Getting Ready for Story

Last year we looked at the basic units of storytelling: the storyteller, the story and the audience (see posts from August 2018). Our focus then was on audience and its participation in good storytelling experiences.

Now we will turn our focus on the basic elements of the Story part of the equation. With all the dozens of things you can think to worry about in delivering a good story, only a few elements are critical to story structure, that is, character, setting, conflict, crisis and resolution.

This seems too simple, you might say. It is simple enough, but remove one element, and the story is incomplete. Yet the proper development of these five elements can deliver a powerful story in a few paragraphs. In fact, journalists write such impactful stories every day. The secret, of course, is to put the audience in the story–as early as you can, as often as you can, and put the audience in charge of co-creating the development of the story as she experiences it–on the stage, in the movie, in a novel or a magazine article.

So the first task for breaking out your new story is also simple: Gather the ingredients for storytelling. You need a character and you need a setting. The conflicts are embodied in the character, his desires, his goals, and his situation. The conflicts are obstacles that stand between the character and her goals. The conflicts increasingly rise to the point of crisis, which must be alleviated by the resolution. Where you have conflicts rising to crisis and resolution, you’ve made a plot.

Simple? To prepare for our two-day guided journey into the maze of story, bring along a character and a setting and we will conjure up the rest in workshop. If you have a predetermined story you want to work with (such as your Nanowrimo offering) we can give that a spin.




Audience Imperative in Storytelling

Back in the day. Looking at the early days of storytelling, we see the prehistoric clan gathering around the campfire as darkness approaches. The people are talking excitedly about the hunters who will soon return and also anticipate stories of their adventures, of the hunt and kill.

When the hunters arrive, they are greeted by the clan. One hunter, the storyteller, takes his place in front of the fire, facing the assembled clan members who are twittering like birds as the hunters move through the group. The teller knows that the expected tales of the hunt, the bravado of the hunting party, of the stalk and the kill, will not be shared today. Today is the story of two brave hunters who sacrificed themselves so the clan could prosper. Today is the day of mourning, of cleansing ritual and sacrifice to the gods. Tales of the stalking, the killing and the dressing of meat are for tomorrow.

The image of an early storytelling scene allows us to look at the three pillars of storytelling in action. The story pillar is represented by all the details of the hunt. The clan is the audience, of course. The teller is the hunter who tells the tale, who conveys the emotional context of the story to the audience both in terms of the details, but also in terms of the audience expectations.

Each pillar of the storytelling framework has a direct relationship with each of the others. When the pillars are in balance with each other the story sails smoothly from intention to delivery. Without a teller, the story is a loose collection of details suggesting little direction or purpose. The teller is the story creator as well, in the sense that he organizes the details into an order that carries both human connection (emotion) and meaning. To do this, the teller must identify and understand the audience.

What Audience Does for Storytelling. By setting expectations clearly, Audience defines the nature of the story, the style of the telling and the probability of success of the storytelling effort. The action of Audience is to anticipate, expect, reflect, and ultimately accept or reject the story and therefore, the telling. Simple? The picture from the top is simple, but let’s delve a little deeper into the details.

Story is the accumulation of details that form the story idea: character, setting, theme, conflict, plot, and a multitude of other things that occupy the story pillar. The basic elements of story are presented and applied in my August writing class, Telling Your Story. Each of these elements is then subject to Audience Action as described above. Teller is likewise broken down into details such as create story from details, build emotional connection, and convey ideas and themes. The elements of teller include voice, tone, image building (metaphors, similes and symbols), rhythm, sound, and other literary devices. And teller is likewise assessed across the range of audience actions. It’s a very huge matrix if you choose to build one. But most writers don’t or wouldn’t.

Such an assessment is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive. It is not useful in creating art, which is how Story evolves. The pieces of the matrix comprise a toolbox in the brain under the “storytelling” tab. The toolbox is filled over a lifetime of creating story, assessing outcome, sharing views with peers, and coming at new challenges with the accumulated knowledge.

How Audience Affects Your Developing Work. You have read books on how to write—a novel, an essay, a screenplay, and so forth. You have been advised to know your audience. This might not be a useful first step if this is your first foray into story. There is a delicate dance that occurs between the story you, as teller, want to live in during the telling, and the story the audience might enjoy. You may want to explore story for a while before you decide on what audience you will direct it to. Then be prepared to rewrite what your work aimed in the end at the right audience. The audience for Rob Roy may not be happy with The Princess Bride as substitute.

The Audience pillar must be assessed after the first draft is done. This allows you to calibrate your perceived intention against your actual writing. If you still can’t identify your audience at this point (and believe me, I couldn’t!), STOP! Do some creative thinking and exercise work on your audience, teller and story pillars. Think of the revisions this will save you.

