In the recent couple of months, I have read four books. One was a biography of a famous writer. Its 500 plus pages read like a psychiatrist’s notebook. The second book had a decent story line but it was totally overwritten. The third book was on the afterlife. It read like fiction even though the author swore she had experience all the things she reported. The fourth was a piece of fluff that was fun for a bit but got tedious and ran out of steam by the time the ending finally came around.
I’m not trying to say that all books are bad unless they are written by me. Far from it. I have in the last year read some very good books. I just take the books mentioned in the preceding paragraph to disclose my most recent readings.
Also I went to see a movie recently and they showed seven previews of coming attractions before the featured film. I couldn’t believe it. All seven melded together as though they were continuations of one another. Boom, bang, pow, fights, car chases, the supernatural and superheroes. None made me want to see them and all made me wonder what happened to the art of story telling. I also kind of got the same feeling after reading those four books recently.
What is story telling? It consists of a tantalizing idea with compelling characters who present to the reader (or listener) a set of valid and interesting motives, goals and conflicts. This is the crux of the work cut out for you if you intend to tell people stories—even if it’s no more than about your trip to the supermarket yesterday.
A good story teller will provide you with all sorts of facts. A non-story teller will tell you almost nothing.
Question: What did you do yesterday?
Non-story teller: Nothing much. Went to the supermarket.
Story teller: Went to the supermarket. I was, as is my custom, reading the sales sheet when a man walked up to me and said, “Are you playing the Monopoly prize game? I sniffed something interesting and I replied with a thankful-looking smile, “”Yes, I am.” “Well, I’m not so you can have the pieces they gave me.” I thanked him as he walked away. I checked out the little bits of paper and was happy to find that I had won a free can of ravioli.
See, there you have it. With some people, you have to ask a dozen questions to get any information out of them. In fact, you have to pull it out of them. On the other hand, with story tellers you never have to. They’ll always come up with interesting characters and plot points. Yet believe it or not, some non-story tellers want to become writers. What are their chances at becoming interesting writers or conversationalists? Very little if you ask me. They simply must give you much more than yes, no or at best one or two word answers.
Here are some tips to help you in your writing and story telling.
- The most important thing is to always know your ending. It must be precise and concise. So many people start writing and think they will come up with the ending later on. Writer’s block comes about when you don’t know where you’re going. Always know where you’re headed in your story line. Without doing so, you’re trying to explore new territory without a compass.
- Who is your audience? This is extremely important. Write to them—not yourself. You may think something is terrifically interesting or funny but what about your readers and listeners? Tell fairy tales to your grandchildren but not to your friends at your favorite pub. Know who your public is before you write the first line or open your mouth. Who is your audience?
- Don’t be preachy. Leave that for the minister at church. Lecturing people is hardly what one could call effective story telling—unless you attach a lot of human interest yarns.
- Conflict is plot and that is the heart and soul of your writing or talking. Clashes occur when your hero is thwarted in his or her effort to accomplish a certain something, or someone throws tacks in his or her path. Generally struggles arise when people’s value systems are different from that of your hero’s. It could be as simple as your lead doesn’t smoke and someone else around him is a big smoker. How does he solve this? Good story. What makes for decent conflict and plot is to give your characters decided opinions on things. Passive characters are never interesting. We can’t root for someone if we don’t know precisely what they stand for.
- If you have not done a good job of numbers one through four, you probably will abandon ship on your project. Maybe you will persevere and think all will work out when you edit your work. You can try that but if it takes tons of time and you’re not getting anywhere, give up on this project. Learn from it and start another. I guarantee your next one will be better.
- Remember, it’s not story telling until it gets out of your head. How many people talk about writing a book but it never gets written? Talking about it is zero in the story-telling department.
- One thing you must properly deal with in your story telling and that is coincidences—accidental occurrences. Use these to your heart’s content as a way of causing conflict in a person’s life. (How did I know my ex-wife would be at the same meeting? I knew the minute I started my speech she would begin heckling me.) Any happenstance that causes problems for your hero can only help your plot gallop along. However, and be very careful, a coincidence to get your hero out of conflict is not good and should be used only on the rarest occasion. (I was about to shoot myself over my dire financial situation and that is when the doorbell rang. It was the people from Publishers Clearing House presenting me with a check for fourteen million dollars. I, of course, did not pull the trigger. )
So, there you have what can be called the rules for good story telling. I’ll close this out with some advice by the noted author Steven King.
“There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”
― Stephen King