Essays Fiction 2009

Telling Tails

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

For a child—and maybe for an adult as well—a better story, although not a great story, might begin this way, with very little effort devoted to establishing verisimilitude:

When Batman was 6 years old, he grew a big, bushy tail. Often, it popped right out of his pants. This was embarrassing, of course, especially in a place like Sioux City, where tails were out of fashion among midwestern children. As a result, Batman had no friends. Kids laughed at him. One day after school, as Batman was walking home, his tail dragging in the mud behind him, he looked back and saw that he had painted a long dark stripe down the center of the road. His grandfather, who happened to be driving by, took note of this, and of how the stripe neatly divided the road into two separate lanes. What a wonderful way to prevent collisions, thought his grandfather. If only that stripe were yellow! That night at dinner, Batman’s grandfather talked with great excitement about building a machine that would replicate what he had witnessed on the road that day. “We’ll make millions, maybe billions,” he said. “We can finally get out of this cruddy town.” No one else at the dinner table seemed impressed. (“Pass the pork chops,” said Batman’s mother.) But the next morning, undaunted, the grandfather tied young Batman to the rear bumper of the family Oldsmobile and handed him a can of yellow paint. “Just dip in your tail whenever it runs dry,” said the grandfather. “A nice straight line.” And so for miles and miles, Batman painted a neat yellow stripe up and down the streets of Sioux City, Iowa, past limestone churches and past brick schoolhouses. Not a month later, the city’s accident rate had dropped dramatically. Batman suddenly had friends. A parade was held in his honor. Sioux City, Iowa, became known, and is still known today, as the safest city in the safest county in the safest state in America. And little Batman had his first sweet taste of what it was to be a hero, almost a superhero, although to this day his tail remains an appendage he takes great care to disguise. You probably hadn’t even noticed it.

Now, I certainly don’t claim literary merit for this example. But I do think a child would pay attention—a chuckle here, a raised eyebrow there. To be memorable and to have dramatic impact, informational detail must function actively within the dynamic of a story. Otherwise the author’s hard work goes into a reader’s recycle bin as “authentic” but forgettable clutter. As an example, I’d guess that few among us will recall with certainty the color of Huck Finn’s hair. But even the most casual reader will remember that Huck journeyed south aboard a raft and not a donkey. The raft functions in the story.

When I speak about a well-imagined story, I mean a good many things, but let me begin by listing a few things a well-imagined story is not. A well-imagined story is not generic. It has not been lifted off the shelf at your local literary Wal-Mart. A well-imagined story is not predictable, or at least not wholly predictable. A well-imagined story is not melodramatic; it does not rely on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes; it does not use formulas in place of inventiveness; it does not substitute cliché for fresh vision. A well-imagined story does not rely on coincidence or happenstance for its dramatic effects—a character named Lance, let’s say, just happens to be walking by at the very instant another character named Brandy, the unrequited love of Lance’s life, emerges from the doctor’s office with her spanking-new diaphragm. A well-imagined story does not rev up bland, everyday events with lurid, purply, overwrought language that seeks to elevate such events beyond their due. For example, a well-imagined story would not, in my view, include a sentence such as this one: “With an explosive, rocket-like thrust of his legs, Lance jumped for joy at the heartwarming vision of Brandy’s snow-white diaphragm.”

More positively, and maybe more helpfully, I can try to suggest what a well-imagined story does mean to me.

Presented by

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien has written eight books, including The Things They Carried and the National Book Award–winning Going After Cacciato.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In