The Alchemy of Storytelling

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion

 

Alchemy

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His bags were all packed, his dorm room emptied, his dreams of becoming a writer rewinding again and again in his head. He walked the halls of Stanford University for one last time. He would at least say goodbye to his Creative Writing lecturer, whose classes were a few of the only ones that interested him.

“It’s going to take a long time,” she told the aspiring writer, “And you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

Many years later John Steinbeck had published many novels, even winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He wrote to his lecturer, “It wasn’t too long afterwards (after we last met) that the (Great) Depression came down. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame any more. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time — a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.”

Steinbeck reminisced his student days when he was “bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from (her) the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.”

“You cancelled this illusion very quickly,” he wrote, “The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done.

The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all — so long as it was effective.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.”

 

Spellbind

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“There are two types of people — preachers and storytellers. For God’s sake be a storyteller. The world has too many preachers.”

Walker Percy to Walter Isaacson

For three or four years, all he listened to were folk songs. He went to sleep singing folk songs. He sang them everywhere, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. He traveled hundreds of miles to meet the voices behind the folk records. He deliberately studied the songs, not just to capture the style but the essence.

He wrote in his autobiography, “I copied (Robert) Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparking allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction — themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease.”

By age 22 Bob Dylan had already written iconic songs that resonated in the hearts and minds of young men and women, white and black alike. “It’s time for a change”, the songs were were telling them. “I know something that you don’t.”

Folk songs weren’t his only repertoire.

He had worked just as hard absorbing all the literature he could possibly get his hands on. Poems of T.S. Eliot. Arthur Rimbaud. Ovid. Novels such as Moby Dick, All Quiet on The Western Front, The Odyssey, The Sound and the Fury, On The Road. All great works of writing whose themes made their way into his music.

What do these stories do, anyway? Why do we read them?

Maybe it’s the case that our egos are deflated when we read or listen to a story. We don’t want to hear lectures and commands, it hurts our pride. And that’s the power of an honest story. We feel what the characters feel, their motives, their struggles, their conflicts, how things really are, how we’ve been ignoring certain truths in our life. Emotions don’t lie. Put a book back on your shelf, and the stories in it are what you remember.

They make you realize or give in to an intuitive part of you that you’ve had all along. But you didn’t listen to it or you didn’t notice.

Dylan didn’t just understand that. He incorporated it in his songs. He didn’t keep preaching, “Come you masters of war”, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”, “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”. He came up with different ways of getting his message across. Songs like Ballad of Hollis Brown, Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, John Brown.

Ballad of Hollis Brown, a second-person narrative about a man, overwhelmed by poverty, kills his family and himself. No one knows about them. No one cares. Except for us, maybe. But even then, we’re not doing anything about it. We’re just narrating the story. That’s where Dylan is mocking us.

Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, about a woman who was murdered by a drunk. The murder was solved with a shrug of the shoulders because she was black, and her murderer came from a family of privilege and political ties.

John Brown, about a mother, proud as hell that her son went to serve in the war. When he came home she couldn’t bear the sight of him. His face was shot off, his voice only faint whispers, his body wearing metal braces for support. He handed his mother his medal.

That’s just to illustrate the power of stories as a medium for influence and persuasion, that they’re not only placed in the form of novels and plays, but songs.

Now let’s get to how it’s all done. Some technical, some plain wisdom on the craft of storytelling. Of course, in its commonest form : a novel.

While there may not be a real formula out there, it certainly wouldn’t hurt, in fact it would help a lot to listen to advice that worked for one of the best living writers today.

 

The Spells

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Advice from Stephen King’s On Writing

“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”

Stephen King

 

Read a lot, write a lot

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others : read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of.”

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

 

A story starts out being just for you and no one else

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

 

Telepathy

“We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together. We’re close.”

 

Never enter half-hearted

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again : you must not come lightly to the blank page.

“If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe.”

 

Vocabulary

“Put vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course…but that comes later.)”

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”

“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”

Flowery language doesn’t necessarily make your writing better. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing.


