Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Impossible Questions

Richard Russo read at Butler last night: three parts of an essay and two novel excerpts that were connected to the material he explored in it. He talked about writing the same kind of scene all the time, sometimes inadvertently repeating a description or turn of phase in his stories and novels. How there were a few things you looked at all your life, in different ways, trying to capture the essence of them but never quite succeeding—or at least it didn’t feel like you’d succeeded. All true, from my own experience.

But the most interesting thing he said was in response to a question a student asked. He was reading Russo’s collection of short stories in his English class and observed that all of the stories set characters in situations that seemed impossible to deal with. “What’s that about for you?” he asked.

“Science has answers,” Russo said. " A story can’t be interesting if the problem it posed didn’t seem impossible to solve. If a story has only two possible outcomes—what the character clearly should do and what he clearly shouldn’t do—it’s boring."

He said he knows he has a good story idea when he asks himself what he’d do in the same situation and thinks, “I have no idea.”

I love that. It’s not the cleverness or intricacy of a plot that creates tension, but the sense that the problem it poses seems impossible to solve—and, in fact, is impossible to solve, like any human problem that really matters. You keep reading to find out whether/how the characters will make the best of it or whether/how it will destroy them.

3 comments:

Sarah said...

Thanks for this, Barb. I wasn't able to go last night, so I like getting your take, as always.

Lisa Jenn said...

He said he knows he has a good story idea when he asks himself what he’d do in the same situation and thinks, “I have no idea.”

I love this, too. That's how I feel about this new project I've been wrapping up, where the main character's in a no-win situation. I know this happens, and this happens, and this happens... but when it comes to the end, when the main character decides what to make of it all, I've felt stumped. But the thing is? I don't feel that bad about it! It feels real.

Barbara Shoup said...

I know exactly what you mean. Happens to me all the time.