Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals.
There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.
This week: Is story telling in your heart and soul?
This weeks topic is about the essence of story telling. Telling a story is an art from. To some degree you can learn the nuts and bolts of how to arrange a plot or create believable characters, but to tell a story that captivates your audience requires much more than mere mechanics. In my experience the tools every good story-teller uses don’t come from a book, they come from within. The story-teller can dip into their imagination bucket and throw words across a page, creating vivid scenes the reader will want to keep in their memory long after the story has ended.
In days of old.
I remember reading books in primary school where shepherds would guard their flocks in the dead of night and tell tales to one another. They were often accompanied with illustrations, typical ye olde worlde shepherds gathered around a fire or lantern. Beards, long cloaks, stars twinkling in the sky, crooks resting nearby, you get the idea. There was always one set apart from the group, the story-teller. The expressions on the faces of his audience showed how captivated they were by the story-teller.
The story-teller span yarns based around superstition or rumour and there was usually a moral or two behind the story. Whatever the basis of the story, one thing stuck with me, the fact that the story teller was compelled to tell their story.
Cub Scout Camp.
When I was young I went on Cub Scout Camp a couple of times. There were tents, fires, food sizzling in frying pans, tree climbing and games of cricket. There were badges to collect, best fire starter, tent pitcher, knot tying, orienteering and so on. It was idyllic fun. But what I loved most of all were the evenings spent around the camp fire, the leaders telling stories and leading the group through songs.
We’re goin on a bear hunt. (2X)
Gonna catch a big one.
I’m not scared.
Tall trees (CHORUS)
And loooooookin at flowers. (2X)
I see a field.
We can’t go around it
Can’t go over it
So we gotta go through it.
Let’s go (Do motions as if going through a field with large grass, tall shrubs etc.)
Awesome. Imagine a crowd of eager faced Cub Scouts sat by the fire, swinging at the top of their voices and all doing the motions of wading through the grass or swimming across a river!
It’s funny how you remember some things so clearly. It’s hard to say how many fellow Cubs were around the fire, maybe 30 or so sat in a circle eating sausages and beans and marshmallows. I don’t remember their faces or names so well, but I do remember the guy who told us stories. He was a volunteer helper, I don’t think anyone knew his real name but we all called him Lettuce.
Lettuce was like the energizer bunny, always happy and active, smiling and very knowledgeable about pretty much anything we asked him. It was his story telling that I remember. All of us Cubs sat around the camp fire as he told story after story. Wood crackled and owls hooted but we were silent and hung on every word. Looking back he seemed larger than life, he held his audience spell-bound – the sign of a genuine story-teller.
I’m not very good at telling a story orally, even reading out loud to an audience doesn’t work out they way I want. But when it comes to words on the screen I have time and patience to get it right. So I have a lot of respect for those who can stand up and tell a story that not only holds the interest of the audience but keeps them mesmerised. Call it stage presence if you like, it seems to fit, but it’s more than that. It’s the way people like Lettuce speak, how they use the right words, how their passion for telling the story comes across.
Another thing I remember from the Cub Scouts is their motto:
I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God and to the Queen
To help other people
And to keep the Cub Scout Law.
The Writers’ Circle.
I’ve spoken about my time with my local Writers’ Circle before. It was a mixed bag of personalities, from the timid to the abrupt, but they all had one thing in common, they wanted to tell stories. Part of the reason why these clubs don’t work is that they rely on people to stand up and read out their stories. And if you’re like me this can be a nightmare. Some would read out their stuff and it would sound flat and dull because even though they wrote well enough they couldn’t read out loud.
One lady, an art teacher, would revel in reading excerpts of her autobiography to the group. I found the subject matter insanely dull – evacuation of children during world war two. There are probably countless books of the same ilk and it felt like she was just tooting her horn because she liked the sound of her voice. Regardless of the content she had a way of telling her story that I found very interesting. Every so often she would glance up from her page at the group sat around the table. She didn’t engage anyone’s attention though. I could never work out why she did it.
I realised she loved telling her story. The group listened, though I can’t say for sure if they were held spell-bound by her tale or not. I for one wasn’t. I found her method fascinating to watch but only in the sense of watching someone picking their nose on a bus, with silent curiosity to see what will happen next.
The art teacher wasn’t a great story-teller. She tried and enjoyed it, which is a good thing for her. But there was something missing. Maybe too much arrogance on her part, the “I know everything about English and writing” aura she had about her. Compared to Lettuce she was a poor story-teller.
But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have story telling in her heart.
Good Story Telling v Plot Mechanics.
I recently tried to read a book called The Mayan Conspiracy by Graham Brown. It’s not very often that I will give up on a book. In fact that is the 3rd book I’ve failed to complete. Well sort of. I stopped reading The Silmarilion when I was in my teens because it was too hard. I finished it years later. The Mayan Conspiracy was deeply flawed from my point of view because behind every detail I felt the plot gears grinding away. It didn’t feel natural. The characters felt like they had been borrowed from the Clive Cussler world. The early events were clichéd and the dialogue was awful.
