Friday, May 10, 2013

Guest post: Storytelling in Stories

We have a surprise, this friday, for today I present a guest post by a fellow member of the #nanopals, Madison Dusome (@_vajk on twitter, blog) There'll be another one of these next week, hopefully with some posts of my own XD I just bought the Hugo-nominated Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladhin Ahmed, so look forward to that review next week! For now, enjoy Madison's excellent advice on storytelling.

Storytelling in Stories

Recently, a lot of writers I’ve met online are in the process of editing their novels – no easy task!
I’m in that boat, too, and I frequently find that my scenes fall flat. Maybe it’s a matter of opinion
(I’ve heard we are our own harshest critics), but I prefer to believe I’ve got things to work on. I
diagnose these scenes by reading them aloud; I rewrite them and I analyse them using complex
mathematics* and imaginary numbers – but something’s still not right. Most writing guides
would have us check each scene for our protagonist’s goal, for conflict and for action of some
kind – but those checklist items are easy to find when you’re looking for them, and it’s hard to
determine if what you’ve found is actually effective.

Enter the Storytelling Check, in which you will use storytelling techniques to find any
weaknesses in your ho-hum scenes. For those of you who are worried: fear not, I am far from
technically educated in writing, and this check won’t involve fancy literary words or meaningless
writerly fluff (I hope). For those of you who are skeptical: hear me out (even if I am essentially
advising you that to tell your story well, you need to tell your story well).

Step 1: What was the last interesting thing that happened in your life? Think about the last story
you told your family at dinner, or the latest gossip you shared with friends. It doesn’t have to be
bookworthy – if you told it, it was at least worth your time and breath.

Step 2: Imagine the same listener and choose a scene that’s been giving you trouble (better yet,
if your listener is available, have them listen for real). Imagine yourself in your protagonist’s
shoes and tell your listener all about the scene – as sensationally as you can – as though it
happened to you. Try to convince them; try to share with them your terror, bravery, doubt or
passion. Try to do this from memory rather than by reading.

Step 3: Analyse. Did that work, or was your story a dud? Was your friend on tenterhooks, or

Okay, so there aren’t a lot of steps – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Chances are, you’ll realise
before even beginning that the scene isn’t tell-worthy; sometimes it may seem that there’s no
story to tell, or no point to build to at all! Fear not! If your scene falls flat...

First, remember that every story needs background and/or setup. For example, a recent event
in my life was a battle of wits versus a thief who was trying to make off with my cellphone. I
told the story to my mom over the (same) phone, but I first had to tell her that I’d recently bought
a new cell; otherwise the story would have made no sense (not even a desperate thief would have
wanted my old phone). If you think your scene is setup, you’ve got some options:

1. Shorten it: get the necessary data out of the way as succinctly as possible. Depending
on how short you go, you might even be able to piggyback this data onto another (more
exciting) scene instead of giving it the stage all on its own.

2. Lengthen it: make it into a scene worth telling by adding some story. A conversation, for
example, could happen over a cup of tea or between breaths in a daring swordfight. One
of those is going to be a lot more interesting to read! Make it unique and fascinating.

If the scene isn’t setup but still feels awkward upon telling it to a friend, try again. Can you
raise the stakes? Can you make it scarier, funnier, more heroic? Your friends might also be
able to help with this: upon the third retelling of my near-thief story, my listener asked, “How
big was this guy?” It was a detail I hadn’t considered important, but I added it to later versions.
Tell your fish story again and again until that fish is soooo big you can’t even get it into the boat.

If you’ve checked for setup and you’ve scoured for story in vain, it may be time to consider
elimination. If you’ve told your scene a hundred times and it still feels pointless (this may be
obvious by your desire to add, “And then I found five dollars..?”), maybe you don’t need the
scene at all? Collect any tidbits you want to use elsewhere and scrap the rest. Your listeners
(and readers!) will thank you.

Want to practise? Retell one of your favourite (or least favourite) scenes in the comments!

*Okay, okay, I used the wordcount feature of my word processor.

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