Harry Crews used to say that E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, taken from a series of lectures, was the only book about writing that’s worth a damn. I’m reading it again for the first time in years, and Forster’s even more insightful (and far more droll) than I remembered. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on “story”:
[Story] is the fundamental aspect without which [the novel] could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different — melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.
For the more we look at the story . . . . , the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone — or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. It is immensely old — goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories . . . The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the wolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him. We can estimate the dangers incurred when we think of the career of Scheherazade in somewhat later times. Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense — the only literary tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages. Great novelist though she was — exquisite in her descriptions, tolerant in her judgments, ingenious in her incidents, advanced in her morality, vivid in her delineations of character, expert in her knowledge of three Oriental capitals — it was yet on none of these gifts that she relied when trying to save her life from her intolerable husband. They were but incidental. She only survived because she managed to keep the king wondering what would happen next. Each time she saw the sun rising she stopped in the middle of a sentence and left him gaping. “At his moment Scheherazade saw the morning appearing and, discreet, was silent.” This uninteresting little phrase is the backbone of the One Thousand and One Nights, the tapeworm by which they are tied together and the life of a most accomplished princess preserved.
We are all like Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story. Some of us want to know nothing else — there is nothing in us but primeval curiousity, and consequently our other literary judgments are ludicrous. And now the story can be defined. It is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence — dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death, and so on. Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next. These are the only two criticisms that can be made on the story that is a story. It is the lowest and simplest of literary organizsms. Yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels.