When my niece was in kindergarten, her teacher explained to the class that gossip wasn’t nice. Elizabeth asked – quite perceptively – “What will we talk about, then?”
Gardner Dozois, one of the more brilliant editors of our time, once said, “Soap opera has been the literature of the past fifty years.” Another very perceptive comment. After all, think about the novels, movies, even “news” stories that have been most popular. As different as they have been from each other, the one abiding commonality is that we have been intrigued and ensnared by the ups and downs of characters’ relationships (with other people or life in general).
In other words, Gardner was agreeing with young Elizabeth. Gossip is at the root of story.
What is it about character-driven gossipy stories that appeal so widely? Certainly, from the beginning of time, storytelling has been little else. Even early mythology and teaching tales, created and retold around tribal fires, centered on gossip. About the gods and their mischief. About the little man who got in trouble and had to figure out his way home. About how Eve tempted Adam.
Storytelling is hardwired into the human psyche. And the electrical connection that makes those stories stick is the essential humanity of them (even – or especially – when you’re sharing tales of the gods).
Of course, good storytelling has much more to it. But at the center, it needs a heart that beats in rhythm with our own. A sense of real life and real people, in trouble or confusion or need, muddling through life, making mistakes, connecting (or disconnecting) with others, sometimes finding answers, sometimes missing the point entirely. In other words, good juicy gossip.