How Many “Types” of Stories Are There? And Can They Save Us?
David Chrisinger on Trying to Tell the Story of His Family
In a seminal article published in 1955, Norman Friedman named, defined, and illustrated 14 types of stories he believed all literary works are shaped by. Of the 14 types of stories he laid out, there are four that I commonly see when working with trauma survivors. The first type, which Friedman called maturing stories, involves a sympathetic main character “whose goals are either mistakenly conceived or undermined and whose will is consequently rudderless and vacillating.”
The cause for such a condition is inexperience and naïveté. By the end of a maturing story, the main character must find strength and direction, “and this may be accomplished through some drastic, or even fatal, misfortune,” Friedman continued. In the end, what makes for a satisfactory ending to a maturing story is the “crucial element of choice, of coming finally to a radical decision.”
Of all the types of stories Friedman laid out in his article, what he called education stories are, in my experience, by far the most common among trauma survivors. Education stories involve a “change in thought for the better” in the main character’s conceptions, beliefs, and attitudes. Similar to a maturing story, the main character’s way of seeing the world at the beginning of an education story is somehow inadequate and is changed for the better—a change in the direction of “a more comprehensive view” of the world. Main characters in maturing or education stories, Friedman wrote, undergo a threat of some sort and emerge “into a new and better kind of wholeness at the end, with a final sense of relief, satisfaction, and pleasure.”
Put another way, the main character in an education or maturing story must change by overcoming something within themselves, usually by giving up something they want in order to get what they really need. Think back to the story I included in chapter 2 about losing my son. What I wanted was him. What I needed, however, was to learn how to grieve and accept what I cannot change. That’s a shift in my view of life from a naïve, largely uninformed perspective to a new and more mature and meaningful one. If I had to sum up the story underneath the story of losing my son, I’d say this: wisdom conquered my depression when I learned to accept the world as paradoxical and imperfect.
If you’re interested in writing such a story, be mindful that your readers will want to know what you knew at the beginning, what you believed, and how you saw the world. Something in that state of things needs to change. Did you accept the truth presented to you, or did you continue to cling to your beliefs until the very end? The point of the story isn’t to educate the reader exactly but rather to show the reader how meaning is gained when we finally learn to express ourselves or make sense of the lessons we’ve learned.
There are also what Friedman called disillusionment stories, which involve a sympathetic main character who “starts out in the full bloom of faith in a certain set of ideals.” After being subjected to some sort of loss, threat, or trial, Friedman continued, the main character “loses faith entirely.” Such a story usually ends with the main character resembling a “puppet without wires or a clock with a broken mainspring.” Fear overcomes hope, and the reader is usually left with a sense of loss and even pity. If done well, disillusionment stories can be instructive for a reader by shining a light on experiences that are oftentimes viewed as ennobling (loss, struggle, trauma, and grief) but are far more complicated than is commonly acknowledged.
I usually steer writers away from disillusionment stories unless their explicit goal is to elicit a feeling of loss or pity in their readers. That’s how most readers tend to react to stories that do not end with a more positive resolution. Whereas maturing stories are about accepting the paradoxical and imperfect nature of life on planet Earth, disillusionment stories are essentially about refusing to accept this.Of all the types of stories Friedman laid out in his article, what he called education stories are, in my experience, by far the most common among trauma survivors.
The fourth type of story I often see is what Friedman called degeneration stories. In such a story, the main character we meet at the beginning is sympathetic and full of ambition but, through the course of the story, is subjected to “some crucial loss which results in his utter disillusionment.” The main character, Friedman continues, then “has to choose between picking up the threads of his life and starting over again, or giving up his goals and ambitions altogether.”
There’s one other kind of story I commonly see—and sometimes write. In what I call a revelation story, the main character transforms from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge through the revelation of previously unknown information. More specifically, the main character in a revelation story lacks essential facts, has doubt about their circumstances that leads to a revelation or to a shocking truth, and makes wise and appropriate decisions in response. The story of my journey to uncover the truth about what my grandfather experienced in World War II, which weaves its way through much of this book, is the best example I have of a revelation story. The payoff for the reader is either a state of relief or satisfaction when the main character learns something essential or pity and horror when the main character finds out the truth only after it’s too late.
