The Story Tellling Instinct


Don't Fence me InThere’s a school of thought that there are somethings about writing that cannot be taught. In other words, you can teach grammar and plot structure and the technical stuff, but there’s something about story telling that you have or you don’t have. I’m not sure I buy into this.

Yes, we all have different levels of talent, but if you start fencing some folks out, you’re also fencing yourself in, and that’s never good. To me, this is like saying, “Well some dogs don’t chase chickens.”  If you hit a dog for doing something, that will stop that dog’s instinct to do what it loves to do–but that doesn’t mean that dog was not born to chase and hunt. And folks just like to tell stories–we all love stories.

I’ve taught story telling before–I’m about to teach an online class for Lowcountry Romance Writers on this (because there are classes on so many things, but most folks don’t talk about how to put it all together). And I think if you have a strong desire to do something because you love that thing, you’ll find a way to improve. You don’t get the desire to do something without some level of talent to go with.

Now, American Idol auditions may point to this not always being the case. But I’m willing to bet a lot of those really awful singers are there not because they love music and singing, but because of a desire for fame. This means their desire and talent don’t match: a love of fame is not going to make you a singer. (Or a writer.) You have to love your art enough to sweat for it, and be willing to do it for pennies, for free sometimes, and just because you cannot not do it. You tell stories because you have a story telling instinct. This, like any other instinct, can be developed and improved–or it can be beaten into oblivion. It’s that small, still voice inside that tells you when a story is on track, and it’s the thing that stops you from writing when the story is going wrong. It’s something you have to come to believe in and the more you use it, the better it will get.

And here’s ten ways to know if you have this instinct.

1-You cannot tell anyone about what happened today without embellishing, just to add some interest.

2-If someone’s giving you gossip about others, you always end up asking: “And then what happened?” And it’s really irritating if that person doesn’t know.

3-When you walk a city at twilight, you not only look into the open windows, but start inventing things about the people who live there.

4-If folks start telling you real life stories you want them to put a good ending on it even if there wasn’t one.

5-For any news story you don’t just wonder why someone acted as they did, you can come up with all sorts of plausible reasons.

6-When something bad happens to you, yes you cry–but there’s always some small part of you taking notes.

7-When a friend starts telling you about terrible things that have happened to them, you think about how this would be great in a story.

8-It’s almost impossible for you to walk out of a movie or put down a book–even the really terrible ones–because you always have a hope the story will get better, and you have to see how it ends (even if its obvious, because its cliche, how its going to end).

9-Your pets always have back stories–and you’ll tell them to anyone who will sit still.

10-You’re willing to do stupid things at times just because you’ve never done them and you have a character (or might someday have a story with a character) who is going to do them.

If you start nodding at five or more of these, you’ve got the story telling instinct, but it needs work. If you’re only nodding at a couple, your story telling instincts have been beaten out of you by past teachers who have also killed their own instincts–time for lots of meditation and getting back in touch with your subconscious. If you nod at eight or more of these, congrats–you’re instincts are going to serve you well.

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