Modes of Storytelling: Narrative (Show Don’t Tell)

In the forward to his book, The Fault in Our Stars, John Green wrote “Neither novel nor reader benefit in the attempt to divine what facts hide inside a story”, but the same can’t be said of searching for narrative in non-fiction. To me, a narrative in its simplest form is an implied story. No matter what you write, attached to it will be narratives.

Biographies, scholarly articles, even instruction manuals sometime include an example of someone understanding the facts presented to them. Often this is as simple as a label on a product that advertises, TWENTY YEARS OF CUSTOMER SATISFACTION, selling a narrative of historical benefits. You can find hypothetical narratives inside of newspaper articles, these are stories that beg questions like “Are your kids in danger if they attend a public school, yes!”. This click baity exaggeration of a headline tries to get you to read an article that could be as mundane as diet in public school cafeterias.

And what honors do we give those who present facts without narratives? Well, none.

Sure, there’s awards for Journalism, but the perspective chosen to tell the story is part of the decision to reward journalism, that perspective or angle of the story is also known as the narrative spin.

There are accolades for scientific discoveries, but those discoveries only exist because of the narrative provided to those funding the research. In fact, the scientific method requires scientist to form a hypothesis based on facts, these best guesses can be seen as narratives.

No matter how you look at it, our society is developed through, and rewards, our ability to spin facts into a story more than our power to present facts.

Why wouldn’t it? From one perspective, the facts will still be there no matter when they’re discovered, but a good narrative makes the effort to find them more palatable, it can even make the struggle attractive. Creating a narrative is likely an aspect of natural selection. We’ve evolved to find storytelling attractive.

Seriously, on a level of pure instinct, children create narratives when they lie to their parents, we cling narratives of religion to cope with loss, and we even invent our world through narratives that we call assumptions.

Example 1) “I have to walk to work in the rain, but perhaps I won’t get as wet if I run between the trees.”

Did I get wet, maybe, but there was a story of someone going outside into rain, struggling not to get too wet as they go to work. There’s also something even more intrinsic there too, this person hasn’t gone outside yet, only told them self a story to help decide if it’s a good idea. They’ve created a simulation and will now judge that narrative just as you have while reading it. That’s your instincts too, we’re all human.

Dan Harmon, the writer/creator of several American TV Shows including Rick and Morty and Community, has a theory of Storytelling he calls the “Story Circle”, I’ll get into that I cover Plot but the reason I bring it up is because in his how to write a story blog, his lessons revolve less around teaching you how to write, and more about showing you that you already now on some level. He condenses his lesson on how to write a story in a single word per step so that it can be chanted by cave dwellers around an open bonfire. It is on this level of instinct that our power to create narratives dwells.

Show don’t Tell

One of the most common questions I see asked by other writers is, what does it mean to “show don’t tell”. I’ve answered in dozens of ways with lots of examples, but I think it boils down to creating a world of narratives inside of what would otherwise be a simple description. Another way to phrase this is that narratives are so ingrained in our communication that Language is often optional in telling them, in fact body language is preferred. Think of the term, “show” don’t “tell” a story.

Example 2)

Telling a narrative within a story is like this:

“Shirley stood outside of the gym. She was nervous about going to a group therapy meeting, it’s not like sharing her story with strangers would help her cope with the death of her husband. When she looked inside, she saw they were sitting in silence, she left crying.”

Showing the narrative within a story is like this:

“Shirley stood in the cold, she held her arms across her waist as she stared through the window into the gym. In her clutched arms she pushed the small diamond attached to the wedding band her late husband had given her, it spun around her finger.

The other widows had already gathered the chairs into a circle, some donuts and stale coffee sat on a folding table just inside the door. Half of them had already shown up and were waiting in silence for their host. Some of the women didn’t even wear wedding bands. She would always wear hers.

She walked to her car crying, and panted under her breath, ‘I’m not like them, I’m not like them, I’m not like them’. She wouldn’t tell her sister like last week, no matter what her sister says Shirley never wanted to know why widows would no longer wore their bands.”

