Wednesday 11 May 2011

Story seems to be the hardest word

Lately I’ve been critiquing a lot of writing where the story is full of movement and people go from A to B in search of whatever, but it reads very dull and lifeless. All genres, no matter what demographic it’s aimed at, need story. But even if all the basic requirements are fulfilled, it can still read flat.

A guy is hungry. He has no money. He borrows some from a friend. He goes to the store. He buys some food and eats it. Now the friend wants a favour in return for the loan...

Things happen, someone wants something, there’s an obstacle, a solution is produced and there’s even a suggestion it’s headed somewhere. So why doesn’t it grip you? What we have so far is just a bunch of stuff happening. It isn’t interesting in and of itself, and if you want the reader to be engaged it needs something more.

So, what differentiates story from a bunch of stuff that happened?

You have the ability to judge which of the things that happen to you in real life are worth relating to others. You make that judgement all the time. You know if it’s worth repeating. You know who it’s worth repeating to. Some things you would only tell to people close to you who already know the people you know. But some you would tell to anyone you get into a conversation with. The difference between the two is what makes a story.

Consider, I tell you a woman at my work got fired because she was sleeping with one of the employees and they got caught. Sort of interesting, but you don’t know these people, it’s a fairly unremarkable story and you know nothing about the office politics of my job.

I could fill you in, start by giving some background on the company, some personal details of the people involved, their names, their history, my relationship to them, but will it be worth all that time it takes to bring you up to speed, just to tell you about someone you don’t know getting fired?

Now let me tell you another story. I was at work and the guy at the desk next to me needed some paper so he went to the supply closet and opened the door to find our boss bent over, her skirt round her ankles, while the guy from IT stood behind her completely naked apart from a Staples baseball cap.

You may then feel inclined to want to know what happened next. But that interest isn’t predicated on knowing back story or personal details about those involved. What happened is more important than who it happened to. The event, the action of the scene drives the curiosity to know more.

This isn’t just about the ‘inciting incident’ of a story that kicks off things at the start of a book, this is to do with any sequence anywhere in the story. And the nature of the scene doesn’t have to be quite as extreme as the one I used. It can be the way someone reacts. It can be what they say. It can be what they don’t say. But it needs to be a moment that can catch the interest of someone who knows nothing about the people involved.

A good story, whether it's across a whole book, or just part of a chapter, is one that requires minimal personal details going in. And which makes the reader want to know more coming out. What happened to her? Was she fired? What did she say? Where can I get a Staples baseball cap?

This is my theory. Any takers?


Luanne G. Smith said...

I think I just had one of those lightbulb moments. :)

Orlando said...

Great information letting us know how to put it all together.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Nicely put. One of those things we should know or think we do know but often don't.

Julia Hones said...

Interesting post. All too often I hear that backstory is redundant but I think backstory can have a postive touch in catching a reader's interest and it can help with characterisation. I have been reading writers who do it well. Contrary to what many critters say, it can work well. Just a thought.

Jenna Cooper said...

I can see that the incident is what sparks the reader's interest. But I do think that a huge part of the emotional pull (not just the curiosity pull) has to do with characterization. When a character in a book dies, you usually don't mourn how they die, but the fact that that character is dead (this is, of course, an extreme circumstance because not every beloved character dies). Given that, the incidents along the way should add up to the characterization.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments.

@Julia, @Jenna - backstory is a vital part of any story. But my point is about placement. If you try to portray a biography in twelve paragraphs before anything has happened, it will come across like a stranger cornering you at a party and forcing you to listen to their life story.

If you present the character involved in an interesting scenario first, then the reader will be hungry to learn more about your characters and what makes them tick.

If you can combine the two, characterisation within atention grabbing actions, I think it makes for stronger storytelling.

Jen said...

"Where can I get a Staples baseball cap?" LOL!

Great post, Mooderino, and I agree. The story about the supply closet definitely caught my attention, and I do want to know more about these people now. And you've also sneakily introduced a third character - the co-worker who found them. What was his reaction? Did he laugh? Was he outraged? Did he email everybody straight away?

More importantly, is this a true story? If it is, your workplace sounds more interesting than mine!

Katie O'Sullivan said...

Great post - I love how you explain that while backstory may be important, we need to care FIRST.

