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There are some movies and some stories that are enjoyable when they're released - but they don't stand up to the test of time very well. I've been wondering about what makes a story timeless, one that can be passed on from generation to generation and always be recognized as a story which holds key truths that are important for us. One that immediately comes to mind from the previous century is To Kill A Mockingbird, but there's also Shakespeare, and even many of the Greek classics which go much farther back.

So my question is: what sets these stories apart and makes them timeless? How does one take inspiration from current events or events they've lived through and make them applicable to all people at all times, not just a specific generation?

To expound further, after the 9/11 attacks, there were a lot of stories (written or otherwise) floating around that might have been inspired by the attacks, but did little more than copy what happened on 9/11 and try to create an emotional response for those who remember the events of that day. They're not going to be timeless in the same way that To Kill A Mockingbird is.

I find myself doing this in my own writing - an event in my life or in the life of friends and family end up in my stories. Okay, that's fine. But I feel like "the event" itself isn't enough to make it have that "eternal" quality, the truth for all times and all places. How do I take something that has happened and not just copy it, but rather get at the truth / reality behind it, and draw that to the fore so that others, anywhere, the common humanity (if you will) can experience it and grow from it, too?

[I know that this is a subjective question and there is not one method for accomplishing this feat, but there must be a huge number of good ideas and methods out there, and I'm hoping for a good number of responses that might help in this regard.]

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with regard to your parenthetical comment, I believe this qualifies as a "good" subjective question, and so far the answers it is attracting are high quality content. –  justkt Dec 29 '10 at 12:43
    
@justkt - I am a little confused by good / bad subjective questions, even after reading the guidelines for them, so I feel bad posting them most of the time (and I oftentimes don't post because I'm afraid they're too subjective). Hence the parenthetical. But thanks for letting me know - that helps clarify a few things in regard to subjective questions on SE. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 30 '10 at 6:41
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I'd say if in doubt, just post. Better risk a "bad" subjective question than missing a very good (subjective or not) question. But that's just my €0.02 –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 2 '11 at 10:48
    
You last bracketed remark made me think... on here, most questions related to writing (and not to publishing) are "subjective" in the sense that there's no cookie cutter solution for it anyway. I think almost all of my answers contain a "it depends" in one form or another. Because... it depends. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 2 '11 at 10:54

2 Answers 2

I think the main issue here is "accessibility out of context" i.e. how accessible is the raw emotion behind the event to someone viewing it with very little context to go on. The most immediate and easily accessible example of accessible emotion is the killing of Bambi's mother in Bambi, it's one of the most popularly referenced moments of movie sadness in the history of cinema and storytelling. You don't need much set up, Bambi had a mother, she was rather needlessly shot by hunters, Bambi was left alone and afraid in an unforgiving world. Everyone finds themselves feeling sorry for Bambi.

It's an aspect of storytelling that Pixar have managed several times most notably in Finding Nemo and at the beginning of Up. Essentially the context of the story itself provides all the information we need to feel the emotion. In Finding Nemo all we know is that an average father and average son lose their average wife/mother within the opening moments. Could be anybody, was just one of those things. In Up we know that two bright, spirited, normal people were very much in love and had dreams and that one lost the other and had a feeling he had somehow let her down. It's easy to see and relate to how that situation might occur to anyone at any time.

The difficulty with something like 9/11 is that the weight of the circumstance is such that it needs a hell of a lot of context to make it make sense. When you say to someone that someone flew commercial airliners into some of the world's tallest and most important buildings the weight of the event is such that you can't take it as a personal tragedy, it's too huge for one person to process all at once.

Where you can take a world changing event and make it timeless is when you have found that personal nugget that simultaneously marries the global with the personal. For example Julius Caesar's death would be too difficult to really comprehend until you boil it down to one guy who maybe went a little too far being summarily executed by a dozen of his best friends including his very closest companion: Et tu Brute?

