On Writing: Telling the Story

Our first great storyteller in English, Geoffrey Chaucer, knew how to tell a story badly.


In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer portrays a group of pilgrims telling each other stories along the way to Canterbury, and two of them, the Miller and the Knight, tell two of the best stories ever told, one hilariously vulgar and the other profoundly moving.

But one of the pilgrims, the Squire, tells the most inept story in all of literature. The young Squire has no idea how to tell a story, so he just starts lifting details from various romances he has read and piling them into a narrative without any apparent direction. Finally, after 700 lines of insipid pentameter and with no end in sight, the other pilgrims stop him, thank him for a story well told, and move on.

Here in the word-processing age, we have a name for the Squire’s unsuccessful storytelling strategy. We call it “cut and paste.”

“Cut and paste,” of course, is itself a metaphor from the days when typewriters roamed the earth. I’m sure many readers remember. After typing out a first draft, you would get out the scissors and start chopping. Then you would tape all the scraps of sentences and paragraphs back together with some more coherent organization, and from this monstrous quilt of verbiage and Scotch tape you would carefully type out the final draft.

Cutting-and-pasting spared us the work of typing.

On the computer, however, we often cut-and-paste to spare ourselves not the work of typing, but the work of writing itself.

You know the drill: you’re writing a report at work and find some paragraphs you can use in a colleague’s document. In the corporate world, all work documents belong to the company, so plagiarism isn’t an issue (as it would be otherwise, students!). So you highlight the text you need, hit “control-c” to copy, move the cursor onto your own document, and hit “control-v.”

The “v” must be for voila! because, suddenly, like magic, you’ve written another page.

Only you haven’t actually written it, and there’s the rub.

Writing is more than piling up information, a la the Squire. Writing is telling the story, leading readers step by step from a beginning to an end. When we cut and paste copy from elsewhere, we risk not writing, not shaping the information—however we got it and wherever we got it from—into a coherent narrative, a story.

Telling the story means connecting sentences together like links in a chain. Each link has to have some physical connection to the ones before and after it. Sentences too: each one should have some word or phrase or key term or even just a pronoun that carries readers from the information in one sentence to the information in the next.

Many of our greatest storytellers have taken their plots and characters from other writers’ stories. Indeed, Shakespeare seems to have invented the plot of only one of his 37 plays, “The Tempest.” But he turned those borrowed plots into his own. He took apart someone else’s story and put it back together piece by piece, rearranging details, deleting some, adding some of his own, and retelling the story in a way it had never been told before. As my wife Michelle puts it, Shakespeare didn’t invent the stories, but he did write them.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with cutting-and-pasting. We can think of it as a kind of collaborative writing. When we cut-and-paste from another document, we build on another writer’s work. In one of his early poems, Robert Frost writes, “Men work together, I told him from the heart,/Whether they work together or apart.” Less poetically perhaps, but with no less insight, my friend Lew Queirolo argues that cutting-and-pasting is one way that writers work together and apart at the same time: it allows one writer to easily access a body of information that is the cumulative work of many writers.

But we still have to carefully shape what we cut-and-paste into a narrative that serves the needs of the work at hand and gives our readers more than just a pile of details on a computer screen.

• Jim Hale can be contacted through www.jimhalewriting.com.


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