And where can I get a Staples baseball hat?

Sarah McCabe said...

I think what you're saying is the difference between telling someone a bunch of facts that remain abstract to that person or relating an event in such a way that the person can visualize it happening. And that's what storytelling is all about.

Anonymous said...

Great illustration! I think that great storytellers paint vivid pictures and spark emotion, putting their readers smack-dab in the action, imagining the scene and how they would deal with whatever has just been portrayed.

I’m blogging my way back from Z to A, and I’d love for you to take a peek at my “R” post: Right Here, Right Now..

mooderino said...

@Jen - no, it's not true at all and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. I don't even own a Staples baseball cap. Anymore.

@KatieO - yes, exactly. And there's no reason I would know where to purchase a Stapes baseball cap since I was not the man in the story. Although since we lose 75% of our body heat through the head, a hat would have been a wise choice. Hypothetically.

@sarah - what I'm saying is even if you paint a vivid picture of exactly what's going on, that is not enough to make it automatically interesting. Storytelling is about having a story to tell.

@word nerd - yes, you have to make the reader engage with the scenario you are presenting.

cheers for all the feedback, you're input is greatly appreciated.

Sultan said...

Fine post: you have elucidated this quite gracefully.

On a slightly different note, on some level it seems to me, from my naive point of view, that the best fiction makes the reader identify with and care about the characters. What happens to them is often less important than how I feel about them. I am not stating what I mean very artfully, sadly, hopefully with some thought I will be able to make more sense.

The Stray said...

"what I'm saying is even if you paint a vivid picture of exactly what's going on, that is not enough to make it automatically interesting. Storytelling is about having a story to tell."

I'm not sure the example you used illustrates that point, though. You turned the interesting fact ( a woman got fired at work for getting caught with a coworker) into a story just by adding in the vivid details. A great lot of stories sound somewhat dull and uninteresting when boiled down to a sentence or two...just check out this link:

The various subpages are full of examples close to your "Interesting fact" synopsis. For example, there's a famous movie about a dozen guys sitting in a room and arguing for an hour and a half. The movie? "12 Angry Men."

An interesting story could be told about the guy who borrowed money to go to the store. The important bit is the details used to bring that story to life.

I understand the point you're attempting to make, though. I've written my share of terrible stories that are nothing more than "Event A leads to Event b leads to Event C." However, stories like that can also be entertaining when done well. "Cugel the Clever" by Jack Vance comes to mind, as does "Don Quixote" and "Pulp Fiction." The difference is in the characters.

I think that to get anything out of a story, you need to care about the characters. A plot, when you boil it down, really IS just "Event A leads to Event b leads to..." so without good characters to follow on this journey, the reader won't care. "A Woman" and "A coworker" aren't characters. "My boss" and "the IT guy in the red Staples hat" are (as is "my friend," though he needs some development...after all, why did he turn the two in?)

The guy in "A guy went to the store" needs to be a character, too, since there's a vast difference between the guy being, say, "Moe the chronic alcoholic" and "Donald Trump the billionaire industrialist." All stories can be boiled down into either "a person goes out and does stuff" or "stuff happens to a person." The events move the story. The people involved are what the story is about.

This might be where the stories you critiqued failed...a lot of beginning writers (and even some not-so-beginning ones) focus too much on the events, while leaving their character bland and dry. In that horrible story of mine I mentioned, the main character was a Villain Sue who effortlessly demolished all his opposition reaching his target. I was focused so much on cool fight scenes that I neglected to make the character interesting and unintentionally garnered sympathy for the poor, doomed person that was to be the victim.

So maybe the events in the stories you critiqued are dull, flat, and lifeless because the characters suck. Just my 2 cents.

CBame13 said...

Thanks to this post, I have to go do some rewriting. Thanks for the great insight!

mooderino said...

@Anson - hello! nice long comment.

If I vividly described the woman getting fired and walking ashamed through the office, by the water cooler, past the photocopier etc. It wouldn't be interesting. it's not the vividness of the detail, it's the idea I'm presenting.

Yes, an interesting story can be told in a simplistic A to B to C manner, but they serve a different purpose and requie a different, more documentary aproach. The film Pickpocket is a wonderful, gripping movie about pickpockets, showing how they operate. But it works in a very different way to a regular film, as does 12 Angry Men.

