The Storyteller's Lesson

The Story is my master. I serve the Story; I listen to It, I watch over It. I bewail Its sorrows, I hail Its triumphs. I chant Its words. I sing the song of the Story, for I am the Story's voice.

Stories are not something that we make. They are something that we are. They are as much part of us as the air, our food, our friends our clothing our shelter. They are our parents and our children. When we wonder what we are, it is our stories that tell us. When we wonder what a thing is man, it is our stories that give us the answer.

Something that is so much of what we want to be, what we are, and what we will become must have great value?

Recently, in the history of the story, though it may seem like a long time to us, the story has been exploited by those who are able, dimly, to perceive that it has value, but cannot see what its value really is. They have sought to make a commodity of it, and they have sought to make the greatest profit from the smallest story; the biggest reward for the smallest effort. They have done this by trying to create formulae for a stories that will have the greatest possible appeal.

Now they that dimly perceive the value of the story vaguely understand that the story is about what we are, what we want to be, and what we are going to be. And they loosely grasp that while we all have the story in common, there is much variation in what we are, what we want to be, and what we can be.

And so, they say, the story must appeal directly to each of us. We must all feel close to its characters. That way we will all be hooked on the small story, and they will reap their big reward.

And, they say, there must be a way to write a story that does this thing: that every reader will feel a closeness, an association, a commonality, a sympathy, with the main characters, and this will tie him to the story. And they say that the way to do this is to give the reader the impression that the character's thoughts are in his head. And they say that the logical way to do this is that when the character does this or does that, the reader should read this as "I do this" and "I do that." In this way the reader can hardly avoid feeling like he is in the story, right?

And they say, of course not all readers have the same ideas or aspirations. And they say that each reader thinks of himself as a particular type of person; tough-guy, intellectual, starlet, scientist, ascetic, poet, artist, priest. And you can't bundle all of these into one character. And they say that you solve this by having several characters, each of whom combines a few compatible characteristics with which readers will identify.

And the Story is grasped firmly by the Smith, and heated in the fire, and beaten and split and twisted and then it is slaked in the style in mode.

I sing, of course, of the fashion for 1st person narrative with multiple points of view.

I don't think that one storytelling technique is inherently better than any other. But there is fallout from this fashion for multiple characters and head-hopping. Writers who do it because they think it's the only way. Writers who think that since a story includes many characters, that the story cannot be told by only one person. Writers who, when trying to switch from 1st person multi to 3rd person end up patchy, bitty and confused, with no characters fully in focus.

It all goes wrong when, as with every other damn thing in writing, you make a stylistic or narrative choice with your eyes shut. With your eyes shut, you can't see the story. If you can't see the story, you can't know the story, and if you don't know the story you can't tell the story.

Whoa there! Yes, you can write a good story by just sitting down and starting writing, can't you? You don't have to plan it all out?

Of course. But there's a reason why you can, and a reason why it doesn't always work. The Story is something you can know in a general way, the story you write in your book is an aspect of this general Story. If you know well what makes a story work, what makes it happen, then you can guide yourself through your writing, and produce a coherent story without planning. If, on the other hand, you conjure up a bunch of compelling characters and throw them into a nightmare scenario and then... well, what, really? At best you get a cliché.

The Story is my master. I serve the Story; I listen to It, I watch over It. I bewail Its sorrows, I hail Its triumphs. I chant Its words. I sing the song of the Story, for I am the Story's voice.

All this chanting isn't for nothing. You know the Story as well as I do. That's why you're a writer of stories. If you're having a hard time getting what you want through to your readers, if you're having a hard time getting it onto the page, the chances are you're letting major factors like narration and characterization get in the way of the story. The story itself is not singing. You need to look for what the story looks like. For me it's always a shape; sometimes an irregular polygon, sometimes a landscape, sometimes just a simple path, but always something I can see, describe, and name.

Editing has taught me to see the story that the writer hasn't seen. The Story has a way of getting itself told, and if you find yourself in constant rewrites, it could be because you aren't trying to tell the story that wants to be told.

Sitcoms put characters in situations. In a story, the characters are a requirement of the story; they aren't participating in an event; they are part of it. The events occur because of them, they are involved because they have no choice; they are actors, not spectators. Romeo dies because he is in love with Juliet. Juliet dies because she is in love with Romeo. Replace them with Mercutio and Rosalind, and nobody dies. What happens in a story happens because it must happen. Because it is the only thing that can happen. The Greek dramatists understood this inevitability well. Modern readers do too. That's why a restricted POV is little more than a game; an experiment in limiting the reader's expectations. That's why a restricted POV works well when writing, for example, a book about a teenager that is intended for adults (like Catcher in the Rye).

But it's also why a book written in 3rd person omniscient (or "storyteller" as I like to call it) will be a different experience to read when you are young from when you are older, and different again when you are older still. In real life we have a very broad view.

This essay is getting too long, so I'm going to try to wrap up.

If you put the story first, the characters will follow. If you know and understand the story well, the characters will be good, strong, meaningful characters. The reverse is not always true.

Once you are sure you understand well both the story you are writing, and the process, techniques and mechanics of stories, then you can start playing games with readers' perception through varying points of view.

To sum up: it is an error to suppose that when you sit down to write, you make a choice between 1st or 3rd person, omniscient or restricted, one character's POV or everyone's or noones. All stories are in 3rd person omniscient, whether you like it or not. Some stories look as if they are, and they are. Some stories look as if they are not, and they are. You don't need, however, to master 3rd person omniscient; it's the one that comes naturally. If you chuse to present your story in a narrative form other than 3rd person omniscient, then know that this requires planning and discipline and practice.

1 comment:

Kary English said...

Hi, Harry!

I also asked this question on KindleBoards - not sure where you prefer to have the discussion.

Could you unpack what you mean when you say that all viewpoints are 3rd Omni even when they don't look like it? It would be particularly helpful if you could give examples in first person and 3rd limited and show / tell how it is they they're actually omni.

Very interesting point about omni being the reason that stories grow and change with age. It's not, in fact, the story that changes. It's the reader.

*uploads coffee and chocolate croissants to fuel the discussion*

Many thanks!