Monday, June 8, 2009

I Suppose I Should Explain That One, Hm?

As I wrote in my excuse note, yesterday I didn't get any work done on the novel because I was sitting in a parking lot watching people trade stories for drinks. Yes, really.

Once a year, the Starlight Drive-In (one of the last surviving drive-in theaters in the country) hosts an event called Rock n Roll Monster Bash, which features rock bands during the day and a double feature of monster movies when it gets dark. The Venn diagram of people who like rock music and people who like B-movies has a pretty significant overlap, so it draws quite the crowd. So what does this have to do with people telling stories for drinks? Officially, nothing, but my older brother has established a tradition whereby he brings his portable bar and offers people drinks in exchange for interesting stories about their lives. When people scratch their heads and say they don't have any interesting stories, my brother prompts them with the following suggestions--arrested, almost arrested, could have been arrested or naked. Pretty much everybody he says that to will light up and say "Oh, wait, I've got one!"

I mostly stayed in the tent we'd set up and watched people tell their stories. It gave me some interesting insights into what makes a good story. (In the interest of privacy, the examples here are composites of the kinds of stories we would get, rather than specific ones.)

1. Detail is good. Telling me about the time you were fleeing the police is not nearly as fun as telling me about the time you were fleeing the police, spilled your PBR in your lap and nearly set fire to your backseat when your cigarette flew out of your mouth because you had the windows open.

2. Plot is better. Okay, I know where you grew up, I know what drugs you used to take, I know you really love that band and, yes, that's a pretty nice tattoo. But that doesn't quite add up to a story.

3. Mystery is especially good. We've had more than one waking-up-and-not-sure-how-one-got-there narrative over the years, but the better ones start with the waking up and end with finding out what happened, rather than starting with the events that led up to the amnesia.

4. Peril is also good. While not every story involved people coming precariously close to arrest, deportation or death (and they don't always have to, honestly) I must say that the ones that did certainly stuck with me.

5. Humor helps a lot. Particularly when dealing with peril, as noted above.

6. A story should be exactly long enough to tell everything that's worth telling, but no longer. Some stories were almost frustrating in their brevity, while others, well, I know I was losing interest when I started to feel sorry for the folks in line behind.

Our compulsion--indeed, our very ability--to tell stories is one of the things that makes human beings such a unique creature on this planet. Other animals may be able to communicate, but I don't know of another animal that can communicate in a way that surprises and delights the way storytelling does. I hope I can keep these lessons in mind as I continue the process of revision.

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