What Gives A Story ‘Stickability’?


What makes a scene from a book, a film or a play stick in the mind? It’s a question writers wrestle with constantly. Often it’s a case of the ‘sevens’; when you’re seven years old everything is exciting and new, and any old rubbish stays with you forever. I’m horrified at how often the things I loved at that age turn out to be truly dreadful now.

One of the problems is that as you age you start to feel that you’ve seen, heard or read virtually every version of every narrative going, and now you’re just experiencing variations. When I was seven years old I became obsessed with a gigantic deafening Cinerama comedy called ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, and still recall scenes from this strange film, climaxing with a dozen screaming people on the top of a swaying fireman’s ladder.

Many years later its co-writer, Tania Rose, told me that there had been serious ideas behind the slapstick, touching on alcoholism, nervous breakdowns and police corruption, and that much of it had been filmed. I asked her why they were excised from prints. ‘We had to figure out who our audience was,’ she explained. ‘But you can sense these things are all still there in the background.’

Perhaps stickability is to do with depth – you can inchoately sense other elements at work, so it stays in your mind.

Set pieces in books and plays can stick because they have that extra depth – the rejection in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the kite scene in Iain Banks’ ‘The Wasp Factory’, the hot air balloon in McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’, Hamlet confronting Gertrude, Prospero breaking his staff, the sinking of the boat in ‘Lord Jim’, the ball in ‘Anna Karenina’, the dinner party in ‘Our Mutual Friend’.

When it comes to popular fiction the cleverer your prose, the less you appeal to the mainstream. I fight this issue every time I sit down to write, reining in what I want to do in favour of what might be more easily understood by my readership. The world has become a less ironic place, so we tend to spell out more.

There are authors like Hilary Mantel, Phillip Pullman, Suzannah Clarke and Robert Harris who can grab me from the first page and drag me through to the last. Can stickability be taught? It’s not a crime to be readable. Stickability can get you to read, watch or listen to works that you would otherwise not be interested in; I once read an article on sports cars (probably the subject that least interests me on the planet) because it was written by a thrilling Pulitzer-winning author.

Much US non-fiction has a terrifically breathless journalistic style that seizes the reader and grabs the attention; the downside is that you can’t tell the writers apart. We have the same problem with our crime fiction.

So, today’s challenge. Ignore the fact that I’ve had to illustrate this piece with film scenes – which scene from a book has stayed with you the most?


44 comments on “What Gives A Story ‘Stickability’?”

  1. Paul C says:

    Thanks for that fascinating post. Scenes from books that stick in my mind the most are shock endings : The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Incident at Owl Creek Bridge by Bierce, The Necklace by Maupassant and the deliquescence of Valdemar in Poe. Unforgettable scenes.

    Strikingly original scenes really stick in the mind too : the gold prospector desperately trying to survive in To Build A Fire by Jack London, the dazzling dialogue between Marlow and General Sternwood in The Big Sleep and Tom Sawyer tricking his friends into whitewashing a fence and getting lost in a cave. Nobody wrote scenes like these before and they therefore have stickability.

    Characters you really care for and want to spend time with also stick in my mind : Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Donald E Westlake’s comic criminals in the Dortmunder series and Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces. Sherlock Holmes is endlessly rereadable.

    There are many shocks, original scenes and sympathetic characters in the Bryant And May series too of course !

  2. MartinT says:

    Is there perhaps a literary equivalent of the ‘ear worm’, that piece of music you can;t get out of your head? There are scientific explanations and theories why they happen so maybe you have opened up a whole new area of research!
    Any funding out there?

  3. Bernard says:

    Can’t answer your question, sorry. However, I did react to your list of authors “who can grab me from the first page”. My list would include a chap called Christopher Fowler. My list of authors whose first page I cannot get past includes Mantel and Pullman. I have, of course, read more than one page of each but I did so applying the Les Misérables principle: I did not leave the theatre at the interval just to see if it could get any worse, it did.

