As many people in the movie industry will tell you, “Story is King.” That’s nice. Thing is, telling a good story is no cakewalk, and those movie people prove that ALL THE TIME (CoughAvatarcough). True, some people seem particularly gifted for breaking down a sequence of events and describing them in an engaging way, and it appears so simple and effortless. But understanding specifically what they do and how it works can get extremely complex. To show this, ask a bunch of writers about their writing process, and I bet you every answer will be different and–more often than not–fluffy, incoherent, and useless. They will say things like, “Write what is in your heart,” or “Write every day and don’t care about how bad the product is.” Thanks a lot. Once I attended a conference where the emcee asked a musician how he wrote his lyrics and this was his response: “You know how when you wash dishes and the bubbles rise up from the sink and you know that if you look directly at the bubble it will pop so you just try to glance at it through the sides of your eyes? That’s where my lyrics come from.” This was, obviously, a ridiculous thing to say, but the musician is not alone in his feelings. I have met many artists who stand by the elusive, organic, and serendipitous nature of their creativity. They talk about it almost as something happening to them, rather than a process they control. To be sure, I experience this unexplainable inspiration myself regularly, but I also know that structure, format, and technique are critical concepts to hone. I also know that good stories have traits in common, and I want to find out what they are.
To this end, I’ve been researching Story for several years now, pursuing questions like, ‘What is story?’ and ‘What is the difference between a story and an anecdote?’ and ‘What are the elements of a GOOD story?’ among many others. I’ve read several books including Story, by Robert McKee (A highly technical breakdown of storytelling craft through the lens of screenplays) and Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens, by Bobette Buster (A story consultant’s top ten techniques of storytelling). I attended a filmmakers’ workshop that promoted an 8 step process for telling real stories, usually in a documentary. This fall, I participated in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) in creative fiction. Most recently, I attended a writers’ workshop on Magical Realism. Most importantly, I have also started to write my own stories. I have learned a lot. I still have a lot to learn.
Why should you care? Let’s put it this way: Imagine you have something you want to say, something to get off your chest. You want it to have impact, to mean something to people hearing it. You have three choices:
- Describe your emotions
- Tell a story
As to the first, let’s face it: people have only so much patience for others’ feelings. As for arguing, this only works when you have an audience willing to argue with you, which seems to happen less and less in our social media-crazed, soundbite-obsessed world. Interestingly, stories are the best way to show (instead of tell) emotion, and the best arguments are the ones that incorporate stories. We can conclude, therefore, this mantra: Master Stories, Master the World.
Learning how to tell good stories is a worthy quest. Please join with me as I chase this wily vixen of a subject, Story. This is Part I. Stay tuned for more in the upcoming weeks.