Month: October 2010 Page 1 of 3

3 keys to storytelling

There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re driving. Stay between the lines, watch the speed limit, check your mirrors, signal when turning, DO NOT TEXT…

The list goes on and on. It’s a wonder that anyone can get in a car and go somewhere when we’re supposed to follow so many rules at the same time. But the human brain is an amazing thing, and people drive all the time with no problem.

(Well, some people drive all the time with lots of problems. I honk at those people.)

Anyway, writing is kind of similar. You have to mind your punctuation, spell things correctly, match your nouns and verbs, organize thoughts into sentences, organize sentences into paragraphs… The list goes on and on.

But these are the mechanics of writing, and after a while, they become second nature, just like using your turn signal or obeying a red light. (Yes, those should be second nature!)

What’s harder to remember is how to tell a good story. Probably because there are so many different ways to accomplish that. Now, I’m hardly an expert, but back at the Kenyon Review workshop, I did learn about 3 things that have really improved my storytelling: Object, Conflict, and the Ticking Clock.

The Object is something threaded throughout a story that the reader can follow. The Object can be an actual thing (like a watch) or a place (like a park) or it can even be a secondary character (like a pet pig). Usually the Object is important to the story or the story’s themes.

Conflict can come about in a variety of ways. We know the English teacher definition (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. God, etc.). But simply put, Conflict is when a character wants something and can’t get it. An easy way to create Conflict is to put another character into the scene/story. Even better, put TWO characters in.

The Ticking Clock is similar to Conflict in that it adds tension, but it isn’t a hindrance to the character’s goal. It merely adds urgency.

Here’s an example of what Object, Conflict, and a Ticking Clock can do for a story:

Olivia ran to the lab.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher could poison Isaac with it.

The last sentence is a bit more exciting than the first, no?

Not every scene/story is going to have all 3 elements, but if you ever find yourself stuck, try looking for an Object in your story, or try putting one in. Try adding another character (or two) to the scene. Try a Ticking Clock. You might be surprised at how quickly things get interesting, and interesting scenes/stories are the ones that suck us in, both as writers and as readers.

(Note: Despite my analogy, I do not recommend adding an Object, Conflict, or Ticking Clock to your driving.)

Preserved in pictures

In addition to not eating air fresheners — or maybe because of not eating air fresheners? — I had a lovely weekend in Houston with my parents. We were celebrating my mom’s birthday, which mostly meant spending time together and eating a lot of Dairy Queen. (Those mini Blizzards are the perfect size!)

I also made sure to take out the camera a lot, because I’ve been a little lax since coming back from the cruise. But this week helped me remember how important photos can be. For my mother’s gift, I made a photo book at Snapfish, and it turned out beautifully. The printing and production (colors, cover, etc.) were top-notch, and I spent hours arranging the photos to tell the story of my mother (as best I knew it). She and my dad loved it, and as I flipped through, I realized that I want to make more of these books, both for myself and for my loved ones. And to do that, I need photos.

Houston Sugarland Town Center 012

Sugarland Town Center, which is a great little plaza with food and shopping

Houston Sugarland Town Center 008

Houston sailing 007

Out and about on our boat, in Clear Lake

Houston sailing 038 Houston sailing 039

I am first and foremost a writer, but sometimes an image says it all.

Only in Chinatown

Houston 003

Does that look like something you would eat? (Well, I suppose in Chinatown, anything goes.)

I’m in Houston this weekend for my mom’s birthday. What are y’all up to?

Writer's high

Urgh. I tried to write a funny post showing my train of thoughts from last night, but you know what? It wasn’t funny at all. And after those gut-busting Hyperbole and a Half links, I just can’t bear to fail at funny.

So here’s the deal: Monday I got squat done. Well, correction: I got a LOT done, but none of it was for me. Then last night I had the house to myself (Andy started a new class for his MBA program) and I decided to write from dinner until Life Unexpected. This was more or less how it went:

Yay let’s write!

Wait a minute, this is hard…

Wtf am I doing?

Crap, I guess I just have to try.

Well, maybe this isn’t so bad…

Hey, it’s been 2 hours, and I wrote 800 words, and they mostly don’t suck!

Writer’s high!

Honestly, it was the best feeling in the world, and I practically danced around the house all night. (Okay, in reality I sat on the couch with my dog and watched TV, but you know, same difference.) Anyway, I wish I could bottle that feeling and take a sip whenever I’m feeling “stuck,” but since I can’t, I’ll just have to come back to this post and focus on that last, museum-worthy image.

Fun stuff

I am out-of-my-mind busy at work today, so here are some links that will entertain you on my behalf:

  1. A Little Help from Your Friends
    Okay, this one’s not that entertaining (the rest will be, I promise!) but I wanted to share it out of the goodness of my heart. Kids need books! Do you have books? Send them to the kids!
  2. Dog
    This was not the first Hyperbole and a Half post I ever read, but it was the one that cemented my love for blogger Allie Brosh. She’s hilarious, not always safe for work, and adorably neurotic. (The rest of these links are from her archives.)
  3. Cake Versus Pie: A Scientific Approach
    Personally I like cake better than pie, but I found myself unable to argue with Allie’s scientific reasoning. Thwarted by logic again!
  4. Boyfriend Doesn’t Have Ebola. Probably.
    a.k.a “A Better Pain Scale.” After taking her boyfriend to the hospital, Allie realized that their little frownie face pain charts make no sense. She made a better one. It’s fantastic.
  5. My Childhood, In Pictures
    This is how it all began for Allie. And me. Minus the drawing and the sibling. I just spent a lot of time alone in my parents’ office while they worked. Writing was my entertainment.

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