A Great and Interesting Story

“A story is the shaping of experience that let’s us know there is movement in time from an initial starting point, through a development, to a place where it stops. Every story is a pilgrimage, just as every human life is a pilgrimage – coming from somewhere, moving somewhere, ending somewhere. A good story, properly shaped, will be ordered; it will be shaped along those lines, which is not an easy thing. Story is to literature what melody is to music and what line is to painting. It is that which defines the work of art, and it is the reason why plot is the most essential thing in literature. It is like carpentry. You’ve got to take the materials and assemble them piece by piece until your project is completed. On account of its complexity, it takes thought, discipline, art, shaping, craft, and wordsmithing to write a good story. We respond to a good story, which means it will be well told, make sense, and of course, approach a truth.” ~ Dr. David Allen White, Professor Emeritus Literature, USNA

Story is the subject of Lisa Cron’s excellent book, WIRED FOR STORY. I’m just going to keep reminding you, so you might as well go buy it.

In all phases of writing, from conception to marketing, thoroughness and attention to detail will set you apart. It’s important to have a good copy editor as well as an objective person for global notes (theme, does your plot make sense, overlooked details, consistency, etc). If you can’t afford it, trade favors with other writers. Making the material the best it can be shows respect for yourself as a writer and for your audience. But the most crucial part is story and for that, it’s important to know which details to include (hint: relevant) and when to present them.

In the past, I tended to underwrite (hey, I know what I mean and you should too!) and while minimalism can be style choice, what I was doing wasn’t minimalist – it was not being thorough. You must round out and complete your communication to your readers for them to fully invest in the story and your characters.

The best writing does this without guiding your hand to connect all of the dots. In a chilling scene in John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN, two members of a three person family die a fiery death. The scene describes the aftermath of the fire, the bones and teeth in the ashes and the absence of keys in the locks on the inside. The description of the aftermath frees us to imagine the horror of discovering being unable to open the doors while trapped in an inferno. Most current books and movies walk us through everything without giving the audience any credit for imagination. Artistry is not paint-by-numbers.


The other night, I read a ten minute version of my life at a reunion meeting for a retreat I did in February. As I reflected on growing up, I realized I have a deep sense of gratitude of all those writers who allowed me to escape into the worlds they created. There are many reasons for stories, but escape is not necessarily a bad one.

My childhood friends describe the house I grew up in as a sub-zero refrigerator. Thank you Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Victor Hugo, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, John Steinbeck, and all the rest for taking me away when I needed to be transported. Even Joseph Conrad. I did not like Heart of Darkness (the horror, the horror!), but it has influenced so many other works that I’m glad I read it.

Until I thought about my old author friends in this way, I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of my writing providing refuge for someone else going through a hard time. I don’t know if it changes anything, but my next step is to write out my own story in more detail as Jen Grisanti recommends in her book, Story Line.

the habit of writing

Ron Charles, Washington Post Fiction Editor, tweeted this article on the habit of writing this morning. I was talking with my accountability partner yesterday about writing, realizing that when he asked me about Steinbeck’s letters, JS influenced me greatly from the beginning. I took to heart Steinbeck’s advice to work a lot of different jobs in order to get a feel for people’s lives. Temp work is perfect for this. I worked a day on an assembly line, in photo studios, San Diego’s tech companies, the big entertainment conglomerates in Hollywood, etc. I have seen a VP not understand her team wanting to go home after 10 hours at the office. Her reply: why would I want to go home and pretend to like Candyland and pretend to lose to a 3 year old? The worst part of that scenario for her was the losing (shudder).

The other point we discussed is to outline or not to outline. I don’t. It would take all the fun out of it. For me, it’s the discovery. I’d rather go back and deal with structural issues than give up the joy of not knowing what’s going to happen next. As you enter that stream of mini-decisions that make up the flow of writing, well, that’s the high right there. Yesterday, that process also allowed a scene to connect back with something earlier and solve a problem. Wasn’t anything I did consciously, but there’s nothing like it when it does happen.

Writing, exercise, sports: Just do it.