The Art of Storytelling

“If a story is in you, it has got to come out.” ~ William Faulkner

Once upon a time there was a riveting story waiting to be told; a tale so compelling that it would change multitudinous lives forever. That story could be your story. There is a story in all of us. It’s the telling of it that makes the difference.

Will it be a page turner, will it suck them in to your world and spit them out at the end thinking about it for weeks, or maybe even years to come?

I love it when authors write books that do that to me. More often than not, it’s the writers with extensive life experience that can encapsulate universal emotions on the pages of their books.

CS Lewis writing-quote

The title of this blog post is suggestive of a broad and in-depth subject, and I feel that perhaps I have bitten off more than I can chew. It will be tough to do justice to in around a thousand words, so forgive me if I exceed my usual post length. Here go the basics!

Just like painting, drawing and composing music, writing is an art form. Crafting a compelling story takes time and skill. When writers have ideas, they work to express and articulate them in a way which will draw readers into their imagination using their own unique voice. They have to craft their story into something that will take their readers on a journey, and nothing less than transformation will do…

Why is it certain stories are considered classics, being read and retold through the ages?

There’s a reason Shakespeare has endured for 392 years since the first folios of his plays were published. They have captured our collective imagination in some measure because their themes hold as true today as they did in the Tudor period. Love, hate, jealousy, passion, ambition, religion and power struggles are every bit as evident in the world we now live in. Just watch the news.

The human family may have broadly evolved a bit since then – or maybe not – but there’s nothing interesting about a perfect family. Give us a contentious, dysfunctional family and you have the basis for a story. A querulous quarrel kicks off a family feud and hey presto, a story is underway…

writing quotes

What makes a good story?

Conflict is one of the key ingredients. So is a quest of some kind, such as defeating the nefarious wizard that murdered your parents when you were a baby, or indeed any kind of pathos and unfulfilled desire. Desire and resistance push and pull at us all, shaping our experience of life, unless we are enlightened enough to practise the Buddhist ethos of detachment. But detachment doesn’t work in fiction. Engagement does.

The full answer to this question is probably going to be different for each of us, depending on our personal preferences, but here is a list of what works for me:

  • Robert Harris quoteAn interesting or unusual opening with a hook to draw me in early on, but nothing too gimmicky. Novelty stimulates the brain.
  • A likeable, relatable protagonist to care about, facing a disaster or an unavoidable calling and orientation into his/her environment to place me at the heart of the action. Their unmet desire (either for their situation to return to normal, or for their situation to be different from the one they find themselves in is the platform for the choices they will make and the changes they will go through.
  • A mixture of three main types of struggle and conflict: internal, external and interpersonal.
  • Interesting characters that behave in accordance with their history and their unique personality traits, not acting in an incongruous manner just for the sake of a pre-determined plot.
  • A plot that is believable and makes sense (genre withstanding), where the scenes follow on logically and give me, as a reader what I want: both the familiar and the unexpected.
  • Enough tension and escalation to keep me interested in what happens next. That is not necessarily more action, but ramping up the tension in the form of not getting what they want and raising the stakes.
  • Well thought out descriptions to enhance the sense of place, not too much that will take me away from the story, but enough for me to visualise the scene and or the characters.
  • Pacing that naturally flows with the tension and action of the story, giving passages of intense action and also moments of perceived relief, building up to the climax of the story.
  • ‘Show don’t tell’ epitomised by Anton Chekhov’s quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • A theme that makes me question what I think I know; a quandary or moral dilemma that engages me and puts me in the characters’ shoes. I want to learn something about another world or about myself.
  • Clear language and a consistent voice that lacks verbosity but contains enough words to convey the story in a way that flows naturally. Words that are beautiful when read aloud, that perfectly fit the genre and story. It annoys me if a writer is using a daedalean word or phrase as if they are attempting to show how clever they are. I’m not averse to looking in the dictionary – in fact I spend much of my time there and chez Thesaurus – but misused vocabulary is amaroidal in the extreme!

