01 Seeing Stories
The idea behind this course was a pretty simple one: storytelling is wired into our heads from childhood up and so teaching people how to tell stories wasn't so much teaching them anything new as showing them what they already knew.
After all, we use story vernacular everyday whether we know it or not. When we decide which details to highlight in a conversation, or when we tell a joke or repeat a story or sum up events from the news or our daily lives—that's all story language. Ditto when we change the pitch or intensity of our voices, pause at key spots, slow down or speed up narration, hide elements for effect or follow simple chronological order.
All of that is basic human-to-human interface and we get it from stories.
Don't believe me?
Listen to this:
If you don't see yourselves as the natural born storytellers you are, it's not your fault. You can blame the literary establishment for that. Seriously, you can.
That's because the kind of storytelling you were good at as a kid got hijacked by the literary establishment. For a long time. Once critics and MFA programs took control of the show—and decided what was quality writing and what was, well, Dan Brown—what is now called genre writing (anything from Harry Potter to Pride, Prejudice and Zombies) became embarrassed of itself and hid in the corner, counting its money.
But things have changed recently in the US and elsewhere. There's a growing number of indie-to-mainstream writers and small publishers who have dropped the pretense and are simply focusing on telling good stories. Can you grab my attention and hold it? Have you crafted intriguing characters? Dialogue that holds together? Fine, you're in.
You can see the change in the market not only in mass phenomena like the explosion in YA fiction, but you can hear it on the radio too. If you haven't checked out long-running NYC-based The Moth, for example, it's well worth a listen.
It was this combination of ideas that led me to want to teach a course like Story Craft at Write CY, and this combination of ideas that made me think it could be taught. I explain the whole journey I took to get here in this article, if you're interested.
EMPATHY IS BETTER THAN YOGA
From the beginning of the course I'll be drawing a line between writing as personal work—mining the self—and writing as story craft, or what I'd call the out-of-body experience. Obviously, there's going to be overlap. In fact, you might even find that at the times you think you're as far from talking about yourself as possible in your writing, you're actually doing just that. Because honesty only comes when you sneak up on and ambush yourself. The self-conscious writer is often a liar.
So for the purposes of this course, you'll be disappearing and focusing on others. This means you'll be learning to put yourselves in the shoes and heads of other characters. Just like Shia LaBeouf—but without getting hit. When you begin to get better at this, you should find it pretty mind-blowing and in itself, ironically, a journey into self-discovery.
Of course, there's another word for all of this: empathy.
Which is exactly what they're talking about when you find an article with a title like How Reading Fiction Makes Us Better Human Beings in your news feed.
Imagine how much more transformative an experience that is when you're actually writing the fiction!
STORYTELLING IS THE NEW CREATIVITY
No one can teach creativity, but anyone can learn to tell a story.
That's a fact.
Remember The Three Little Pigs? When you were a kid you could tell it backwards and forwards. You could probably do it today. That's because on a very basic level the story structure feels right.
There's tension—or build-up of violence—and arc, the ups and downs in the pigs' fortunes. And, like most stories, there's a pay-off, or resolution, when you get emotional compensation for your commitment as a listener. Depending on which version you're listening to, that would be the two dead pigs brought back to life or one dead bad wolf.
Creativity is something different. In the case of The Three Little Pigs, creativity would be the Greek children's book writer Trivisas coming along and turning the old tale of the three pig victims and the ruthless wolf on its head with his version called The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. No one would deny Trivisas' idea is a touch of genius.
That's because creativity is awesome and a wonder to behold. But sometimes it gets treated like an abstraction or confused with talent, which isn't very helpful at all if all you want to do is learn how to tell a story and happen to fall into the fourth category of storyteller below.
The way out?
Simple. Demystify creativity and find a definition that makes sense in the context of a story.
Creativity is like weaving together specific elements of a narrative that when structured in the right way have deep meaning for a listener/reader.
You'll see this takes a lot of subtle ingenuity and "reactivated" skill too. So, don't worry—if you're creative, you can have your cake and eat it too.
But for the kind of writer who frequently goes through the equivalent of an actor's stage fright when confronted with the empty white screen, remember: the basic template is hardwired into our brains. It just may take some time to revive it.
Which leads us to a very important question.
If story craft is about telling stories, how do I know if I’m telling a story other people will want to read? Specifically, what elements does a good (understand: gripping) story need to have? What skills do we need to have as storytellers to write a good story?
THE BUILDING BLOCKS
Probably when we think of story elements, we think of pretty similar ideas. Again, this is no coincidence if you consider that stories are our default mode for communicating. So, if asked, we might say some of the most important ingredients of a readable story are: relatable characters, a well-constructed plot, well-timed pacing, an effective arc, believable dialogue and authentic description. (And it isn't a coincidence either that when you Google "story elements", your search will lead you to websites built by elementary school teachers. Try it.*)
Still, every time we venture out onto the empty white screen, it’s a gamble and we don’t know if we’re going to pull it off. Even after 15 years of practice, you're still betting against the odds statistically. That's because writing a really good story is really hard work and involves a bunch of variables you struggle to control. Every time.
But the more time you spend exploring these elements—figuring out how they work, trying different combinations and experiments—the more compelling your stories will be. That I guarantee.
Which brings us to the point of our "story" when we say goodbye, run back into our bedrooms, pull the covers up over our heads and hide.
The point when we meet the empty white screen.
*Google "short fiction", on the other hand, and you'll find your "adult" explanations.
THE EMPTY WHITE SCREEN
Now that you've gotten here, let me ask you this first. If I asked you where you got your ideas, what would you answer?
a. from the ether
b. from my personal Muse
c. from my astoundingly fecund creativity. I am a genius.
d. I don’t have ideas.
You'd be surprised how many people think they fall into either category c or d. The fact is, we don't know where all our great ideas come from, but that doesn't make us geniuses. On the other hand, many times our inspiration isn't very mysterious at all. It may come from a snatch of conversation we overhear on the bus or at the supermarket, from a newspaper or magazine headline—or even from a song, story or movie that's been sitting in our heads germinating for a while without us knowing.
The bottom line is: everyone can find a concept for a story because we're bombarded by stories everyday.
If you ever run into a brick wall, just open your news feed and borrow an idea. Dostoyevsky did.
Here's a checklist that might come in handy when you have an idea but aren't sure if it's worth developing into a short story. Don’t proceed unless your story idea answers "yes" to these five questions, all of which we'll be covering over the next 10 weeks.
MY SHORT STORY CHECKLIST
- Is my concept intriguing?
- Are my characters tested by the situation(s) they find themselves in?
- Is my premise simple enough to develop in 10-15 pages?
- Do I offer my readers something unexpected?
And I’ll add a fifth here: Are my characters relatable?
I’ll also add: Even if you use a laptop to write, keep a pad and pen at your bedside or some way of jotting down ideas as they come to you when you’re sleepy or when you’ve just woken up and you’re in idea mode.
Yes, idea mode.
So how do I get into idea mode?
Good question. You look a little closer.
RESPECTING THE MOMENT, OR LOOKING CLOSER
In class we talked about a writer being almost like a lightning rod for details that stand out. They could be ordinary details—like a man you notice sitting in traffic in the left lane behind the wheel of a waxed and shining BMW 7 Series. Bald, late 40’s, pale blue Timinis button-down shirt open at the collar, expensive watch.
But when you’re looking through the storyteller's lens, you’re looking a little closer, trying to understand what might be going on under the surface that would make a good story.
THE STORYTELLER'S LENS
Like maybe you notice he’s gripping the steering wheel a little too hard, gritting his teeth. The longer you stare, the more intensely you’re waiting for something to happen.
Nothing does. (Unless you're reading Nothing Happened and Then It Did by Jake Silverstein, which I recommend.)
Except you notice in the backseat of this man’s very expensive vehicle are about twenty boxes of donuts. Empty? Full? You have no clue, but now you notice something else.
There’s a bat on the floor of his car. Thick, old-fashioned wood. You think you might have seen something on that bat, a stain of some kind, but you can’t tell. You’re too far away.
Traffic picks up and you move along with it, moving closer to the BMW and that bat. You’re looking now, craning your head into the backseat of that BMW, when something else unexpected happens.
You bump it with your side mirror.
And now the man looks over.
The way you choose to end that scene is the beginning of your story. As we saw in class, each of us will cap the scene off differently. The key, though, is to create a point of interest that draws readers in. A question unanswered, a peculiarity worth investigating, an irony or twist that suggests that what we see and what the truth is are two different animals.
Which brings me to one of my favorite writers, pulp and cult legend Jim Thompson. I won't be throwing out too many author quotes in the next 10 weeks, but here's one that bears a closer look:
Thompson also said: “Life is a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle.” Which I also happen to believe approaches genius.
THE SECOND PARAGRAPH AND BEYOND
Even if life isn't a bucket of shit, it might feel like that to you when you get to the point in your story where your story has to...well, tell a story.
There are many different, clever ways to develop a story—from planning the whole thing out down to the last line (in class we talked briefly about author John Irving's technique of beginning his novels with endings) to a random sentence popping into your head and becoming the jumping off point for a whole story.
Yes, this actually happens. It's not just pretentious, poetic nonsense.
And, again, here's proof:
Once, while I was giving an English exam at European University Cyprus, this line suddenly appeared in my head: "This guy I knew, he thought he could get his shit high sticking toluene up his ass."
Don't ask why—oh, please, don't ask why—but I liked it so much I wrote it down and then went home and wrote a story based on it, a story with characters, a plot, and a beginning and end.
That story actually jump-started my writing career when the fiction editor at the Chattahoochee wrote me to tell me that it blew him away, but that, alas, he couldn't publish it because...well, it was about a guy sticking magic markers up his butt.
Which is another story we'll talk about later.
Sniffing markers destroys your brain—and your chances of getting published—but always listen to the voice in your head.
If you do get stuck when trying to give your story focus, here's one thing to consider: people never get tired of reading about characters who find themselves knee-deep in Jim Thompson's bucket.
Give your character a problem.
One approach to setting a story in motion used by another of my favorite writers, Larry Brown, is what I'll call the "double trouble formula."
THE DOUBLE TROUBLE FORMULA
Everyone's attracted to trouble. Brown once said the way he created his stories was to take a guy with a problem and in the first page give him another problem.
Adding one problem to another problem.
Which is what we'll be looking at next week.
In the meantime, I think you'll enjoy this story by Larry Brown called Samaritans. Most of the story elements we looked at above, you'll find here.
Download Larry Brown's short story Samaritans by clicking on the icon below. Read an article on how Brown, a career fireman, became a writer in his late 30's here.
Like what you saw? Register for the next Story Craft course at Write CY.
This text is the property of Max Sheridan and he will find you and shout at you if you print it elsewhere, (unless you ask him nicely first.) Photos are public domain unless otherwise indicated.