  4. Bob Low says:

    Oddly enough, the stickability of a story or novel with me is almost entirely down to the quality of the prose. I think this is probably a lot to do with the realisation as you get older, referred to by Mr Fowler in the post, that there are really only a finite number of stories and story combinations, and any keen reader or film viewer of a certain vintage will have already read and seen all of them, many times. For me, it all falls down to how well or badly it’s told, or whether the teller has the ingenuity to blind side you with a new spin on something well tried. I find that the most memorable scenes in stories are mainly those which appear to be quiet, ordinary or day-to-day, but in which there’s a lot of crucial stuff happening below the surface. Hilary Mantel is a master of this. Her Thomas Cromwell books are full of them. One of the best things about Wolf Hall was Mantel’s brave decision to portray the Man For All Seasons, Sir Thomas More as an entitled, crass, cruel and vicious religious zealot. The scenes in the final part of the book between Cromwell and More in the Tower of London are some of the most powerful I’ve read. More’s gradual descent from arrogant assurance – because of his personal connection to the King, rather than his religious faith – to a broken, wreck of a man is portrayed in pitiless detail. You almost end up feeling sorry for him.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin You were not ‘wrong’ to use film scenes to illustrate this post. Much of what stays with us after reading has a good deal to do with our ability to visualise. The strength and sophistication of the ‘mind’s eye’ not only varies from individual to individual, but with age and life experience. And what you remember is more likely not the actual prose that triggers the image, but the image — scene or character — itself. Thus — as you point out — for the mainstream, ‘unadorned’ prose can generate the necessary and satisfying ‘stick figures.’

  6. John+Griffin says:

    I can’t start LBIFD. Any therapists available?

  7. Vic says:

    For me Stickability, be it book, music, film or whatever, appears to be influenced by the moment and what I was finding interesting or curious at that time. If I gave examples would it be more about me than the story?

    Today I watched ‘Flee’ and I am certain it will stick in my mind for a very long time because of what is happening now.

    Flee – 2021 Danish animated docudrama film directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Has it been mentioned on the blog?

  8. Janet says:

    This is an interesting one – looking round my bookshelves not many actual scenes are invoked by the titles. Most of the ones that do come to mind seem to be books I would have first read in my teens. Hardy would have several examples notably the shocking scene of the deaths of the children in Jude. The ending of Grapes of Wrath also comes to mind. More light heartedly some of the comic scenes in Edmund Crispin’s books have stayed with me (possibly due to much re-reading) – purchasing the butterfly net in Holy Disorders and the non-doing pig in Buried for Pleasure as examples. I think though the scene in a book that has really stayed with me is from Rebecca, when the narrator is duped by the housekeeper into wearing the same costume as her predecessor to a ball. Perhaps this scene has been reinforced for me by film adaptations, but I read the book first and the strong emotions it generates of embarrassment and betrayal have certainly stayed with me

  9. Roger says:

    I’m surprised – well, half surprised, half enjoying the confirmation of my prejudices – that no-one has mentioned poetry as examples of stickability, bith in itself and what it shows – huge chunks of Shakespeare and Milton, “To His Coy Mistress”, parts of Homer,, “Kubla Khan”, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Kipling, Houisman, Auden…

  10. Martin Tolley says:

    It’s rather the music that sets the scene that holds me especially on TV. The start of the Sopranos. The theme of Peaky Blinders, the ghostly tones of Hollow Talk at the start of the Bridge.
    In my youth certainly I’m with @Janet and the final scene of the Grapes of Wrath. And I found the arrival of the stranger at the village inn in the Invisible man a draw, although the rest of Wells turned out to be a bit of downslope afterwards.

