What is the best way of telling a story? Since the standard must be the interest of the audience, there must be several or many good ways rather than one best. For we get interested in the stories life presents to us through diverse orders and modes of presentation. Very commonly our first awakening to a desire of knowing a man’s past or future comes from our seeing him as a stranger in some unusual or pathetic or humorous situation, or manifesting some remarkable characteristics. We make enquiries in consequence, or we become observant and attentive whenever opportunities of knowing more may happen to present themselves without our search. You have seen a refined face among the prisoners picking tow in jail; you afterwards see the same unforgettable face in a pulpit: one must be of dull fibre who would not care to know more about a life which showed such contrasts, though one might gather one’s knowledge in a fragmentary or unchronological way.
Again, we have heard much, or at least something not quite common, about a man whom we have never seen, and hence we look round with curiosity when we are told that he is present; whatever he says or does before us is charged with a meaning due to our previous hearsay knowledge about him, gathered either from dialogue of which he was expressly and emphatically the subject, or from incidental remark, or from general report either in or out of print.
These indirect ways of arriving at knowledge are always the most stirring even in relation to impersonal subjects. To see a chemical experiment gives an attractiveness to a definition of chemistry, and fills it with a significance which it would never have had without the pleasant short of an unusual sequence, such as the transformation of a solid into gas, and vice versa. To see a word for the first time either as substantive or adjective in a connection where we care about knowing its complete meaning, is the way to vivify its meaning in our recollection. Curiosity becomes the more eager from the incompleteness of the first information. Moreover, it is in this way that memory works in its incidental revival of events: some salient experience appears in inward vision, and in consequence the antecedent facts are retraced from what is regarded as the beginning of the episode in which that experience made a more or less strikingly memorable part.
“Ah! I remember addressing the mob from the hustings at Westminster—you wouldn’t have thought that I could ever have been in such a position. Well, how I came there was in this way-;”
…and then follows a retrospective narration.
The modes of telling a story founded on these processes of outward and inward life derive their effectiveness from the superior mastery of images and pictures in grasping the attention—or, one might say with more fundamental accuracy, from the fact that our earliest, strongest impressions, our most intimate convictions, are simply images added to more or less of sensation. These are the primitive instruments of thought. Hence it is not surprising that early poetry took this way—telling a daring deed, a glorious achievement, without caring for what went before. The desire for orderly narration is a later, more reflective birth. The presence of the Jack in the box affects every child: it is the more reflective child, the miniature philosopher, who wants to know how he got there.
The only stories life presents to us in an orderly way are those of our autobiography, or the career of our companions from our childhood upwards, or perhaps of our own children. But it is a great art to make a connected strictly relevant narrative of such careers as we can recount from the beginning. In these cases the sequence of associations is almost sure to overmaster the sense of proportion. Such narratives ab ovo are summer’s-day stories for happy loungers; not the cup of self-forgetting excitement to the busy who can snatch an hour of entertainment.
But the simple opening of a story with a date and necessary amounts of places and people, passing on quietly towards the more rousing elements of narrative and dramatic presentation, without need of retrospect, has its advantages, which have to be measured by the nature of the story. Spirited narrative, without more than a touch of dialogue here and there, may be made eminently interesting, and is suited to the novelette or short story.
Why should a story not be told in the most irregular fashion that an author’s idiosyncrasy may prompt, provided that they give us what we can enjoy?
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Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), known as George Eliot, was an author and poet. She was best known for her novels including Middlemarch.