What Is Story?

Now, just to prove how oblique I really can be, I want to present a little story that appears in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Someone one named Lauchlan told the story during one of Natalie’s evening story circles in which the participants sat in a circle about a single candle and told stories. Here’s Lauchlan’s story:

There was one summer that I was a forest ranger in Oregon for four months. I was alone for that whole time and I hardly ever wore any clothes that summer, because there was no one around. I was deep in the woods. By the end of the summer I was very tan and very calm. It was late August and I was squatting, picking the berries off a berry bush and eating them. Suddenly I felt a tongue licking my shoulder and I slowly turned by head. There was a deer licking the sweat on my back! I didn’t move. Then she moved next to me and together we silently ate berries off the bush. I was stunned. An animal trusted me that much! [page 147/8]

This is an amazing little story. But it doesn’t seem to qualify as a story in the sense I’ve been talking about story as arising from opposing wills. Where’s the conflict? It’s what I would call an incident, but to characterize it as such would seem to trivialize it.

Upon closer examination, we can see that it represents the resolution in some small but profound way of a conflict humans have with the animal world. We have separated ourselves from the animal world and our own animal nature. Lauchlan’s experience of being an isolated forest ranger stripped him of all remnants of civilization and brought him back into the wild, our most natural state. In doing so, he had given up the ongoing conflict with nature and was rewarded through being accepted by a wild being. As such, conflict is still at the center of this little story, but its focus is on resolution, the final stage of our plot pentagon.

Another thing about the story that causes it to resonate so powerfully is that both the man and the deer are eating, feeding themselves. Our interaction for so much of our history together has been of man eating the deer. Here they eat together from a berry bush. It would be easy to imagine a state of peaceful coexistence where such an event would be commonplace and insignificant instead of being highly charged with meaning. By focusing on conflict resolution the story has exposed the peace, perhaps even love obtained without conflict.

From a purely craft perspective, the more important thing this one paragraph story teaches us is the way in which an author can say things that are so pregnant with meaning that it’s better to not explain it away with more narrative. Even the last two sentences of that one-paragraph story are not needed, and to my way of thinking take away from the impact on the reader.

Take Hemingway’s (unverified) famous one-sentence story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The first two words give it the feel of an ad in the classified section of a newspaper, and therefore it’s difficult not to surmise that the baby died either in the womb or so soon after birth that the parents never had the chance to put them on their child. So sad. Again we are confronted with just the resolution of a conflict, one that resulted in the death of a child. And that’s just what I bring to those words, and you may make completely different connections. Since we all have a feel for the way conflict gets played out, its five plot points, this one sentence carries the full weight of a novel, and given the motivation, we could flesh out these six words into 600 pages, but that could limit the reader’s imagination and in many ways take away from the significance and impact. It all depends on the execution.

I guess what I’m saying is that even if we don’t use all of the plot pentagon in our story, it can still, and probably will, allude to the complete conflict, plot points and sequence of events dictated by it. The human psyche is equipped to experience it this way. That doesn’t mean that we can tell just part of a story and get away with it. Hemingway’s six words feel complete because they allude to the resolution of a conflict and therefore the end of a story.

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