January 30th, 2012
One book is good, the other is GREAT. The difference provides some good lessons in basic storytelling.
TWO BOOKS, ONE GOOD, ONE GREAT. Storytelling is the difference. The better one, “In the Garden of Beasts,” tells a tale of pre-World War II Berlin that brings to life the reign of terror from a perspective so close to Hitler’s world you feel like you’re living it right there with the hapless U.S. Ambassador Dodd.
TELL ME A STORY OF EVIL
Last year I read a good book from Erik Larsen titled, “Devil in the White City.” At the time I thought it was a “great” book, and didn’t really pay much attention to the fact that it took me a couple months to slowly, albeit savoringly plod my way through it on various flights around the country.
It’s the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — all the architects who came together to create an amazing vision that reached its pinnacle with “The White City.” And also the bizarre serial killer who used the fair as a means of finding young women that he murdered and incinerated. Definitely a good book.
But then I bought his most recent effort, last year’s “In the Garden of Beasts,” and within a few days sadly had devoured it, wishing it could have be a couple thousand pages in length instead of just a few hundred. Immediately I thought of the other book and realized the former was good while the latter is truly great. Here’s three basic elements of good storytelling that explain why.
I’ll refer to the two books as, “Devil” and “Beasts.”
1 (FIRST ACT) – Devil was interesting from the outset but never really came into a clearly focused jumping off point for the basic story. It involves a number of architects, with Daniel Burnham being the most famous, but we don’t really get to know him much on a personal level. It’s more about the group of architects around the country. Then the serial killer, H.H. Holmes, comes along in alternate chapters but not that vividly. It’s all intriguing, but not page turning.
In contrast, Beasts starts off briskly and with clear focus as Roosevelt is trying to find an ambassador for what could easily be called “The Worst Ambassadorial Assignment Ever” (to Germany in 1933 just as Hitler is rising to power), gets turned down by 6 candidates, then finally recalls a humble history professor, Dodd, from years earlier whom he offers it to. Dodd naively takes the assignment, thinking it will be a relaxing getaway during which he can write his 4 part history of “The Old South.” He takes his wife and lascivious daughter to Berlin, and the rest is a sad nightmare of history.
What a great, great book that takes off so quickly and clearly it lives up to the standard “can’t put it down” hype.
2 (SPECIFICITY AND SIMPLICITY) – I’m constantly pointing to Nicholas Kristof’s great article in Outside Magazine as the prime explanation for the power of simplicity and specificity in storytelling. These two books demonstrate it. Devil has two sets of characters in equal measure — Burnham and his group of architects, and Holmes who is a shady, elusive fellow for whom we never really get any clear insights into why he is so evil.
With Beasts there’s a single central character — poor old professor/ambassador Dodd. That’s it. It’s his story. Start to finish. He’s the poor schlub who takes the worst assignment possible, starts his journey bright eyed, thinking he can talk some sense into those rambunctious Germans, but by the end of the book just about flees for his life from the country. It’s a very clean, simple, focused story.
Given the seven years between the publishing of the two books you have to wonder if maybe Larsen didn’t say to himself after the first one, “I need to look for a simpler story next time.” He certainly nailed it. And because the story of Beasts is so simple he’s able to add in a ton of character work to create the horrific atmosphere of mid-30’s Germany with its rising air of fear and paranoia.
3 (EVIL) – There is a basic rule of storytelling that, “Your story is only as good as your bad guy is evil.” This is where Beasts is strongest. Has there ever been a more evil bad guy in the history of humanity than Adolf Hitler? Seriously. He is legendary, so you can imagine the power that comes with telling a story so closely within the aura of so much evil. The story pulsates with it, and we even get glimpses of the Fuhrer himself when Dodd’s party girl daughter is taken to meet him during lunch as a possible romantic partner. The evil is mind boggling and Larsen’s storytelling is powerful. It’s a truly great book.
Unfortunately “Devil” just doesn’t achieve this same level of intensity. Yes, it has a serial killer, but Holmes may have killed a couple dozen people. Hitler’s scorecard was in the millions.
Two books, one good, the other great. Storytelling is the difference.