Qualities and Events in Storytelling

Values are the soul of storytelling. Ultimately ours is the art of expressing to the world a perception of values.

For example, alive/dead (positive/negative) is a story value, as are love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/boredom and so on. All such binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are Story Values. …

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? … If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.

—Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: It Books, 1997), 33-36

Inner and Outer Problems

Every hero needs both an inner and an outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often found that writers, in the early drafts, would give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her father who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’s hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglected to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well.

Characters without inner challenges seem flat and uninvolving, however heroically they may act. They need an inner problem, a personality flaw or a moral dilemma to work out. They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.

—Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 4th ed. (Studio City, Ca.: Michael Wiese Productions, 2020), 105

Hilary Mantel’s Lectures on Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel in 2010 (photograph by Chris Boland | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Four years ago, the novelist responsible for Wolf Hall and other acclaimed works of historical fiction delivered a series of five public lectures for the BBC. Collectively entitled “Resurrection: The Art and Craft,” Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are still available online.

I think very highly of these addresses, which show great sensitivity to the nature of history as well as literature. Anyone responsible for historical storytelling—in fiction or nonfiction—could benefit from them. But they’re a little difficult to find on the BBC’s website, so I’m arranging direct links here.

  1. The Day Is For the Living, June 13, 2017, Manchester (transcript PDF): “Memory, mourning, and how the stories we tell ourselves shape our view of the past—and what happens on the threshold when private and public history meet.”
  2. The Iron Maiden, June 20, 2017, London (transcript PDF): “How does fact pass so readily into legend? Do we use the past as a mirror, and prefer a version that flatters us?”
  3. Silence Grips the Town, June 27, 2017, Antwerp (transcript PDF): “The story of a Polish writer whose efforts to work history into fiction were so intense that they consumed and killed her. Was she a martyr to history? Or just wrongheaded?”
  4. Can These Bones Live?, July 4, 2017, Exeter (transcript PDF): “The task of the historical novelist is to balance the claims of fact against the power of invention. It’s a balance that must be kept phrase by phrase [through] craft and technique.”
  5. Adaptation, July 11, 2017, Stratford-upon-Avon (transcript PDF): “Adaptation [for stage and screen] is not a compromise or a betrayal of an original, but an actual necessary and creative act, one we perform every day.”

To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes

When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.

When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.

Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?

I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.

Continue reading “To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes”

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”