great scene, culminating in the sly reveal that Jackie Chan has stones in his mouth instead of the chicken he was fighting his Uncle over.
Sketch comedy is a good example of this theory at work. A common criticism of Saturday Night Live is that their worst sketches are single ideas drawn out too long. Key and Peele, on the other hand, are masters at evolving their ideas to sustain a premise longer than it should go. Take the example below.
The joke escalates from being about the inherent silliness of rap battles, to an overexcited hype man, to a continuous escalation that becomes difficult to manage, and ends with a twist that satirizes Of Mice and Men. The initial premise builds on itself until a twist that feels different but is logical.
I think that’s what separates great stories from good ones. Similar to the way that Stephen King uses trauma, finding ways to continually freshen your story for the audience not only keeps them engaged, but allows the storyteller to explore different avenues, different ideas, with more depth.
My wife got me into SUPERNATURAL. I just finished up the eighth season and, I’ve come to realize that the Winchesters are the villains of their own show. Many of the problems they face are of their own making, either because of selfishness, ignorance, or legitimate villainy. Sometimes, it makes the show difficult to watch.
There is an exchange late in the eighth season that demonstrates what I mean, and how the show is at least peripherally aware of it. SPOILERS AHEAD for an episode that originally aired in 2013.
STOP READING TO AVOID A MINOR, INCONSEQUENTIAL SPOILER.
Alright, so one of the Prophets of God, Kevin, able to read the Word of God, has been kidnapped by the King of Hell, Crowley. Crowley has imprisoned him in a set-up indistinguishable from his hideout and had his demons take the form of Sam and Dean Winchester, who Kevin trusts, in order to learn where Kevin has hidden one of the tablets. Kevin figures out that he’s not dealing with the real Sam and Dean. This exchange follows:
Crowley: “What gave it away?”
Kevin: “The real Sam and Dean would never go across town to get me barbeque.”
Crowley: “So, my demons were too polite?”
Supernatural – S8:E21 “The Great escapist”
That’s indicative of the show at large–many of the biggest issues Sam and Dean face they cause themselves. This is a trope in many stories, so much so that you can neatly classify itmultipleways depending on the intent of the story and motivation of the character. Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another good example of this, as most of the problems he or the Avengers has to deal with are his own fault.
I find these tropes frustrating if handled poorly (as, unfortunately, Supernatural tends to) because it makes the characters harder to root for. In Supernatural’s case, I often wonder if Sam and Dean aren’t the actual villains of the entire series. I don’t want to be tricked into rooting for the villains.
Much of the time for a protagonist to inadvertently cause the problems or conflicts that the story hinges on, they have to make an irrational or sometimes downright stupid decision. Decisions like the ones pointed out here.
It can be difficult to write a compelling, conflict-filled story where people don’t make irrational decisions to keep the story going forward, especially for long-running series or when characters run out of ways to grow. So, as writers, we need to work extra hard to maintain that momentum and keep evolving with the story without pushing it too hard in any one direction.
What makes a story compelling? Which is to say, what makes us as readers want to keep reading? Is it lyrical prose? Mystery? Suspense? Character? Conflict? Some combination of some or all?
I recently read The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern with a book club at work, and the reactions to the novel were split. About half of the group loved it for its world-building, beautiful prose, and deep themes. The other half of the group (of which I fell into), agreed the book had all of those things but were also frustrated at the slow pace, passive protagonist, and repetitious plot.
This got me thinking about what different kinds of readers value. In this case, half of our group really valued world-building over everything else, while the other half was interested in character and plot over everything else.
What fell flat for me was what I’ll call narrative propulsion. I think narrative propulsion can be achieved in any of the ways listed above, but I also think that each of those ways has a limited energy. Sort of like a spaceship punching out of Earth’s gravity well and making a break toward the stars, a book needs to use multiple forms of fuel to keep a reader engaged–especially when your book is just shy of 600 pages.
The Starless Sea handles narrative propulsion masterfully for the first third of the book. The writing is gorgeous, the themes interesting, and the mystery at the heart of the story intriguing. But as the story goes along it relies on that same fuel to push the story along instead of introducing new types.
The other side of narrative propulsion that’s somewhat unique to The Starless Sea is its structure. We’re used to following one or a few characters that may each have their own storylines, but are each in service of a single overarching narrative. The Starless Sea alternates between the main plot, that of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and a series of vignettes pulled from the books that Zachary’s story revolves around. While this adds a lot of variety to the book, it also breaks the narrative into chunks and adds complexity to an already dense read. In short, it interrupts any narrative propulsion built from chapter to chapter. I read the book pretty quickly, spending time with it everyday, and because of the vignettes between the main chapters I often found myself having difficulty remembering what had just happened in Zachary’s storyline.
In short, I think it’s dangerous for authors to rely on just a few aspects of storytelling to hold a reader’s attention. A story needs to constantly build on itself, adding new depth to its plot, characters, world, and theme, otherwise there is a risk that a reader will become bored and leave, no matter how beautiful the writing.
Last week I watched a panel discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by the National Book Foundation and moderated by Franklin Leonard on “A New Black Politics?” In the course of their discussion (which you should watch in the link provided), Franklin Leonard and Ibram X. Kendi broached the topic of identity politics. I was struck by something said by Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor starting around the 31 minute mark:
“Identity politics as a framework that was coined by the women of the Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement was about politics. It wasn’t just about identity. The premise was that because the vast majority of black women were at the bottom of society, that they had a particular political viewpoint that made them empathic towards the struggles of other people on the bottom. They saw themselves in solidarity with colored women around the world. That was the basis of their politics. So, it wasn’t just identity unto itself. It was their identification as black women who were particularly oppressed, particularly exploited, that gave them a particular political insight. I think that that has obviously gotten lost, where people think that identity alone is enough to conjure a political connection.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “The New Black Politics?”
