Monday, August 27, 2018

On Storytelling: Tell Me a Story and Tell It Well

I was talking with a colleague about how we could partner to benefit an area cultural organization when she said, “I don't get enough stories coming in.” The context of the comment was that although people are adept at promoting themselves, their work and their organizations, they’re not always skilled at explaining why others should care about what they’re offering. This reminded me of a question my editor asked early in my press correspondence days and later when I showed him the first draft of a novel: “Why should I care?”

Hearing this question sparks varied responses among writers, but before we explore what the question means let’s start with what it says. “Why should I care?” In an always-on world where we’re constantly barraged by demands, real and manufactured, on our time and energy, this question isn’t general, as in “Why should we care?” It’s personal. “Why should I care?” The ability to answer this question within the context of story is the stuff of effective storytelling.

My editor’s comment about was meant to get under my skin, and it did. He was a curmudgeonly newspaper editor of the ilk a budding writer hopes for, the kind who can assign and edit pieces, who knows good writing, and who isn’t afraid to call out bad writing when he sees it. And, yes, there is such a thing as poor writing just as there is poor storytelling.

I vividly recall that same editor’s comment after one too many of my convoluted early pieces crossed his desk. “You may understand what you’re trying to say here, but I don’t. And if I don’t, other people probably won’t either.” If I was tempted to think he just didn’t “understand” my work, his opinion was validated shortly thereafter when my journalism instructor said the same in the same frustrated tone. She then explained that my pieces lacked organization. For example, in a personality profile, I’d have some details of the subject’s education in the lead, some strewn throughout the body paragraphs, and some at the end. When seasoned journalists scatter information throughout a piece like breadcrumbs, they do so for a reason, and they make sure to connect those details with their immediate and larger context. A novice oblivious to the need for such connections comes across as disorganized.

My problem was that I was writing the story largely as I’d conducted the interview. Once I learned the problem, however, I created a story template with one section for each element of the interview: lead, background, experience, education, future plans, personal observations, and “Anything you’d like to add?” For a long while, I kept to this order. The articles weren’t spellbinding, but they made sense. Once I became adept at using order, I began moving the sections around.

Once I grew skilled at that, I started selecting and strategically placing details, making sure to create connections between them and their context of sections, adding transitions to make the points clear to the reader without dumbing down the material. Before I sent my first story with this new-to-me approach, I warned my editor, starting with something like, “Now that two years have passed …” It took that long to go from drill to skill, the drill of retaining the same format long enough for what I had practiced to pass into skill. Finally, I could swim without holding onto the sides of the pool.

This turning point was at once thrilling and scary. I had gone from reporting to storytelling while sticking to the facts. The same general principles of drill and skill apply to fiction:
  • Write a paragraph using the who, what, where, when, why, and how of journalism to explain your story to you.
  • Pay special attention to the question “why” and to how you answer it because your response will become the foundation of the rest of your piece. You might answer the question in these ways: Why is this story important to me? Why would it be important to others?
  • Consider the story within the story. Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg approach to writing was minimalist in wording and presentation but with a hundred feet of meaning beneath. Even if you don’t use what’s under your story, and it’s usually best not to, make sure you understand what the real story is.
  • When you tell your story, tell it with a specific audience in mind. This may be a friend, a mentor, a family member, a lover, a pet, or even yourself. It’s less important who the audience is and more important that your words aren’t an end in themselves. If they are, your audience will sense that they’re not important to anyone besides you and stop reading soon after they begin.
  • Consider answering these questions: Why do I want to write this story? How did it begin in my mind, and what keeps it going? The answers can help you determine the story’s scope and length, which is especially handy when you’re deciding whether your piece is flash, short or novel.
Telling a story well means telling it with the kind of generosity of heart and spirit that doesn’t pander to the audience on the one hand or talk largely to itself on the other.

What story are you working on now? Why are you writing it? Is there another story you’re not writing, perhaps one you fear writing but would be worth exploring using the above questions?

Prompt: Write a logline of 25 words or fewer. A logline is an ultra-short description of your story that will force you to make sure you know what the piece is about, help you decide whether the story worth telling, and pitch it when the time comes. Here’s an example from (see if you can tell which film it describes): “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.”

The late Ursula Le Guin, a master storyteller and teacher, said, “Once we’re keenly and clearly aware of these elements of out craft, we can use and practice them until—the point of all the practice—we don’t have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills.” For more, see Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

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