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Story pick: How not to be boring

By Brigid Schulte

I re-read Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War-era "The Things They Carried" once U.S. soldiers again began dying in hard-to-pronounce cities in distant countries. I had already read his views on "story truth" - that sometimes fiction gets closer to the heart of the human soul than "happening truth" - which is fact and what journalism trades in.

But I hadn't read his essay on writing, published last year in The Atlantic, until recently. The catch was this:

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: They are boring. A consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

While the essay is aimed at the fiction writer, many of O'Brien's points are also lessons for the non-fiction writer and journalist, particularly those of us tasked with weaving compelling tales out of the day's events. He writes of what not to do:

"A well-imagined story is not generic. It has not been lifted off the shelf at your local literary Wal-Mart. A well-imagined story is not predictable, or at least not wholly predictable. A well-imagined story is not melodramatic; it does not rely on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes; it does not use formulas in place of inventiveness; it does not substitute cliché for fresh vision."

And he follows up, helpfully, with what writers of all strips should seek to do:

"... a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary. In daily life, one would not say to a drinking companion, “Hey, here’s a great story for you. Yesterday morning I ate Cheerios. Then I set off for work. Work was boring. Nothing happened. I left the office at five o’clock sharp. That night I ate a steak, not a great steak, but a pretty darned good one. I went to bed about nine.” Very quickly, I think, one’s drinking mate would seek more interesting company. A better story, though not necessarily a good one, might begin: “Yesterday morning, over my usual bowl of Cheerios, I was alarmed to note that the Cheerios were shaped not as standard circles, but as semicircles, as if someone had used a surgical scalpel to slice each individual Cheerio precisely in half. Odd, I thought. And odder still, those particular Cheerios tasted only half as delicious as Cheerios usually taste. And even odder yet, I found myself half hungry at work that morning, half wishing for a bowl of Cheerios. My hunger was soon tempered, however, by the disturbing realization that I was now but half a man.”

Great stories, O'Brien writes, take us beyond cleverness and into a certain universal gravity. Or, as a much less eloquent, but no less thoughtful magazine writing teacher used to say - "You've got to end with a 'huh.'" The "huh" is not a question, but a recognition, leaving readers with as close to soul truth as journalism can get.

By Brigid Schulte  | September 8, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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