I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what qualities cause a story to go beyond momentary pleasure, beyond entertainment and enjoyment, to where they become a part of you. I have been running through an account of my favorite books and movies–as well as some of those I scarcely thought of twice afterwards–creating a sort of ledger of story meaning and value.
This is both for general purposes and curiosity, but also to see if my own stories have the very qualities I seek out in other media. Regardless, I have reached a couple of conclusions on the matter.
It is worth mentioning that these are going to be somewhat subjective because, of course, a story that brings tears to my eyes may not affect the next person at all, and I see people rave and weep over stories that I find dull or weak. Some things really are just personal. But I think at least a couple of these will probably strike a chord across personalities and preferences.
There are several books that I ADORE and re-read at regular intervals which were cemented in my literary soul at a young age. The Horse and his Boy, The Abolition of Man, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Mara Daughter of the Nile to name the chief ones.
There are also those that I did not re-read, but which needled in and remain with me to this day in spite of that. The Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt, to be exact. A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, also.
Many of these types of books actually do hold up to the scrutiny of an adult re-read, but the thing is: I’m biased, so I don’t actually know for sure. These are the literary equivalent of a first crush. Even when you get over the crush, the intensity of the experience and the accompanying feelings are not easily forgotten. Even less so are they likely to be replicated as you grow older.
Something about youth is rich, soft soil. Just about anything can grow in it, good or bad. The most trivial story can take root, almost as easily as the fantastic ones.
It actually reminds me of the book The Magician’s Nephew in which Narnia is first created and the soil is so fresh that literally ANYTHING you throw at it will take and grow. Like a lamp post. Or toffee candy. It’s exciting and fantastic. It’s also a bit sobering when you think of that window in a child/teen’s life and how one hopes that the best and richest things are the ones that stick, because they are so very formative.
This is more for nowadays, as opposed to my younger years.
Now I’m not against a zippy plot, or an action-packed story per se. But I’m going off of plain old stats here. The books that I remember, that I think about, that get into the DNA, those are rarely the ones I read through in a couple of days, or even in a week or so. I have, in fact, noticed a sort of proportional relationship in which the longer it takes me to read a book, the deeper the impact it makes on me. On the surface, I suppose this makes sense.
-The Wall, by John Hersey
-The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel
I took quotes from these books, I learned from them, and they took me months to read.
Oh, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell had two scenes in it so beautiful that I would have read all thousand of those pages just for that.
Conversely, there are several books (and I will not name them) that I positively flew through, but felt almost a contempt for afterwards for how little they left in their wake. Now not all books are meant to be heavy meals. Some are candy and they meant to be candy and that is fine. Candy is delicious. But these ones just left a bad taste in my mouth because I wanted so much more than plottiness and a mini cliff-hangers every single chapter. Characterization and world-building almost always take a back seat to insistent, blurry-eyed, page-turniness.
It doesn’t matter how riveted I was while reading, if I’m left with a hollow, frustrated feeling, then–regardless of popularity or intent–at best I’ll remember what I did NOT like, and nothing else.
3. Improves Vastly Upon Acquaintance:
It took me three times of reading The Abolition of Man to truly grasp what was being said there. I had to look up a lot of words and really slow down and process the whole thing. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time reading it that I could do so unencumbered by the mere effort of comprehension. To this day, I sometimes CRAVE this book the way someone with an iron deficiency might suddenly crave steak.
Likewise, I don’t think I deeply grasped the bright, painful paradox of Till We Have Faces until the second read.
Mark, say, the Harry Potter books which I adored, but which sort of…settle after reading such that the flaws begin to surface. (I started re-reading them to my husband recently and while we have enjoyed this, I notice all manner of troubles).
This improvement factor is just as true, if not especially so, for movies.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Monsoon Wedding. It gets more beautiful, more powerful with each viewing, not less. Little things that I could not possibly have noticed the first go round start to surface and enrich the flavor of the whole movie. There are some things that I flatly did not understand until I had seen it a few times. There are themes that flourished best only upon multiple views.
In a more plotty/characterization sense, Lucky Number Slevin is like this as well. The story has more facets once you know the mystery’s end. Gosford Park also, in a lesser way.
I find new things to love even about Disney’s Mulan, which was always my favorite, and becomes more so every time I watch it.
The problem with this is that if they don’t catch you the first time, you’ll never give them that second or third look that they truly, truly deserve. Which is a terrible pity. They may take some patience.
4. Truth or Hope (preferably both)
Stories that don’t give up hope on important things (family, marriage, truth, honesty, purpose, reason, charity, kindness in the face of cruelty, etc.) really resonate with me. That isn’t at all to say that the story can’t be dark, painful, or even utterly devastating in some ways (John Hersey’s The Wall was about the Warsaw Ghetto, and very painful), but there has to be something more than darkness and pain.
I remember a book where rich truths are communicated, not heavy-handedly or preachily, of course, but innately enmeshed in a good story with fantastic characters. If you have the latter two elements, I think the former will usually come of its own accord. It sort of can’t help it.
The trouble here is that we don’t always agree on these things. Someone else might roll their eyes at what I find profound, and I might shake my head at what they view as hopeful. I am not a relativist–I hold my beliefs with conviction–but people absolutely have different worldviews, and that will naturally impact what they find meaningful, or what they view as valid and hopeful…sometimes in ways that matter, and sometimes in ways that really are trivial. Quite apart from this, our personal experiences are going to have a lot to do with what resonates and matters in this arena.
But as long as any given author sticks to their guns and doesn’t bend their characters, purpose and plot against the true grain of the story, I’m pretty sure the truth will out–in one way or another.