Story Lecture

Wesleyan University 2006

Thank you for inviting me to give this lecture.  Because I have won prizes for writing plays, and teach the writing of plays, people always think I want to talk about the theatre, which I’m happy to do later on in the evening, if anyone has any questions.  But my subject tonight is stories, as you know from the poster. I’m talking about stories because if there is one thing I have learned in my career, it is quite simply that …not everybody cares about plays.  There are people who manage to get through their whole lives without ever seeing a play, or reading a play, though God only knows how they do that. But nobody gets through life without stories.  And they interest me now. 

Every one of you in this audience could, if I asked you, tell a story from your family, a story from history, a story from your religious upbringing, or lack of it, a story from the dorm last week, a fairytale, and a story from a movie or a novel.  We love stories. We learn stories faster than anything else. We forget facts practically as soon as we hear them, but stories we remember.  Maybe it’s because we’re still living with the brains we had when we were all sitting around the fire at night, not knowing how to read, and dependent on the hunter’s stories to let us know where to look for tomorrow’s food, or avoid tomorrow’s tiger.  We are hard-wired for hearing and remembering stories. 

And it’s not just us.  Even animals who can’t speak, tell stories – bees, for example, when they come back from finding the stuff that makes the honey, how do they communicate to their hive-mates where they found the flowers?  Beekeepers say, they do a dance.  And the dance is a story, a chronological narrative.  (like Huckleberry Finn, like Candide – except about bees) First I left the hive, then I went around by the big tree, then down by the river, then I looked down and saw these yellow things, but I thought the red things looked better, so I tasted them, and man were they good, and now I’m happy and the queen will be happy too. At which point, the returning bee gets rewarded for finding the pollen, and the other bees get the message and buzz off to find the good tasting flowers, because the narrative did its work.  

Like bees, the stories we know have an effect on us.  Stories are where we get our information about what happens, or what’s likely to happen, in any circumstance we find ourselves.  And in most cases, we decide what to do, based not the advice people give us, but the stories they tell us.  If a cropduster should ever chase us, chances are, we will run.  If a lion and a scarecrow offer to help us find the wizard, we will let them come along once we know they need something too.  If the Union Army burns down our town, we will work hard so that we never have to go hungry again.  If a woman we love, loves somebody else but he’s very noble and we want to help him escape the Nazis, we will let her go to her and walk off with the police chief, feeling noble and cool.  And so on.  Stories tell us what the right thing is to do, should we ever need to know it.  If we can’t decide what to do, we call someone for help, and if we have called the right person, they won’t just tell us what to do, because as I said, we wouldn’t listen to that.  They will tell us a story, a story about someone they knew who….married someone their parents didn’t like, left school before they were finished, sought work in a profession nobody believed they could succeed in, or dared to go against the common wisdom in any way.   

We listen to stories because, if we are lucky and stable, we see ourselves as the central character in an ongoing story.  And we know what we want for characters, we want the thing to come out right.  And it’s the same thing we want for ourselves. We want to acquit ourselves well, and we want the world to know it.  Or at least the part of the world that’s watching.  So we’re characters, in search of our stories, so the stories of other characters matter greatly to us. 

Said another way, the stories we know write the lives that we live. If you are called on to, say, take a risk for a noble cause, the story of Luke Skywalker, or Norma Rae, or Edward R. Murrow, or even somebody brave in your own family, will come into your mind. You will measure your odds against those of the characters in the stories you know, you will compare enemies, you will remember what it cost them, you will remember what they accomplished and you will decide what to do.   You won’t always go the way of the hero, but you will have to run the hero’s path through your mind first, because that is the way our brains work.  Our brains also run for us the paths of the fools, but those stories usually keep us from doing things.  Though not always.   

My thesis here, is that stories are not mere entertainment, they are nothing less that the main way the culture passes itself along through time – whether the stories are written on papyrus, carved into stone, kept alive in oral traditions, written on paper, or printed in books and assigned in colleges. We know the stories of our people, how they got here, and what it cost them.  Cultures large and small use stories to keep alive their traditions, preserve their identities and warn their members about the wolf in the woods, or the little guy with the slingshot, or the dark father behind the mask.  Not knowing the stories of other cultures, is the main reason we don’t understand them, a fact sadly obvious in the political situation of the world today. 

Religions also use stories to keep their saints and sinners, their Gods and their dogma alive in the minds of the believers.  You may not remember exactly what the story of Jonah and the whale was about, but you remember the story, and if pressed, you’d probably guess it was a story about what happens when you try to run away from God.  There are a lot of stories about this subject.  I call it the “No use running,” story.  And I could give you eighteen other examples of this, I won’t.  

Families also use stories to pass along the rewards and punishments that come from various kinds of behavior.  Don’t be like your Uncle Jack, they’ll say.  He chewed tobacco and look where he is now.  Remember what happened after Granny Fanny drove into the lake? Don’t do that.  These family stories are mainly painful ones, but they are what we remember about our families.  Unfortunately, they are not always true.  They are simply the truth as the family has decided to remember it.  

