This new video from Ken Burns’ series about story is just so awesome. George Saunders, author of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, explains why reading a bad story is like going on a bad date.

Says Saunders, in George Saunders: On Story:

A bad story is one where you know what the story is, and you’re sure of it. And you go there your with your intentionality fixed in place. Almost like if you went out on a date, and noticed that your date had a pile of index cards, and he’s looking, and this one says: “7:05, compliment her outfit. 7:10, ask about the mother.” You’re going to feel a little bit condescended to.

Now, why would a person do that? Well, it’s a little bit scary to be on a date. There’s all that mystery, and all those unexpected moments that are going to lurch out. Well, likewise in storytelling. Why would you be overcontrolling your material? Because it’s scary to not know where it’s going.


Saunders says he’s learned he tends to over-manage his stories, and push them in a particular direction that the story doesn’t want to go in. So the better thing is to start out with a kernel of what the story is, that may have to do with what you enjoy writing. But when you write it and rewrite it endlessly, you end up with something built out of “your own discontent with it, that in some slow, mysterious way, urges it to higher ground.”

Watch the whole thing over at The Atlantic.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.