In the late summer of 2012, Ashley and I decided to move our growing family back to Wisconsin. At the time, I was working as a communications specialist at the US Government Accountability Office in Washington, DC. The Government Accountability Office has a small field office in downtown Chicago, near the train station that could take me to and from Kenosha, where my wife grew up, just over the Illinois-Wisconsin border. We thought we could probably afford a small house in Kenosha and that childcare would be cheaper, too. In DC, what money I made while Ashley was finishing her unpaid internship in dietetics was spent almost entirely on our rent and our son’s daycare bill. Whatever we spent on food or clothes or entertainment came out of what little savings we had left from our wedding two summers before.
In early August, a few weeks before our apartment lease expired, Ashley and our son, George, flew from DC to Wisconsin so that Ashley could start working her new job at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Money was going to be tight—I wasn’t even sure my check for the moving truck was going to clear—and we were going to need whatever we could get as soon as we could get it.
When I told my father about my plan to drive the moving truck back to Wisconsin on my own, he rejected that idea as nonsense and said he’d take some time off and fly out to help me pack and keep me company on the long drive across the country. After he and I finished loading the truck, the night before we planned to hit the road, we took the Metro’s red line into the district to see the monuments on the National Mall lit up with floodlights. I didn’t know it when we left, but he had taken all the research I had been doing on my grandfather and registered Hod in the National World War II Memorial Registry. He wanted to look it up on one of the kiosks located just south of the National World War II Memorial, which lies midway between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
The World War II Memorial is grand and oval shaped. Very clean. At the south end is an arch labeled “Pacific.” To the north is the Atlantic arch. Stone pillars, adorned with green copper wreaths, stand along the oval’s periphery—one pillar for each state and US territory. In the center of the west side of the monument is a low wall on which 4,048 gold metal stars are pinned. One for every thousand American troops who were killed during World War II: 405,399 souls. Twelve of those stars represent the 12,000 Americans who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa.
“Here we mark the price of freedom,” reads a sign in front of the wall. I wish I could say I care for war monuments. I have an especially hard time with the World War II Memorial. It’s too symmetrical, too orderly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the research I’ve done, it’s that World War II was none of those things.
Standing at the registry’s kiosk, after typing in my grandfather’s last name and hometown, we saw his name pop up on the screen. My father looked relieved. He turned and smiled at me. “There he is,” he said.
On our walk back to the Metro station, my father kept talking. “After all the research you’ve done,” he said, “and everything you’ve found, it’s really made me think. I wish I could say it has made me forgive him, but it hasn’t.”
“I understand,” I said as the train approached the dimly lit train platform.
“But I feel like,” he said, “I feel like I better understand him.”
We began a 17-hour drive to Wisconsin via Interstate 80 the next morning. Because we were going to be trapped in the cab of a yellow Penske moving truck for all that time, I decided to finally ask him all the questions I had always wanted answers to. He seemed ready to have this conversation with me and laid out the timeline of his life without much coaxing. He told me more about his childhood and his early adolescence, about his time in the Army and his shotgun marriage to my half-sister’s mother. He told me stories of my mother, from before I was born, and what he remembered of me from when I was George’s age.
For the first time, I felt like I had known who my father was and who he had wanted to be. He had never confided in me like that before, and I soaked up as much as I could, putting together the pieces of the puzzle in my mind. When he told me more about being a father, his cheeks reddened, and his posture became more erect. My heart twitched like a dreaming dog. He hadn’t been a very good father, he admitted. But he had done the best he could—much better than his own father ever did, he added. And look at how I had turned out, he said; I had a graduate degree and a beautiful family. While he regretted much of what he had done—and even more of what he hadn’t done—he had nothing more to give.
Excerpted from Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. Used with permission of the publisher Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright © 2021 by David Chrisinger.