Saturday, May 10, 2008

See the story


I'm reading this book on the Stasi, the East German secret police. I'm pretty well toward the end, and the other day I glanced at the blurbs on the back cover, where people who praised it said it was a "gripping narrative" and mentioned the writer's "linguistic brilliance," stuff like that.

It occurred to me that, although it's a decent read, the former AP correspondent who wrote it is not a brilliant writer, and his book is neither particularly gripping (except in one or two spots), nor is it in any way a narrative.

But that got me thinking about narrative and storytelling in the context of this book.

Big chunks of the book are sourced through a Col. Wiegand, a major dude in the Stasi who soured on Communist East Germany when the politicians tacitly supported Arab terrorists operating within the borders because they were attacking "imperialist" America and its interests; Wiegand eventually defected with tons of documents the East never wanted the West to see.

So, had the author chosen, he could have written a narrative -- he could have told Wiegand's story from a beginning point to an ending point. In Wiegand's personal story of loyalty to the Communists, a distinguished secret police career, growing disenchantment, outright disobediance of orders and ultimate defection, the author could have brought out pretty much everything about the Stasi's operations over the decades.

Some things would have had to have been left out -- the things that couldn't tie directly to Wiegand, or be tied to his endeavors through the history of the Stasi, for example -- but he would have had a story.

As it is, it's not a bad book -- it's a comprehensive history of what the Stasi did.

But it points out that even when you think you are writing about an issue or a broad topic, you should go through the process of asking yourself: Within this topic, is there a powerful beginning-to-end story that will illuminate the issue or topic? Is there a single episode that could do that job? Is there a compelling story about a single person you can also use to show the bigger picture?

Try to see the story within the story. That's where a lot of great storytelling lives.