What, if anything, do our favorite stories and novels have in common? Are there any traits shared by, Lord of the Rings, The DaVinci Code, The Wind in the Willows, Along Came A Spider, A Christmas Carol, Little Women, and Harry Potter?
Some have memorable characters, people we’d rather spend our time with than do most anything else. We’d follow them anywhere; Frodo and Gandalf, Ratty and Mole, Harry and Hermione. Sometimes the plot carries us away, and we put the book down grudgingly at 2:30 am on a work night, only because the alternative is falling asleep in the chair.
In his introduction to the just-published collection of stories, called Stories, co-editor Neil Gaiman gives another answer to the question of what makes a story memorable. When someone asked him what quote he’d inscribe, if he could, in a public library chidren’s area, he thought about it and said:
I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if…I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned:
“…and then what happened?”
And then what happened? I think of all my favorite stories share this characteristic. How does an author or storyteller bring it about? By discipline and magic, no doubt – words that give no hint on how to evoke this special quality. But as I thought about Gaiman’s four words, I remembered a simple exercise from basic art classes that I think is very relevant.
Draw four dots on a sheet of paper in the shape of a rectangle. Now draw three on another sheet of paper.
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Which is the more interesting figure, the more dynamic? Why?