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

Story Lesson 24: The Relationship between Writer and Reader

But the eye and the ear are different listeners, are different audience. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art.…the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener…
—Jane Yolen, introduction to Folk Tales of the World

 

The Relationship between Teller and Listeners
At the heart of any told story—told out loud or on the page—is a relationship: the relationship between the storyteller and the audience.

 

In oral cultures, the existence of stories depends entirely on this relationship; without it, the story would not be told, could not be remembered. In cultures without writing, stories depend for their lives on the face-to-face engagement of tellers and listeners.

 

Until the twentieth century, almost all fiction replicated this relationship: the narrator of the story was talking TO his or her readers. But then the nature of written storytelling changed. Wallace Hildeck (a writer and teacher) points out: Read More 

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Story Lesson 23: The Language of the Imagination

If you want to make images come alive in the mind of your reader, then you need to use a specific kind of language: I call it “the language of the imagination.” We could also call it “the language of the senses.”

If you’ve been doing all the practices, you’ll remember that a well-developed faculty of imagination depends on strong powers of observation. In the same way, the language of the imagination depends on words that evoke sensory experience. Read More 

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Story Lesson 22: Letting Images Lead

PRACTICE: LISTENING TO PICTURES 3
Choose a story—a short one—that you want to write (or are in the process of writing). This can be a brief anecdote, a folktale you want to retell—anything you like. Now be relaxed, and then let the story unfold in your imagination, one image at a time. Try to concentrate on images that involve action or happenings. As with the previous practice, it’s fine if words come as well (if characters are speaking, for instance), but try to keep your attention on the pictures.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 21: Listening to Pictures

The imagination is central to making stories, for when a reader reads one of our stories, it takes place in her or his imagination. Whether the story is true or invented, realistic or fantastic, it is never taking place, for the reader, in the world around her; it is always taking place in an world inside her head, an imagined world. (In this respect a story, whether told or read, is different from a play, which is taking place in front of the audience’s eyes.)

If we want our stories to speak to the imaginations of readers, then, we need to know something about the faculty of imagination.

You may want to take some time to review the imagination practices (lessons 16-20).

The imagination is the mental faculty that thinks in pictures. It is a storehouse of images taken from direct observation of the world around us, from books and magazines and movies and anything else we encounter that we pay attention to. From this storehouse we select images to use in our stories, and we combine bits and pieces of images in order to make new ones. Finally, we use the medium of language to transfer the pictures in our minds to the imaginations of our readers.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 20: Thinking in Stories

“Thinking in stories” sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? What could thinking and stories possibly have to do with each other?

In school, when (supposedly) we are taught to “think,” we are taught what is known as “abstract thinking,” the kind of training of the intellect that provides the foundation for all academic disciplines. While skill in this kind of thinking is necessary for those who want academic careers, and while it has its uses in ordinary life, it’s not of much value to imaginative writers—in fact, if you want to write creatively, too much training in abstract thinking can handicap you.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 19: Movement

Whichever tools you make use of in your writing, and whether or not you construct an elaborate plot for your story, there are two things you will have to consider:focus (or theme) and path.

If, as Ursula LeGuin says, all stories involve change, then we can think of a story as taking our readers on a journey. But what kind of journey is it?

To answer that question, we need to know the focus of the story: what is it really about?  Read More 

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Story Lesson 18: Learning from the Pros

Several times so far in these lessons, I have encouraged you to turn to a story by your favorite writer to see how some aspect of it works, and then to imitate that technique. I want here to emphasize how important for your learning this study and imitation of a master writer is.

Although  Read More 

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Story Lesson 17: Story Process

How do we begin to make a story? It seems to me that there are lots of “ways in” to the process, and each writer needs to find the one that works for her or him. Most likely, you already have a process that you like to use. And you have probably found, as I have, that not every story is born and grows in exactly the same way.

So rather than setting out specific steps to follow every time you want to write a story, let me offer you some tools.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 16: Story, Plot, and Character

If you have read a lot of writing manuals, you will undoubtedly have found instruction in how to create a plot. You may have come to the conclusion that plot and story are the same thing. But they are not.

The stories told in oral cultures do not have plot as we moderns are likely to understand the term. In Orality and Literacy, Professor Walter Ong observes that highly structured plots of the kind we are used to reading can only be created through the use of writing. We are usually taught that plot structures— climactic and linear— are the only way to organize story materials. But plot came into being only with writing. It was first discussed (in writing, of course!) by Aristotle, not in reference to oral storytelling, but in reference to Greek drama, which was composed in writing. Read More 

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Story Lesson 15: More on Story-Time

As we’ve seen, the world of story exists outside of real time; that may be one of the key sources of its power. Any time we hear or read a story— if the enchantment is strong enough— we may leave the realm of ordinary life, where the clock ticks on and a hour passes unnoticed; we may enter the story-world, where a hundred years pass between the moment Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle and the moment when she is awakened by the prince’s kiss, or where in an instant a twig grows into a tree.  Read More 

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

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.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 13: The World of “What Happens?”

