Rant: In defense of Story
Today I was once again brooding over the conclusion of the Lost television series.
I skipped for six commercial-crammed seasons down that yellow brick road of toilsome plot. I suffered the company of a brainless scarecrow, a heartless tin man and a cowardly lion. I fought – and killed – a wicked witch and disbanded her entourage of evil flying monkeys. When the deed was done I expected closure, denouement. But it turned out the mysterious Magical Wizard that set me to the task was nothing but a shriveled old man cowering behind a green curtain. Dorothy is pissed.
I am pissed.
Disillusioned by the flashing bright lights, the fireworks, the booming of giant organs and other theatrics, I am pissed because there was never anything magical behind the curtain. Lost was a sham, a hoax, a meaningless labyrinth of non-sequiturs, false trails and bogus symbolism.
Oh what convulsion. Anger. RAGE is a fitting word. I’m still not over it.
I turned my thoughts to Steven King, of all people. I think, of all the modern authors, I am the most familiar with King’s work. Not only his novels and short stories but his explicit take on writing and Story. Here was a man that dedicated his life to Story. A man familiar with the prime elements of Story: beginning, middle and end. Surely King could empathize. So I typed the words “stephen king on lost” into Google.
The article that came up was a column he had written in ‘07 for Entertainment Weekly. Long before Lost’s non-end, King, in all his magnificent authorial wisdom, prophesized the impending Lost storyline disaster through the voice of Gordie Lechance, a character of his own creation.
The perfect critique of the old TV (i.e. Lost) is offered in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Gordie Lachance asks his buds if they’ve ever noticed that the people on Wagon Train (an old ’50s show) never seem to get anywhere. ‘They just keep wagon-training,’ he says, clearly mystified. Of course he is. Gordie’s going to grow up to be a writer, and even at age 12 he knows that stories should resemble life, and life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We grow, change, succeed, and fail; eventually we keel over dead, but we do not just keep on wagon-training.
I confess experiencing deep and exquisite pleasure after having discovered that King was thinking on the same terms I was. I’m no author of Story but, author credentials withstanding, speaking as an experienced reader of Story, I understand what a real Story looks like.
Nail four wooden planks together. Attach rubber wheels, a steering rod and driving wheel. Paint it. Slap a bumper sticker on the back. The contraption might be able to fit a person. It might even be able to roll down a hill. But do not call it a car.
If you take the contraption to a mechanic he will tell you with certainty that what you have is not a car.
It is not a car.
By the same token, crash a group of people on a mysterious tropical island. Throw in some (albeit, overly-repetitive and monotonous) dramatic background music. Send them back and forward through time. Kill a few off with a giant smoke monster. Let them escape the island. Return. Call it good cinematography. Call it “a nice journey” even, but please—please do not even begin to call it Story until you have brought everything into unity.
Do not call it a story until you have concluded it.
Those of us who think and care will know the difference. Authors will know the difference.
When a meal is perfectly cooked, it’s time to take it out of the oven. And when a story is perfectly told, it’s time to fade to black. It doesn’t matter to me if Jack, Kate, and the others realize they’re all dead and descend that shaft into a bright white Kübler-Ross beam of light or if they go to war with each other in a final burst of Lord of the Flies savagery. They can discover they’re part of an experiment (human or alien). Jack can even — groan! —wake up and discover the whole thing’s a dream (actually, I’d hate that). But please, guys — don’t beat this sweet cow to death with years of ponderous flashback padding. End it any way you want, but when it’s time for closure, provide it. Don’t just keep on wagon-training.
You do not need to be a mechanic to see what is clearly not a car and you do not need to be an author to see what is clearly not a story.
The equation is simple: beginning, middle and end. Poe called it “mathematical.”
A story is not some random mishmash of characters and incidents thrown together pell-mell—twisted and turned, jostled repeatedly in some harum-scarum, aimless and endless meandering river of chaos and confusion.
In the words of the famous Russian novelist Anton Chekhov, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off.”
Complications and elements of intrigue are introduced in the beginning and middle and are ultimately resolved or at least ADDRESSED in the end. That is the stuff of story. And any deviation or hipster rejection of that form is nothing but pure utter grade-A Hollywood bullshit.