To be fair, I really undersold that first example, but basically it tells a story, while the second creates a series of small interconnected narratives that form a story. One creates a space or microcosm in which things can happen, the other only summarizes the facts.

Guess which one is preferred.

This leads me into my next post, Story Elements: Characters.

Oh, and shouldn’t we be writing?

Writing Basics

FnCraig’s Basics of Writing Theory

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For everyone about to begin their next great story this November, or for those of us who are at 20k or 50k words and don’t know what to say next, let me help. There are methods and perspective you can use to see your writing as half finished, and understand how that other half ought to be written and I want to share those with in order to flesh it out for myself a bit.

So, before I really start talking about how to write creatively, we need to hash out some basic concepts that most writers use but in their own unspoken words and subtle differences of opinion in how these ought to be expressed, the balance of these are the nuances that form an author’s style.

It’s also worth sayng that in order to be professonally published, each market in the world desires different balances of these concepts based on the popular culture. Now I don’t know much of the industry outside of the U.S. but that doesn’t mean anything since essentially, writing is so difficult that we just write whatever we can however we can and then find a market with authors that share a similar style. In that market will be a lot of competition but also an audience interested in your work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, before all of that, these are a few of the concepts we need to mutually understand in order talk “Writing Theory” (and may add more as I go).

Story Elements

Plot, Conflict, Character, Theme, Setting

Modes of Language

Narrative, Dialog, Description, Exposition, Interiority

Conventions of Written Language

Genre, Structure, Format, Word Play

Each one of these are big ideas are packed with a lot of different methods of blending these concepts, guidelines for using each, and plenty of exceptions to the rules. Every single one of these concepts can be expanded into novel length studies of the craft so bear with me if my next few posts are wordy.

Now, even beyond an author’s style or balance of these concepts, how your writing expresses these should change with different market traditions and trends, publisher preferences, and a thousand other minutiae, yet they’re all worth knowing, or at least being aware of, because how we approach the craft shapes the way an audience approaches our work. And you don’t need to know all of this but a publisher reviewing your work will know if you know even a few of these things at just a glance of your work.

Over the next several post I’m going to try and express a modest explanation of each of these terms and the concepts attached to them. At the end of each post I’ll find a few examples and deconstruct them so that you can deconstruct these elements in your own work. And in some distant post from now I’ll finally be able to work out Theory of Craft, which is to say, I’ll be able to suggest how one might use these ideas to construct a plot, or physic, or philosophy, that can make your own writing as complex and nuanced as any author.

And one day, I’ll be able to post fun things about my method of writing like other Blogs. Things like, To Pants or To Plot or even How I Gave Up On Reason and Learned to Forget My Plot

But for now:

Shouldn’t we be writing?

Chapter Length

Okay, so the time has come for some real Blogs writing. I’ll be adding my two bits about writing theory every other post and offering some reblogs from excellent perspectives on the subject.

Casia Schreyer - Author

One of the frequently asked questions over on the writers’ group I belong to is some variation of “how long should my chapters be?” The short answer is “It depends on the book”, but this isn’t the place for short answers, so let’s explore chapters.

A chapter is a natural break in the story and should always occur between scenes. It indicates a change in characters, a change in point of view, a change in setting, or a passage of time. Somewhere in the first half page of a new chapter, there should be some indication of where you are, how much time has elapsed since the last chapter ended, and who is present. The ending should be the end of a conversation, a person leaving, or an event wrapping up. It can end with a reveal, a question, or a tone/mood.

So how long?

In my Underground Series, I…

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Understanding Blogs (Wendig)

After last week’s post, (Goins), I was wondering if Blogs only exist to be a platform for dribble that publishers wouldn’t touch, but then a miracle happened, I found Terrible Minds.

