Part 3: The Art of Storytelling

October 1, 2015
Written by
kowalski_013015

Bestselling Author William Kowalski

Humans are animals that run on food, water, and stories. We are obsessed with dieting and nutrition in our culture. If only we paid as much attention to the quality of the stories we took in as we do to our food, especially as children! Someone should invent a phone app that does the equivalent of counting story calories. Shlocky fluff, which makes your brain fat and lazy, would have more calories in it than something that made you use your brain. You could allow yourself so much garbage entertainment per week, but you would have to make an effort to take in something that was actually good for you, too.

We are not used to thinking of stories this way, but maybe it’s time we started. In our frenetic and over-worked society, we come home at the end of the day and turn on the idiot box, because we believe it relaxes us to stimulate our brain with rapid-fire images and repeated commercial messages for cheap crap we don’t need or can’t afford. We watch predictable sitcoms that reinforce our existing stereotypes about the world and feed our fantasy lives without ever expanding them. We have forgotten that stories are meant to be so much more than that.

Stories infuse nearly every aspect of our lives. That has always been true of us, and it always will be. Even now, in the age of social media, when we might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve totally lost our heritage of tales of the hunt told around a campfire, our status updates and tweets are doing more storytelling than ever. Much of it might be weightless, sure, but encoded in those one-liners are the same pieces of information we used to impart to each other in other settings, and through other means: sometimes important, sometimes boring, but always relevant to our own experience (or our own suffering, as we discussed in an earlier chapter) and therefore always helpful to someone.

Stories are not just entertainment. They are how we pass on information. They are how we connect to each other. We evolved this way, for the same reason that we evolved every other characteristic of our very successful species: because it helped us survive long enough to pass on our genes. If storytelling wasn’t essential to our survival, we wouldn’t do it. And if it wasn’t very essential, we wouldn’t do so much of it.

Oh, but that’s ancient history, our argumentative hypothetical reader scoffs. We’re done evolving, for heaven’s sake. Now we can just kick back, relax, and watch movies!

I don’t know whether we’re done evolving or not, although my admittedly basic understanding of science says that’s impossible. I do know, however, that storytelling has not finished serving its purpose. We may think we’ve arrived at some evolutionary pinnacle, but this is just the same typical present-centric arrogance people have always displayed throughout history, believing either that we are the ne plus ultra of evolution and that nothing further can be discovered or invented, or that we have offended the gods by progressing too far, and the demise of the world is imminent as a result. (Indeed, the fact that there is no apparent equal to ours anywhere else in evolutionary history–that we know of–has infused many with a sense that we have gone too far, and that we are going to bring about our own destruction through technology. Anyone who grew up during the Cold War, as I did, is well acquainted with this type of thinking.)

Stories, as a matter of fact, are more prevalent in our society today than they have ever been at any time in history. They show up everywhere. From a very young age, children in many parts of the world are plopped in front of a screen to watch fantastical tales of magical creatures and silly beings unfold. (I happen to think that television is utterly worthless and probably very harmful from a child development perspective, but that’s a rant I’ll save for another piece.) From there they move on to cartoons about princesses and space warriors, and then to romantic stories, comedies, science fiction, and movies glorifying war. Even though they have been commodified and merchandised, they still represent some aspect of ourselves. We even tell stories to each other about the stories we are told.

The lesson here is simple: the popular medium of storytelling changes, but storytelling itself is constant. Storytellers will always be in demand. It goes even deeper than our blood. It emanates from the spaces between our cells, from the electrostatic forces that bind our elements together. We are, literally, made of stories.

On The Need For Outlines

I have always tried to take advice from people who know more than I do, especially when it comes to writing. My mentor, Jack Kuniczak, told me long ago that I should always know where a story is going before I’ve gotten too far into it. For quite some time, I tried to follow his advice to the letter. I have created an outline for every book I’ve ever written. And without fail, by page 50, I’ve thrown that outline away.

Why? There are two reasons.

The first is simple: because when I create an outline, I haven’t written much of the story yet, and I really have no way of knowing ahead of time what ideas are going to occur to me along the way. The first several drafts of a story are usually nothing special. It’s not until I’ve reworked something many times that its inner magic begins to shine, and the qualities that make it the most interesting and distinctive come into being. Until then, it’s really just another story by some guy, neither better nor worse than most other pieces of writing you would find on anyone’s desk or hard drive anywhere in the world.   And if I force myself to commit to a particular plot simply because that’s what the outline dictates, then I’m limiting myself, not allowing discovery to take place, and I’m probably on the way to producing something that will never really amount to anything.

Although I have often conceived of a story’s entire arc from beginning to end before I’ve written any of it, that conception has always been of the most general kind. Typically it does not involve details such as characterization, or even specific action. It can be expressed in one or two sentences. It does nothing more than give you an indication of what kind of story it is (a war story, a love story, a crime novel) and its most distinguishing characteristic (a young wounded veteran, a missed connection, a gay detective).

That’s not an outline at all! the hypothetical reader might protest. That’s a synopsis!

My goodness, hypothetical reader, you like to argue about everything, don’t you? Fine. It’s not an outline. At least not according to what my English teacher at McDowell Senior High School, Mr. Charlie Burgoyne[1], taught me.

What is an outline, anyway? In Mr. Burgoyne’s English class, I learned how to outline with capital letters and Roman numerals, and everything fit neatly into its own little category. But Mr. Burgoyne would have been the first to understand that writing doesn’t really work like that. Life itself doesn’t work like that. It’s a nice ideal to strive for, but like all ideals, it doesn’t actually exist in the real world, which is where I happen to be stuck for the moment.  