Caring about characters is one way to get readers interested (although not the only way) but HOW do you get readers to care about them? The problem is aspiring writers go in already caring about their characters so they see mundane activity as far more engaging than a reader does. That's why they think loads of backstory will make readers love the character as much as they do.

It's what people do that makes them interesting.

Action reveals character.

The stories I read failed because they were too boring. The most loveable character in the world can't make doing nothing interesting (unless it's your baby). But a story-worthy idea can make even hatefeul characters interesting to read about.

Cheers for the response.

Anonymous said...

Conflict. This comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I use a large cast of characters (all the more people to kill along the way) so there is no shortage of conflict. Toss in greed and incompetence and there is never a dull moment.

M J Francis said...

I definitely think action and characterisation go hand in hand for the most part. The difference between your two scenarios (simply saying the boss had sex with the IT guy, so she got fired; compared with I sent Joe off to fetch a new ream of paper, when he opened the stationary cupboard door to find his boss bent over etc. etc.) is about how the writer sets up the scene. Something mundane leads to a surprise. Surprise is key, then wondering what the consequences/reactions will be. That little humorous touch with the IT guy wearing nothing but a Staples baseball cap helps, too, which is characterization. The skill of the writer shows in how they transform something that could be quite boring by using a variety of narrative techniques (building suspense, etc.) with an interesting narrative voice and characters' idiosyncrasies.

mooderino said...

@MJ - I agree, it's the unexpected nature of how the info is revealed and the use of detail to highlight the contrasts that makes it work. If I described a scene with a guy wearing a cap and the woman who is my boss, but what they are doing is discussing office supplies, the characterisation won't lift the scene into an interesting place.

However, if I told you my friend Dave turned up to work this morning stark naked, or if I said Dave turned up to work stark naked except for a Staples baseball cap, both grab the attention, but I know which version is more attention grabbing. And it isn't because the hat gives you a clearer characterisation of Dave (although it does that as a byproduct).

My point is if i have a story about Dave, the detail of the hat he always wears does help define him, but it's only when I use the detail within context that it comes to life. What a lot of aspiring writers do is just describe the hat and think that's characterisation.

Talli Roland said...

Character growth, for me.

The Stray said...


Ah, so what you're describing is the Build-Up Disease. I still maintain that you could tell an interesting story about the bosses' walk of shame through the office, but the story would be about her inner turmoil and thoughts, not the simple act of walking. It would need to be written so the conflict is about her grappling with her humiliation as she walks.

What I think you're trying to get across is that not all mundane actions will lead to a story and should be included in one. This I can understand. Some authors can get away with the slow build (Tolkien, for instance), but most stories should start at the point of change from the mundane. I've heard this described as the "in late, out early" principle...getting a story started right when things are getting interesting, then leaving the scene when it starts to settle too much.

Even Tolkien knew to start at the point of change. "The Hobbit" starts with Bilbo getting a visit from Gandalf. "The Lord of The Rings" starts with Bilbo's birthday, when he leaves the Shire and wills everything to Frodo. A lot of new fantasy authors, trying to follow the pattern Grandfather Tolkien left, try to start with the mundane as a contrast to the fantastic, but they don't catch the fact that both stories still start with a change from the normal.

This sort of throat-clearing may be necessary for them to get to know their characters, so it's not entirely wasted writing, but it should be set aside once the story actually starts.

If you're writing a story about Joe needing paper and finding his boss and the IT guy going at it in the supply closet, then yes, you don't need Joe coming into work, getting coffee, complaining about the boss's latest inane memo about covers sheets for the TPS reports, scratching himself when he thinks no one is watching, working at his desk to get that damn TPS report ready, finding he's out of paper, going to the supply closet and findings his boss bent over, her skirt round her ankles, while the guy from IT stood behind her completely naked apart from a Staples baseball cap, him running around excitedly telling everyone in the office, then watching smugly as she leaves the building after being fired. You need the most important bits, the ones that make the story what it is.

However, what one chooses to include in the story can still be interesting. If the story is about Joe getting revenge on his boss after walking in on her in flagrante delicto, then the details about him being frustrated about the TPS reports are important to the narrative. If the story is about her Walk of Shame afterward, told from her point of view, then the details of her getting leering smirks and a smug grin from Joe who sold her up the river are going to be important.

