While we were workshopping his play, my friend K asked, “But, the question I’ve been wondering is, ‘Does this story need to be told?’ I’ve heard of so many writers who hear that question and realize, ‘My god, what have I been doing?’ Does this story need to be told?”
I have only heard that question a handful of times. The person asking typically offers this and nothing more to the conversation and everyone stumbles around trying to answer, eventually arriving at “No,” because there is no way to answer that question. I’ve never bothered trying because the question deserves no response.
In my first workshop, R said that for every story there is some merit to compliment and some deficiency to criticize. I agree with that, but I’ve met too many people that favor the latter over the former.
There are a lot of good questions to ask when you’re critiquing a story. What’s at stake? What do the characters want? Where is this going? Etc. (and insert specificity). If things are unclear and you’re pretty sure they aren’t meant to be, you should ask a question.
“Does this story need to be told?” is the laziest critique I’ve ever heard.
If you can’t come up with a better reason to question the merit of another person’s story, you’re not trying hard enough. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong with the story (there is always something that could be better), but asking “Does this story needs to be told,” probably means 1.) You don’t like it for aesthetic reasons (which is perfectly fine, but useless to the writer), or 2.) You think it’s unoriginal, which I would argue is not necessarily a bad thing.
As Zero Punctuation pointed out, there was absolutely nothing original about The Last of Us. It was just a typical action-adventure, zombie-post-apocalyptic, survivor-horror video game. If you know the genres, you probably could’ve gone down a checklist of all the tropes and not missed a single one. However, what makes The Last of Us stand above all the others is that it was a Great action-adventure, zombie-post-apocalyptic, survivor-horror game. Yes, there wasn’t anything new, but damn did they do it better than everyone else.
Others have said it more eloquently than me, but if your sole criteria for whether or not something is good is originality, you probably hate a lot of things (like Zero Punctuation, but he’s at least entertaining), which is unfortunate. It’s bad for your heart and quality of life.
But the question of whether or not a story should be told isn’t just ridiculous – it’s offensive. It expresses discomfort or value judgement to subject matter. Good criticism (at least in a workshop) is about craft.
Last Wednesday, I listened to a slam poet friend perform a story at Kieran’s Irish Pub about the first time he masturbated and he turned it into a meaningful commentary on Americans’ discomfort with sexuality. In the same hour, I struggled to pay attention to a man talk about his first-hand experience with rural poverty.
A better anecdote: A teacher of mine told me about how when she was 19 she won the right to go workshop with some Great Writer. When it was her turn, the Great Writer tore her work to pieces and made her cry in front of everyone present. Afterwards he spoke to her privately, “For the next five years, don’t write another word. Go to Rio Grande City in Texas and work there as a waitress for five years. Then you’ll have stories to tell.”
“Bull shit,” my teacher concluded.
Bull shit, I say. An old man tells a young woman that the only worthwhile stories she has to tell are those she gleans from someone else’s tragedy. No one has the right to tell you your story doesn’t deserve to be told.
We all have worthwhile stories to tell and it’s the telling that matters.