The line that I bolded and italicized struck me particularly hard, perhaps because this week I’ve also been reading deep dive articles on toxic masculinity over at Jezebel. This article, in particular, discusses how the language and beliefs of Men’s Rights Activists (those who feel that their identity as men is being infringed on by feminism) and the far right movement, which has now evolved past the Tea Party to things like Qanon, have steadily entered mainstream politics.
Keeanga’s discussion of identity politics and the articles at Jezebel made me think about power structures, and how over and over again we see those structures reinforced by exploiting our innate sense of identity–or the promise that you’ll be included in upper end of the social hierarchy by betraying your identity, thereby maintaining the status quo.
What I think we’ve seen recently (although this is hardly a new phenomenon–it’s just become less subtle over time) is the adoption of racist and sexist rhetoric by mainstream politicians in order to hold onto power. The dog whistles of Trump, the hiding behind “being a mother” for Amy Coney Barrett, or the questionable decision-making of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the Breonna Taylor case. In each of these cases, we see explicit or implicit racism and sexism (or both) as a way to gain or hold onto power.
We’re hard-wired to want power, as power essentially guarantees our safety. When we were hunter/gatherers living in small groups that was simple. In order to survive, we only had to prove ourselves more powerful than the other group that might be hunting and gathering on the same tract of land. Now, in a society where we’ve become so connected that we can’t realistically conceive of the number of other people we’re connected with, we seek to return to those small groups. Those who covet power exploit that need for their own gain.
And I think that’s what important to remember–the people using identity politics as part of their platform have no actual interest in those identities. To them, identity is a means to an end. We’re the ones that hold onto whatever our identities are so hard that they can become weapons. This means that we also have the power to change the narrative and no longer allow disingenuous politicians to use identity for their own gain.
As Keeanga notes, there are times when identify is important to the physical and spiritual survival of a group. That’s not a political issue–it’s a human one. For the benefit of everyone, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
I don’t remember when I first read Heart Transplant by Ray Bradbury. I remember buying the short story collection that contains it. There was a book sale at my local library in South Buffalo, and I grabbed it because I had read a story from The Martian Chronicles as part of a writer’s group I was in at the time, so I recognized Bradbury’s name. Little did I know that the collection I bought, One More for the Road, would make me a lifelong Bradbury fan.
Bradbury built his brand on bottled nostalgia. His words are able to conjure images of magic, of subtle emotion, of horror, of awe. Heart Transplant is a story that combines all of these things into a perfect short story–contained, lyrical, and deep. I won’t try to dissect the technical aspects of the story. What’s the point if it makes me feel something so strongly? Instead, here are the reasons why I love it.
Begins in Media Res
The first line of the story is dialogue: “Would I what?”
It’s said by a man, kept generic (at least I believe) for the reader to become. We’re immediately sucked in–we want to know what he’s referencing.
Bradbury draws it out. Not a lot, just enough to get you to lean more closely, like someone that wants to tell you a secret. Meanwhile, he’s setting the tone with his descriptions, “…holding his hand, but staring rather than looking at that ceiling, as if there were something there that she was trying to see.”
And then he reveals the thrust of the story.
An Imaginative, Emotional Plot
“… if you could fall in love with your wife again… would you?”
Ah, so they’re lovers. But one of them is wondering whether or not it’s possible to feel like she did for her husband before. We can tell quickly that she’s trying to convince herself that it’s possible, while the man is resistant to the idea. She talks of how her husband has acted “better” lately. The man, hesitant to make her feel guilty in any way, says that his wife has, too. We don’t know right away, but that’s a lie.
Later, she explains her plan, “… what if, just before we go to sleep, what if we made a kind of mutual wish, me for you, you for me?”
After an initial reaction of disbelief and mild mocking, he agrees. He loves this woman enough to make a wish that she were with someone else, all because he knows that is where her true happiness is. Aside from that, he can see the writing on the wall. His wish doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. How can he not let her go?
Since I first read the story all those years ago, this has been my favorite passage:
He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened ten thousand miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only, perhaps, some sort of crying.
Ray Bradbury, heart transplant
This description, in its uncertainty, in its metaphor, places me within the man’s emotions. I understand him in this moment. How the world is different now than when he closed his eyes, but in an abstract way. A way that’s monumental, but only for him. The map of his heart has changed without his wanting it to and he’s the only person that knows. It’s heartbreaking.
The story feels fantastical. It’s about wishes, after all, and as far as the woman is concerned hers came true. The man says his did, too, but it’s a lie. It was always a lie. Because he loves her.
“Because both of us believed,” he said, quietly. “I wished very hard, for you.”
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
At the end, when his lover leaves to go back to her husband, excited to feel new again, the man stays behind. He assured her that he would call his wife right after she left, that her wish for him had also come true. Instead, he sacrifices his happiness in service of hers.
And he turned and lay back down in the bed and put one hand out to touch that empty pillow there.
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
It’s clear that the woman believes him. Not because he’s convincing in his lies, but because she needs to believe him in order to hold onto her newfound happiness.
To me, the story is a perfect vignette. In only 2,000 words (if that) Bradbury manages to capture high emotion, long history, and uncertain future. Those types of heights are what I strive for in my own writing. With enough practice, and enough re-reads of Bradbury, maybe one day I’ll reach them.
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.