Terrible Minds is the home site of writer Chuck Wendig, and for those who don’t know his writing, dude gets around. I knew him from his Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy and his work on Hunter: The Vigil, but he’s written his ass off. You can skip the rest of this paragraph once Wendig seems legit. After developing a table-top game for eight years he stretched his narrative muscle with a short story collection, Irregular Creatures, then wrote the Miriam Black series, which having read it, I took as Young Adult.  He followed that up with two series he pushed through Kickstarter, Atlanta Burns and The Heartland. I won’t be describing his comics, his other anthology, or his cyber-thriller, I haven’t read them, and I think his skills as a writer are pretty secure in the body work I’ve already listed.

All of that, ^ , that up there.

His blog doesn’t exist to convince us to buy those things. I have a theory that good writers write well enough for a common blog to convince potential customers to buy their books. That isn’t to say he doesn’t use the website to push his writing, of course he does, but he respects his readers enough to add substance to each post, and tactfully approach his marketing. A kind of “the purpose of my website is to sell books but aren’t these other closely related and well written ideas neat” way to sell his books.

In his most recent post, Michael Moreci: Writing Under The Influence,, Wendig offers the thesis: We’re Influenced by Influence. The post is about how culture affects/effects writing and other creative endeavors. He opens by citing an interview with David Foster Wallace. In this interview Wallace was asked about accusations that he was a gimmick writer, which suggest that Wallace used pop culture references negligently for character motivations and narrative. Wendig reminds us of Wallace’s response, his writing was a product of his experiences.

The article transitions to a paragraph about how weird this era is we live in, creatively. How social media and nonstop streaming, and obsessively accessible entertainment is ever influencing us.

So, this is how he approaches selling his books via blog. He sets up a situation that writers who read his blog are sympathetic toward and may even find useful. Then he uses that useful scenario as his platform to market his books. At the end of his “We live in a weird age” segment, He says, “let me give you an example:”. Then the next segment of this article describes two of his books as examples of cultural influences on writing. BAM. His writing has been marketed, and you the reader feel more comfortable about how culture influences your writing.

Wendig begins talking about how he sees Black Star Renegades and We Are Mayhem and tell us that sometimes he likes to joking call them “Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off.”

This is how he breaks down his philosophy of how it’s okay to allow influence, but not plagiarisms, into his works. He briefly waltzes through the culture he was raised in, Stephen King, John Carpenter, comics in general, and points out that the absorbing of cultural influence was, and still is, an important part of how he thinks creatively.

So, neat stuff. He ends by saying that he wouldn’t endorse plagiarism, but there’s nothing wrong in owning your love of things that have influenced your work… And then he offers links to purchase his knock off Star Wars novels.

Isn’t that pretty? Isn’t that kind? What a considerate writer. He sells useful information and pays his bills. The website itself is drenched with Wendig’s unique style of dark humor with a splash of the helpless (not hopeless) romantic. That kind of sardonic romance is on full display in his article, On Running, And Writing And How A Little Becomes A Lot.

This article has a noticeable story arc to it. Wendig begins by telling us that when he was in school they would make him run The Mile, and he sucked at it. Underdog, check. He resented it and thought running was stupid. Deny The Call, Check. Then after he got a bike and throughout his unfit adult lifestyle he thought everyone who ran was losers. Swiftly into the second act. But then, he had a kid. Moment of Crisis. He was too out of shape and couldn’t keep up with the little guy and realized he needed to change. Mirror Moment.

The article is broken into a delightful structure of words that I am too consumed with apathy to describe for you, but the link is up there. This bit about running, this is his way offering a familiar lesson in writing. Stephen King wrote the same philosophy in his book On Writing where King says, “if you only write three hundred words a day you’ll have a novel in a year”.

Wendig repackages it wonderfully by explaining that he never could run a mile before his thirty’s but now on a good day, he runs three miles.

“Writing is like that”, He says.

He then talks about his early writing practices. How in Jr High, he tried to just write a page at a time, then he raised his benchmark, and little by little he began to write a few hundred words at a time, then a thousand. He summarizes all of this by saying that on his best day, he’s never ran more than three miles, and on an average day he writes around two thousand words, on his best day he wrote fifteen thousand and his brain parts hurt.

Then he finishes this splendid article by telling his readers, “get to it.”

No marketing at all in the Blog. Though he offers a link to his book, Wanderers at the bottom of the page. Nice.