Once you come up with the premise there is a certain amount of planning to do, however; I believe a writer’s imagination and creativity can be stifled by too much detailed outlining and deciding how it will end before you begin writing. Planning to the nth degree will kill off whole areas of undiscovered story because you are blinkered by following a set path.

Truman Capote writing-quote

I like to meander a bit. A trail that branches off from the main walkway can lead you to all sorts of terrain and unexpected views, ones that you wouldn’t have set eyes on had you not strayed a little. Maybe it’s because I’m quite a spontaneous person. New characters suddenly come to life, different settings appear, sub plots and possible outcomes fill your mind. The story emerges rather than suffocates.

Storytelling should be an organic activity. Sometimes ideas need time to incubate. You flesh them out, go back to them, change them and improve them. Characters take time to get to know; how they speak, how they react, what they want, what they desire and fear.

Robert Frost quote_writingThe best stories aren’t planned ­- they evolve. Writers could be likened to sculptors, carving their masterpieces out of rock, only we are carving out of words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. And as the body of the work starts to take shape we see new curves and angles that we didn’t notice when we started with a solid block of stone. Grafting our material in this way will hopefully avoid writer’s block and allow us to transfer our creations from the depths of our grey matter into the hearts and minds of our readers.

By allowing free reign (within reason), to your creative process, you can lull your readers into a fictive dream that they won’t want to wake up from. You’ll all be on that winding, dangerous path together, maybe scared, excited or angry about what’s around the corner, but unable to stop yourselves from following it to its ultimate destination, instead of plodding along the yellow brick road to boredomville.

“Writing effective fiction requires being aware of the interplay of the unfolding narrative and your evolving ideas as you watch and respond to how everything merges and reforms itself into the final product. It’s a dance, and we’re just here to help introduce two partners – character and unmet desire – and then listen to the music and watch them take it from there within the constraints of our art form.” ~ Steven James (Story Trumps Structure).

The only formula you really need to know is: there are no formulas. Just considerations, such as: genre, setting, point of view, tension, believability, escalation, reader empathy, character intention, causality, twists & turns, and of course reader expectations.

Questions to ask

Steven James (author of the successful Patrick Bower thriller series) has come to the conclusion that he writes best when he asks himself these questions:

  1. What would this character naturally do in this situation? This is where the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” applies. Fiction has to be believable.
  2. How can I make things worse? This is where the increasing escalation and tension keep the story moving forward.
  3. How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable? Readers want a great ending that both surprises them and gives them what they want at the same time.

By continually asking these questions you can avoid taking a detour down a dead end, whilst keeping all the key elements of your story on the right track.

“You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.” ~ Stephen King (On Writing).

A satisfying climax

In words, as in love, the climax is the pinnacle of the exercise! But getting there can be a lot of fun. Well, maybe not for your protagonist. Generally, they are going through hell. As a writer you want your readers to become so engrossed in your story that they will make it to the grand finale. They will be rooting for your protagonist, and when they arrive at the denouement, you don’t want the last act to leave them cold. You want to bid farewell to your story by giving them the ending they want, but not necessarily expected.

There’s plenty of advice out there. Stephen King in his book, On Writing states, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

A brilliant presentation and discussion about writing, linguistics and prose with Professor Steven Pinker and novelist Ian McEwan, from a recent gathering at the Royal Geographical Society:

I agree with Ian, please don’t take away the pause comma! Even Jane Austen isn’t free from criticism.

Useful Resources:

  • How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
  • From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake
  • The Naked Author by Alison Baverstock
  • Getting Published by Harry Bingham
  • The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook
  • Blogs: Nathan Bransford, Joanna Penn, Catherine Ryan Howard

To become an artist takes faith in your own intuitive abilities. Trust your instincts and support them with intelligent review throughout the project. Let your voice be heard. I’d like to read your story someday…

 “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

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