Friday, September 14, 2018

When Does It Become A Story?


We all have that friend. You know that friend very well. That friend who says, “Hey, I got to tell you this story!” You settle in, expecting to hear a story worth your time. You listen, following along, going with the build-up to that big payoff, and… nothing. Your friend has told you about something that happened, but you ask yourself whether or not it was a story. Worse yet, you ask yourself whether you can get back that part of your life. The answer to both questions is “No.” Storytelling is more than just telling something.

The USS Indianapolis
A friend in a writing group told us about the plight of the USS Indianapolis during World War Two. This was the ship assigned the top-secret mission of transporting the atomic bombs across the Pacific. As the ship returned from its delivery, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. At least three-hundred souls went down with the ship, which sank in twelve minutes. The survivors had to wait for rescue, many floating in the water. But since this was a secret mission, nobody knew the ship’s location or its sinking for days. These sailors spent five days adrift in the Pacific before their chance rescue, dying from exposure, exhaustion, dehydration, delirium, and worst of all – shark attacks. Many of the nine-hundred men who survived the initial sinking died in the Pacific in some of the worst ways possible.

With all due respect to those brave men, that last paragraph is not a story.

For a story to engage the reader, it has to be more than a recollection of events. Without touching upon the personal, relatable side of those events, the story becomes a detached documentary, with all those souls lost in the Pacific little more than statistics. A real story personalizes that experience, brings into focus an intimacy the reader is able to envision, feel, touch in their minds. When this becomes a story, the reader becomes one of those survivors adrift in the Pacific.

I’ve never been on a battleship, but according to my research, they are big. A heavy cruiser such as the USS Indianapolis was two football fields in length – a fifty-story office building on its side, sailing at over thirty knots. Living on such a thing is more than I can relate to, so it is the storyteller’s job to bring this into more intimate focus. Once we shift into a perspective from one sailor’s experience, now we are in story mode. Even if it takes the vantage point of a few different crew members and what they endured, we are now telling a story. A 600-foot-plus heavy cruiser now becomes a world of dull gray metal surrounding the reader. The details can come out, the emotions can pour in, and the reader can climb through those narrow hatchways and feel the hot Pacific winds.

Now, for those of us who have never talked to a survivor from the USS Indianapolis, been on a military vessel or even sailed the Pacific, do not be alarmed. Depending on what part of the story we want to tell, we don’t need every detail. We don’t need to know the name of every crew member or the shift our character took that day. We need to convince the reader that the experiences we write about are believable.

If I write about a hypothetical sailor who managed to get off the ship and not drown as the vessel went down, but finally died just as the rescue planes flew overhead, I need to focus on experiences that reinforce the narrative. The chaos of the ship going under, the bodies of all those lost souls floating by the few lifeboats that survived, the hot sun, the lack of food. Let’s also not forget being adrift in an ocean full of water but dying of thirst because nothing around is drinkable. This suffering becomes a human experience.

This is where the story becomes intimate, and those details drag in the reader. The story is now refined and sharpened from a tale from World War Two to a story of trying to survive in the ocean while sharks swim off with the dead and the living, sailors die from hypothermia in the middle of the hot Pacific sun, and some drink saltwater in desperation only to go mad and swim toward a hallucination on the horizon. We now have the drama, tension, and human elements critical to any story.

If it helps your writing process, do a little research into whatever subject you are writing about. Check the Wikipedia page for the USS Indianapolis, read a few stories written by Navy veterans, maybe even tour a battleship. The most important part, however, will always be conveying the relatable element of the story. All the military details in the world will not match the simple story of one person’s struggle. And in this particular case, every bit of knowledge about the USS Indianapolis will not be as important as showing the heroism, bravery, and humanity of those brave sailors, most of whom never came home.


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