I don’t know what a blog should look like, but I do know that I would want to write with the authenticity and good taste that Chuck Wendig has toward his audience when I stop sucking at life.



Understanding Blogs (Goins)

So, I’ve been wanting to do a Blog for a while, but I didn’t know what I would write, you know, since there’s always the chance that someone would bother to read it. My plan is to get a grasp of what Blogs are by reviewing a few that are mostly focused on Writing and turn these reviews into my own 1st attempt at blogging. I’ve done some digging into other popular Blogs and while they seem okay I guess, there’s only a few that are sincere and not just a gimmick for a platform pusher, you know, an advertisement peddler.

So to clarify, this is not a post that will help YOU understand Blogs, but if you read this and my other reviews, maybe compare my ideas with your own interpretations, maybe WE can understand Blogs. As seen in the name of the website, this is an Impractical Praxis (An impractical method or strategy) , since neither of us are certain about Blogs, we’ll just have to learn this junk together.

In this is my first post, I had the misfortune of coming across a pleasantly constructed cease pool named goinswriter.com.

My first impression was this guy seems more of a drug pusher than a writer. In his article Why the Story of the Starving Artist Needs to Die, he pushes the central theme of his new book Real Artist Don’t Die.

Now about this Blog right. In my previous description, did you see what I mean buy “platform pusher”? He’s advertising his new book, and I’m not suggesting that his book is bad as I’ll do that later, I’m simply saying that there’s better ways to use a Blog, a more articulate way to provide something of substance for your audience, but I mean, its not like I’ve done any better yet. Then there’s the rest of his blogs and the premise for his book. You need to understand both before I can properly call this guy a tool.

I first found this website to because he had a How to Write style article, google searched even listed him among “how to write blogs” despite the fact that I could only find one such article. I assume Goins just has mad SEO skills. So his article on writing isn’t bad advice, it’s just the “ten easy step” formulae you could find better articulated of the same at Writer’s Digest or Write Practice though his has a small twist, it has “ten extra steps for publishing” which is just a cycle of rinse and repeat.

To be clear I don’t have beef with his method of copying talented people and adding his own twist, in fact that’s practically everything ever written to some extent. (e.g. – Shakespeare -> Marlowe).

My beef is with Goins is his painfully marketed optimism. His words aren’t here to inform the reader, they’re here to sedate them, comfort them, reassure them that the world isn’t so bad. Reduce their stress so that they can clear their mind. Which is evident in the title “10 easy steps to write a novel”, what a joke. There’s nothing easy about writing a novel.

Simple maybe, but not easy.

If that was the only thing that bothered me about Goins’ style of writing I wouldn’t bother writing a few hundred words, after all I’m a positive and optimistic nihilist, there are other Blogs I’d rather be reviewing, but then there is his book. I’m going to skip his other articles, because I’m not confident enough in my skills to offer an unbiased review, though in my biased opinion he simply keeps the same optimistically marketed writing voice and informs you that “you may have been mistaken, life isn’t that bad” with such articles as: Why you Failed at That Last Goal You Set (and How the Rule of Quick Win Can Save You), How to Create Something From Nothing: The Secret to Building a Product From Scratch, and If You Want to Help People, Start a Business.

I also don’t feel qualified to judge his book, but I don’t mind doing it anyway. Real Artist Don’t Starve, as he presents it in his article, is an argument that, in the modern age, a real artist wouldn’t starve since selling one’s work has never been easier. I simply stopped reading there and laughed myself into a rage.

Again, I had to assume this was the theme of the book as it was presented in his article because I was too incensed (that’s writer for pissed off) to pay money for a book marketing a fallacy. I assume the book runs along the same thought process of his Blog, which is: Sell Success to the Uninitiated in a Way That Won’t Make Me Feel Guilty. I assume that those who buy the book may be pleased by the evidence Goins would present about famous artist such as Michelangelo, who were seen as frugal and believed to be, metaphorically for their age, living paycheck to paycheck.

He would say but, “but they were actually very wealthy, because of this”, he might exclaim, “You too can be an artist and not starve.”

