And then what happened?

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.

*          *                                                 *          *

*          *                                                 *

Which is the more interesting figure, the more dynamic?   Why?

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