The Ghost of Storytelling Past

I’m reading A Christmas Carol to my six-year-old at bedtime every night. I could have picked up a children’s version for him, but I’m going with the original, even though much of it will fly over his head.

I made this decision for three reasons:

  1. I’m cheap and didn’t want to buy another version of a book I already own.
  2. I’m not a fan of watered down versions of books. If the boy opts for a children’s book, we’ll choose one that began as a children’s book.
  3. I think one of the parts that is the first to be cut in the children’s versions is one of the parts I most want my children to hear.

Reasons 1 and 2 are self-explanatory. Let me explain reason 3.

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant story. It wouldn’t have been made into a million different movies if it weren’t. There’s so much to love about it, and so much to like in many of its offspring films. But there is one thing that the original text has that nothing else does.

Dickens

The beautifully illustrated edition we read.

The original has Dickens himself as the storyteller.

I’m not just talking about his genius with words. I’m not just talking about his ability to set a tone or his command of the narrative. I’m talking about those instances when the narrator comes onto the page and speaks directly to the reader. This is an ancient form of magic, all but lost to us now.

It is a relic of the time when children heard stories at their elders’ knees, when stories were enriched by the personality of the storyteller.

You can’t do that today. We won’t stand for it. We want our stories delivered anonymously, not chuckled to us by a narrator who presumes to refer to himself in the first person. We don’t want it to smell of grandpa’s after shave; we want an antiseptic story to be beamed through the vacuum of space, like it is on TV.

We want to be shown, not told.

Now, I will be the first admit that some of the old fellows did too much telling. I will also agree that showing is far more effective than telling in our time, when much of the art of storytelling has been lost. But I will argue that there is a mix that includes both showing and telling that is the rarest treasure in the unveiling of a story.

Dickens was a master at the mixology of show and tell. And who could appreciate show and tell more than a first grader? Okay, maybe a kindergartener, but what’s done is done.

I want to offer my children the chance to hear the storyteller’s voice — to appreciate when a story is even better because of who is telling it and what his character adds to the telling.

Maybe they won’t catch it this year, but there’s always the next. And besides Dickens, we’ve got lots of Hans Christian Andersen to get to.

Valet parking: annoying in real life, worse in fiction

I once read a novel in which Character A was driving to a meeting with Character B. They had a lot of very important things to discuss that would greatly advance the plot. I was eager to arrive at this meeting, because I am all about advancing the plot.

I was all ready to meet Character B and see what fascinating revelations he had for us. I think Character A was all hyped for it too, but what we wanted didn’t matter. The author stepped in to block our way until we had parked the car. We parked in a specific space, in a specific lot, a specific distance from the meeting place.

The spot where we parked the car had no bearing on the outcome of our meeting with Character B. It had no effect upon the story whatsoever. The fact that we drove to the meeting was of no importance. Yet, instead of beginning the chapter discussing juicy topics with Character B, we were made to suffer through parking the car. It made me sad.

It made me sad because I have far less reading time than I would like, and I don’t want to spend it parking cars when there are mysteries to solve – mysteries that have nothing to do with where certain cars are parked. My reading time is precious to me; please don’t make me your literary valet.

Don't park your plot

Save yourself 15 cents and a bunch of unnecessary words. Forget about parking and get on with the story. (Image: David Myers/US Farm Security Administration)

Parking cars, ordering coffee, having a particular eye color—these are fine things for characters to do, if they are relevant to the plot or show some insight into the character. Otherwise, they are just more words that are likely to block my path and divert my attention before I finish the book.

My rant is not against a particular book or author. Superfluous activities crop up often in fiction. They are a pet peeve of mine, especially because I am not immune to them in my own writing. The vast majority of writers probably have them in their beginning drafts. Part of the work of polishing a manuscript is locating meaningless actions and destroying them.

It may be impossible for the author to identify all the wasted actions in his own book, but it is crucial that he make a whole-hearted attempt. Each wasted action makes the story less intriguing, or to be blunt about it, more boring. It should be ample motivation for an author to know that every time he crosses one of them out, he makes his story better. Nothing should make hard work more palatable than that.

So, here’s the deal: I won’t make you park my cars, unless it’s crucial to your enjoyment of the story, if you don’t make me park yours. Hell, let’s not even drive if we don’t have to. Fiction is a kind of magic; we can just show up at our meetings when we need to. It will save gas, the environment, and maybe even our respective novels.