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 primacy of story

Gorgeous sentences, breath-taking images, metaphors that lead to a flash of insight… there are all great things. But are they the most important? Go read the series Lisa Cron is running at her site, Wired for Story, “Everything You Learned About Writing is Wrong.” At first, it bothered me. I love great writing, but she has a point: we read and tell each other STORIES. It is first and foremost about the story and we writers can forget that as we learn the craft of writing (and it is important to master the craft of writing – I still laugh at the image of a high school English teacher I know hurling The DaVinci Code across her living room after a few paragraphs, cursing the level of writing). My first pleasure in reading was getting swept away into another world. I was not crazy about the world I was in, so escape was blessed relief. Your readers want to get swept away into the world you’ve created. Tell them a great story. Then go back and rewrite it until your prose is sterling.

It’s not an either-or proposition – the great books are great stories well-written – but start with your story. Sometimes it will come to you in a piece and sometimes you will discover it along the way, but pay attention to Mark Twain, “I like a good story well told.” He went on to add, “That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

all in all you’ve hit the wall

What are some of the reasons for stopping? In his book (which I recommend) on writing, IMMEDIATE FICTION, Jerry Cleaver makes the case for conflict and continually raising the stakes: “Happy lives make lousy novels…. If the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.” What if, on the other hand, it’s about you and not the page?

There are some problems that can cause you to hit the wall, creatively speaking. Things like myopia when it comes to the work, being totally rule-bound (though please know the rules before you begin breaking them), forgetting to play, concentrating too hard on the outcome you want, fear, difficulty taking risks, lack of perspective, not listening to other opinions, worrying too much what others will think, and writing for the entire world. Newsflash, you can’t please everyone. Open up your process and let it breath. Have a good time. Get to your point. Have a reader in mind and write to them. Go out and play once in awhile.

The solutions for you as a writer are remembering your playfulness, striking that balance between what you want to say and getting helpful input from others, clarity, resourcefulness, research, persistence, flexibility and a willingness to go with your strengths while developing your weaknesses. If story isn’t your strong suit, do some writing exercises that focus only on the story. Honing your pitch would be one of them. The National Storytellers Network has lots of resources. There are more here. Visit Toastmasters. Yes, Toastmasters – tell a story to a room full of people. Write a play. Take an acting class. Get out of your comfort zone and improve your writing.

Can you play through pain? Are you stuck because it’s just too difficult? Marathoners (and for the record, that in no way describes me – blew out my knee playing soccer when I was a teen) talk about hitting the wall around mile 22 (26.2 miles in a marathon). There are plenty of sites and books to tell you how to prepare for the wall, but if you’re going to compete physically at a certain level – if you are serious about it – you learn to play (or run) through pain. In a sense, the same is true for writing. You have to learn to write no matter how you’re feeling (within reason – time off for major life events). In other words, it does not matter if the subject matter is uncomfortable psychologically or if you think the first three chapters stink or (whine, whine) you just don’t feeell like writing today, keep at it. When I talk to other novelists about it, our mile 22 is usually in act 2 (what is it with the number 2?) The fun and agony of it is that no one can save you, the writer, in Act 2. You have to find your own way out. Steven Pressfield and the always-opinionated David Mamet have been there and written about it. More on getting unstuck by Michael Bungay Stanier. Now that you are, go write!