Its an argument against the starving artist that’s made by pointing out some of most talented artist in history weren’t poor. . . well Goins. . . Yeah. They weren’t poor, but I’m still starving. There are real artist with real problems. If this guys book is anything like his Blog he will try and put an author’s mind at ease, while a writer may buy this book with high hopes and instead find it full of recycled industry jargon and a thesis that leads them to blame themselves for their short comings.

To all the writers who are struggling, it’s not easy, and it’s rarely any one person’s fault if they can’t make it into the industry. This guy’s central message is like brain candy, sure its sweet and pleasing to hear, but it can rot your mind with an unhealthy world view.

Alter’d

Punch me in the throat

with lashes and grab my life in

your sanctimonious palm

before I suck down your precious kiss

and torn pantyhose,

while babbling worthless “I love you’s.”

 

Vehemently bleeding lies

and breeding sighs while earning

the incense of burning cigarette butts

crushed beneath us,

while you’re screaming profanities

which cut tension into acrid and lovely licks.

Your hips swish upon my corrosive rhymes

even on church nights. Singing hymns

which repent virtues by frolicking in sin

and shame which echo lame

I love you, not him”s.

Those words aren’t why I love you.

 

Look, here’s the thing,

ignore me, you see unlike he

my needs have no need to own you;

so, spew what’s his on my gaffer taped mouth,

while dressed to chaff and straddle this alter

so you can desecrate my faith in me again.

The Lonely Princess

Upon a lonely playground stands

a lovely castle with four towers

bound by chain bridges

and a slide upon her crown.

After a gloomy Sunday

her wet wood sits aching.

Withered Birthday banners

quarantine the family benches.

The princess painting is still tucked in her heart

though its glossed chalk has become blurry.

Sadly, the boys went in and

ruined her smile.

They’ve scratched away the paint from her chin to her yellow necklace,

and now mildew has stained it black. Their cuts making

her pink dress a gaping maw, and pearls

into its gnashing yellow teeth.

And once I leave, her only friend

will be a wasp.

Affair

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We walk down lanes fenced in by dancing lights
that flash a pantomime of the ride beneath its path.
Your smile bright and flickering, a bashful sprite
that vanished on sight into a blushing aftermath.

This is an ode to fragrant perjuries and proclamations.
Those imitations of life that hypnotize and encourage us.

You giggled while walking a bit out of sorts
We flirted and fumbled in happy hypocrisies.
We were violating funnel cakes with forks
and laughing at drunks while having drinks.

Smiling like diabetics searching for insulin and syrupy biscuits
we waltzed hand in hand pass magnanimous booths
with barkers who radiate ascendant hues
beside those two-dollar balloon games.

We were our own escalating prizes with no practical use.
Or those damned bagged goldfish, just a may-fly gift.

“Win your girlfriend a teddy!”, you begged,
“A box of tickets for you and the misses?”
“A picture of the happy couple?” Which I let you keep.
“A fun time for all” that we’d never forgive.

Everyone’s a winner,” we thought enchanting;
We had blushed to ride the carousel.
But it was,” our first ride,” carousing,
those cotton candy colored unicorns panting.

We were both so young, so entranced and transfixed
we had forgotten, that it was all rigged.

Bottle Rockets

 

When it's cold, for warmth
I think of the last time Dad and I shot fireworks.
I was eight on a shivering night in mid-January
in an old vacant lot near grandma's.

Dad surprised me with a big bag of bottle rockets,
the leftovers from his New Year's Eve party.
That night he showed me how to pinch the stem, 
then light the fuse and let go at the last second.

It was scary, not the sparks,
but how each bottle rocket seemed
too bright and brief spitting across the lot
before their cardboard corpses rained down.

Dad's death left me with a slow burn, I spent years
screaming scalding sparks in search of meaning
or anything that could ease the inevitability
of my own blinding detonation.

Now I shoot bottle rockets with my kids,
in mid-January we launch the leftovers of 
what was my new year, I shoot them barehanded 
into the empty night sky.

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