The next several lessons are a course in the basics of making stories. These lessons derive from a course I taught for a number of years in the MFA Program in Writing at Lesley University. They provide fundamental practices to help you become a better storyteller on the page.
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 that was important to the people of the culture 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 shows 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. Surely, a voice in my mind has said, when stories held a culture together, they must have had great power. I have 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, words that lure our attention with their promise of pleasure, words that cast a spell over our imaginations.
I think there must be something in the human mind, something innate, which needs stories; there is something about telling stories and listening to them that is naturally human. One scholar of stories 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 minds. As I have been thinking about this phenomenon, I have come to think that there really is a kind of "story-spell" —a kind of magic which a good story casts over our minds. As a writer and teacher, I want to learn everything I can about how to cast that kind of spell.
But 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 their stories so compelling?
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, while 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 building 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.
It helps to begin your journey into the world of story by becoming conscious of what you already know about stories. Continuing on from the first practice, write down your thoughts about story: What makes a good one? What are some of your favorites? Why? 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, though, 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 learn to invent happenings to make a story; you'll also find the narrative voice (or voices) that lets you best tell the stories you make up.