In all my years as a writer, writing teacher and blogger, I’ve never run into anybody who claims to know everything there is to know about storytelling.
That’s because the more you know, the more you realize how complex and deep it all can be. Stories are like people, no two are completely alike, and therefore each needs to be regarded, analyzed, appreciated and repaired separately.
That said, certain fundamental principles and physics apply.
Just like they do to people. And they can be learned.
And yet, while nobody is claiming to know it all, I have run into writers who claim they don’t need to pay attention to those pesky fundamental principles and storytelling physics. They say something like this:
“Don’t over-think it, just sit down and do it, let the story flow, trust your instinct, do whatever the hell you want, keep working on it and it’ll turn out like it’s supposed to. There are no rules.”
Not long ago I flew into Salt Lake to give a keynote and writing workshop at a major conference. The young writer who picked me up at the airport was curious about my book (which is all about writing fundamentals and storytelling physics), and in the course of our conversation told me that one of writers who would be attending the conference – an older guy who had been writing for years – said my book was ridiculous, that there are only three things a writer needs to ultimately know, the rest is just hot air: the beginning, the middle and the end.
That’s it? Who knew. All these years, I’ve missed that one on the writing shelf. This is the same guy who claims all he needs in life is “three hots and a cot.”
I asked now many books this guy had published. The answer was none.
Interesting. While I have run into writers who line up behind this simplistic belief system, none of them – zero – have been published.
Coincidence? I think not.
And when it does happen – and I’m sure it does – it isn’t proof of the theory. Rather, it’s the writer not understanding what just happened.
There are a few Big Names out there who claim to be listening to some muse, that they simply sit down and channel it. But the truth (IMO) is one of three things: this is a transparent stab at modesty, they have a great editor, or they’re truly clueless and therefore just lucky to be where they are.
I don’t think the last two are it. Such writers probably write organically, on instinct… but what is instinct if not the expression of something that has been learned?
In essence these writers are saying that they’re some kind of genius.
Diana Gabaldon comes to mind. As does Stephen King, who is a genius, but in talking about “how to write” laughably discounts the fact he’s published hundreds of stories over many decades, which by definition means he’s learned something along the way, which again by definition means if something can be learned, it can be sought-out and it can be taught, if nothing else through acknowledgement.
Just because you haven’t filed a flight plan, it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to fly the airplane. No, that part you have to learn.
Life itself the palette for the art and craft of writing.
Nobody argues that craft cannot be learned. It is always a learned thing.
And because few argue that life can be fully and completely understood, that the learning about life stops at some point, the same must be applied to writing about it.
We are always in school. The learning is always available. The only time we are excused from class is when we turn our back on it. And then, we are very much on our own. In which case you better be a genius to get anywhere.
Great storytelling is hard. It is complex. It is a pool with no bottom, an ocean full of darkness and beauty and forces we do not understand. And so, some minds shut down and turn to the quote given above, instead of learning how to swim.
At a glance one might suggest that old-timers have been exposed to all the learning, that the only available growth option is practice. But I promise you, every day we live, and every time we read a story or see a film, we are learning.
The proving of a truth is, in fact, a means of learning that truth.
The ignorance of a truth is, too often… fatal.
You can’t go out there and prove the earth is round.
You just accept that it is. You have pictures from the space shuttle that make you believe. Just like we have stories that make us believe, even when we don’t understand the forces that make them work.
But you can go out and prove that a story without certain things going for it won’t work. In fact, it’s actually harder to prove that it won’t than it is to prove that it will work.
Doubt this? Go ahead, write a story without compelling dramatic tension, with a hero who is not easily empathized with or easy to root for, without emotional resonance, without pace, without sub-text, without thematic depth, without voice.
You can prove that these principles work simply by writing a story without them.
Watch what happens then.
The proof is that the story will be rejected.
And it will continue to be rejected until you learn to apply the truth about storytelling fundamentals and physics. Even then, though, it will need something else, including a dash of luck, to stand out from the crowd. To prove that it can work.
Successful storytelling isn’t about the math. Sometimes it doesn’t add up. It can’t work if certain fundamental principles and physics are not there… yet it might work if they are.
You get to choose which game you’re playing.
That is the art of it. An art that depends almost entirely on the craft upon which it is based.
Check out the March/April issue of Writers Digest… I have an article on page 55, about how to deliver “voice” in your stories.
I also recommend Andrea Hurst’s webinar, “Crafting Fiction and Memoir that Sells: An Agent’s Point of View,” this Thursday at 1:00 pm (Eastern). Click HERE to learn more.