Monday, 21 October 2013

Modern Storytelling



Predictability stems from familiarity. You know what’s coming next before because you’ve seen it before and you know where it’s going.

But familiarity is also a basic part of storytelling.

Good versus evil, boy meets girl, monsters in the dark — these sorts of stories have been told in one form or another since we developed the ability to communicate.

So, how do we write stories that satisfy our need for certain types of narratives, and at the same time make them seem fresh and original?

There are many books on writing that break down the structure of a novel into individual building blocks.

If you strip down a bunch of stories to their basic components you will notice a lot of similarities. The patterns you’ll find in one type of story will be repeated in a different story in a different genre.

This could lead you to believe that most stories have a common underlying structure. Which is a reasonable assumption since it happens to be true.

However, this knowledge alone isn’t necessarily going to help you write your novel, and in many cases it can lead to obvious and predictable storylines.

Just as every person has pretty much the same skeleton, and that skeleton is an essential part of what makes them them, it takes a bunch of other stuff on top to create a fully-fleshed person. And it’s the variation in those layers that makes each of us a unique and beautiful snowflake.

The problem with a lot of how-to books and blogs on writing is that they’re often very good at pointing out where the bones go, but not so clear on how to attach the muscles and blood and skin, or how far apart the eyes should be or when is a nose too big. Which is understandable since they are just explaining the basics, expecting the writer to work on the more advanced stuff themselves.

But in some cases the template can sound so definitive that the writer never goes beyond the basics, so that ideas like The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat produce cookie-cutter stories that feel obvious and predictable.

It’s important to keep in mind the difference between a character’s goals and how they go about achieving them. While humanity’s goals have changed little throughout history (to be happy, to be well regarded, to have love, to have power, and so on) how we’ve gone about getting those things has changed a lot.

What you believe it means to be a man, to be a woman, what’s the right thing to do, what’s worth dying for, everything that happens in your imagination and where it leads is shaped by the time in which you live.

And since writers that came before didn’t live in this time, if you allow your sensibilities to infuse your work it will automatically create a new approach to even the oldest premise across all genres.

A sci-fi story written in the 60s may be set in the far flung future, but it resonates with the concerns and events of its own time. Historical fiction about the War of the Roses will be coloured by the authors views on patriarchy, monarchy or some other socio-political facet that we view differently now from then. And new research is constantly changing our perceptions of the past, just look at how our view of Christopher Columbus has changed from plucky adventurer to brutal invader.

Allowing your modern view of the world into your fiction may seem anachronistic at times, but it’s what writers have always done and it’s what has enabled each generation’s take on classic narrative structure to speak with an original voice.

You can of course deliberately try to negate that. If, for example, you wanted to write the book Jane Austen never got round to, written in her style about her characters, that is certainly possible and I have no doubt there would be a market it for it, but it would be considered a pastiche or fan fiction because it’s impossible for the writer to match the authenticity of someone actually from that period.

Similarly, no one can authentically speak in today’s voice unless they happen to be living now, whether it’s how we view society, how we communicate with each other, or how we view the past or the future. Rather than rely on books and movies to inform your view of story, just by considering what you and the people around you think about the themes and issues in your story you’ll immediately be on a less well trodden path that will help differentiate your stories from those that came before.
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12 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The themes and mood of today invade our writing - I guess that they do. Of course, one's views also depends on a lot of other factors. That adds to the diversity, I'm sure.

Lexa Cain said...

I like how the skeleton became a snowflake analogy (lol!) - and loved the funny pic at the end. Save the Cat is a brilliant book, but you're right, it can only take a writer so far. You have to be on your guard against cliches. Great post!

Sarah Allen said...

It is quite a balancing act, keeping the tride and true forms and themes without going into the land of cliche. Great post.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

mooderino said...

@Alex - i think it takes more effort to keep our views out of our writing.

@Lexa - cheers.

@Sarah - I think you have to trust your instincts (and make adjustments when you get it wrong).

Rachna Chhabria said...

"If you strip down a bunch of stories to their basic components you will notice a lot of similarities. " I agree that there is a common underlying thread in many stories. I am going to get a copy of Save the Cat.

LD Masterson said...

I think sometimes that age plays a significant role in the view as well. I know I see the current time from a very different angle than someone in their early twenties. We're writing about the same point in time and yet we're not.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - just remember to be flexible.

@LD - Indeed. You being you is the other added advantage you have over other writers.

Elise Fallson said...

I had a long winded comment written out for you but now it's gone. Damn it. Anyway, this post couldn't have come at a better time because it's an issue I'm dealing with right now pertaining to a story idea that kept me awake half the night last night. It’s a theme that has been told many times over but I trying to modernize it without making it feel totally foreign to the reader. The balance is proving to be difficult, but I think it's worth a shot.

mooderino said...

@Elise - I think mostly it comes down to being honest. How things strike you, what you feel is right or wrong, how people react will all automatically carry a great deal of modern thinking. And when in doubt ask a young person their view on the matter, that's usually an eye opening experience.

E.J. Wesley said...

Learning when/where to deviate from structure is so important. And as you've so excellently explained, sometimes it's more about embellishing the structure.

James Bond movies are iconic and awesome because they don't rewrite the formula each time, but rather figure out a way to push their own tropes to new levels.

There's no shame in treading a well-worn path, just don't do it blindly. :) Great post Mood!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Very interesting. I've had a discussion with my husband about the popularity of dystopian and zombie movies among young people is tied to their bleak outlook on the future. In so many YA novels, the adults have ruined the world and it's up to the young people to do better.

mooderino said...

@EJ - There are some types of stories we want to see again and again. the theatre in particular is about seeing new versions of the same text. People still find something new in them after hundreds of years.

@SG/K - I sometimes think entertainment aimed at younger people is used to mollify them and keep them quiet. Be the hero in a book or videogame just don't get involved in the real world. Every generation seems to be getting the older one out and then refusing to let the younger one in (until forced to). Round and round we go.

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