Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Good Stories, According to C.S. Lewis

When it comes to writing about writing, nearly everyone has tried to define what makes a good story. Ever heard of Plato, Aristotle? Yep, they started it, and plenty of people have continued the trend.

Even C. S. Lewis.

Last fall, I reviewed a new collection of C. S. Lewis’s essays, Image and Imagination. I picked up the (Kindle) book again recently and ran across a section on the qualities which make a story great. He applies them particular to the book he’s reviewing, Charles Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres.

Technically, this post should really be called “What Makes a Good Poem,” since that’s primarily what C.S. Lewis is talking about in his review, but he isn’t referring to the quality of the poetry. Instead, this is about what makes the language, story, and idea of the poem stand out. This isn’t about good poetry as defined by meter or rhyme, but good poetry and good storytelling that captures a reader’s attention and lingers in memory after the reader has finished.

Several years ago, I borrowed a couple of Charles Williams’s books from the library. I still remember very intense images from the books I read, but they were fairly dense reading and I didn’t make it to Taliessin Through Logres, unfortunately. I still want to go back and read it, especially after reading Lewis’s review. I suspect that I will get a lot more out of the poem after reading the analysis Lewis gives in this review.

Toward the end of the article, though, Lewis explains why he believes Taliessin stands out—and why he thinks it should take its place among other great poems.

So, here are Lewis’s four standards for declaring Taliessin a masterpiece. May they help you decide why you think a story is great—or even how well your own stories rank against Lewis’s scale of greatness:

  1. “The world into which this poem carries is emphatically not mine.”
  2. “Closely connected with the preceding point is the fact that the poem, once read, lays the images permanently on the mind.”
  3. “The total effect of the poetry is something more and better than any enumeration of its qualities would lead one to predict.”
  4. “If this poem is good at all it is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it. If you can’t get an orange, then a lemon or a grapefruit will give you a taste that has something in common with it. But if you can’t get a pineapple, then nothing else will even faintly put you in mind of it.”
With his first point, Lewis clarifies that the world he means is not a familiar, comfortable world. It’s not a world that he likes and visits because he’s familiar with it, but because the story has drawn him into a new world entirely. Plenty of people say they read because it introduces them to a world outside their experiences, because it broadens their horizons. I've never head before a distinction between books that help us feel comfortable and those which really do introduce us to new worlds.

With the last point, Lewis describes Taliessin as deep and disquieting, but adds that it left him with a sort of “shy, elusive laughter; angelic rather than elfin laughter.”

I often have trouble explaining why I like certain stories—sometimes it’s a particular character’s wittiness, or the vividness of the imagery—but sometimes it’s a feeling that the story leaves. It’s that last, irreducible piece of a story that gives it soul and makes it more than all the pieces which compose it. It's the final, indescribable essence of the story, which so many people have tried to capture in practice exercises and theories. In other words, it's the element which makes it a pineapple instead of an orange like so many other stories.


Amy Lewis said...

Thanks, Audrey! Lewis' points help immensely, even as I try to determine whether or not to continue working on my own book.

Audrey Sauble said...

You're welcome, Amy! I'm slowly trying to get back into my own project currently, so I hope you do continue with yours. I'll be asking how it goes!

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