Some years ago, former-US President George W. Bush named The Very Hungry Caterpillar as his favourite childhood book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t published until he was 23 and fresh out of Yale. Still, while it’s not advanced post-graduate reading, it does have a perfect structure, from which we can learn a lot.
In our last video, we considered the similarities between short stories and jokes. We said that, just like the punchline of a joke, whatever happens at the climax of a story is unexpected, but in retrospect seems obvious and inevitable. In this video, DD Johnston develops that idea and think about what it is that happens at the climax of most successful literary short stories. (We say ‘literary’ short stories, since in other genres the endings of stories can sometimes be more about plot resolution than character transition.)
Following on from our last video, D.D. Johnston looks at the opening to a modern classic short story: “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri. You can read the full story here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/lahiri-maladies.html
Michael Scott has written novels, films, and plays in a variety of genres for adults and children and teens. He’s learned that it doesn’t much matter what sort of story you’re writing, or for whom your writing it: “A good story is always a journey. It is about the people the hero meets along the way and how they change him or her.” Now that we’re thinking about the themes of stories, it becomes apparent that a character’s journey is inextricably bound with a story’s theme. And since the theme has to be something general and powerful, something universal and impactful, it’s not surprising that there aren’t that many journeys that really matter.
Have a look at this list of fundamental human journeys, and let me know in the comments whether there are any that I’ve missed:
Fundamental human journeys
(simple transitions based on external changes – these are more likely to work in, say, a young adult genre novel than in a literary short story, but often in genre fiction a material transition will be made possible by a psychological transition)
Peril <-> Safety
Single <-> Married
Powerless <-> Powerful
Poor <-> Rich
Obscure <-> Famous
Picked on <-> Popular
Not seizing the day <-> Seizing the day
Isolation <-> Human connection
Love <-> Loss
Despair <-> Hope
Obliviousness <-> Awareness of mortality
Innocence <-> Loss of innocence
Inhibition <-> Boldness
Desire <-> Contentment
Self-doubt <-> Self-acceptance
No sense of sublime <-> Sense of the sublime
Search for meaning <-> Accepting meaninglessness
Fear <-> Acceptance of death
Faith <-> Lack of faith
D.D. Johnston explains in five minutes everything you need to know to understand every story ever told. Enjoy!
Click this link to open the story planner worksheet that accompanies this video.
read video transcript