Monday, February 4, 2013

3 SECRETS TO GREAT STORYTELLING


Monday, Tuesday and Thursday this week I’m sharing 3 Secrets to Great Storytelling, a great blog written by Steven James on March 7, 2011, and one I felt worth sharing here with you this week.  It's worth keeping and reading time and again.  Rita

Steven James on March 7, 2011- As a novelist and writing instructor, I’ve noticed that three of the most vital aspects of story craft are left out of many writing books and workshops. Even bestselling novelists stumble over them.
But they’re not difficult to grasp. In fact, they’re easy.
And if you master these simple principles for shaping great stories, your writing will be transformed forever. Honest. Here’s how to do it.
Secret #1:
CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE KING.
Everything in a story must be caused by the action or event that precedes it.
     Now, this sounds like an almost embarrassingly obvious observation, and when I mention it in my writing seminars I don’t often see people furiously taking notes, muttering, “Man, are you getting this stuff? This is amazing!” But humor me for a few minutes. Because you might be surprised by how more careful attention to causation will improve your writing.
     As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that.
    When a reader tells you that he couldn’t put a book down, often it’s because everything in the story followed logically. Stories that move forward naturally, cause to effect, keep the reader engrossed and flipping pages. If you fail to do this, it can confuse readers, kill the pace and telegraph your weaknesses as a writer.
     Let’s say you’re writing a thriller and the protagonist is at home alone. You might write:
     With trembling fingers she locked the door. She knew the killer was on the other side.
     But, no. You wouldn’t write it like that.
     Because if you did, you would fracture, just for a moment, the reader’s emotional engagement with the story as he wonders, Why did she reach out and lock the door? Then he reads on. Oh, I get it, the killer is on the other side.
     If you find that one sentence is serving to explain what happened in the sentence that preceded it, you can usually improve the writing by reversing the order so that you render rather than explain the action.
     It’s stronger to write the scene like this:
     The killer was on the other side of the door. She reached out with a trembling hand to lock it.
Cause: The killer is on the other side of the door.
Effect: She locks it.
     Think about it this way: If you’ve written a scene in which you could theoretically connect the events with the word “because,” then you can typically improve the scene by structuring it so that you could instead connect the events with the word “so.”
     Take the example about the woman being chased by the killer:
     She locked the door because she knew the killer was on the other side.
If written in this order, the sentence moves from effect to cause. However:
     She knew the killer was on the other side of the door, so she locked it.
Here, the stimulus leads naturally to her response.
     Of course, most of the time we leave out the words because and so, and these are very simplified examples—but you get the idea.
     Remember in rendering more complex scenes that realizations and discoveries happen after actions, not before them. Rather than telling us what a character realizes and then telling us why she realizes it—as in, “She finally understood who the killer was when she read the letter”—write it this way: “When she read the letter, she finally understood who the killer was.” Always build on what has been said or done, rather than laying the foundation after the idea is built. Continually move the story forward, rather than forcing yourself to flip backward to give the reason something occurred.
One last example:
Greg sat bored in the writer’s workshop. He began to doodle. He’d heard all this stuff before. Suddenly he gulped and stared around the room, embarrassed, when the teacher called on him to explain cause and effect structure.
This paragraph is a mess. As it stands, at least seven events occur, and none are in their logical order. Here is the order in which they actually happened:
1. Greg sits in the workshop.
2. He realizes he’s heard all this before.
3. Boredom ensues.
4. Doodling ensues.
5. Greg gets called on.
6. Embarrassment ensues.
7. He gulps and stares around the room
Each event causes the one that follows it.
     Your writing will be more effective if you show us what’s happening as it happens rather than explain to us what just happened.
     With all of that said, there are three exceptions, three times when you can move from effect to cause without shattering the spell of your story.
     First, in chapter or section breaks. For example, you might begin a section by writing:
“How could you do this to me?” she screamed.

     Immediately, the reader will be curious who is screaming, at whom she is screaming, and why. This would make a good hook, so it’s fine (good, even!) to start that way. If this same sentence appeared in the middle of a scene in progress, though, it would be wiser to move from cause to effect:
He told her he was in love with another woman.
     “How could you do this to me?” she screamed.
     The second exception is when one action causes two or more simultaneous reactions. In the paragraph about Greg, he gulps and looks around the room. Because his embarrassment causes him to respond by both gulping and looking around, the order in which you tell the reader he did them could go either way.
     And the final exception is when you write a scene in which your character shows his prowess by deducing something the reader hasn’t yet concluded. Think of Sherlock Holmes staring at the back of an envelope, cleaning out the drainpipe and then brushing off a nearby stick of wood and announcing that he’s solved the case. The reader is saying, “Huh? How did he do that?” Our curiosity is sparked, and later when he explains his deductive process, we see that everything followed logically from the preceding events.

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