It all depends on the context in which they're framed. "Show, don't tell" only applies to the important bits, the ones that provide that context. Other mundane events can be summarized.

Am I getting at the heart of it?

The Stray said...

Aw, poo. All the comments were eaten by the Blogger downtime.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Good post. For me, what drives a good story (on top of what you've said here) is tension and narrative voice, a.k.a. "the delivery". My uncle, for instance, can tell a joke like nobody else. The minute he opens his mouth, we start laughing, because there's just something about way he tells a joke that makes it ten times funnier than if somebody else was telling it. With books, tension and voice are the equivalent, I think.

Unknown said...

I agree with you. My interest is piqued when I read about the things happening before I'm introduced to the players.

Ellie Garratt said...

I say she was from another planet and needed to get pregnant. The guy in the Staples hat was a genetic match, only he had this thing about doing it in closets. She didn't get fired because she ate him and the guy who found them. Okay. Getting a bit carried away here . . .

Great post!

Halli Gomez said...

I think you are right about an incident drawing readers in even before they really meet the characters. Depending on the event you are writing about, the reader may see themselves in that incident; therefore, drawing themselves more into the story.

Heather M. Gardner said...

Damn that made so much sense. How do you do that? And where the hell do you work?

Thanks for the clarity!


Dane said...

Unfortunately it sounds like we've been reading a lot of the same stories. You made a good point. I hope to incorporate it in my writing.

Tatum Flynn said...

I agree with you and with Jennifer - some people can always make a story interesting because of the way they tell it. As for stories, excellent point - it's the difference between a funny or interesting anecdote that you tell time and again, and something that only your best friend would be interested in and it's quickly forgotten.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments. Cheers!

I've been hoping to get the rest of the comments back from Blogger but no luck so far.

dolorah said...

Somewhere out there somebody posted a statistic that people only read action. Or dialogue. So now all the writings I'm reading are packed full of action, with no plot; or dialogue that is info dump on character development.

Defeats the purpose in my world view.

I blame the popularity of video games.


Rebecca Bradley said...

An absolutely a great way of explaining it. A great example. Thanks for sharing.

Margo Berendsen said...

Excellent examples with impressive contrast between the two approaches - telling what happened at work, versus telling a STORY. Story raises a question that MUST BE answered.

mooderino said...

Aha! Return of the comments. Probably too late for anyone to care, but thought I'd answer The Stray's last comment:
@Anson (The Stray) — “I still maintain that you could tell an interesting story about the bosses' walk of shame through the office, but the story would be about her inner turmoil and thoughts, not the simple act of walking.”

No, I don’t think it would. You could describe her anguish in great detail and make it palpable for the reader but to what end? Imagine if you went to a bar and told someone about how upset your boss was when she got fired, and spent ten minutes describing her pain and humiliation, would the person listening care? Or would they look at you like, why are you telling me this? Well described detail of something doesn’t make that thing interesting. Now, if her reaction was in some way remarkable then that might be worth relaying to someone. And I think we all know when someone does something that makes it worth telling, and when it’s just info for those already interested in the character (in this case fellow workers and maybe spouses).

I think what you’re saying is basically true, but not really anything to do with the point I was making. I think people got distracted by my naked man in a closet example and we ended up talking about characterisation.

Let me try another example. Jackson likes to gamble. The writer knows the basic rules of good storytelling. He wants the reader to know Jackson is a gambler because it is pertinent to the story later. So he has Jackson go to the local betting shop and place a bet on a horse race and watch the race and win some money. All this is written in vivid detail at a flowing readable pace.

What I’m saying is that even though the writer has achieved his goal in showing the reader how Jackson rolls, that isn’t enough. If I’m going to tell you a story about how Jackson likes to gamble, then it better be a story worth telling.

Even though it isn’t back story (it’s happening now) and it isn’t exposition (it’s showing you, not telling you) it has the same problems as those two. It isn’t interesting, and even though some people may find Jackson so likeable they’ll be into whatever he does, you can’t rely on that going in. The writer may have formed an attachment to the character before the start of the story, the reader hasn't.

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