You may be aware of my penchant for analogies. A tool that paints a clear picture of the complexities and choices and skillsets involved in writing a great story. I did a workshop this weekend and managed to cram about eight of them into a single 50-minute lecture.
Only one person fled the room.
I do this because I like mental models. Writing a story is not, in my view, intuitively complex – although that’s a false mask, the truth is it is magnificently complex – and yet it is the absence of complexity that can render a story flat and vanilla.
So when we compare storytelling to other avocations and tasks that seem, at a glance, to be linear and singular in focus, and discover that success at the professional level depends on the mastery of nuance, balance, harmony, complexity and the unspoken… all rendered with the touch of an artist, those examples become windows of learning for us, we who are storytellers.
It is that mastery of nuance that imbues the work with artfulness.
Without it, craft only takes you so far.
So consider this: writing a story casts you in several critical roles: designer… architect… general contractor (big picture)… craftsman (for the detail work; use of the word here intended to be gender-free, by the way;)… and – don’t short-change yourself by taking this one for granted – engineer.
You are the producer of your story. Before, during and after your role as the composer and artist of your story.
Here’s the analogy of the day: this dynamic parallels the means by which music is composed, compiled and rendered to a hard disk in a studio.
If you’ve seen a mixing board in a professional studio, you know it competes with the cockpit of the space shuttle in complexity and options. More knobs, gauges, levers and buttons than one who is not a sound engineer could possibly comprehend. And yet, to the engineer, they are all viable candidates in the ultimate mix, each controlling some nuance of the whole, each subject to artful taste and a vision for the end product.
The touch of an artist, extending that of the composer and the performer.
Notice, too, how in this analogy nobody is playing with those knobs all that much while the musicians are jamming behind the glass. No, the mixing takes place after the tracks have been laid down… which parallels our process of revising and polishing our stories after we’ve discovered them via planning or through drafting.
A great story is just too complex to pour out of your head as a fully nuanced whole without consideration, after the discovery of the story, of the mix.
Facing the variables in your story.
Here’s a list, off the top of my head.
Certainly not complete – mixing boards come in all sizes.
You can create music by attending to only a few of the myriad sliding levers, or you can consider them all… some get a nudge, others are jacked up to eleven.
It’s always your call.
And while some of those choices are made in the studio while the tracks are being laid down, most often the genius touch of the engineer comes forth in the mix, turning the live performance into harmonic, layered perfection.
Okay, that list. Here are the knobs on your story mixing board:
Conceptual strength and focus… originality… a fresh twist… leveraging the familiar… scene strategy… chapterization… arena… setting… time-frame… social context… credibility… genre… target readers… marketability… visualization…
…dramatic tension… story complexity… layering… degree and nature of set-up… power of the hook… context… stakes… sub-plot… sub-text… pre—plot point worldview… sequencing… twists… plot points… pinch points… the mid-point…
… the whole row of knobs and sliders that comprise story structure… (opening, prologue, hook, part one, plot point one, part two, first pinch point, mid-point, part three, second pinch point, second plot point, part four, denouement, close, epilogue)…
… antagonistic nature… antagonistic force… that backstory… bad guy’s goals and motivations… obstacles offered… obstacles encountered… the dark game plan… antagonistic metaphor… window into life itself…
… hero backstory… inner demons and obstacles… character arc… the hero’s journey… the hero’s need… the hero’s stakes… the shifting landscape of the story… secondary characters… catalytic characters… background characters… sidebar moments… flashbacks… fast-forwards…
… imagery… point… counter-point… theme… vicariousness… empathy… likeability… or not… emotion… meaning… relevance… hypothesis… history… fact vs. fiction… legality… gray areas… sex… violence… reader manipulation…
…voice (first person? third person? both?)… volume… harmony… humor… point of view… backgrounds… foregrounds… dialogue… exposition… pace…
That’s a lot of little knobs and sliders to consider.
Each one an entire workshop. No wonder it can take years to even crack the surface of an understanding of this thing we call storytelling.
Each one is addressed in context to what took place behind the glass, where the voices and instruments are: melody, harmony, structure, tonality, emotion, musicianship, voice.
All those knobs, staring up at you. Waiting to be set just so. Hoping they won’t be ignored, because if they are, they’ll set themselves in context to the rest of the settings, and do so at a lowest common denominator.
You are the story engineer. Before, during and after you are the author of the story itself. At some point they become one in the same.
Just know that when you change hats, and how, will make a significant difference in how your story ultimately works.
Check out my latest guest post, now up at Writetodone.com: The Chicken-Egg Paradox of Storytelling. There are links to five other guest posts at the bottom of the page.
Image courtesy of Samuel M. Livingston.