by Kelsey Ruger at TheMoleskin
WRITEWORLD NOTE: This article was originally written for using narrative to tell business stories. We think it’s pretty broadly useful, though, so when you see the word business in the titles, just know that the methods and advice found in the article are helpful for everyone. Without further ado…
When you hear the names George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg, what comes to mind? Most people would answer ‘movie director’, but with movies like Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, The Color Purple and E.T under their belts these directors are also master storytellers. How did they become so good at telling stories? While both Spielberg and Lucas are fans of Joseph Campbell and comparative mythology you don’t have to become an expert in mythology before telling your story.
The biggest lesson we can take from these two directors is that stories shouldn’t be just a string of events mashed together. The result of properly using basic elements like plot, character, throughlines, setting and mythic structure is a story that the audience can connect with on a deep subconscious level.
Good stories don’t just happen. An audience really connects with your story when the plot, characters and other elements fade together to create a unified narrative. This idea of “unification” was first discuss in Aristotle’s Poetics. In it, Aristotle says that a good story is unified and focuses on an extended action with a beginning, middle and end.
Over the centuries Aristotle’s basic definition of story has evolved and now, some stories are character driven (the character moves the story forward because of their choices) while others are plot driven (the action moves the story forward and the characters react), however all good stories still have a hero (“your main character”) and some type of mission(“journey” or “challenge”) that the hero must complete. Why? Because it still works and audiences are still drawn to story structures they can connect with.
How many times have you watched a movie only to say to yourself, “What was the point of that?” That shouldn’t happen. Great stories don’t stall, sputter or leave the audience wondering what happened. The sequence of events should make sense and assist with the development and movement of the story. You keep stories moving with what Victoria Lynn Schmidt calls a dramatic through line. A through line helps answers “what’s the point?”. There are 5 basic throughlines that you can use.
Notice that I said that the through line helps answer the question. Your story still needs structure to make the journey toward answering that question seamless.
The structure you choose helps ties the pieces of your story together seamlessly. Whether you realize it or not, stories that succeed do so because they evolve according the audiences expectation of unity (beginning, middle and end). There are lots of story structures that you could use, but I recommend the ones that are commonly understood archetypes across all cultures and can be applied easily in a business setting (e.g. they present universally understood ideas).
You always want your audience to be emotionally engaged in any story you present. The best way to make sure that happens is by creating well rounded characters. The audience needs to be able to identify with the characters because it is through them that the audience relates to the story. Look at the following example:
When I graduated from college I thought I was on top of the world. I had been in the top 10% of my high school class, done well in college, and was one of only a few college students that had been hired by the consulting firm I was working for. I hadn’t experienced a lot of work failure at that point in my life, so I felt pretty good about how I was progressing.
In this segment from the story I used in the introduction, I was the character. My goal was to give enough detail about who I was at the time to allow the audience to identify with the ‘character’ in the story. Don’t spare the detail here. Use as much detail as needed to draw your audience in.
A story must have a location or setting to orient the audience. It sets the place, time and circumstances of the story, and helps the audience gain the context needed to understand where you are coming from. As with creating your characters, don’t spare the detail when defining the location.
Again, using stories takes practice. At the end of the day if you want them to work you have to think about what people really care about. Instead of asking “what do I want to present?” ask yourself “what can I do to help them relate to the message I have?” In every case focusing on our need for connection will be more successful.
Mental flexibility and changing relations in space
Change your point of view; take a Meta position. Meta is referring to seeing things from a bigger point of view, or one step removed like a fly on the wall, or the 10,000 foot view. Examining a question from a larger point of view brings more internal resources to bear and that brings more and better solutions.
Step outside yourself. See yourself writing; while you are in the act of writing. Float up above yourself and watch yourself writing — this will not only bring more internal resources available, it will create some separation for you from all the feelings that may be a factor in what’s blocking you. Many writers have described how they just cannot get around the “feeling” of being blocked. Or they feel stopped by feelings of inadequacy or their writing not being good enough. Getting a step or two of separation is an effective way to overcome writers blocks.
I cannot speak for your vulnerabilities, but I’ve been ripped off, lied to, slandered, gossiped about, slapped, falsely accused, and had my truths not believed. I’ve had my heart broken, had my pride stomped on, witnessed unforgivable acts, and heard words that hurt so much I wished they would not replay in my head, but they did. In all these moments — some tear-soaked, some life-defining, but all character-building moments — I have felt vulnerable.
And I believe these feelings of vulnerability — when a person feels scared and alone and overwhelmed and pissed off, when the sting of unfairness bites deep — while miserable to live through, are the basis for writing compelling fiction."
