Crafting a memorable story

Why some novels stand the test of time and others are forgotten

There is an ocean of difference between a great work of art and a good work of art. And, as any reader can attest, literature is no exception.

Good books can entertain. They can make a person consider a new concept or they can make that person reconsider an old concept in a new light.

Good books change us in small, superficial ways.

But, where most books use a chisel, great books bring a sledgehammer.

From the Epic of Gilgamesh in 2100 B.C., to George Orwell’s Animal Farm in 1945, and through to today, great stories have reached across cultures
and generations.

Precisely what gives a story such a lasting impact though, is a matter of some debate.

Leo Wills, who moved from Calgary to Victoria to become a screenwriter, says the best stories are didactic, meaning they are meant to convey a moral or philosophical message.

Most writers, says Wills, start with a character, setting, problem or concept. But these are all external sources, so, if a story begins with a character, then the best it can hope to achieve is to change the way the reader feels about that character.

On the other hand, stories that stem from a fundamental truth about our humanity stick with their readers forever.

“You can put away a character or an idea, but you can’t put away your heart,” said Wills.

It is why the 20th century French philosopher, Albert Camus, said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Writing a strong theme into a story without being pushy is one of the hardest elements of writing, according to Wills.

If a story’s themes are explored in a way that connects with the reader, then it no longer matters if it follows a traditional plot or even if its protagonist is an un-empathetic sociopath.

“Just look at American Psycho or House of Leaves,” says Wills. “Neither of those stories would have been possible in the hands of a lesser writer.”

Through the use of meaningful themes, a book can invest and immerse its readers and, in turn, the story becomes memorable. 

ACAD student, Charlotte Marshall, said for her, that story was Don Quixote, as evidenced by the tattoo she has on her forearm of the story’s protagonist.

The book’s message that the “the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be” touched her when she first read it in school.

“I felt that I really believed in [the protagonist] and his desire to live a fulfilling and exciting life where people aren’t bound by class, gender, age or circumstance,” said Marshall.

Years later, though, when she went back to reread the book at her own leisure, she found deeper layers of meaning that she found even more affecting.

Don Quixote is the story of a wealthy middle-aged man who wishes he were a knight. 

But, he was born during the Renaissance, where chivalric codes and knightly orders are a thing of the past. So, he pretends.

He dons a suit of armour and rides off in search of adventure. Along the way, he attacks a number of windmills, having mistaken them for giants, and he pledges his undying love to his neighbour, unbeknownst to her.

Through his adventures, he is mocked, made a fool of and even beaten for his childish beliefs until, for his own good, his friends trick him into giving up on being a knight.

In the end, Quixote settles down, but having renounced his dream ultimately kills him.

In many ways, Don Quixote is a comedy, albeit one with a bittersweet ending.

But, at the same time, it is a deeply human story about personal truths and following your heart.

“The story showed me, as a young girl, that trying is worth it. Even if you fail, or if it’s impossible, the act of trying is sometimes all you can do,” said Marshall.

“Because, the act of trying to be better than we are is the most important thing anyone could do.”

Great books, according to Marshall, ask these difficult questions about who we are. They speak to human nature at their most basic level, beyond what we learn in a school or a church.

“[Don Quixote’s] story was all about seeing the good in the world despite the bad things and about fighting for good and righteousness even in the face of wanton cruelty,” said Marshall.

Regardless of a person’s beliefs, political, religious or otherwise, it is hard not to see the value of that message in today’s socio-political climate.

And, that message is from a book written more than 400 years ago. By speaking to what truly makes us human, Don Quixote can reach through time, to pluck at our heartstrings centuries later.

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