Via the Post‘s Story Lab blog this month, we find Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien’s 2009 Atlantic essay on narrative, “Telling Tails.”
The blog post is a sign of how Story Lab has democratized its views on storytelling, and the essay is terrific. “MY SONS, TIMMY and Tad — both fans of Winnie the Pooh — have taken lately to wearing tails,” O’Brien begins to tell us. “At our local Wal-Mart, and occasionally at church, the boys sport lengths of clothesline dangling from their trousers.”
More of the lede: “They prowl the neighborhood trailing an assortment of ribbons, coat hangers, telephone cords, fishing line, belts, blankets, drapery tassels, and electrical extension cords. People notice. Things have gotten out of hand.” O’Brien sews as a master. Reading further, you get a great story about Batman, and then you get the Cheerios.
Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary. In daily life, one would not say to a drinking companion, “Hey, here’s a great story for you. Yesterday morning I ate Cheerios. Then I set off for work. Work was boring. Nothing happened. I left the office at five o’clock sharp. That night I ate a steak, not a great steak, but a pretty darned good one. I went to bed about nine.” Very quickly, I think, one’s drinking mate would seek more interesting company. A better story, though not necessarily a good one, might begin: “Yesterday morning, over my usual bowl of Cheerios, I was alarmed to note that the Cheerios were shaped not as standard circles, but as semicircles, as if someone had used a surgical scalpel to slice each individual Cheerio precisely in half. Odd, I thought. And odder still, those particular Cheerios tasted only half as delicious as Cheerios usually taste. And even odder yet, I found myself half hungry at work that morning, half wishing for a bowl of Cheerios. My hunger was soon tempered, however, by the disturbing realization that I was now but half a man.”