Tag Archive | storytelling

Better Stories

cakeI read a lot of manuscripts as contest entries and a lot of them have the same basic problem–the story doesn’t start on page one.  It’s far too easy for a writer to get caught up in the details. Those details are necessary to make the fictional world come to life. You can focus so much on the right word or the right sentence or fixing the paragraph that you forget that readers want a great story. That’s the most important thing.

A few years back I noticed there were workshops on all parts of writing–dialogue, pacing, showing and telling, viewpoint. I teach a few of those and they’re important. But even more important is how to make all of this come together in a way that makes for a great story. Think of it this way–you can have flour, sugar, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder and still make a terrible cake. It takes knowing not just the list of ingredients, but how much do you need and when these should be added, and how to mix and bake them–you can’t just throw them all in a bowl and expect something wonderful.

That’s why I do a workshop on storytelling. I’m teaching it again this September for RWA’s OCC. It is a dense class with a lot of information but the focus is on story–on getting a great story onto the page. Meaning it’s about looking at the list of ingredients–viewpoint, dialogue, pacing, showing and telling–and how to mix them together into something tasty.

So…are you focusing on story? On your characters? Or are you too focused on details?

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Are you a writer or a storyteller?

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.

erbTake 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.

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.