Audience Awareness Shapes the Telling. At all stages of the developing work, understanding Audience sharpens the work making it more acceptable to targeted markets. Participating as the fourth wall, the audience holds suspense or humor until the mood is altered by the teller. Likewise, audience plays with the teller to allow the roll out of complex plot points, or to suspend conflict afloat till the 3rd act crisis. Audience also carries the ideas of story into images of the mind, which weave the nuances of action and figurative language into an overall theme.

Your turn: It was impossible to present all the possibilities that Audience brings to the evolving story in one short blog. From your own knowledge and experience with storytelling, what additional aids do you see to bolster the Audience pillar?

In the Beginning There Should Be Audience

Writing just for me. My earliest audience for storytelling was my younger brother and sister who would sit and play with toys while I half-read and half told stories from picture books. They served as the audience for the first book I produced, a story about a clock with a fancy cover of pink fabric from my mother’s sewing closet. The cover was more exciting for me than the story.

My later writings were directed at the ubiquitous phantoms directing school work. In sixth grade, however, I wrote a story about a lion for Miss Shafsky, the student teacher who had encouraged me. After that I wrote for myself in various little notebooks and a Betsy Clark diary filled out in pencil; when one year was done, I erased all the entries to begin a new year.

Side tripping: In summer school of my 13th year, between 9th and 10th grades, I took a creative writing from Mr. Siringer, a man who would change forever the way my scattershot brain was wired. The unexamined life was not worth living. The concept obsessed me all summer as I wrote about the silly things 13-year-olds do: friends, school, boys, my French horn, at first. Later I would approach the subjects that were more intimate to me, riskier to write down on a page that my mother would read: family relationships and my feelings about life. Mr. Siringer was an active reader, responding to phrases, experiences, or ideas with authentic interest. He wrote in red pen on lines above my penciled writings. After that summer, my audience shrunk to an audience of one. Me.

Audience awareness. So, I continued writing a journal for the next sixty years for an audience of one. In my teens and twenties, the days of letter writing, my audience grew to include all my friends who moved on to New York and Los Angeles with new family members sprinkled here and there. A Christmas newsletter came next, the audience grew. When I started writing papers and reports on computing systems and business practices, my audience was narrowly focused to one company, one executive at a time. Then there were the group projects: Forty highly opinionated people in a room to help critique and “write” and the writerly me. Talk about tough critique sessions!

Who’s Your audience?
How many audiences have you written to?
What do plan to give your audience in the narrative you wrote, or the talk you gave?
What did you really deliver?
What do you think the audience actually got from you?

As for me, I had planned to give you a breakdown of what awareness of audience gives your writing from the start. What I have written is a prompt to get you thinking about audience as an extension of your writing effort.

What kind of an audience is an audience of one? A critic? A creative? A procrastinator?


Next: It’s all about Audience

The Key to Story

Letting the story come to you. Take a few moments to think about a story you are considering. What presents itself to you, at first? Is it a word, an idea, an image? Just for fun, write a sentence that sums up your first dip. When you are done, we’ll move on.

Story dynamics. Whether fictional or tangible, story is a narrative told by a storyteller to a receptive audience. These three elements work together to form a dynamic framework where each pillar calibrates the other two to reach optimal story form. The model gives us simple handles to assess, alter, and rebalance the pieces of storytelling. A successful story involves a well choreographed dance between the three pillars: a well-crafted story, an effective storyteller, and a receptive audience. In story building it’s al07272018_blog3_THREE PILLARS OF STORY.jpgl about artifice and craft.

Story, then, is a packet of narration that contains character, setting, plot and all the basic elements needed to create an effective story form. The storyteller is the creator of the story as well as its teller to the audience. The audience receives the story from the teller and is informed by the story form. I make these points clear here so that we can use them deftly as we play with story elements, rewrite, revise and sharpen the aim of the story. [This is probably the last thing you want to think about when you are embarking into the dreamscape of your story, AS IT SHOULD BE.]

Story presents itself to you in different ways, and some aren’t stories at all. Stories often present themselves to me as a nonverbal brain dump. When this happens, I capture what I can in dotted lists. When you try to capture a word or two about the images, the whole idea slips away. I simply capture key words, cartoons, or pointers as I capture the dump.

A story may arrive as a character who haunts your memory or a stranger who seems out of place. Unexplained or erroneous facts can frustrate you into a story as you seek a resolution. A curious sunset that slips into a darkened sea might serve as a landscape to explore. Story can arise from actions, people, settings, time or timeslips. The possibility of story blossoms all around you. Each step of your journey is noted in a pad. Where you write a summarized thought in a sentence, you form a bookmark in your mind.

These bookmarks will start you on a journey from your point of entry to the end of your story. We will interrogate, interview, and test to follow the story elements as they reveal new possibilities. We will push them to converge with other elements to make the story whole

It does not matter where you start your story, it will work to reveal its treasure. That is, IF the elements arise from your passion, sourced in the depths of your heart, your soul or however you think of your writing well. The images or ideas or people or settings you have jotted down must pull at you in a very personal way.

As it turns out, most of my storytelling issues lay in the realm of AUDIENCE. I had dismissed this topic until the book was done. I determined that while the book was at the printer’s there would be ample time to write up copy for the marketing phase. When I began on AUDIENCE, I realized that there was a lot more to learn about audience than the genre of my book.

Next: It’s all about AUDIENCE, and other Imperatives of Story

What is Story?…First Thoughts…

My recently published novel is dedicated to my sister.
It’s a tale of love in search of itself—heart to heart, mind to mind—a conversation we fell into nearly all the days of our life. My spiritual heart diminished when all talk between us died. When the stories grew silent, the light of my world dimmed to darkest gray.
A month before the terrors of Nine-Eleven, I had grown numb to the living world.
Words failed me, because I could feel nothing.
Gradually those words took shape and found space on the page. The novel rose from grief to continue our shared conversation of life and love and joy.

When I was a kid I loved to visit the library, a place filled with all sorts of books and stories. The library was a magic carpet ride, taking me to places beyond the Guasaco house and my Irish-Italian (therefore Catholic) family. At seven I carried picture books home to read stories to my younger siblings. I love the colors, the art, and the wonderful stories in picture books.

Not all the books were story books, but all books held the promise of story. Photo essays of the war which took my father to sea, or fashion spreads for the average housewife of 1950’s, or children’s word books presented half-told stories. Picture strings forming narratives for which my young mind had no assembly code.

I was finally weaned off of picture books when my best friend, Linda, introduced me to Nancy Drew in sixth grade. Confined to home for two months while my broken leg healed, my mom plied me with her current Book-of-The-Month-Club selections, Moby Dick and Jamaica Inn. The only pictures were on the book jackets, promising adventures on the high seas, and mystery at an old seaside inn. I don’t think Mom saw past the book jacket. Sure, the words were familiar, a little reach beyond my phonetic reading range, I had no idea what they were trying to say. Nancy Drew was the perfect antidote.

I read through all twelve of the Nancy Drew books in our school library. These were the 1930’s editions with one full-plate picture by the title page, and two more pictures in the middle, to nurture my story need. Eventually I began to feel the story in the words and images formed in my head. I was now seeking out chapter books for the story images they imprinted on my brain. By the end of the sixth grade I was ready, with encouragement of Miss Shafsky our student teacher, to write a story about a lion stepping down on the ramp of a moving van. The image came from a Lyon’s Moving ad. I supplied the story.

Before George Lucas broke through the techno-physical world with the heart-rendering, audience-grasping Star Wars, story was a difficult topic to teach. An aspiring writer was told she either had it in her or she didn’t. This simply was not true.

Nowadays you find the notion of story being taught broadly across the creative thinking spectrum from memoirs to copy writing, to creative non-fiction and screenwriting. To film-making in general. In science and technology, story helps the young students transform abstract ideas to concrete images in the mind. An image presents a possibility. And once that possibilty is planted, the mind seeks opportunities to expand the threads of neurons attached to the first image to expand the idea and grow knowledge.

After the lion story, I wrote a lot of fictional narratives and creative nonfiction pieces. When I dared into the realm of publishing, agents and editors reading my work cautioned me. Although my writing was “nice,” I had “storytelling” issues.

More about that journey in my next blog.    Meanwhile…

Consider your own experiences with writing and with story. A clear understanding of your own habits and progress will help you move toward your desired goal.

  1. Articulate your writing goals. Write them down or type them up.
  2. What has brought you to this page? What has blocked you from moving forward?

Telling Your Story – A summer workshop

The urge to create story rises up along many paths through your creative mind. A picture, a scent, a name, or a feeling might invoke the sense of story. Some people can capture the essence quickly and jot down the first draft in a few hours or days. But more often, the story dances around your desire, eluding your focus, every time you try to write it on the page. You may be new to the practice of story. You may be stuck in a sea of choices not knowing which path will take your character to a just finish.

In this two-day workshop, you will write a series of exercises to build the basic elements of story structure. Day one will explore character, setting and conflict as they provoke tension in order to create conflict and disorder. Using the discoveries of these 5-6 writings you will discover the elements of your plot and build a working plot outline. Day two will explore the plot points as they drive characters forward, from the first scene through crisis to resolution. Theme will be worked on last, offering the pillars of beginning (hook) and ending, to unify the writings into a cohesive story.

2018 Summer Workshop in Langley, WA
at Silly Dog Studios
August 17 and 18  (Friday and Saturday)

For registration information go to Jo Meador’s  web site.