  11. peter says:

    for me the scene in Nicholas Nickleby where he thrashes Squeers a loathsome tight fisted bully gets his come uppance – well done that man

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    You had to mention “It’s a Mad…World” and now I can’t get that crazy mother and her hapless son out of my mind or the basement explosion or the conversation with Terry Thomas. Oh dear. All you have to do is listen to what the characters are saying and you feel those underlying themes.
    A Man for All Seasons was on last night and I told my husband I’d like to see the king’s arrival at More’s house again. Those three barges coming up (?) the river like three great swans stays with me – beautiful and ominous both. The ominous is underlined by the silence following Henry’s landing in the mud.
    But you asked about books. Delderfield’s To Serve them all my Days when the wife is killed in the car crash stays with me, possibly because he is the book’s hero and the two of them were so happily suited that it shouldn’t happen. The author created the characters so they only die if he wants them to. How dare he.
    Was it Tinker Tailor or Smiley’s People that LeCarre put Jim the ex-spy into with his Alvis? Those scenes with Jumbo, the boy who notices and watches out, are very strong and stick with me. Both of these are set in schools, I notice.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    Mr. Chipping (‘Mr. Chips’) to the new principal at Brookfield: ‘I know the world’s changing, Dr. Ralston. I’ve seen the old traditions die, one by one. Grace, dignity, feeling for the past – all that matters here today is a fat banking account. You’re trying to run the school like a factory, for turning out money-making machine-made snobs. You’ve raised the fees. And in the end, the boys who really belong at Brookfield will be frozen out, frozen out. Modern methods, intensive training – poppycock! Give a boy a sense of humor and a sense of proportion and he’ll stand up to anything. I’m not going to retire, you can do what you like about it.’

    ‘Mr. Chips’ (on his deathbed) : ‘I thought I heard you saying it was a pity… pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them… and all boys.’

  14. Debra says:

    Anne reading Wentworth’s letter, Knightly dressing Emma down, Tom saving Sophia’s bird, the children in the secret garden and the robin who guides their way, Cromwell seeing the child’s angel wings after her death, the nurse in the chapel gliding her way across the ceiling frescos, Mrs. Dalloway walking through London to the flower shop, when Boswell meets Dr. Johnson, and so many others. The pleasure of reading poetry, too, especially metaphysical poets, The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Rape of the Lock, and Hardy’s poetry. Thank goodness for so many writers, especially Mr. Fowler, who amuse and amaze us.

  15. SteveB says:

    I can remember all the comic strips from age 7 like they were yesterday all right!!
    The green men living underground where beautiful Queen Lorelei fought bad king Sados
    The fire creatures from the dawn of time who came out from Mount Vesuvius
    The ghostly goalkeeper in Roy of the Rovers
    Dan Dare fighting the Mekon in a planet made of giant bubbles
    Etc etc…

  16. Alan R says:

    This is a really interesting subject. When there were only 2 TV channels, cinema, one radio station, our daily newspaper, and a weekly magazine, brand Stickabilty in the popular broader sense was created by repetition. Big brands like Coke, Rice Crispies, Daz, Esso, Strand (you are never alone) and every major brand, drove catchphrases or jingles deep into our brains. So much so that we can likely sing some of these classics decades since we last heard them. Stickability at its very best. I spent a great deal of my life in this business. That’s why I write so poorly. Use too many short words, commas and start too many sentences with And and But.

    Books, films and plays only have one chance to drive and stick something deep into our minds. Usually, a highly emotional event that resonates with the state of mind we had at that time. And the emotional effect we were experiencing while reading and watching the films and plays. While mass advertising achieved Stickabily with a high degree of repetitive creativity, the scriptwriter, author or director must try to achieve that in seconds. That takes a genius with very special talents.

    When I was 7, the terror and bullying I remember from John Brown’s Schooldays have really stuck with me. Especially the “roasting” scene. It scared me for life.

    My Grandfather was for many years the librarian at a working men’s club in Haggerston and he aggressively encouraged me to read Dickens. He gave me book after book to read from the library. I can’t imagine ever being affected like I was reading those books at that age and talking to him about them. Dickens wrote so many highly stickable scenes that I will take with me to my coffin. I remain a Dickens fan today.

    When I try to find something that has stuck in my mind in recent years, I am finding it difficult to pinpoint anything in a book. I read every day. I enjoy reading. But I think I have got in the habit of being immersed in a book without letting it deeply affect me. I have to go back in time to remember anything that moved me very emotionally. That may be because I am now an old prat. Although the character Sunshine got my attention this week in Hot Water – I’m halfway through it. That may be because I’m an old perve.

