Why small stories are (usually) best

Six years ago, I read a book review that changed my life forever.

At the time, I was working on my very first novel. This novel was precious to me, and still is (I continue to work on the final draft). It was based on a simple idea in my head that I had nurtured throughout childhood. But somehow, along the way, the idea had become less fun. As I gradually built the histories of my world, designed bitter backstories for every character, and came up with languages for my various inhabitants, I realized that everything was becoming dull, gloomy, and tedious.

Somehow, paradoxically, my story was becoming far less interesting as the stakes became more colossal. ‘Fate of the world’ style plots swarmed in my head; magical objects, grand destinies, perilous quests, the whole High Fantasy kit. It was all taking the determination out of me and making what had once been a labor of love into a tremendous chore.

Around that time, I stumbled upon a book that looked to be very promising: Fablehaven.

You might have read Fablehaven. It was a New York Times bestseller, and the book has a respectable 4.5 stars on Amazon. It’s even been optioned for a Hollywood film.

The idea of the book was quite promising as well: two kids stumble upon a nature reserve for mythical creatures.

And as it turned out, the concept was similar to what I had in mind for my own book, so I had to do more than read it: I had to do some research. I read through dozens of reviews, all full of praise and adoration.

But then, I saw something that didn’t belong. Something that confused and fascinated me: Fablehaven and Why I Hate It.

I clicked the link, and came to a very humble Livejournal page, that still persists to this day in its antiquated glory. I will not reproduce the entire review here (it’s still online), but I will paste the sentences that affected me:

What Fablehaven actually is: A generic McFantasy with a side order of “Oh bother, this plot again?”

What Fablehaven ISN’T: a story about a wildlife refuge filled with mythical creatures.

It’s strange that such an obscure piece of writing has stayed with me for all these years, but I still remember the cool, Fall evening well. I remember how my heart sank into the bottom of my stomach. I remember realizing, with burning clarity: “My book has lost its identity.” All the histories, lands, languages and races that I had constructed came crumbling to the ground in that moment, and I saw the heart of my story, which I had loved, barely beating under all that excess weight.

I saw the characters who had begun their lives in my imagination; their quirks and eccentricities, their motivations, their conflicts, and their simple desires. I saw the childlike simplicity of it all, and I realized how I had buried it under a slush pile of ‘epicness’.

My novel was no longer fun, because I had lost the essence of it, trying to shoehorn it into a bombastic mold that it was never meant to fill.

The heart of a story

So I turned it all around. I backpedaled, and returned to the heart of my vision. I kept most of what I had invented in the background, and allowed my characters to speak for themselves. I allowed them to decide what adventures they would go on. And it turned out, their simple, bizarre lives were a thousand times more interesting than the one I was trying to create for them.

Everything became fun again, almost instantaneously.

I had learned an extremely important lesson: the heart of a story is simple. The premise, the characters, and the basic setting: this is what sets everything in motion. Everything else develops over time, and it’s only a supplement to the story. Magical objects, destinies, races and languages – they can make your worlds richer, but if they aren’t the point of your story, they may very well destroy it.

But people still enjoy High Fantasy, don’t they? If J.R.R Tolkien used elves, dragons, dwarves, and invented a dozen languages to go along with them, can’t we do the same thing?

Actually, I believe this is a tremendous mistake. I think many people miss the whole point of Tolkien’s work. For Tolkien, everything began with The Hobbit. And The Hobbit began with one simple line, scribbled on the back of a random assignment that the Professor was grading in the 1930s: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

That was it. That was how The Hobbit began.

A hole, and a hobbit.

This is eventually what led to The Lord of The Rings, the first and greatest epic fantasy novel of all time.

Tolkien continued to write The Hobbit for his children. It was a whimsical, exciting story to read them before bed. He had no aspirations to publish it; no ambitions of becoming one of the most influential fiction writers of the 20th century. And because he was a philologist who studied language for a living, languages came into it naturally. Because he had a lifelong love of mythology, myth came into it as well, and then dwarves, and elves, Dark Lords, and everything that now fills The Silmarillion.

If you – like many others – weren’t fond of the explosive, bloated movie adaptations of The Hobbit, perhaps you now understand why: because the movie wasn’t about hobbits at all. It wasn’t about a Hobbit, and his crazy adventures with a bumbling troop of dwarves. It was, instead, about battles, horrors, mixed up political commentaries, and exotic tangents that were never in The Hobbit to begin with.

Whereas Tolkien never lost sight of his story’s core, the movies never seemed to grasp it in the first place.

Movie makers, novelists, and story-tellers of every kind could learn a valuable lesson from one of Tolkien’s closest friends:

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.

C.S Lewis, to Nathan Starr

The enemy of great

It could be objected that many people, in fact, enjoyed Fablehaven.

I’ve only mentioned the opinions of one little critic. And maybe he was overlooking a lot when he decided to write off the book. Maybe he was being overly judgmental.