Eg.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

Ernest Hemingway,

Big-Two Hearted River


 

No passive voice

“The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know.’ Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”

 

The adverb is not your friend

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”


Eg.

“Put it down!” she shouted.

“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.


With adverbs

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.

“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.


“The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.”

“When you use he said, the reader will know how he said it — fast or slowly, happily or sadly.”

 

Paragraphs

“In fiction the paragraph is less structured — it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own.”

“The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story…to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. The single-sentence paragraph more closely resembles talk than writing, and that’s good. Writing is seduction.”

 

Responsibility over characters

“Once I start working on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.”

This sense of responsibility over his characters is quite similar to what John Steinbeck felt when he was writing. If he didn’t write consistently, he would feel as if his characters were dying, and the result would be a one-dimensional piece of writing.

 

Work is play

“Writing is at its best — always, always, always — when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer.”

“For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.”

 

One word at a time

“In an early interview (this was to promote Carrie, I think), a radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply — ‘One word at a time’ — seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn’t. In the end, it’s always that simple.”

 

Honesty

“Now comes the big question : What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer : Anything you damn well want. Anything at all…as long as you tell the truth.”

Be honest about the situation you’re portraying, what the characters say, and of course, be honest that it’s what you want to write.

“What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends.”

 

Why we read

“Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.

This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

 

Spontaneity : Don’t plot your stories

“I distrust plot for two reasons : first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting ad the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

“I want you to understand my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).”

“Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

“I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.”

 

Description

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

“Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.”

Always find the perfect balance. If you’re describing, say, a high-school loser, everyone remembers one or two high-school losers in their life. If you over describe yours, it freezes out the reader’s. You don’t have to make a pimple-by-pimple rundown. Let the reader make up in his or her own head what the character’s face looks like, what his or her clothes look like. Don’t lose the bond of understanding that you have with your reader.

“In many cases when a reader puts aside a story because it ‘got boring’, the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

“Say what you see, and then get on with your story.”

 

Theme

“Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”

 

Realness

“And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a (character)’s-eye-view of the world — if I can make you understand her madness — then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or even identify with. The result? She’s more frightening than ever, because she’s close to real.”

 

Drafts

“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”

“Omit needless words.”

 

Aim to please just one person

Have an Ideal Reader — your spouse, your best friend, any one person. Think of him or her when you’re rewriting. Would she laugh? Would it make sense to her? Would she feel bored?

This way, you’re able to detach yourself from your writing, and think : How would I write to an increasingly distracted, busy reader?

 

Back Story

“The most important things to remember about back story is that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest.”


Eg.

‘Hello, ex-wife,’ Tom said to Doris as she entered the room.

Now, it may be important to the story that Tom and Doris are divorced, but there has to be a better way to do it than the above, which is about as graceful as an axe-murder. Here is one suggestion :

‘Hi, Doris,’ Tom said. His voice sounded natural enough — to his own ears, at least — but the fingers of his right hand crept to the place where his wedding ring had been until six months ago.


 

Dialogue

“Folks, people just don’t talk like this, even on their deathbeds :

‘Nothin’…nothin’…the colour…it burns…cold an’ wet…but it burns…it lived in the well…I seen it…a kind o’ smoke…jest like the flowers last spring…the well shone at night…everything alive…sucked the life out of everything…in the stone…it must a’come in that stone…pizened the whole place…dun’t know what it wants…that round thing the men from the college dug out’n the stone…it was that same colour…jest the same, like the flowers an’ plants…seeds..I seen it the fust time this week…it beats down your mind an’ then gets ye…burns ye up…It come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here…one o’ them professors said so…’

H.P Lovecraft,

The Colour Out of Space

When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know — it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.

Lovecraft was, by all accounts, both snobbish and painfully shy (a galloping racist as well, his stories full of sinister Africans and the sort of scheming Jews my Uncle Oren always worried about after four or five beers), the kind of writer who maintains a voluminous correspondence but gets along poorly with others in person — were he alive today, he’d likely exist most vibrantly in various Internet chatrooms.”

“If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.”

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