Shakespeare, in fact, does several things in Julius Caesar which make that event timelessly tragic. He is careful to portray Caesar as ambitious but urbane and possibly reasonable; he might possibly be the best God-King Rome never had, he is portrayed as the perfect statesman rational, emotionally stable, charismatic and comfortable in power. Then Shakespeare drops in Brutus, quiet, thoughtful, considered, if he is Caesar's very best friend then that speaks well to Caesar's counsel. Finally, Mark Antony is here portrayed as the violently passionate young man who idolises Caesar. The vigour with which he supports Caesar and is outraged by the cold and calculated acts of the senate is infectious. His passion literally rouses the rabble.

What Shakespeare does is make all of these characters human. None of them are perfect, all of them are likeable in some sense. It is only Cassius who is a pure pantomime villain, snake-like and predatory. He gets to Brutus by appealing to the reason that Brutus is proud to possess, the turning of Brutus is pure politics and from there the rest of the events seem, somehow, inexorable.

Julius Caesar boils down the events upon which the Roman empire turned to a series of quite understandable human choices. Each piece in that puzzle is vital, and it comes down as far as making Brutus quite likable. If Cassius had been the clear villain, not requiring Brutus to do his dirty work then we instantly lose a whole dimension. In the final battles of Julius Caesar we understand the point of view of both sides, we understand why everyone did what they did and the real tragedy is that we can't see how people could have acted another way without significantly betraying their sense of identity. Of course, Cassius should have just shut his trap and kept his nose out, but we don't have to care about him so that's unimportant.

I think that this leads onto a final point. We understand why the hunters shot Bambi's mother (possibly less so in the modern era but still enough to make the tragedy), we understand why the big fish ate the little fish, we understand why Carl and Ellie put living a life before the childish dreams of exploration. We understand the whole situation and that's what provokes the emotion.

With 9/11 (and I come back to this because it's the example you give) most people would claim, and I have had arguments with people who have put this perspective to me, that we shouldn't want to understand or sympathise with what would make a man fly a plane full of passengers into a building. I'm not here to argue that case either way. All I will say is that when you can tell a story that stands for ages you do give everyone air time and you make it quite plain why it's a tragedy for everyone except the cold and calculating serpentine intelligence that lurks, Machiavellian to the core, in the shadows and whispers in the ears of those who would be tempted.

In my opinion until you can make the audience feel, or at least understand, all points of view surrounding an event the story of that event cannot be timeless.

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Excellent description of timeless character qualities that drive a historical action and how that engages the reader. –  justkt Dec 29 '10 at 13:08
    
Thank you so much for this reply! As someone with his B.A. in Philosophy, my immediate thoughts to these questions are along the lines of erikric regarding universal truths - which is a good answer - but I was especially looking for storytelling ways of delving into these truths and giving them to the reader. I think you have a lot of good advice and insight in this post as to how that can be accomplished. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 30 '10 at 6:37

When a story becomes timeless, I think it is because it tells some universal "truth". The story is just an example of this truth, while the underlying morale can be applied to almost any time in history. And what was present on the earth 2000 years ago, and still is today? People. Human beings. Characters.

If you look at the example of 9/11, what mechanisms of human nature was at work there? What part of that attack could have happened 50 years ago? 200 years ago? 500 years into the future? And why?

As One Monkey says (referring to the user name, not trying to be rude ;), there is a lack of lasting stories about 9/11 because "we shouldn't want to understand or sympathize with what would make a man fly a plane full of passengers into a building". And that's the problem, because is think this is where the timeless lesson lies.

Writing timeless is writing about people. Technology change, but people don't. You could probably tell the story of 9/11 set in the middle ages, where a small village in the east felt oppressed by the tyrannic kingdoms in the west. They hi-jack a carriage bearing the Kings Symbol, set fire to it, and ride it into the wooden town hall.

Let the characters drive the story. Humans will always be humans, and as long as you let them behave as humans always has, what they say and do will always reflect past, present and future alike.

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Excellent point, many popular SF and Fantasy stories make analogies for sensitive topical issues. The stand out in my mind at present being Dune where a resource that enables the speedy transit of a vast interstellar community is monopolised by a single barren desert world... the Spice Melange may not be a direct parallel of oil but it was similar enough to engage a number of people. –  One Monkey Dec 29 '10 at 12:59

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