It might be more helpful to think of an outline like the chalk drawing detectives make around a body at a murder scene (especially if you’re a crime writer). It shows you the general shape and a few basic facts without telling you anything at all about what actually happened.  

In fact, it may surprise you to learn that there is really no hard and fast definition of an outline. Which means you are free to make up your own.

None of this is to say that an outline is not a useful exercise. But it might be best to regard it as just that: an exercise. Do go to the trouble of making one, because some good ideas might occur to you. Don’t feel that you are obligated to stick to it. The most interesting things in life happen when we veer off the main road into the byways and alleyways, not when we stay on the main path.

Well, that’s not true either. Interesting things can happen to you anywhere. Maybe it’s better to say that you should always feel free to break the rules, even if they’re only rules that you’ve imposed upon yourself.

Genre

Before you even begin to decide what your story is about, I recommend you devote some time thinking about another important aspect of storytelling: genre. What genre is this story going to be? Labeling it as such is not intended to take away your options. Instead, it’s meant to give you wings. This points out yet another of the curious paradoxes of creativity: the more tightly defined your workspace, the more you can expand into it. Put another way, the stronger the structure you define for your story, the more solid it will be.

Put yet another way, to quote some guy named Mark Rosewater: “Restrictions breed creativity.” (Mr. Rosewater claims he didn’t come up with this, but he’s the guy who gets quoted saying it anyway.) When you have all possible options, you don’t need to get creative, because there is nothing that needs to be compensated for. When options are removed, that’s when human ingenuity kick in. If you don’t believe me, think for a moment about Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist. How creative did he have to get when he was suspended upside down in a tank full of water with a hood over his head and his hands cuffed behind him?

Very.

Another way to think about genre is simply this: what kind of story is it? Maybe this is obvious to you from the get-go, and you don’t need to spend any time thinking about it. You know, for example, that this is going to be a work of science fiction, and you’re ready to dispense with this part of our discussion and move on to the next stage. Great. Go. Your work here is done.

As an author of so-called literary fiction, one of the challenges I’ve always faced is not trying to figure out what kind of story I was trying to write, but what kind of story I had just written. I wrote, you see, based on what I felt like writing about. I am a discovery writer–I feel my way along, and can rarely see more than two or three steps in front of me. Only after I had completed my first novel, and was having conversations with publishing professionals, did I realize with something akin to stomach-churning fear that I needed to be able to tell people in succinct terms what kind of book it was. And then I realized something even more terrifying: I had no idea. It’s just a book, I wanted to say. It’s a book I wrote based on whatever mysterious processes are working inside me. In some ways, I felt as if I had no more control over it than I did over the functioning of my internal organs. It just is. It’s me. It’s who I am.

But you can’t say that to a publisher without getting a lot of eye-rolling. The reason they roll their eyes is because there is no section in bookstores called “Whatever mysterious processes were at work in the author when he wrote it.” And the reason that category doesn’t exist is because people won’t buy that sort of thing. Whatever you want to blame on publishers and booksellers actually comes down to that all-important creature known as The Reader. It’s The Reader who decides whether to buy your book or not. Readers like to know what kind of book they’re buying. Some of them will go for the vaguely-defined literary work, but not many.   And if you’re not thinking about your readers at every step of the writing process, your work is not going to be marketable. This is one of the unpleasant facts about being a professional novelist. You don’t really do it for fun, the way you used to before anyone knew your name.

Literary fiction is often vague and devoid of focus; it might claim to be about the human experience, but this is too hopelessly broad. The most common experience for me has been that my books have ended up being a certain kind of story, and they have been notoriously difficult to pin down for that reason.

Literary fiction is actually its own genre, as far as publishers and bookstores are concerned. The closest I can come to explaining what that means is “Stories read for the sake of the writing rather than for the sake of the story.” I once believed that true writing, pure writing–whatever the hell that means–involved the author simply sitting down and expressing his purest essence on paper, in such high form and with such deep skill that it didn’t really matter what it was about. Implicit in this notion was my belief that I was special and different and, dare I say it, more precious than anyone else on the planet. Vanity, thy name is Writer. This, I can see now (thanks to some good therapy) was not only wrong-headed but counter-productive. The writers who impressed me most when I was young–Updike, Irving, Vonnegut, Atwood, Hemingway-were not trying to write about themselves. They were writing about their experience, yes, or some filtered version thereof, but ultimately they were trying to connect with their readers. Writers who do not make this the most important feature of their work are not going to find commercial success.

So, even if you don’t intend to write a work of what is typically called genre fiction–that is, something like dystopian YA, romance, Western, sci-fi, or techno-thriller–you should try to come up with some kind of label that describes it in a nutshell. I don’t tell people I write literary or commercial fiction. “It’s about a crazy family,” I might say about any one of my books, and people understand that immediately. In fact, it piques their interest. “Oh, really? Let me tell you about my family,” they say, and we’re off on yet another iteration of the endless round of storytelling that is human existence.

[1] The late Charlie Burgoyne is memorable for a lot of reasons, but primary among them was the fact that he was present aboard a Navy ship at several atomic tests in the South Pacific, shortly after WWII. As he himself told me, he preferred to lie in his bunk and read while the tests were going on, not out of any concern for avoiding atomic fallout, but because he was glad of the chance to steal a few quiet moments with a book while the rest of the crew was on deck watching something as mundane as an atomic explosion. Also, he said, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. To me, that anecdote will always symbolize the dedication of the True Reader–someone who would rather read a book than watch a coral atoll get vaporized.

Learn more about William Kowalski at https://www.williamkowalski.com 

Categorised in:

This post was written by William Kowalski