High school English class was fun. We wrote journals, studied poetry, competed in spelling bees, and most importantly, we avoided diagramming sentences (no offense to anyone who liked that part of school. All those lines still give me nightmares. *shudders*)
But the most eventful experience of high school English for me was the reading of classical literature. We read some popular stories like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Othello”, and “Treasure Island”. But there was one book in particular that stood out above the rest, and that book was “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens.
I was a senior in high school when we read it. It was during the Fall and it was one of our first big reading assignments for the school year. We read certain chapters a day and eventually finished the book in a few weeks, but the conversations we had while reading it is what I remember the most.
I was sitting with a friend discussing the past chapters we read the night before. Charles Darnay had been sentenced to death and Sydney Carton was in the beginning stages of putting his plan to motion to take Charles’ place in the guillotine line. We were analyzing the chapters, trying to connect pieces of the story together and trying to gather both the literary and artistic meaning to the scenes the characters were in. But instead of analyzing these aspects, all I could do was stutter.
“This story…it’s…it’s amazing!”
My friend looked at me, one brow going up in concern. “Okay…”
“No really.” I blabbered on. “The way Sydney whispered into Lucie’s ear, ‘A life you love’…my gosh, it’s so heartbreaking.”
“And then I read ahead last night. He dies at the end!” And then I proceeded to quote the last chapter. My friend could only look at me like I was some sort of over emotional mess watching a soap opera.
“This is seriously the best story I have ever read! Don’t you think so?”
My friend paused for so long I could’ve sworn I heard crickets in the classroom. “It’s…uh…okay.”
I was flabbergasted. Just okay? One of literature’s greatest stories ever given to grace this beautiful earth is just okay?!
(Yeah, I was a bit melodramatic at times. High school does that to some of us.)
When the class came together for a group discussion, I heard much of the same thing. “It’s too much detail.” “It’s so boring.” “Who’s Sydney Carton again?”
One of my classmates put it best after the discussion. She turned to me and said, “I think you’re the only one who likes this book.”
I went home that day not understanding why my classmates didn’t love “A Tale of Two Cities” like I did. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t think of Sydney Carton as an amazing character, full of tragedy and heroism. I couldn’t understand why they liked other books like “Ethan Frome” and “Pride and Prejudice” but couldn’t appreciate the other stories we read as well.
And that’s when I learned a valuable lesson about story-what’s considered a “good” story is different for all of us.
I once sat with the same high school friends years later and we talked of going to see a movie. It was hilarious hearing our film suggestions. One suggested a chick flick-there were a few nods of approval while me and another friend shook our heads no adamantly. There was one suggestion of an artsy style independent film (only one nod on that one while the rest sort of looked at each other funny. Sigh. Why am I always running solo on these decisions?) And then there was the suggestion of an action film. Again, a split vote.
In the end we didn’t see a movie simply because we all wanted to see something different. We all had our own tastes in story and had our own preferences on what we deemed “worthy of watching”. Some thought the chick flick was the better film. Some thought the action film was a great choice. One artsy soul thought the independent film was at least worth a try. Overall, we couldn’t agree on which was the better story.
But is there really a right answer to that question?
Some stories are clearly bad. Others are clearly good. But most stories fall into audience interpretation-what one person sees as a piece of brilliance may be a piece of garbage to another. As a writer of stories, this is a hard truth to swallow. No matter how good I see my story, someone will see it as not that good. Someone else will see it as worthwhile. It’s all up to the audience and what they think of it.
So here’s a question for a later post: Do you write the story so that the audience will like it? Or do you write the story because it’s the way you feel it should be written?
We’ll discuss that in our next post. 😉