The Best Stories Give Us Questions, Not Answers

I just watched Stephen Fry’s “Wagner & Me.” Over the course of the story, Fry tries to reconcile his love of Wagner’s music with the fact that Hitler felt much the same way. Fry mentioned that one of the things that made Hitler’s rallies so spectacular was that they incorporated staging on an operatic scale; as well as the massive emotional resonance of ultimate good fighting ultimate evil. In short, Hitler attempted to bring a story to life. It brought to mind other examples of how human beings try to take stories in their literal form and bring them into reality — and what happens when we’re handed the answers.

Stories  come to life most successfully as allegories and metaphors for reality. They capture a small slice of our world, neatly arranged and displayed for our pleasure.

Longer stories, such as biographies or historical fiction, still lose a good chunk of their details and accuracy when translated into books and movies. The infinite complexity and interconnectivity of life never resolves in an emotionally satisfying way.

When we accomplish a lifelong dream, we expect the curtains to roll when it’s over. They don’t. We go on. That makes for a crappy ‘ending.’

To achieve that emotional catharsis at the end of a story, the writer has to be reductionist. The idea of evil is reductionist. Life would be much easier if all that stood between us and Happily Ever After were one evil person or persons to be destroyed.

What makes stories resonant and compelling, what makes them linger in our hearts long after the telling’s done — are big uncomplicated seemingly universal ideas. Evil, love, goodness, honor, and joy are all things we want to share in and experience; but translating those ideas to reality in that form demands a high price. It’s romantic to hear someone would die or kill for you… but less so when you suddenly have a corpse on your hands.

Stories that can change the world are the ones that make us think about what we’ve just read/seen/heard. They make us consider what it would be like to be in that situation. They ask what life would be like with access to certain technologies. They ask what life would be like under different types of governments. They ask us how we can be braver, or more honest. They ask us not to kill dragons, but what does it mean to be a hero. The best stories don’t give us answers. They give us questions.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
― Plutarch

If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.
— George S. Patton Jr.

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5 thoughts on “The Best Stories Give Us Questions, Not Answers

  1. REDdog

    Sometimes I think I write like that. The question is much more powerful than the answer methinks…does our story pose the question?

    Reply

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