The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 14: The Power of What Happens Next? 2

May 22, 2015

Tags: 6. Making Stories

One of the things that may have happened to you as you did the previous exercises is that you felt a bit guilty. Oh no! a voice in your head may have said, I’m TELLING! If that happened, let me reassure you.

In the past few decades, writing teachers have become obsessed with the idea of showing. Show, don’t tell has become a mantra, repeated endlessly in classes and books about writing. While the ability to “show on the page” is certainly an important writing skill, so is the ability to tell. That’s because of the power of “what happens next?”

Humans, as I have said, love stories. And the engine of a story is its happenings. More than any other element of a good story, what keeps readers reading is, I think, that they want to know the answer to the question, “What happens next?”

And to provide them with that answer, over and over again, we must be able to tell as well as show.

If you’re feeling that the view of story as a sequence of events is just a little--well, too simple, perhaps I can reassure you by quoting the opinion of a scholar of narrative, H. Porter Abbott, author of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. He tells us that the word “narrative” goes back to a Sanskrit word that means “know,” and that it comes down to us via Latin words for both “knowing” and “telling.” Narrative, he explains, “is a universal tool for knowing as well as telling, for absorbing knowledge as well as expressing it.”

And, in his view, narrative “is a succession of events.” More specifically, it is a representation of those events—a picturing of them.

He goes on to say that narrative is made up of 1) story (the events), and 2) narrative discourse, an impressive sounding term that simply means the way in which the story is conveyed (through speech, or writing, film, or art). Later in these lessons, we’ll take a look at some techniques of narrative discourse; for now, though, let’s concentrate on the story itself.

Abbott says that, while story is made of events, it is also made of characters, because, he says, “What are events but the actions and reactions of entities?” So stories, then, are composed of things happening, of people acting, and of people reacting to happenings or the actions of other people.

You might think that such stories would have to be short, nothing more than sketches. But stories unfold themselves in time, and story-time, unlike clock time, is fluid. Clock time relates only to itself, but narrative time relates to events or incidents. So narrative time can be expanded or contracted by adding or removing details. We can go inside a single event and show all the micro-events inside it, thereby slowing down narrative time. Or we can speed up narrative time by devoting only a few words to events that took place over several years. One of the important skills that story writers need is the ability to effectively manage story-time.

Take one of your practice stories and identify the individual events. Now re-write the story, going deep inside one or more of the events to tell all the micro-events inside them. For example, if you wrote, “And then John went home,” you need to picture that event in your mind and imagine what might be its component parts. Did John put on his boots and winter hat? Was it snowing outside? Did he take his dog? Did he stop to talk to someone on the way? What happened as he went home? See how many micro-events you can come up with.

Now read over your story in its revised version. Can you see how you have slowed down the amount of time in the story that it takes John to walk home?

Take another one of your practice stories and compress some of its incidents. For example, if you have written, “John wrote his first novel when he was a teenager. In college he wrote a second one. Then in graduate school he wrote the book that became a best-seller,” you could revise it to, “It took John ten years to write his first best-seller.”

Because skill in manipulating story time is so important, I urge you to do the above practices often. You can also try writing a sentence that can hold many incidents, then expanding it, and writing several sentences and compressing the incidents.

Why is it so important to be able to manipulate story-time? Because story-time is where your readers experience your story. In manipulating story-time, you are shaping their experience.

Every event in a story does not have the same importance, the same “weight.” Professor Abbott distinguishes between the “main events” of the story, the ones that drive it forward, and the “secondary” events, which could be removed without changing the story’s structure.

In addition, at every moment in a story, we are focusing our readers’ attention somewhere. If we decide to devote a lot of story-time to the micro-events of one main event, then we are telling our readers, Pay attention! This is important! On the other hand, when we compress events, we are telling them, You need to know this, but you don’t have to stay for a long time.

So, as you write and revise your stories, one of the things you need to consider is where you want to focus your readers’ attention.

Take one of your stories and mark the places where you want your readers’ attention to spend some time. Think about why you are making these choices. Now re-write the story. What do you notice?

When you spend more story-time on an event, you are emphasizing that event, calling your readers’ attention to it. As you write and revise, making decisions about which events to emphasize, which to minimize, you are also shaping your story.