Monday, January 14, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 255 - The Power of Story

We write because we need to tell a story the whole way through. This is different than needing to tell a story, for why do we spin a tale if not to arrive at its conclusion? More than wanting to let our readers and listeners and viewers know how the story ends, we write because we, too, can't bear the thought of not knowing the resolution. 

Twice a day, I board the N or Q train from Astoria, Queens to Midtown, Manhattan, and back again for work. My commute lasts about twenty minutes, barring any technical difficulties, passenger problems, or general New York City subway nonsense. For the most part, I try to spend that time with my nose in a book, feet out from beneath other strap hangers, and my being as far as humanly possibly from whoever has decided that the three-minute trip beneath the East River is the best and only time they can unleash hack after cough after sneeze into the confined metal car. Sometimes, though, despite my best efforts at ignoring everything and everyone around me, my ear will pick up on snippets of dialogue, and I can't help but listen and wonder... what happens next?

"I gave Julie a call last night, asked if she wanted to hang out."
"Oh yeah," said the passenger's friend, "what'd she say?"
"She said she was watching TV and doing chores, but did I want to go over. So I brought some beer and we chilled for a bit."
"Nice, dude, did anything happen?"

"This is Times Square, 42nd Street. Stand clear of the closing doors, please." The conductor has a nasty tendency of interrupting stories, just as I begin to get invested in them.

I don't know who Julie is. I don't know her relationship to either of the men talking about her. Are they all friends? Are they dating? Is Julie his sister? Is she his ex wife? Or his mistress? What could Julie possibly have to do with them, and what on Earth happened when he went over?! Did they hook up? Did she put him to work on the chores? I hope he didn't do anything to Julie, and I hope they had a nice time. But how will I ever know? And why do I care? Maybe nothing came of it. Maybe Julie is the passenger's friend. Maybe the next words to come out of the passenger's mouth were, "We had two beers and called it a night an hour later and were each in bed by 9." Conclusion. The end. But, damn it, I want to know if that's the case.

That is the power of story. 

Give me an introduction and a sense of who the characters are, and I'll want to follow them, even if it's just for two minutes on the subway. Even if it winds up being nothing, a boring tale about a mundane night. Yet don't withhold the ending from me. Don't unknowingly rope me in and dangle the promise of a resolution that I never get to hear. That's just cruel. 

I tell stories because I want to share something - an experience, an idea, a fable - with you. But here's the secret; I also tell them, because I can't abide by not knowing what happens in the end once the beginning has popped into my head. I simply can't. I must know, and you must let me tell you. I'll go mad otherwise. It's why we often watch a terrible movie start to finish, though we know twenty minutes in that it's garbage - there's a fundamental, human curiosity that none of us can shake. Sure, there are exceptions, but when someone says something that they think is not only worth sharing, but also entertaining, dramatic, or stirring, we can't help but listen in to see if it moves us, as well. 

Is Julie's plight an earth-shattering, transformative one? Probably not; it's probably an insignificant tale about a minor, forgettable experience worth telling only in the time it takes to go the two stops from 49th Street to 34th. But just on the off chance it is something more, something worth hearing, shouldn't I listen in? You've unknowingly captivated me, and when we stop at 42nd Street half-way into your yarn, wouldn't you prefer I stay to hear the pay-off? 

I get off the train, despite wanting to know more, because that is my stop. But maybe, just maybe next time, I'll ride to 34th, because that is the power of story.