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My post of a couple of weeks ago, and the ensuing conversation about whether there’s a right time to read older fiction, got me thinking about what makes something stand the test of time. I’ve written about this before at Foes, in relation to movies; I remember being struck then by changes in pacing and cinematography, and how much my perspective as a viewer had changed without my being consciously aware of it. When I read this post at the Little Red Reviewer, it got me thinking in a broad sense about what makes a work last. Though I’ll address this question primarily with the written word in mind, I think that the general principles involved apply across the board.

How We Think About Story

Methods of storytelling change, from cave paintings and epic poems to plays, novels and movies. It’s easy to speculate about what aspects of current culture will age badly, but that doesn’t address the underlying causes: at its heart, this question is about the relationship between story, human nature, and cultural evolution. A discussion of it needs to start there. Beowulf has stood the test of time!

Human beings live in the moment, but remember in story: events strung together like beads, in closed sets that we use to understand the world and ourselves. We call out repeating patterns, and the sameness of human nature, combined with our experience of memory and consciousness, create what I’ll call Story Archetypes: an unchanging set of building blocks that underpin human story.

Story Archetypes

Story Archetypes are not stories: they are powerful, engaging paradigms, not anchored to any period or culture. Inasmuch as these paradigms are accessible, a work will stand the test of time. There’s a reason Shakespeare has survived, above and beyond tradition and language: revenge and fear, love and sacrifice. Story Archetypes are basic, recognizable, and engaging: a child abandoned by its parent, a parent sacrificing for a child. Lovers struggling to come together. There’s room for debate about where archetypes end and story begins: is a soldier dying on the battlefield a Story Archetype, or is the archetype to be found one level deeper, in the basic truth of an individual, sacrificing for the survival of the group?

Culture and Style

Story Archetypes hover under the surface of the stories that engage us, but each era – each generation – retells them in new forms, layering cultural standards, individual perceptions, and the style of the day over basic kernels. Even within the same period, stories with similar, universal themes might be told from radically different perspectives.

StorytellerIf basic human truths are the core elements that engage us, stylistic and cultural conventions provide the context that allow us to access them. Each level of cultural and stylistic removal from personal experience makes it that much harder to enter what John Gardner called the “fictive dream” and this same removal is what results in a work failing to stand the test of time. Take a story of a rivalry between two suitors. That story could be set today, or it could be set a thousand years ago. It could be written in modern prose, or in Middle English. It could be written well, or it could be written poorly. It could be filled with cultural mores that are rejected by a modern audience, or it could embrace the social or political beliefs of the majority. All of these things impact a given reader’s ability to access the underlying archetype.

Learning the Paradigm

Another way to think about Story Archetypes is to look at how they’re taught – not using that precise language, but under the rubric of “engaging readers” or “writing stories that sell.” Much of this advice involves making characters go against their basic values, making situations worse, driving characters to make sacrifices or be heroic, and so forth. Some of it is stylistic, but much of it is about making sure that writers are digging into basic, universal conflicts and making them accessible to readers. The things that make a work engaging in the first place overlap the elements that make it stand the test of time.

Letting Go

How many times have you picked up a book only to quit halfway through – or finish it, but be disappointed? It might be due to poor writing, or weak characters. Maybe the plot was contrived, or even offensive. Regardless of the reasons, you were unable to access the core story elements that would have engaged you. They remained buried, and – for you – the work never came to life.

H.G. Wells Time MachineA story may be unreadable a hundred, or even twenty years after it was written, and that’s okay. It’s frustrating when the stories that shaped us are lost to cultural and stylistic changes, in the same way that it’s frustrating to get older, and watch the world we knew pass away. We can take heart, though, in the knowledge that what we’re clinging to is only the outer shell of a much larger story, that runs deeper than the specifics of character or context. Individual stories are told and pass away, but Story Archetypes live on.