But in fact, our reviewer knew better than that, and even admitted: “What irks me the most is that Fablehaven isn’t really a bad book. The prose is fairly standard and the characters are believable enough.”

The point isn’t that Fablehaven was a bad book. In fact, Fablehaven may have been a good book.

But the reviewer saw one thing that nobody else saw, or cared about: what the story could have been. He saw the beauty of the simple premise – a nature reserve of fantastical creatures, and all the simple, intriguing adventures that might be had by the staff, or the visitors.

Those are all unique possibilities. Those are all possibilities that only Fablehaven could have explored, and no other book.

Instead, the writer chose a plot that any book could have had, and missed out on the unique promises of his own, original idea.

As a reader, should you care? Maybe not. If the book is still enjoyable, even if it isn’t as good as it could be, there’s no harm in it.

As a reader, you shouldn’t care. But as a writer, you should.

As a writer, you have a duty not only to your readers, but to the characters you have brought into existence, and to the premise of their lives.

As a writer, you have a mission: to write the best story you possibly can. Don’t settle for less. James C. Collins famously wrote, “Good is the enemy of great….Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

We can easily paraphrase him: “Few people write great books, in large part because it is just so easy to settle on good books.”

Write sincerely, from the bottom of your heart. Be true to your characters, deliver on your premises, and don’t worry if you end up with something simple or small. The best and the biggest stories usually start from humble beginnings.

Tell your story as it really is, let it live up to its own, unique potential, and don’t worry about the size; you owe it to your story, and you owe it to yourself.

How to deal with smug critics

The Medievals referred to Philosophy as the handmaiden of Theology. In their view, Theology was the more important of the two, because it laid down important incontrovertible truths, while Philosophy merely analyzed the secondary truths of nature. It wasn’t that the Medievals thought Philosophy was unimportant; they just realized its proper place.

The same sort of hierarchy applies to Literature and Literary Criticism.  

Literature provides the source material for Literary Criticism. This is sort of common sense, as most of us would rather read our favorite novels than books about our favorite novels.

But Literary Criticism is important, especially for the budding writer. It allows us to analyze books and tells us how they’re shaped. Literary Criticism is to Writing what Music Theory is to Musicians. It helps to deepen your understanding of your craft, beyond the knowledge gained from practicing it.

The first sort of objection that opponents of literary criticism make is that it’s snobbish or elitist. This is the probably one of the worst objections that one can hurl at literary criticism since it’s one that most of the people who use it face regularly. If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

Why we hate critics

There is, however, a rational reason behind this reaction. Most of us have watched a movie, or read a book, feeling amazed and awed by the sheer brilliance of it. We then proceeded to log onto the internet to see what others thought about the thing we thought was brilliant, and lo and behold, the first article we read is something written by a self-important literary critic who goes on to make mincemeat of our precious masterpiece. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

Who do they think they are? That book/movie was good! The critic is just a cold, grumpy intellect. On the other hand, we get the spirit of things.

Fortunately enough, pop culture has granted us an excellent illustration of this principle only in the last few weeks. The premiere of the long anticipated Suicide Squad by Warner Bros. ushered in a tremendous amount of negative feedback from film critics, while many moviegoers found it enjoyable. This clash between popular and professional opinions culminated in a well publicized petition to shut down review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and the petition is (at the time of writing) at 22,304 supporters.

suicide

But this sort of reaction throws out the baby with the bathwater. Literary Criticism is no more the villain in this situation than Philosophy is when we’re confronted with Postmodernism or Materialism. Just because bad Literary Criticism exists does not mean we should abandon the subject entirely. By studying literary criticism, not only can you improve your writing skills, but you’ll also gain proper tools to understand why that critic you hated was so wrong. Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Instead of trying to silence the voices of professional critics who despised Suicide Squad, loyal patrons of the film should have been prepared to argue why the critics attacking it were wrong in their assessment. Likewise, if your own writing is being attacked by others, you should be prepared to listen. If you are acquainted with good criticism, you should be prepared to counter bad criticism.

Another objection to learning literary criticism, which is pretty reasonable, usually goes something like this: “But, honestly dude, I’m not trying to write some great literary work. I just want my novel to be fun. Why should I study literary criticism?”

Because honestly, to write really good pulp fiction, a writer should usually have one foot in the literary. At least get your feet wet. The reason why fiction like Firefly, Warhammer or Star Wars is so dang good is that the writers usually know their literature and literary criticism.

That being said, it does take more than just lit theory to write decent lit theory. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

Now, if you aren’t quite the literary type, I suggest you tackle some of the great works of literature before you start tackling literary criticism. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great place to start. If you are the literary type, but still sort of vague on what criticism’s all about, try Matthew Arnold’s The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.

It’s public domain, so like all things both worthy and unworthy, you can find it on the Internet.