Graham Brown clearly wants to be a writer but he is not a good story-teller. The plot gears are very obvious and to me this seems amateurish or perhaps lacking in how a story needs to be compelling.
Another writer, I call him a writer because that’s what he called himself and I didn’t want to be impolite, self published his book, The Armitage Saga. The argument for self publishing is for another time, however there are plenty of people around the world who successfully publish their work in eBook format. I could never bring myself to pay a book maker to print copies of my book. It feels like cheating somehow.
That’s beside the point. What matters is the story of The Armitage Saga itself. We were sent a complimentary copy which we had to pay for. I know. Go figure. I made it to the third page before I put it down. First page, first paragraph had grammatical errors that made me laugh. And then there was a line that said something like:
“Captain Whatsisface sang lustily to himself.”
No. That’s just wrong. Wrong in so many ways I don’t want to talk about here because it makes me shudder. The point is that the writer needed to tell his story, good or bad, he had to share it with others. I’m the same. I share my stories on my blog, if people like them it’s a bonus, if they don’t then that’s okay too. The fact is I need to tell my story.
I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals at the moment. I’m about 1/3 into it and I’m loving it. Terry has a way of telling a story without grinding the gears of plot mechanics. This is a story about the characters, well, and football, but mostly about the characters. He slips in very slight plot turns with such subtly you wouldn’t know they were there unless actively looking for them.
Many folk mock Stephen King for writing trash. Not so. Some of his stuff is a bit pants, but not all of it. Under The Dome had a single premise, a town trapped under a dome, what would happen? And whilst that one plot element is visible throughout it’s the characters that drive the story forward. As with so many SK stories it is the characters who make the story come alive. I’ve found few authors who understand how to write believable characters than SK.
Maybe plot mechanics is what you’re good at. Maybe you’re adept at breathing life into characters. Whatever. If you’re compelled to write then you are a story teller and don’t let anyone say otherwise.
Your Story Telling Gift.
The need to tell a story and tell it well is a fundamental part of being a writer. In my recent short piece Footsteps the story poured out of me as if I were possessed. When I was finished I wondered if I’d rushed it. But it was the comment left by HoaiPhai that made me grin.
“Great! The progressing insanity and the idea of footprints appearing out of nowhere. Delightfully understated terror!”
I wanted the story to build up slowly, the terror increasing until a last brutal scene. I hoped it would have an effect on the reader but it wasn’t until that comment appeared that I knew I had written it the right way.
The art of story telling is part of who you are. You’ll likely have trouble explaining how and why you need to tell stories. The best I can come up with is that I write and tell stories because I must. Everything else in life is a want, but story telling is a must.
As for you, dear blog reader, I suspect you can say the same thing. It is in your nature to create stories, build worlds, characters and plots. You have a gift, that much is sure. You should cherish and nurture this gift, let it flow, let it loose. Don’t wait for the ideal time to sit down and pen your story, now is the right time, not next year or when you retire.
I love talking about writing with my Dad, not as much as I would like but hey, life and all that. He sent me an email some time ago and I’d like to share a small snippet with you because he says it better than I can. I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing this with you. Read it carefully, dear blog reader, because this applies to all you story tellers.
“Now, here’s the thing. Take this in and give it serious thought. Right now you’re thinking you have plenty of time to knock out that killer novel. YOU DON’T! If you want to produce a novel and live a novelists life, you need to do it. You need to give it your undivided attention until it’s complete. No matter how the first draft turns out, you MUST complete. Okay, it has to be a good story, the characters need to be fleshed out with credible back-stories, grammar and spelling need to be correct,
and it has to flow.
You can only do this with constant concentration. I know you like writing other stuff – all the little bits and pieces for your site – that’s okay, but if you’re serious, and I know it’s what you really want to do, you need to plan your time and set aside a schedule. Tone down everything else. Either plan it or let the idea flow. But do it in one go. In ten years time you could be looking back, working on a new novel, with several published under your belt. It’s what I wished I’d done twenty years ago. And I know you can do
Graham Farmer – my Dad telling it like it is!
So in November I will be taking part in the NaNoWriMo challenge. Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I have written 2 other novels already longer than this but unfinished. I plan to write at least 80-90,000 words for the story I have in mind. After NaNo is done I’ll let that novel sit a while. Then I’ll return to it some time next year and start the editing process.
Starting in December I’ll be editing my finished novel The Range. This is my baby. Everything else can wait. Aside from blogging I’ll dedicate my free time to this project and polish the hell out of it.
I need to write. But I also need to write to the best of my ability and that means making sure I am 100% happy with the finished product. After that I’ll be sending it off to publishers. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe it will take a long time before someone takes a chance on it, or not at all. You never know.
One last piece of advice:
Your inner writer needs to be let loose, so let him (or her) ride out and discover the untold riches unleashed by your imagination. Listen with your eyes. See with your imagination. Tell your story.