1. Adjectives will always help your work stay more creative. This is something that nearly every sixth-grader gets told, way back when everybody is learning the basics of sentence structure. Adjectives = description, and description = creativity; therefore, adjectives = creativity. The only problem is, description really doesn’t create on its own. Knowing how to describe is what really matters, and that can be done using nearly any word out there. Adjectives are fine, of course, but sentences like “The tall, Olympian, bronzed man strode through the wide marble corridor” aren’t creative. They’re descriptive, but they aren’t creative.
In A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes describes his mind as a room, and tells Watson that his ignoring entire fields of learning isn’t stupidity: it’s taste. By focusing only on what he needs to detect and observe, he becomes an unsurpassed detective. Think of your writing that way: you can put whatever you want to in it. You could cram it full of everything you find, or you could prune out the objects that aren’t necessary.
2. You need a great plot/character to tell a great story. Everybody loves a good “Da Vinci Codesque” thriller, just like everybody enjoys a character as charming as Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. But in the end, what matters about your writing isn’t your characters or your plot. It’s your theme: what you tell with your story and how you tell it.
Themes in stories tend to get bad reputations, as obtuse analytical devices that nobody cares about. Really, though, a theme is anything in a story that conveys a message of any kind. Harry Potter tells us of the value of friendship and openmindedness. The Notebook reminds us that it is never too late for love. These aren’t heavy-handed themes: they’re just the morals to the story.
Ulysses, considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century, has a winding, simplistic, monotonous plot, and manages a stupendously complex and interweaving story. (It’s why, for instance, Wikipedia doesn’t offer a quick plot summary for the novel – but I digress.) Meanwhile, a novel like like The Once And Future King takes old, flat characters, and portrays them in an utterly charming, addictive, hilarious manner. They end up becoming characters in their own right not through character development, but through narrative.
3. The longer what you write is, the better it is. This is another of those old myths from childhood, back when every big book was an “adult book” by default. Many of the books considered to be revolutionary and groundbreaking are in fact extremely long and winding. While long stories have more potential due to their length, writing long just to be long doesn’t make any sense. Depending on the story idea, certain ideas just tend to last longer than others.
Take a book like Lolita, one of the most stunning books of all time and still one of the most controversial. It packs a truly harrowing story and a delightfully twisted narrative that travels across several nations, yet manages to be only about three hundred pages long. And people who think that three hundred pages is in fact long should read “The Vane Sisters,” by the same author, a short story that manages to be far cleverer than books a hundred times longer. Size shouldn’t be pushed for the sake of size; if it is, it’s usually immediately noticeable.
4. The shorter what you write is… And so on. Some people think that because shorter stories are easier to pack content into, shorter becomes better. While this idea is tempting, it’s just as realistic as the claim that long stories are always better by default. While short stories are easier to work with, they can’t be nearly as expansive as longer pieces of work are: there just isn’t enough room.
Case in point: Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a book that has attracted a fanatical following in the last few decades. At the heart of Atlas is a fourty-page philosophical treatise that essentially summarizes the themes behind the entire book. Without the rest of the novel, though, that treatise would mean nothing: Rand uses well over a thousand pages to display her philosophy at work, to attempt to clarify her philosophical position further. More space to write means more chances to really create a literary world
In the end, there’s no such thing as the “perfect size” for writing. Short isn’t bad, and neither is long. That is, unless either size is forced.
5. If you don’t know what to write about, write fantasy: it’s the easiest to work with. Since fantasy really has no rules regarding what’s real and what’s not, the argument goes, there really isn’t any challenge involved in writing it. This argument, mind you, is usually stated by somebody who doesn’t read fantasy often.
Take even a preliminary glance at any good fantasy world, and you will realize just how involved any form of fantasy is. Anything is possible, yes, but that just makes the process of logically defining a world that much harder. Fantasy writers can’t start off from the real world that every other writer gets to pluck from: they need to define their world before anybody can understand it. Fantasy goes even beyond just writing: oftentimes it takes careful planning before the writing even begins.
If there’s a lesson that can be taken from fantasy assumptions, it would be this: just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. No matter what you plan on writing, nothing will come that easy. Everything takes work.
6. Everything has already been done before. This is perhaps the most obnoxious claim that can be made about writing: oddly, it also tends to be the most believed. There really can’t be much of an argument about this one, though: critics have written many papers explaining just why there is no more for literature to truly achieve.
While their arguments make sense, given enough arguing back and forth, never assume that everything has been done. There is always some sort of new grounds to explore. Take the experimental novel House of Leaves, written in 2000, which features telling a story through the positioning of words on a page rather than the content of the words themselves. If you ever start believing that there is nothing else to do, you’ll never get anything truly new done. And if somebody else comes out with the next big new thing, you’ll be pretty upset if you didn’t get there first.
Don’t just cook! Instead, consider: