Writing: Story and Story-telling
By Will Greenway
From the Narrative Innovation Workshop warm-up lecture
In the previous article, Writing: Revising The Definition of Narrative we reviewed the meaning of narrative and what a writer’s interpretation of narrative should be. We differentiated between the stock definition of narrative and the story. Additionally, we established that ancient narratives were for communication of vital subsistence information, these “stories” were definitively not embellished and were practical in nature. As man evolved and leisure time became more plentiful, subsistence narratives gave way to educational anecdotes. Still practical, but with some important “lesson” or “wisdom” embedded in content. As civilization formed, stories took on new shapes and functions. At this point, storytelling becomes a performance. The story-teller or “narrator” gains the audience’s attention and pulls them into the fiction. As performance art, how the story is told is as important as the story itself. It’s obvious that narrator on stage must project presence and heighten the story to entertain. For writers, who only have the words on the page to rely on, the way a story is told is equal in importance if not greater than it is for the oral story-teller.
We’ve already defined story narrative, but let’s review. In it’s simplest and most general definition, a story is merely a entertaining narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. This is the story “primitive”. It doesn’t seem like much and it really isn’t. A better and more specific definition would be having an introduction, climax, and denouement. In defining “entertaining narrative” we added the requirements of events, viewpoint, and temporal structure. For optimum impact and true story telling, lets further evolve the idea of story.
These points extend the mechanisms of entertainment. We arrive at this by taking the audience into consideration. A fire-side storyteller uses tone of voice, gestures, vocal mimicry to enhance their narrative. With these tools they can get the audience on the edge of their seats and keep them engaged with whatever diverse elements fit the milieu of the story they are telling.
A writer composing a story does not have a fire-side story-teller’s stage presence to help them carry the story. So, instead, they must try to achieve the same affects with the written word only. Where a story-teller’s presence is a function of his art, the writer’s presence is not. When a writer gets tangled in the story we call this authorial intrusion. As has been said in other articles, the characters in your story should tell it. The more the writer can convey and convince from behind the curtain the stronger and more immersive the illusion will become. As it was a for the Oz behind the curtain, once the mechanism of the fiction is observed and felt, it is rapidly drained of impact. Obviously, this is not a good thing for your story.
To project the illusion, start with your main characters. Open with something that defines who and what they are and how they relate to narrative goal. What these characters desire should be up front. Anything the writer can do to make reader to identify with the protagonists of the story should be focused on. Largely, identification is established by portraying characters that have traits familiar to the to audience. In that, the characters are vulnerable and human. They have flaws and problems that the readers empathize with. Once the writer has made the reader care about what happens to the protagonist, they can gain even more buy-in by putting something of value to the protagonist at risk. These are the story “stakes” or “consequences” tied to the success or failure of the story goal.
Outside of the core story are two elements that add depth and color to the narrative, mood/tone and theme. Mood / tone are a writer’s background music. They are the way scenes are described and how characters view the story world. To be more specific, mood is more attributable to the viewpoint character and how their emotional state colors the world they are experiencing. On the other hand, tone is the narrative voice employed by the writer. It is entirely the effect of word choices, and the way details are described in the milieu. It is important to note that mood and tone are largely “showcase tools”. You use them heavily in important anchoring scenes, but go more lightly or provide contrasts elsewhere. A too-heavily stylized story can get tiresome for the reader. Too much of a good thing can in fact dilute the fine effect it has on grabbing your audience.
After mood/tone is theme. Theme is something the writer knows and the reader feels. Theme is usually found in repeating beats throughout the story. Many times a writer doesn’t specifically set out to have a theme, but through the course of writing the story or novel they discover what that theme is. Other times the theme is simply obvious. All good stories have a theme even if the writer doesn’t know about it. Essentially, any story worth reading will have some kind of thematic element or statement. It is up to the writer during their polishing to elevate the theme. Sometimes there will be sub-themes that provide character to the story itself. An example of this is in Star Wars movies. Largely, the theme of these movies pivots around spiritual maturity and harmony, good versus evil, and technology against nature. One of the beats along this line is that each man has a destiny, and that those with strength have obligations and responsibilities to society. In Star Wars, over and over you see where intentions are derailed by fate. The characters frequently lament when something doesn’t go as planned, “It’s not my fault!” These kinds of hardships can become a self lampooning technique. “How are we doing?” “About the same as usual.” “That bad, huh?” While that exchange is somewhat trite now, it is fun and it is memorable. Always keep at the forefront of your mind that you are writing to entertain. That entertainment can take many forms including seeing the humor in the darkest and most dire of moments.
Now that we’ve described the two elevations of story, let’s talk about implementation. When you first sit down to execute a story, your first master should be your core elements; characters, conflict, and what’s at stake. Mood/tone/themes are elements that are introduced and refined as you enhance your draft. More advanced writers may mentally have their stories more fleshed out even before they start putting words to page. In any event, core first, more cosmetic story elements should be layered in as the work takes shape and gets polished.
It bears emphasizing, focus on the elements that are central to your story. More, concentrate on narrative elements. Too often writers try to throw in excess backstory and description. These things should not stop or slow down your reader. Instead, thread the descriptions and backstory into scenes. Keep the narrative moving and fluid, and ensure that scenes periodically reinforce the consequences that occur if the protagonists fail to reach the story goal.
We’ve looked at story and story-telling. Further, we’ve likened the writer to a story-telling performer. We’ve emphasized that how a story is told is as critical as the story itself. Part of the presentation mechanism is an awareness of the reader, and actively seeking to engage that audience with tactical choices in how the story is introduced. Polished and evolved stories will set mood and tone, and have distinct themes that enhance the sense their sense of depth. From here out, we hope this guidance helps you to be become a story-teller of more “evolved” stories.