    I’ll take today’s challenge on, pay more attention to what fiction I’m reading and look out for special scenes that can stick with me. I am sure Jack Reacher cannot deliver anything stickable. I read about half the books I download from Amazon. I’ll try harder to choose my books and be more responsive to what I’m reading.

    CF wrote, “One of the problems is that as you age you start to feel that you’ve seen, heard or read virtually every version of every narrative going, and now you’re just experiencing variations”? I think it may be so. But I’ll try harder.

  17. Liz+Thompson says:

    I remember certain books vividly, but in prose rather than visual. Usually ones that made me laugh out loud, or which seemed to have some original plot twist or variation. But the one thing I do visualise is The Ancient Mariner. Right from when I read it at school, I’ve seen it as an animated cartoon. Not Disney, but the more surreal stuff coming out of Canada or the Soviet sphere of influence. If I was animating it now, it would likely be Japanese anime or Sandman style.

  18. Peter T says:

    Totally with Stu on Mr Chips. In our present times, there has to be the alumnus of whom Chips would be most proud, Professor Horatio ‘Pimpernel’ Smith. There’s some wonderful dialogue in that film. In the reception scene, there are the lines that summarise the character of Smith. Smith’s aquaintance: “Nice suit. Made it yourself?” Smith: “No a man in Cambridge made it for me, when I was seventeen.”

  19. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    If anyone wants to watch ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, it was shown on the beeb yesterday, so should be available for a while.

  20. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Roger — I suspect the the reason more poetry has (not yet) shown up in ‘stickability’ lists here may have to do with its forced ‘stickability’ or required rote memorisation back in the day. As I recall, ‘Casablanca’ (‘The boy stood on the burning deck…’) generally ‘stuck’ for maybe a day or so after you were called upon to recite it by heart. Unfortunately, it is still residing in a dim recess of my brain — along with ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and the St. Crispin’s Day speech from ‘Henry V’ — having lost not only any educative value but more importantly, its former entertainment value in free bevvies like the others.

  21. Jan says:

    So is it the story or the story telling? Where’s the real skill or is it a combination of both ?

    Being much in same age group as yourself I loved mad, mad world (it was on tv recently) weirdly enough as a kid I sort of loved the anarchy and inventiveness of it but it the same time it gave me right nightmares. Funny what that lady said about it – perhaps the darkness they largely removed sort of left half glimpses of the scarier elements behind.

  22. Roger says:

    The stickability bit I remember – or think I remember if I’ve got the right film – about “Mad Mad World” without seeing it for fifty years is the way in which ordinary people are transformed into egotistic maniacs by the prospect of a not-very-large fortune for the first-comer. A farce based on a grim assessment of human nature.

    The poems I mentioned are ones met outside school, Stu-I-am. Apart from other poems, there is a dying generation for whom Palgrave and Quiller-Couch’s OBEV are a shared mythos, with Rumpole of the Bailey as our prophet.

    The most obviously stickable mementos are musical – you could probably get an accurate assessment of someone’s age, background and early life just by asking about their musical tastes. They’d probably remember the music better than anything else too.
    A paragraph about music’s stickability that has a stickable effect on me, even if it’s about an earlier generation: “… sullen fleshy inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sellers of goods, living in 30-year-old detached houses among the golf courses of Outer London, husbands of ageing and bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ or The Squadronaires’ ‘The Nearness of You’; fathers of cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill, to whom Ramsay Macdonald is coeval with Rameses II, and cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons whose oriental contempt for ‘bread’ is equalled only by their insatiable demand for it; men in whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small Tudor windows to Muggsy Spanier’s ‘Sister Kate’, or winding up a gramophone in a punt to play Armstrong’s ‘Body and Soul’; men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas; who drift, loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet. These I have tried to remind of the excitement of jazz, and tell where it may still be found.”

