When I first started out with the idea of writing for money I though I wanted to be a great writer. I soon realized I was wrong about that. Great writing is lovely–I get sucked into it all the time. I can get drunk on words. Great writing usually is found in great literature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also quickly realized that great writers aren’t always the one making the money.
Take Edgar Rice Burroughs–not the world’s best writer. Or Dan Brown, who gets slammed for his writing all the time in various circles. Or even Twilight author Stephanie Meyer–she is not someone who usually gets “great” and “writer” in the same description, unless the word “not” is added. However, these folks all know how to tell a story. They’re more than good at that–and that’s what we all want. A great story.
With a great story a reader will often overlook a lot of things. Frankly, I’ll skip past typos, weak sentences, poor description, and even clunky dialogue if the story is pulling me along. I cannot read any book by Burroughs without thinking, “What happens next?” The characters can be cliche, the plot can have holes, but if the story sweeps me up I don’t think about those things until later–that’s when my brain engages and I think, “Wait a minute.”
So what is it about story that can be so utterly compelling? It’s not just the characters–although as Robert McKee says, “Story is character and character is story.” It’s also about pacing and action. It’s about the whole idea of spinning a good yarn. I’m doing my storytelling workshop this September for Outreach International Romance Writers. It’s a workshop I started doing when I realized other writers were getting sucked into the “good writing” vs. “great storytelling” trap. I kept reading a lot of really beautifully written contest entries that just didn’t keep me wanting to turn the page–a huge problem for any writer of fiction. So I figured let’s figure out what you need to be a good storyteller–what are the elements of that craft.
A good storyteller juggles:
Characters And Hooks: Act 1
• Stage Presence — you have to have characters that the reader wants to spend time with
• Letting The Reader Play Too: Non-Verbal Communication (what’s otherwise known as showing more)
Basic Structure: Act 2
• Pulling the reader in: clear and engaging openings — hooks!
• Pacing — sequence of events
• Ending — a sense of closure to give the reader that happy glow from any good story
Craft And Voice: Act 3
• Clarity, Clarity, Clarity (as in don’t lose your audience)
• Story presentation — Keeping Listeners’ Interest
• Voice: Choice Of Language — which is what makes your stories stand out from others
Emotion and Innovation: Endings
• Unique or Creative Use Of language
• Presenting The Sequence Of Events
• The Meaning Of The Story Artfully Expressed Or Suggested (what’s otherwise known as theme)
All of these elements add up to a good story. And the art is putting them together in a way that doesn’t come across as being too cookie-cutter or too out-there, but somewhere in the happy middle ground.