Schools use stories to teach everything – history, science, art, social studies, anthropology, language.  Except Math.  You could probably argue that the reason nobody likes math, is there aren’t very many good math stories.   

Well.  I could go on and on about who uses stories for what. And I will when I write the book about this.  But for the purposes of our conversation tonight, the important idea is that stories are not just entertainment.  People tell us stories for a reason.  We know this.  And if we can’t figure out why we’re being told a certain story, we don’t listen.  But stories that contain important information, information related to our survival, these stories last through the ages.  The more important the information the story contains, the longer it lasts.  If a society no longer needs the story, it disappears.   

Stories are like code, like the narrative dna, the operating system of the species.  Stories tell us who is in the world with us and what they are like.  Stories tell us who came before us and what happened to them.  Stories tell us how people like us have transformed themselves into what they dreamed of being, or what they feared they would become.  Stories tell us how the world sees people like us, what the world rewards, and what it punishes.  Stories exist because someone “lived to tell the tale,” as the saying goes.  What the saying means, is that the lives we have led, are pulled together and passed along to the next generation in story form – in movies and plays and novels and poems.  The job of the storyteller throughout history, to say what it has felt like to be alive in our time.  The fact the stories often contradict the history, is the subject of another evening. 

Some stories are better served, that is told best in one form than another, and if this were a class, we’d talk about how to decide if a story you want to tell is a movie, a novel, a play or a phone conversation, or just a note to yourself on a post it. 

The stories we tell over and over, can be seen great central stories that run like rivers underneath all of western civilization. These stories contain information that is, apparently, the most critical for our survival here.  You have listened to stories for so long, you know this without knowing you know it.  If I asked you for three versions of Little Red Riding Hood, you could give them to me.  If I asked you for three versions of Boy Wishes for Wrong Thing, you could do that.  And you don’t have to know anything about stories to enjoy them

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. But it is sometimes useful to be able to tell what great universal story is behind the specific small story you are watching on the movie screen.  It is important to learn to tell when the contemporary version of a great story has gone off-track, causing you to lose interest.  And it is important to learn how to link any story you might want to tell with one of the great ones, in order to make it come out right, to ensure winning a writing prize, or at the very least, hanging onto the attention of your listeners.

Here’s how this works.  To find these great stories, you boil an old story down to its essential elements, and then you let your mind drift over all the stories you’ve heard and read and seen, and, if the story is a great one, pretty soon, another one, just like it, will pop into your head.   A great story has descendants, other members of its family. 

For example, I mentioned Jonah and the Whale while ago.  For those of you not raised in the old testament, in this story, God wants Jonah to go preach for him, but Jonah doesn’t want to, so he gets in his boat and sails away.   But God sees Jonah, makes a storm which dumps Jonah in the sea, where he is soon swallowed by a whale.  (this is not Pinocchio, but it is where Pinocchio comes from)  God speaks to Jonah in the whale’s belly, Jonah realizes there is no use running, the whale spits Jonah out on the shore, and Jonah wakes up and does what God wanted in the first place. Good.  THERE IS NO USE RUNNING.  A far greater example of the NO USE RUNNING story is Homer’s Odyssey.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the plot of the Odyssey.  But just in case, it concerns Odysseus, who leaves the Trojan war, angers the Gods, stays lost for twenty years and comes home to find all the lords of his kingdom camping out in the front yard of his castle, eating his food, and trying to marry his wife.  With lots of great poetry and many cool characters, The Odyssey makes very clear there is no use running – that even if you are a war hero, you might as well just go on home and face your responsibilities, because if you just sail around and do drugs, you’re going to lose all your men and you’ll be lucky if even your dog recognizes you when you get home.

So one of the great stories is THERE IS NO USE RUNNING.  You will be able to think of hundreds of versions of this story, but a few more are, I don’t know, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Elmer Gantry, Moby Dick, Oedipus.  I call it the NO USE RUNNING, but actually this is the FATE story.  Anybody who thinks they can get away from what’s supposed to happen, from what the “gods” want to happen, is kidding themselves.  Like the rabbit learns in the tortoise and the hare, there’s NO USE RUNNING. 

So now.  In the book I’m writing, I’m going to list all the great story families, and then give lots of examples of them.  But that would take hours and hours, and be no fun for you.  So I’ll just going to give you the list and let you think of the examples.

In our culture, the main story we like to tell is THE SEARCH FOR X.  Someone wants something, there is something in their way, and we watch as they try to find it.  The Wizard of Oz is a good example of this.  Treasure of the Sierra Madre, All the President’s Men.  Million Dollar Baby.  Even all the Indiana Jones stories are of this family.  Harry Potter is the search for peace and justice.  All love stories are of this type actually.  And oddly enough, the thing that most characters are searching for, whatever they decide to call it, peace, justice, truth, love, the holy grail, glory – the thing we’re all really looking for is home.  Lovers are looking for each other not just for sex or fun, but they are looking for the safety and the sense of belonging that home gives people.  Etc.  There is something we cannot resist about the story of a search.  Maybe it’s because we’re all looking for stuff all the time, but something in us, is always searching.  So if you’re looking for a good subject for a story – start with a search.  Organize it like a search, and end it with the finding of the thing. 

