One of the things we begin with on Writers Retreats that helps the group to better know not only one another- but also themselves - is getting to the heart of what makes a good story and why and how we choose the stories we tell. By their very nature, human beings are storytellers. From the earliest days of pre-history sitting by the glow of the fire telling stories to make sense of the mysteries of the world all the way to myths, fables, fairy-tales, poetry and ballads to the invention of the novel, tv and movies – stories are both how we make ourselves understood to others and how we understand other people and the world around us.
Telling stories is at the very heart of the human condition, indeed, each and every one of us does it all the time. We've spent a lifetime amassing an arsenal of experiences and insights and almost as long learning to tell them. Everyone has an arsenal of stories that they tell themselves to make sense of their own lives as well as the various stories that we tell depending on the audience and the occasion. People tell a different story of themselves to a close friend or lover than they do at a job interview, business meeting or public speech. We all have our favorite dinner party stories we tell about ourselves or other people to inform, explain or entertain.
The very basic human instinct to want to share stories is at the very heart of the life of a writer. Knowing your story and crafting it to fit your medium and audience is the first step in good writing. Once you start seeing your life, your interests and experiences in terms of stories, you start to see the whole world in terms of story. You learn to look for stories everywhere and to find ways to tell them. Writing is just about putting the words and incidents, the scenes and settings, the emotions and insights on paper to make sense of them.
As you learn to think about life and the world in terms of telling stories and putting them on paper and to think deeply about what they mean to you, you also learn to breathe life into them so that others might appreciate them.You learn how to breathe life into your stories so that others will be effected by them. The best stories, whether from imagined fairy-tales, to realistic fiction to true-life incidents, tend to be evocative, to help explain how we react to things, how we feel about them.
When you know the story you wish to tell and why you wish you to tell it, the step of learning how to tell it on paper is not - and should not - be daunting, it should be both liberating and rewarding.
Even as far back as Classical Greece Aristotle posited that there are only two basic types of story: comedy and tragedy and only seven essential elements to each. The important thing to bear in mind is that no matter how many different types of stories you believe there are and how similar they may or may not be – the singular ingredient each writer brings to her telling of them is their own viewpoint and individual perspective.
Art is subjective and what each writer brings to the table is their own unique way of experiencing and feeling the world. Likewise, there’s no 'right way' to write, no one right answer to any writing question, no perfectly proven and true way to tell someone else how to write and tell their story. There’s the way that works best for you.
When you dig deeper into what stories you wish to tell and why you want to tell them, you start to understand better how you should tell them. The goal of a good writing group or writers workshop should be to embolden individuality and encourage writers to forge and follow the creative path that works best for each writer.
Writers are driven to create and creativity is about bringing something new and unique into the world. Writers and creatives should retain their ability to think and react in their own unique way, to keep their feelings their own but also to learn how to harness these feelings and write them so that they will resonate with others.
Writers are often told they need to find their ‘voice’ that elusive quality that makes their own work unique and identifiable. Some are born with a unique voice, some work hard to develop it.
Your experience and outlook are the first part of your voice and if cultivating a unique voice does not come easily or naturally to you when putting words on screen or paper, then you need to apply yourself to studying works and writers you admire and culling from them what you can use to cultivate your own voice. Joan Didion famously describes her early writing career as beginning with a daily ritual of typing out Hemingway short stories each day before writing in order to learn how his sentences work and how that effort helped her forge her own style and voice.
The more you think about voice from your favorite writers and their works, and try and see behind the curtain, the more you find the aspects of it that you wish to bring to bear and put in place in your own writing. Assemble a personal pantheon of writers you admire, of written work that you find wondrous in ability - then learn to read as a writer and analyze the method behind the magic. Just as great painters copy the old masters to learn style and technique in order to nurture their own artistic voice, so must writers be with their own role-models.
Learning from other writers, as well as like-minded peer groups, helps writers to find their own style and voice.
Once you start to see the world in terms of story and dedicate yourself to writing the story you want to tell, set yourself up for success by spending time living with the idea. The more it marinates in your mind, the greater will be your ability to write it and the tastier the final product for the writer and reader.
Think not only about what you want to tell and how you're going to tell it, but get familiar with why you want to tell this story.
The time to ruminate, reflect - and even critique an idea - is not while you are writing it but before you sit down to write it.
Your ideas have to be able to withstand your own self-scrutiny before they are ready to be scrutinized by others. The more you have thought about them and nourished them, the easier they will be to write.
Whether you are a plotter or a panster, when you fall in love with an idea for a story you want to write, make sure that you are able to distill it down to its barest essence and then commit to paper to give it legitimacy and make it real.
Play with the idea on paper, write freely about what you want to write or pretend that you're writing the back cover of the book or a New York Times Book Review of your own book. In this way, you not only start to believe in the idea of the story as a finished product but by writing about your writing, you learn what you need to learn about the idea, about what you think about it and what you hope others will think about it.
Good writing is learning how to tap into your instinctive storytelling self. Once you've committed yourself to the story you want to tell and why you want to tell it, you can start thinking in terms of how best to tell it for your desired medium and ideal audience.
All writing is storytelling. Whether writing fiction, non-fiction, memoir or movies, good storytelling is the skill that makes all narrative appeal to others. Whether to inform or illuminate, to explain or entertain, effective storytelling is about expressing experience and ideas to make others feel what we have felt and see the world in a new way. Stories are magic made manifest but if you apply your focus and craft, you can find the method that makes the magic of a great story.
The first step is knowing that you are a storyteller by nature and respecting and nurturing this outlook in your life. Once you have taken this step, the path toward writing your story starts to show itself to you much more plainly. There are guidelines, tradition and customs about how to write but ultimately the goal for telling your story should finding the way that works best for you and dedicating yourself to doing everything possible to tell your story the very best that you are capable of telling it.
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