Friday, March 30, 2012

To Write a Good Story

    In a forward, J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that he intended no allegory in The Lord of the Rings; his motive was "the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."  For four decades I have thought that to be a fine ambition, and at times I have been vain enough to imagine myself mimicking Tolkien.  (Clearly, not just I!  Only God knows the extent of Tolkien's influence on popular literature of the last half century.)
    Somehow in my mind, Tolkien's motive morphed and simplified.  In my memory it became the desire to write a good story.  But there is a double meaning to "good," at least in my thought, a double meaning I think Tolkien would approve.
    A story has to be well-told if it is going to "amuse, delight, maybe excite or deeply move" readers.  I mean here the stuff mentioned in composition classes, everything from clear grammatical sentences to descriptions, characterizations, and plot.  We might label this goodness of stories "form."
    The second kind of goodness in stories has to do with moral goodness.  In this sense, a good story is about "the good" (and by extension, about evil).  The philosopher Robert Adams argues that all good things are good because they resemble in some way the ultimate good, which is God.  A good story ought to lead us into insight into good and evil.  We can call this a story's "content."
    The double meaning of "good story" explains why some stories are failures.  Some writers aim to tell good stories in the second sense, but they fall into moralism and woodenness.  In short, they fail to tell a good story in the first sense.  And some tale-tellers give us gripping stories that at the end of the day are  demoralizing, in a literal sense.

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