The next several lessons are a course in the basics of making stories. The lessons are derived from a course I taught for a number of years in the MFA Program in Writing at Lesley University, and they provide fundamental practices anyone can do to become a better storyteller on the page.
Story 1: Introduction
All literature is oral at its root…. Dante, Shakespeare, Melville, Flaubert, Joyce are read because they speak, although the pedants’ books are mum.
—Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife
In my three decades of teaching, here’s one of the most important things I’ve discovered: many people get stuck in their writing because they are trying to produce a complicated project, such as a novel, without first having learned basic skills. Aspiring novelists, as well as writers of nonfiction, often lack a most important skill—the ability to tell a story.
Once, in what many people think of as “primitive” cultures, story was paramount. These cultures were—some of them still are—oral cultures, where everything important was held in memory and passed on orally. As a result, the power of the word was held in great respect, and essential aspects of the culture—history, genealogy, customs, values—were passed on from one generation to the next through story.
In such cultures, stories were told in part for entertainment; even more, though, they were told because they taught something important. Stories were also a primary engine for conversation. Whereas today, when we talk to each other, we are likely to be exchanging opinions or information or ideas, in oral cultures, when people talk to each other, they are often telling stories. As a result, people in oral cultures have much better-developed “story-minds,” much stronger story-making skills, than most of us do.
These days there are quite a number of books on the market about stories and how to make them. Many of them, I find, use as their examples movies and television shows. There’s nothing wrong with this—and some of you may find these books very helpful. They don’t appeal to me, though, because movies and television episodes function through scenes, not through written narrative; and it’s the art and craft of telling stories on the page that really fascinates me.
So, in trying to understand what story is and how it works, I have preferred to go back to its roots in oral cultures. When stories hold a culture together, they must surely have great power. I've tried to explore and understand the elements of that power; the result is the following lessons and practices.
The Domain of Story
Let me tell you a story…
Those six words must be among the most magical in any language, luring our attention with their promise of pleasure, casting a spell over our imaginations.
There appears to be something in the human mind that craves stories. One scholar has written, “Our very definition as human beings is very much bound up with the stories we tell about our own lives and the world in which we live.” There are those who strongly suggest that the capacity for narrative is hard-wired into our brains. As I have been considering this phenomenon, I have come to believe that good stories really do cast a kind of magic spell over our minds, a particular kind of enchantment. As writer and teacher I want to learn everything I can about how to create that kind of spell.
But first: what is a story?
PRACTICE: WHAT DOES “STORY” MEAN TO YOU?
Take some time to reflect, on paper, about what “story” means to you. What is a story? Write down your definitions, then look up the word in a good dictionary. Are you surprised by the definitions? Do you have any favorite writers who are great storytellers? What makes them so good at making stories?
The domain of story is not the same as the domain of literary fiction. Although literary fiction can certainly contain a story, telling a story is not usually its main function. Rather, as novelist John Gardner has written, fiction writers should attempt to create “a fictional dream,” an imagined world that readers can live in as they read.
While not objecting to this approach, I do want to point out that it’s only about a hundred years old; the telling of stories has been going on for thousands and thousands of years. I also think that learning to tell stories well (on the page) is excellent training for anyone who wants to write fiction. For these reasons—and because I am fascinated by story—in the lessons that follow, I’ll be focusing on the domain of story, not fiction.
One scholar of narrative (H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative) says that, at its simplest, narrative is the representation of an event or a series of events. The event or series of events make up the story; the telling of the story is sometimes called “narrative discourse.” The same story can be told in many different ways, and part of the pleasure of listening to stories, or reading them, comes from the way they are told. For me, a story is a narrative that is told orally to an audience, or a narrative that is written as if it were being told to someone.
PRACTICE: KEEPING A STORY NOTEBOOK
Learning to write stories is not a matter of just sitting down and writing a draft. As with any other kind of writing, you have to build your skills through practice. You’ll find this easiest if you have one special place to do all your practicing: a file on your computer, if you like, or—even better—a notebook dedicated to your story practices. Take some time now to find yourself a notebook or set up a story notebook file on your computer.
You may want to begin by collecting in your notebook what you know now (or think you know) about story. What questions do you have about stories? What have your experiences been in the world of story?
Perhaps right now you feel that writing stories is beyond you. Remember that we all have an innate “story-mind.” As you learn story-making skills through practice, you’ll wake up that story-mind and be able to use it. You’ll be able to invent happenings to make a story; you’ll be able to tell that story effectively.
The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need
October 28, 2014
November 2, 2014 3:22 PM ESTI thank you for your time.
April 30, 2015 7:49 PM EDTI've realized that storytelling is one of the most vital skills for impacting the world, expressing personal power, and moving others toward desired results.
And I feel a deep pain that this wasn't taught to me at a young age.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing on the topic, Barbara.
April 30, 2015 9:35 PM EDTYou are very welcome. And it's never too late to get back in touch with your natural storytelling skills. All you have to do is practice using them.
August 10, 2015 11:57 AM EDTHere I am at age 55, just finishing this lesson, and reflecting back 50 years when I sat on my Uncle Edwin's lap, bug eyed and jaw hanging, as he told me story after story after story. Some family members merely called him a 'bullsh*tter;' to me, he was a one-way ticket out of my introverted world. To this day I don't know what was truth and what he made up on the spot. It didn't matter because he held me captive with images of other places in my head. His talent, I've learned since, is a family trait passed on through generations. It fostered my imagination -- some say it's pretty wild -- and love of reading and writing, both of which I learned to do before entering grade school. My first 'big girl' book was "The Scarlet Letter." I was nine. Can you just picture the look on my mother's face when I asked her to explain why being an adulterer was a bad thing??? (I found the book in the basement.) From there I graduated to "In Cold Blood" at 12, LOL. I
September 30, 2015 9:54 AM EDTWow. I stumbled upon your site and I'm very happy I did. From the few articles I've read, you are going to be a major source of inspiration and direction.
October 10, 2015 2:31 PM EDTYou're very lucky to have had such early exposure to a good storyteller, MaryAnn.
Bart, I'm glad you find the lessons useful.
October 21, 2017 5:40 PM EDTYou are a treasure, Barbara. I want to write stories so badly that my thoughts are consumed every waking moment. And yes, I have often thought that writing is beyond me. You give me hope that I can do this. Thank you.
October 23, 2017 11:48 AM EDTThanks so much for letting me know, Bill. Yes, you certainly can learn the skills of making a good story. If you haven't read Anders Ericsson's book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, I highly recommend it. It will teach you how to learn new skills.