What Makes A Story Work?

In the search for a really good, binge-worthy source of entertainment (I do a lot of elliptical these days), I have taken to re-watching stories that actually work — That Thing You Do, Blast From the Past, True Grit, Breaking Bad to name a fewover taking a chance on something like Anatomy of a Scandal, a Netflix mini-series telling the tale of two Tory members of parliament, prime minister and cabinet member no less, who share a dark secret from their past.  (Come to think of it, doesn’t “dark secret from their past” dominate film ad copy these days?)

It’s slick enough.  It has great art direction, credible acting (Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend, Michelle Dockery), and enough slowly revealed back story to leave you thinking:  “Okay, I’ll stick around for the punch line.”  But it doesn’t work.  It is tediously bound to its #MeToo obligations and the customary indictment of elite privilege we have come to expect from British story-telling.  American productions get very woke and heavy-handed but for pure intersectional sanctimony, you can’t beat modern British gentry pearl-clutching over their pearls and scolding themselves for their country estates.  I couldn’t finish the thing.  The roaring din of high purpose got too loud.

On the other hand, Audible served up a John Cheever story the other day that I haven’t yet finished, but likely will because the character premise is interesting:  an elevator operator in a New York apartment building ponders the approaching Christmas season and–when responding to the tenants’ Holiday wishes–uniformly responds something like this: “well, thank you, but I have no family so Christmas is a difficult time for me.”  He then proceeds to relate different versions of his past and different explanations for his own poverty.  The story seems to be about how people react when the “best wishes” conversational rule is broke.  I wish you well.  You are supposed to wish me well.  But you don’t.  You tell a horrible story about your problems instead.  This doesn’t allow me to shut the door and pretend that life is pleasant.  I must address your misery or I will be considered a miserable person.

If nothing else, there’s some spring in that, some unexplored problem worth pondering in the parlor for an hour or two.  A few years ago, a friend from the rural south told me that she would look out the window and see a man carry a bag of something out to the culvert near his front lawn.  He would dump the bag in the culvert, squirt some lighter fluid on it, and watch it burn for a few minutes.  This followed a regular pattern in the evening.  We don’t know the ending, but it’s the sort of thing that makes for story.   Well told, it won’t morph into a metaphor for climate change or dysfunctional families or the politics of consensual sex.   It won’t take on some smothering, uniform, generic template that robs it of its weirdness.  In a way,  it would be God-honoring — a recognition that God made creation so utterly unique, and baroque, that it can’t be wrapped up in this season’s sanctimony fish-wrap.

Listen, if I knew what makes story work, if anyone really knew, we wouldn’t have to endure such an expensive train of pure nonsense on the streaming platforms.