Monthly Archives: October 2010

Storytelling in Context to… What?

Everything we do in life is informed by context

Context is one of the greatest, most powerful words in any language. 

Life itself is nothing other than context.  The only things that exist in a vacuum are floating in outer space. 

And even they have context.

Too often our stories end up being described just that way.  But it’s avoidable… through a keen awareness and understanding – up to and including mastery – of the contextual forces that hover above the writer’s keyboard.

Context is like oxygen – invisible, essential, and taken for granted.  At least until something goes wrong.

Context is like gravity.  Ignore it, mishandle it, and you will most likely crack your head open.

Imagine a surgeon doing an operation without context. 

You can’t.  Because even someone stuck in a car stranded in the desert who has to remove the appendix of a screaming companion has to deal with context… and it isn’t pretty.

Nonetheless, as you consider this question you’ll quickly realize that multiple layers of context are in play – the context of the training received in medical school… the context of the nature of the ailment being attended to… the context of the patient’s age, state of health and medical history… even the context of available resources, insurance coverage and whatever is going on in the surgeon’s life that might be a distraction.

Context is what empowers success and derails the unprepared.

Context is a menu of variables taken into account by professionals and too often undervalued or ignored altogether – either through naivety or ignorance – by the neophyte.

So it is with storytelling.

At a recent workshop I asked the group a warm-up question: in what context are you writing your story?

A sea of blank stares spread before me. 

Not that upon reflection they didn’t have an answer, but rather, their initial take was that they’ve never thought about storytelling from that perspective.

I’m here to tell you, there is great value in doing so.

The experienced, enlightened writer understands the value of context to their story, and – like that surgeon – they comprehend it on multiple levels.  These contextual elements are folded into the mix of story planning and execution, informing the writer’s progress at every turn, twist and plot point.

Context is the stuff of great storytelling.  The more of it you see and feel and comprehend, the better writer you will be.

What is the storyteller’s contextual checklist?

At the most basic level, the contextual questions a writer must consider look like this:

Do you understand the fundamentals of basic dramatic theory?  If so, what is the nature and evolution of the core conflict of your story?  It’s inherent tension?  The arc of your character?  The thematic landscape?  The structural architecture?

If not… well, in that case you won’t know what went wrong until someone tells you.  And rest assured, they will. 

Do you understand the contextual demands of the genre you are writing in?  How it differs from other genres, and how it puts a fence around your creative options?

Do you understand the context of the six core competencies of storytelling, to an extent that you cover each base with equal emphasis and have considered the inherent criteria defined under each?

What is the context of your story’s essence – its time and place, its voice, its sub-text, its inherent appeal?

Every story has context. 

It’s a qualitative issue, a matter of degree and art.  If you don’t manage context, it will manage you.

Are you aware of the context in the marketplace that will color your story’s chances of publication?  A published writer works under a completely different context than that of a new writer, and a writer jumping genres works under a fresh context from the last project.

Are you keenly sensitive to your own limitations?  Your exposure to the nuances of what you are attempting to achieve within your story?  Your ability to keep your story on track, to manage the dramatic tension and pace required?

Part of understanding context is finding any answers that you know in your heart are missing from your storytelling palette.

The best answers of all come from understanding the questions.

These questions are always at hand.

And yet, rare is the writer that inventories them prior to launch.

I’m not selling pre-draft story planning over organic story development via drafting.  At least that isn’t my primary point today.

What I am suggesting is that, however you discover your story, an awareness of the various levels of context that surround you – indeed, that define all that will unfold as you work – is perhaps the most empowering aspect of the storytelling craft.

Like a pilot planning a trip, a surgeon cutting into a patient, a chef gathering ingredients for a feast, or a mother shopping at Costco, success depends on your grasp of context.

Always has, always will. 

Because context is always part of the story.  In life, and on the page.

Check out my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published” here.  It’s all about context, both before and after your book has been finished.

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Another 1.5 Minute Workshop on the Six Core Competencies

Storytelling.  It’s everywhere.

When it works, there are almost always six separate elements – essences, really – that are in play.  Sometimes you have to read a 400 page novel or sit through a two hour movie to witness this universal model at work.

Sometimes you can behold their collective, congealed power in a minute or so.  At the end of this post you’ll get that chance.

It’s never an accident or a convenience. 

It’s always an intention of the part of the writer.

Not long ago I shared a link to the television commercial that is shaking up the ad industry, not to mention selling a few million units of product (Old Spice body wash for men) that wouldn’t have otherwise made it off the shelf. 

It worked because it told a story, and it did so in a highly creative, compelling and original manner.

It had a concept.  A character.  A theme.  A structure. 

It had execution.  It had a voice.

Those are the six core competencies of storytelling. 

By that or any other collection of labels and names, they are all essential to a successful story.  In any genre, format or medium.

The longer your story, the more critical they are.

The shorter your story, the more readily evident they need to be.  Even if, because of the limitations of length, they are merely implied.

That’s not a contradiction, it’s an artful subtlety.  Which is why copywriting is hard.

It’s also why writing novels and screenplays is no place to invent your own rules.  There are underlying principles driving everything, and they can — and should — be discovered, studied and observed before, during and after one undertakes to write such a story.

Getting them down on paper is craft.  Making them work is art.

Both are essential in any form of storytelling.

Leave out any of the six core competencies, or even merely be weak in any single one, and the story will suffer for it.  And at a professional level of aspiration, it won’t get past the approval stage.

Here’s an even better story, told in 90 seconds.

And nothing about it, in terms of the six core competencies, is implied.  The only leap it asks the viewer to make is, in fact, its point.

It’s about as subtle as a head-on collision. 

This piece is a clinic on the six core competencies.  See if you can spot them as separate yet brilliantly melded essences: concept, character, theme, structure, execution, and voice.

Note how the totality of these blended parts become something in excess of the sum of its parts.

All without a single word of narration or dialogue.

I won’t tell you what it’s for.  If you haven’t seen it, you need to experience this for yourself.  Experience it full frame, turn the sound up high.

Watch and learn.  HERE.

Pay attention.  Your story — and your life — may depend on it.

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Filed under Six Core Competencies