Sunday, August 25, 2013

3 Secrets to Great Storytelling


March 7, 2011, Steven James wrote the below blog – and I’m Blog Hi-Jacking because it’s a great article I truly wanted to share.  I'll share Secret #1 and #2 and Secret #3 tomorrow.  I hope you get as much out of it as I did . . . and do!  It’s a keeper for sure!  Everything James says in this article are true – these are vital aspects of story craft.  Thanks, Mr. James!   Rita


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 write a story.

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.

Secret #2:
IF IT’S NOT BELIEVABLE, IT DOESN’T BELONG.

The narrative world is also shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable.

In writing circles it’s common to speak about the suspension of disbelief, but that phrase bothers me because it seems to imply that the reader approaches the story wanting to disbelieve and that she needs to somehow set that attitude aside in order to engage with the story. But precisely the opposite is true. Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. Readers have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As writers, then, our goal isn’t to convince the reader to suspend her disbelief, but rather to give her what she wants by continually sustaining her belief in the story.

The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. We need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.

Let’s say you create a world in which gravity doesn’t exist. OK, if you bring the world to life on the page and through your characters, the reader will accept that—but now she’ll want you to be consistent. As soon as someone’s hair doesn’t float above or around her head, or someone is able to drink a cup of coffee without the liquid floating away, the consistency of that world is shattered. The reader will begin to either lose interest and eventually stop reading, or will disengage from the story and begin to look for more inconsistencies—neither of which you want her to do.

All else being equal, as soon as readers stop believing your story, they’ll stop caring about your story. And readers stop believing stories when characters act inexplicably.

When I’m shaping a story, I continually ask myself, “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”

And then I let him do it.

Always.

Why?

Because the reader, whether he’s conscious of it or not, is asking the same question: “What would this character naturally do?”

As soon as characters act in ways that aren’t believable, either in reference to their characterizations or to the story’s progression, the reader loses faith in the writer’s ability to tell that story.

In a scene in my first novel, The Pawn, my protagonist is interviewing the governor of North Carolina, and the governor is responding oddly. Now, if my hero, who’s supposed to be one of the best investigators in the world, doesn’t notice and respond to the governor’s inexplicable behavior, the reader will be thinking, What’s wrong with this Bowers guy? There’s obviously something strange going on here. Why doesn’t he notice? He’s a moron.

So, I had Bowers think, Something wasn’t clicking. Something wasn’t right.

Then the reader will agree, Ah, good! I thought so. OK, now let’s find out what’s going on here. Rather than drive the reader away from identifying with the protagonist, this was a way of drawing the reader deeper into the story.

So when something that’s unbelievable or odd happens, don’t be afraid to let your character notice and respond: “I never expected her to say that,” “What? That just doesn’t make sense,” or, “Obviously there’s more going on here than I thought when I first found the necklace.”

If a character acts in an unbelievable way, you’ll need to give the reader a reason why—and it’d better be a good one. Remember: Always give the reader what he wants, or something better. If you don’t give the reader what he wants (believability), you must satisfy him with a twist or a moment of story escalation that satisfies him more than he ever expected.

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