Now, more quickly, because I know we don’t have all night, some other great story families.  There is the revenge family, the fish out of water family, the fall of the hero, the forbidden love, the coming of age, the unwanted task, the odd couple, the drama of the counselor, the understanding of the mysterious, the quest for redemption, justice for the wrongly accused, unlikely allies, star-crossed lovers, forbidden love, breaking the curse, rite of passage, surviving a disaster, and my two favorites – the consequences of desire, and as one student named it so wonderfully – hysteria finds an outlet.  Or as another student joked, hysteria finds an outline. 

These are not quite the 36 classic plots, of the familiar book, but they are the ones that keep coming up over and over in talking about this with students. 

The interesting thing about these stories, is that as soon as you know the name of the story – you know a lot more about it, including the end.  You can do this with all the stories, but let’s take, I don’t know, the star-crossed lovers one.  Two of the movies nominated for Oscars this year, are in this story family.  It’s a very popular story.   Brokeback Mountain, of course, and what’s the other one?  Yes.  Capote.  In the story of the star-crossed lovers, who do we have – two lovers who can’t, or shouldn’t be together for some reason.  The reason is usually cultural, whatever the hot cultural taboo is at the moment.  We usually have the lovers’ families, or the people who make it impossible for them to be together, and we have the secret stuff – the thing about them that makes them have to be together, which the writer is usually on the side of, or at least understands.  In terms of plot, we have the moment they first meet, we have the resistance they feel toward each other, we have the resistance giving way, we have the romance, and then we have the trouble the romance causes.  And usually, one of them dies.  Sometimes, as in Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story, both of them die.  There’s a little of the NO USE RUNNING in this story too, but all the big ones are connected somehow.

The big cultural stories come with big rules.  If you find yourself telling a star-crossed lover story, it can’t end happily, for one thing.  The families can’t change their minds and get used to the situation.  You can’t have one of them change to become more like the other one.  You can’t change the basic form of the story.  The story is powerful because it warns us not to marry outside our basic group, because in societal, survival terms, it is the group that will protect us, not the love of a single individual.  We may want to fight this in life, but in stories, the law is absolute.   

Now, I could go on talking about the big groups of stories, but I’m going to move on.  You need to get to bed.  Or at least back in your rooms where you could go to bed if your roommate would shut up.  So let me just say a few things about how to tell a story and I’ll quit here.   

This is a basic skill of life –telling a story, and we all need to know how to do it. We need to know how to say what has happened to us, how to explain ourselves.  We need to relate what happened in a situation, to explain how we behaved.  We need to remember something so the future.  So we need to tell stories – to ourselves and to other people.  Except almost nobody teaches you now to do this.  If you grow up with a storyteller in your family, you know how.  If you have read a lot, you probably know.  But here are the basic details. 

You begin by saying what the story is about. You announce you are telling a story, and you who it happened to and where it is located. “You won’t believe what happened to me today on the way to class.”  For example. Or ”God, this awful thing happened to my mother in the jungle.”  In other words, you say the name of the story.  “My roommate had this terrible meal the other day.”  “My sister said the worst thing to me.”  “I thought I had lost my wallet, but you won’t believe where I found it.”  That is your beginning. 

Then you start the action of the story –“My mother went to the jungle to learn to identify trees.”  Then you say the problem she encountered – “she climbed up one tree to get a leaf for her collection, only there was a sleeping anaconda on the branch.”  Then you say what she did about it, how she met the crisis, and then you say how the story ended. 

It’s very simple.  Start the story.  Make the middle fun, and then finish it.  Make sure the end is connected to the beginning.  If you say you’re telling a terrible thing, don’t quit before you get there. 

If you have to write a story, remember that subject is the biggest decision you will make.  If you can’t think of anything to write, write about a time when you were afraid.  Stories that involve fear, almost always have all the rest of the things we need – they have great desire in them – namely the desire to be safe, and they have great action in them, namely what you did to get out of the scary situation.  And scary stories are filled with detail, because you remember things better when you are afraid, and details convince people that your story is true. 

If you are truly stuck for a story, take a big one that everybody knows – anything from Shakespeare is good, almost any folktale is good, and pull out the basic plot elements, and then use that plot model for your piece.   Or take an exercise I do with playwrights and adapt it to story form – Fill in the blanks in the following sentences – This is a play about ____.  It takes place ______.  The main character wants _____ but _________.  It begins when ________.  It ends when _________. 

There.  My time is up.  Think about the stories you know and see how they have affected your life.  Listen to people tell you stories and see if they are any good at it.  Practice telling stories till you get where you can do it without thinking about it.  Watch the stories your culture tells you to see if they seem true to your experience, and if they are not, try to figure out what the truth is.  And then tell that story over and over again until we all have heard you.   That is the only way we will know who you are.  And that is very important for us to know.