I wanted to write a post looking at what makes a story work, but first it seems sensible to consider how we can tell that a story has worked at all – or not, of course. It seems to me that there are some general principles we can reasonably consider when thinking about stories in the titles under discussion – Jinty/Misty/Tammy in particular. (I should add a caveat that here I am particularly considering stories which have a beginning, middle, and end, rather than gag strips or humour stories that tend to consist of indivudal self-contained episodes.)
What evidence do we have that it worked at the time?
Looking at evidence from the past, we can clearly say that people at the time judged some stories to have worked better than others.
- Some stories are known to have been particularly popular; we may have information from editors (we know that “Stefa’s Heart of Stone” was very popular). The publishers certainly canvassed readers for indicators of the most and the least popular stories, either through the invitation to specify your faves when writing a letter to the editor, or more rarely through initiatives such as “Pam’s Poll“.
- Reprinting of stories is likely to indicate a positive judgement on how well they worked – why waste space on a story you didn’t think was worth it? At the same time, some reprints are hard to see as being particularly strong – “Angela Angel-Face” being a case in point. Sometimes, therefore, the fact that a story has been reprinted might just be a recognition of its ready availability as a cheap space-filler.
- Translation of stories is surely a stronger indication of success; a third party has selected the story (in some way – it would be good to know more about how this happened), paid for it, and put work into producing a translated edition, possibly with new cover artwork or more colouring.
- And then sometimes we have seen the translation go on to further usage – collection in an album format (the Dutch Tina Topstrips), and then perhaps further translations derived from those earlier selections (the Indonesian Nina reprints that drew heavily on the Tina Topstrip editions). “The Spell of the Spinning Wheel” is an example of a story that scores particularly highly, having been translated into Dutch and Indonesian in just this way.
- Story length may be another indicator. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” ran for 36 episodes and “Fran of the Floods” ran for 35 episodes, where a story was more usually some 15 episodes long. The obvious reason for this extraordinary length is that as the story was popular, the writer will have been asked to make it carry on for longer, or at any rate not stopped from continuing. (This may have turned out as a double-edged sword: we understand that for instance Dutch Tina didn’t reprint stories past a certain length because of format constraints, so a very long story of this sort was actually less likely to be translated and reprinted elsewhere.)
- (edited to add) Promotional and editorial decisions may also give some pointers. The editorial office decides about which story to feature on the cover, and to what extent – for instance when dramatically using a panel from the interior art to create a striking cover. They also decide which stories to feature in prime positions in the publication: the first and last stories are key positions, but the centre pages can also be an important focus for the reader. Some pages are in colour and again this will reflect a specific editorial decision to add something extra (requiring more work) to that story compared to others. Finally, some titles will be highlighted in adverts published in other titles.
As you can see, though, none of these indicators are foolproof. The most reliable indicator would be evidence direct from the editorial office to confirm that a story was popular, and even then of course you can quibble about whether popularity necessarily relies on the story being strong… though what you could certainly say in that case is that the most important critics, the readers, had voted in favour to say that it had worked for them.
What can we say about whether it works now?
And coming to stories that we read now, what tools can we use to think about whether a story works? (For instance we may come across a new story that we didn’t read at the time, or re-read a story in a new light.)
It is entirely legitimate to consider our own uncritical reaction as readers: “I love this sort of thing”, or “it’s not my cup of tea”, or “I know it’s very generic but I have a soft spot for this story”. Perhaps when you read the story initially, you hadn’t ever come across that particular cliché, and even though you recognize how hackneyed it is you still like it. Or perhaps there is some detail of script or art that just gives it something extra in your eyes. We can say “this story works for me”, acknowledging that others may read it and judge it more harshly; we may need to be aware of the limitations of our judgment, while at the same time still seeing those judgments as valid in themselves.
Likewise if we re-read a fondly remembered story now as adult readers, we may find that it is just as exciting as those memories had it as; or we may find that since then we have brought a lot more experience (and perhaps cynicism) to bear as readers, and the story just doesn’t work any more. Maybe events have overtaken it entirely (a story featuring casual racism or a now-known sex predator would be seen quite differently now than at the time). So the story might not work for us as individuals, or more generally, and we can make judgements accordingly.
Finally, there are a whole range of elements we can analyse to see what can make a story work, coming from the contribution of the artist and of the writer and even of the editorial office. Looking through these elements, as I want to do in my next post, we may find that we see more in the story than at first glance, and that it works more effectively than we’d given it credit for initially. I am finding this can happen for me when reading Mistyfan’s posts on stories, as we (naturally) have some differences in reading taste – for instance, reading her post on “Go On, Hate Me!” gave me a different view on how and why the story worked, although this is a story I might otherwise have dismissed as only moderately interesting. Using more analytical tools we are therefore able to say that a story works well or less well as a narrative of its kind, on its own merits, regardless of its reception at the time or by us as individuals.