  23. Ed+DesCamp says:

    I must say, Full Dark House grabbed me with the first line (“It really was a hell of a blast.”), but the best was the discovery of the body near the end of the first chapter. The first made me want to read the first chapter:the second made me buy the book.

  24. admin says:

    Well this is an outpouring! Debra answers the question very nicely with a fine list.

  25. Roger says:

    Nothing like giving us the chance to wallow in nostalgia, Admin!

  26. Stu-I-Am says:

    Since we’ve been sticking to the straight and narrow here and commenting on the actual (proposed ?) art and literature topics, I thought it time, following precedent, to veer off course, if only slightly. In yesterday’s (12 Mar) ‘Guardian’ there was an article on research which found that while visiting a museum or theatre did not produce higher GCSE exam scores, reading for pleasure, visiting a library and discussing books at home did, by a significant amount. However, assuming higher exam scores are not the be-all and end-all of a satisfying life, it should be kept in mind that a previous study by another group of academics found visiting cultural institutions regularly could actually lead to a longer life and among other things, improve depression, dementia, chronic pain and frailty. This being the case, seems to me a Tate or NT membership (and the like) should be a added to the NHS prescription list.

  27. Martin Tolley says:

    NO. Stu. NO. Going to National Trust properties does not make you live longer, it just feels that way.

  28. Peter+T says:

    A correlation is not proof of a causal relationship, though, as Holmes would have put it, it may be indicative. Since WWII, a fall in the birth rate has followed a fall in the stork population … .

  29. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter +T Peter, I assume you agree that considering the declining UK birth rate, waivers should be provided to allow in breeding EU storks until their UK reintroduction takes hold.

  30. Jo+e says:

    I think you may be on to something Stu. A National Trust Life Membership costs £1,845. You’ve GOT to live a long time if you get that as a retirement present.

    I’m not sure if that includes parking though.

  31. Roger says:

    About forty five years ago I got a lifetime season ticket to Kew Gardens for £5. They’d announced the admission fee was going to go up from a penny to ten pence. “This” I thought “is the thin end of the wedge….”

  32. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jo+e Jo — Of Course I had to check and yes, the NT Life Membership does include parking. But I have to say that titbit of information paled by comparison with the fact I also learned, that the NT staff last year ‘,,, identified and logged 56,742 insects at the places we care for. The five most common insect pests found in 2021 remain the same as those recorded in 2020 but the webbing clothes moth has knocked silverfish out of the number-one spot.’ Something to keep in mind next time you’re asked to put together a pub quiz or, to casually drop into a lagging conversation.

  33. Alan R says:

    Roger – March 12, and I thought they were the good old days. Love that line – “men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas”. That stuck.
    Of course, it is Summer, not Sunshine, in Hot Water in my earlier post. Note to self – slow down when typing.

  34. Jan says:

    This is a great topic choice we all can come up with films, songs, even tv programmes that “stuck with us”.

    This is the stuff which helps to form the backdrop to our lives.

    In earlier times I wonder what stuck with people? Whether it was memories of seasonal celebrations, religious festivals, pivotal family moments. Wonder what future generations will focus on wonder what their important memories will be?

  35. Helen+Martin says:

    Oh, National Trust not National Theatre. Well, you wouldn’t get a lifetime membership there, would you? I wonder what Kew Gardens membership is these days. From a penny to 10p in one jump and I’ll bet that was about the time the money changed, too, so the jump was even bigger than it looked. The Vancouver Art Gallery, as pretentious as we get here, charges CD $24 for admission, although I believe Tuesday is “admission by donation”. I know we can purchase single year memberships, but I was afraid to look for the cost.

  36. snowy says:

    “… which scene from a book has stayed with you the most?”

    Detective fiction uses certain scenes as tent-poles to support the canvas of the story. ‘The discovery of the victim’, ‘the detective arrives’, ‘the crime scene is examined’ etc. But they can be blended together as in the first scene of ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ by Christopher Brookmyre.

    [Those that have read the book will know exactly which scene I’m referring to!]

    It begins:

    ‘Jesus fuck.’
    Inspector McGregor wished there was some kind of official crime scenario checklist, just so that he could have a quick glance and confirm that he had seen it all now.

