In his forward to the short story collection Night Shift, Stephen King opined on the dominance of story:
All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.Night Shift, Page xxx
It’s a good notion and I think it captures what a lot of people look for out of stories (whether they be books or movies or whatever), as evidenced by King’s outsized success. Of course, nothing is absolute and attempts to boil storytelling down to a simple rule are probably doomed to failure. This reminded me of the opening lines from Clive Barker’s Imajica (I quoted this before, in reference to genres, something similarly difficult to boil down to their essence):
It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course-thousands in fact-but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.
Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.Imajica, Page 1
Likewise, there are lots of books and movies that challenge King’s assertion that story value dominates other aspects of fiction. There are some that even succeed. Indeed, King wrote that line in 1977, and in the intervening decades, even he has written stories that are perhaps less story focused than that line might imply. Like a lot of things, it’s good to have a guideline, but you can break it if you know what you’re doing. Alas, it turns out that breaking these sorts of guidelines is quite difficult.
All of this came about this morning as I flailed about, trying to find something to put on the blog, and stumbled across the King line in my notes right after reading Tyler Cowen’s piece on the intellectual mistake of once-and-for-allism:
“Once-and-for-allism” occurs when people decide that they wish to stop worrying about an issue at the margin. They might either dismiss the issue, or they might blow up its importance but regard the issue as hopeless and undeserving of further consideration. Either way, they seek to avoid the hovering sense of “I’ve still got to devote time and energy to figuring this out.” They prefer “I am now done with this issue, once and for all!” Thus the name of the syndrome.
I see once-and-for-allism with so many issues, but one recent example would be the forthcoming path of Covid and Long Covid. Most people just don’t want to think about it any more, and so they settle on something (“it’s just a cold!” or “it will bankrupt the nation!”) rather than having to do lots of intellectual revisions based on the stream of new data.
He gives lots of other examples in his post (like crypto, UFOs, abortion *ahem*, etc…), and perhaps one we could add storytelling and/or genre definitions to that list.