George Saunders On Story

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This post features a short film and some bonus material by Redglass Pictures, staring the writer George Saunders, known for his short stories, essays, novellas and children’s books.

In the documentary he reveals the pitfalls of bad storytelling and explains the openness and generosity he thinks is required to breath life into great characters. The film offers a look into the process by which he takes a single mundane sentence – “Frank was an asshole” – and though revision and consideration of nuance,  Frank goes from being a 2d jerk, to someone we can empathize with and understand even if we don’t like how he acts, which makes for much more subtle and complex characters, and stories.

Frank was an asshole

How so?

Frank was an asshole because he snapped at the barista. 

Oh that’s not cool, why did he do that?

Frank snapped at the barista,
who reminded him of his dead wife
who he dearly loved.

Writing is always about the editing, rethinking, and clarifying what motivates characters in order to make them more than just the sum of their actions. There’s more to it, and more in these clips so still watch them but that typed variation on one part of the first clip gets to a lot of what his notes are about.

You can start with something like Frank is an asshole, but if that’s all you tell your reader why do they care? Why would they want to know more about Frank? But now we know he’s someone in pain, who feels broken, and took it out on someone who reminded him of his loss. That, is something many of us can relate to and most can empathise with.