    The whole scene can be read by finding the book on a big book site and then clicking on the ‘Look Inside’ button

  37. Jan says:

    That’s sounds a bit lively Snowy.

    The best beginning to a book I ever read was I think the first sentence or two of the book of short stories written by a bloke called (I think) James Michener (I never Google stuff b4 writing on here which is why I so often get me foot in me gob) the 1st bit of the “South Pacific” stories on which the musical was based is pretty classy. It’s really makes you feel your are there.
    No spoilers ……the stories are well worth reading

  38. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Snowy – I agree with your assessment of “Quite Ugly”. After reading the sneak peek, I bought it, and it’s on tap for next to be read. Thanks for the pointer.

  39. Gary Locke says:

    To answer your question regarding scenes from a book that have stayed with me, I remember reading Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service after I had seen the film. In the film, a skier falls under a snowblower and Bond makes a joke about it. In the book, Bond finds the man’s death horrific and nightmarish. Suddenly, so did I.

  40. snowy says:

    Jan, the scene reminds me of one of life’s lessons, “When you think the situation in front of you cannot conceivably get any more completely fucked up worse; it inevitably does.”

    Ed there are a few stories in the series, but if you are short of time you can jump from ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ to ‘One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night’, [Inspector McGregor returns in hilarious form and we meet Tim Vale] and then skip to ‘Be My Enemy’ [this contains one scene I wont describe because a) it’s a spoiler and b) I’m not buying people new keyboards or paying for their cats to be Dry-cleaned].

  41. I remember quite clearly the first 3 ‘chapter books’ I read. They’re an odd combination: The Secret of Nimh, Animal Farm, and The Neverending Story, in that order. Looking back, I’m impressed with how much if Animal Farm I actually understood, even without knowing about politics, history, or political history.
    The Neverending Story really stuck with me. I’ve read it numerous times since I was a kid and I get something different from it each time. Interestingly, I think I was 7 when I first discovered it.
    There are a couple of Asimov short stories that really stuck in my head too. I don’t know their names but they are both on ‘robot dreams’ – one is about advancements in human knowledge driving someone to suicide because he’s reached the antibiotic ring that keeps us in our dish (as the character describes it). The other was about a robot that creates wonderful art because it’s ‘faulty’. I think all 3 hit me in the spot of struggling with mental illness for years.
    There are a few of your short stories that stuck with me too, for various reasons (the underground parking one comes to mind every time i visit a few different Auckland parking buildings. Master builder when I hear the hoise settling at night. Dale and Wayne more recently), and Disturbia.

  42. Jan says:

    Yes Snows a life lesson for sure. Suddenly you are stuck in the centre of a situation spiralling way out of control. Think any minute now this will hit rock bottom for sure we’ll bounce it back our way and then the spiral simply carries on downward.

  43. Helen+Martin says:

    Since I always pay attention to Snowy’s recommendations (and how could you ignore the title?) I looked up Quite Ugly One Morning. Not in our library, but others by Mr. Brookmyre are so I am currently reading The Cut which should be of interest to all you horror fans out there. It has a lot of the “deep English” we’ve heard about as well as drug and movie making slang which are unknown to me but don’t get in the way. It deals with a woman emerging from a 25 year sentence for murdering her boy friend in a blood drenched slashing way which the prosecution blamed on the blood drenched horror movies where she worked as a special effects makeup artist. It’s fascinating so far – at halfway through.

  44. snowy says:

    Oh! I’ve not read ‘The Cut’, [ some of Mr Brookmyre’s books have recently taken a turn to the mainstream/literary, not necessarily a bad thing, but something of his unique style was lost.]

    Though a quick bit of research suggests this is a return to form. He has used ‘Harold and Maud’ pairings before in One Fine Day…. and All Fun and Games… to good effect.

    [H, it’s very brave of you to refer to Scots dialect as ‘Deep English’, not something I’d ever dare do within earshot of a native speaker without the benefit of a ‘chibby semmit’.]

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