Sarah Dry

Stories vs arguments

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Like footsteps across the snow, a good story asks us to follow along. It makes us want to follow along. What comes next? What’s out there just beyond the horizon? For a writer, it’s the most important thing, to have a willing and eager reader.

I recently did a brief Q and A about my water project with the NEH which is now online with a few other similar interviews with other Public Scholar awardees. Pretty much all of us mention the challenge of doing good history while also telling a good story. This makes me wonder: are story and historical argument (ie claims backed up by evidence) really in opposition, as we seem to be suggesting?

Story clearly trumps argument when it comes to holding the attention of most readers. I’d include professional historians in that group, as well. So story has to come first. But story without argument seems to lack backbone, not merely the kind of structure that organizes a story, but also a reason to care more deeply than mere suspense. Argument—whether implicit or explicit—is why some stories stay with us, and others, no matter how gripping they are as we read them, fade.

Still, I think story deserves to come first and stay first. This is not merely a question of seducing the reader (though that is important) but of revealing the meaningfulness of a piece of history. A gripping story makes us feel it is important. A good argument, artfully conveyed, proves that it is.

Image credit: Male polar bear tracks, Cape Lisburne in the distance, Chukchi Sea, 2008. Craig Perham/USFWS

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