A few years ago, I was asked to speak in front of a group of fellow writers about the art of storytelling, and it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what to say—although that’s also partially true—but more because the mere idea of speaking in front of more than one person that I didn’t know was enough to make me feel like retching. But I did it and I think I made some semblance of sense.
So, I decided Blog number three would be a bit of a recap of that speech.
Telling a story is a lot like going on a trip. Of course, you always know where you are—at least, I hope so—and much of the time, you know where you want to go. What is often up in the air is how you’re going to get there. I liken the journey of telling a story more to taking a road trip than anything else. You start at point A and you want to get to point B, wherever that is. You just may not know the exact route. You come across construction that might slow the journey, or send you on a detour that takes you far out of your intended way. Sometimes, if you’re a spontaneous person, maybe you even decide the intended destination isn’t where you’d really like to go. Wherever you end up, and however you get there, you need to keep the kids in the back seat entertained along the way. That’s not always so easy.
Some authors know when they begin writing a story exactly where it’s going and how they’re going to get there. Myself, sometimes I think I know where I’m going with an idea, but much of the time, the finished product is nothing like I envisioned before I started writing it. I might get to the originally intended point B and I might not. And even when I do get to point B, the characters in my story have often found themselves in situations in which I never foresaw. Meh, shit happens. As long as I got there and the kids haven’t murdered one another, I’m happy.
For the most part, what I’m talking about is writing a novel, or at the very least, something with forty or fifty thousand words—something where you have the time to really build the world, make the characters into real people for the reader. Doing those things is a process that makes up the entirety of the story, beginning to end. It’s the keeping the kids entertained part of things. Therefore, the trip has to be just as entertaining as the destination, if not more.
I’ve always admired writers who have a real knack for making the journey vastly entertaining; there are many published authors who can’t do this. The book has a journey, but it’s more like starting at the top of a hill and tobogganing to the bottom, picking up more and more speed, until you either collide with a tree and it all ends abruptly, or you slowly lose speed until the story ends with you just sitting there, catching your breath. I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with that type of storytelling, but I prefer the slow build to the climax when I read and when I write.
Even until the last few years, I’ve struggled with writing longer pieces of work. I had a lot of starts, with my eyes pasted firmly on where I wanted to go, or at least the general area, but I ran out of gas before I got very far. It took a lot of reading and a lot of writing to finally get where I can make the entire journey. And I still struggle, sometimes.
A great example of someone who can make the character-building stuff—the stuff in the middle—interesting is someone in the movie industry. Quentin Tarantino has a great knack for throwing in seemingly banal conversations and making people remember the lines as being great and beneficial to the story. Example: the quarter pounder with cheese conversation between Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. Good Lord, that is one memorable set of dialogue and all they’re doing is talking about a damn hamburger.
I want to talk about a burger and have people fascinated while reading it.
That’s not easy, but some writers manage it, and those who can, in my opinion, have a firm grasp on the art of storytelling. I can’t really give any concrete advice that fits one person because everyone is different. If you’re a reader, you know what you like. If you’re a fellow writer, you need to discover what works for you. But no matter what you do, it’s important to remember that it’s not all about the destination; it’s also about how you get there.
Until next time, happy reading and happy writing.