And after all, it is not the expectation of a happy ending that carries us on. Rather it is the unraveling of the story itself; it is the traveling and not the destination.
—Jane Yolen, introduction to Folk Tales of the World

What makes a story? There are lots of answers to that question. Some people think that story demands a main character driven by desire. Others think that stories require lots of action, or conflict. My view is different. I believe that, at its most basic, a story is a series of happenings. To make a story, in its most elemental form, is to say: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

Whenever I have spent time with small children, I have heard this fundamental narrative drive. Phoebe, then five, once told me this story: Read More 

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Story Lesson 12: Invention

Selection and Invention
Inexperienced writers often find it difficult to “patchwork” with material collected from their own lives. But the ability to remove story-elements (events, people, etc.) from their original context is an essential skill for writers who want to be good storytellers.

I know that these days, in many writing classes and books, the main emphasis is on “being honest,” or “telling your truth.” But the best stories reveal truth, not by obsessive fidelity to every detail of an experience, but by the selection and arrangement of the most important details. To become skilled at making good stories, you need to know, not only how to collect material, but how to select from it. Read More 

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Story Lesson 11: Patchworking

Patchworking

In her introduction to her anthology, Favorite Folktales of the World, Jane Yolen, a writer and storyteller herself, tells us that, as she researched and gathered tales,
I was reminded again and again how bits and pieces of stories—archetypal characters, situations, magical hats or sticks or rings—have been lifted from one teller’s quilt and sewn into another. The patchworking of Story is endless. Read More 

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Story Lesson 10: Playing with Story Material

Once you’ve collected some material for stories, you’ll probably need to play with it for a while before you understand how to proceed. It’s certainly possible that, as you collect your material, you suddenly see how you can use it to create a story; more likely, though, you’ll need to play with the material in different ways first. Here are some things to try: Read More 

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Story Lesson 9: Retelling Stories

A kid who wants to be a baseball player will often pick a professional athlete to imitate. That’s because one of the main ways humans learn is through imitation. We writers can learn our storytelling skills in the same way.

There are a number of skills we need in order to be good storytellers; one of the most important is being able to come up with events for our stories. Read More 

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Story Lesson 8: An Instinct for Story 2

STORIES FROM WITHIN
So far we’ve been collecting material for stories from outside sources; naturally, we can also collect story-material from inside ourselves, from our memories, our imaginations, or both.

PRACTICE: Stories from within 1
Using the freewriting technique, write as many sentences as you can that begin with I want to tell a story about.... or I want to tell that story about... Let yourself just play as
you do this.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 7: The Instinct for Story

When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts—only for the day. Today we live, but by tomorrow today will be only a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer  Read More 

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Story Lesson 6: Story Materials 3

Ideas and material for stories can come from anywhere: from our own experiences or those of our friends; from history or current events; from tales told in our own cultures or in other places around the world; from our observation; from our imagination. If we want to write stories, all we have to do is pay attention, and stories will come to us. Read More 

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Story Lesson 5: Story Materials 2

To make a story, you need ideas and material, just as a cook who wants to make soup needs vegetables and salt and stock. It’s impossible to create a story out of nothing. Where do these ideas and material come from? They can come from outside you—from your reading or your observation—or they can come from inside you—from your memories or your imagination. In both cases, if you want to be able to discover and use this material, you need to collect it. Read More 

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Story Lesson 4: Telling Stories

In oral cultures, when someone wants to learn to tell stories, she or he undergoes a process of learning that is quite different from what we typically engage in in school. First, an aspiring storyteller has to listen to lots and lots of stories, and she may have listen to the same story a number of times. Without writing, she can only absorb the story into memory by receiving it through her ears, and by letting it sink into her subconscious. (The faculty of memory is, as you might expect, developed among oral peoples to a degree we would consider phenomenal.)  Read More 

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Story Lesson 3: Listening to Story

The Value of Story
In oral cultures, the storyteller was highly valued. That’s because, in addition to entertainment, he or she preserved in story the traditions and values of the culture. The storyteller was cultural historian, teacher, and repository of wisdom. Jane Yolen points this out in her introduction to a collection of folktales from around the world: Read More 

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Story Lesson 2.1: The World of Story (continued)

Let me tell you a story…

Ah, the magic of those six words! The invitation to sit back, relax, and surrender ourselves to the power of story. We can all recognize the voice of a writer who is a great storyteller:

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

Marley was dead, to begin with…

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

Once upon a time there lived a poor woodcutter who had three sons…

The voice of a storyteller on the page, just like the voice of an oral teller, grabs our attention, makes us want to keep listening, keep turning the pages. Can we learn to do have that kind of hold on our readers? Yes, we can. But we need first to understand a few things about what a story is.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 2: The World of Story

Imagine, if you will, a world where there is no print. No books. No newspapers and magazines, no billboards, no road signs.

Now imagine that there is no writing at all: no letters, no diaries, no notes passed in class.

And now imagine that there are no letters, no alphabets of any kind.

And now, if you can, imagine that this world without books and writing and letters is not one where those things have been wiped out, but one in which they have never existed, in which they have never even been imagined.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 1.1 Finding Stories

To become a storytelling writer, you need, first, to read lots of stories. Perhaps you do this already: you read genre fiction, which is usually story-based, or children’s books. But if you need to deepen your experience of story, you may want to turn to tales from traditional cultures, re-tellings of those tales, or stories by writers working within the story-telling tradition.

You do not need to “study” these stories; rather, just let yourself enjoy them—let them become part of you. As these lessons continue, you’ll discover many ways to make use of them. For now, though, it’s enough to read for pleasure.

To get you started, here are some lists of books you might like: Read More 

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Story Lesson 1: The Spell of Story

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.

 

Telling Tales

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.

 Read More 

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