How to make your story timeless – part 1

Author and blogger Susan Keirnan-Lewis posted the other day about the current trend among agents and the publishing industry to view books as having a ‘shelf life’. Even a slightly old manuscript is seen as dated – ‘trunk fodder’ – and unsaleable.

That idea, as Susan pointed out, is rubbish. The best stories are timeless. I agreed, and I thought it worth extending my thoughts in a post.

It seems to me that the best stories are timeless because they key into the human condition. That doesn’t change much over time or place – which is why we identify with Shakespeare. Irrespective of the differences in the ways that our diverse human societies express themselves, all the world’s societies are connected, at fundamental level, by the human condition.  The principle works across time, too. Past societies are effectively foreign lands in the sense of immediate up-front values, speech patterns, expressed ideologies or beliefs, even language.

That, essentially, is the ‘unity in diversity’ on which modern anthropology pivots. Getting there has taken a while, though – in fact, it’s an ongoing study. The problem early ethnographers, historians and philosophers faced was separating that human condition from their own prejudices. A fair number of beliefs about the nature of humanity were actually constructs of contemporary western thinking – highly culture-centric ideas which reflected the way that human condition was specifically filtered through western ideas. Look at Karl Marx, who thought he had found the answers but who (as Barbara Tuchmann tells us) was an unwitting prisoner of his own time and predjudices. But steady work during the twentieth century has helped. And we can see, in the work of Malinowski, Mead (a bit), Levi-Strauss and my own teacher, US anthropologist Ann Chowning, a winnowing away of social blinkering in favour of deeper truths.

Historians have tackled the same problem in different ways, and so have philosophers such as Karl Popper. All these disciplines offer angles on the problem, giving us a better picture of that elusive condition. There are lessons for writers in this – when it comes to world-building, settings and to thinking about how stories might be constructed.

I’ll go into what I think basic human condition is in a later post. But I’m sure you have your thoughts too – and do share them!

The point here is that all human societies, if you look deeply enough, reflect shared truths. Writers can illuminate them. And must! What better way to explore the deeper realities of humanity than through tales that capture our imaginations? That is why Shakespeare is so long-lasting. That is why Tolkien is so iconic. They knew.

To me there is no question; authors must tell that deeper story – the authentic story. It can be told in fiction, as metaphor and tale; it can also be told through non-fiction, with the right topic. We succumb to the temptation to merely scoop a short-lived tale out of the superficialities around us, with all those murky shades of grey.

What do you reckon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

3 thoughts on “How to make your story timeless – part 1

  1. Excellent, cogent post as always, Matthew. I reckon right along with you and suspect that in some circles life itself may have a specific amount of space on a shelf.

    “Unity in diversity” is a story that can never be told enough in fiction or nonfiction. Thanks so much for bringing this important topic to discussion for readers as well as writers.



  2. I agree. The core conflict and character arcs should be based on “human” conditions even if the characters may not be “human”. This is the connection the reader feels to the characters. The stronger the connection, the stronger the story


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