Tip | Go someplace where you won’t be bothered for a few hours. Turn off your cell phone.
assemble the pieces
- who, what, when, where?
- why? cause and effect. He died. She died. Tragic but not as interesting as this: He died because she died. Cause and effect. Stories have it and real life often doesn’t, or doesn’t seem to. Real life seems more random and arbitrary where a story is purposeful and controlled.
How to Tell a Story
by Gary Provost and Peter Rubie
Writer’s Digest Books, 1998
Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.
What decisions do you need to make?
Here’s the character:
This is what s/he wants:
This is the obstacle:
This is the outcome:
It leads to:
action/description vs dialogue
A script is all dialogue with notes for scenery, props, and action implied.
A novel or short story is the dialogue plus descriptions of things and actions. A narrator (3rd person) or character (first person: “I”) is telling the story in a voice that we like listening to or are compelled to listen to.
show vs tell
Even though we say “tell a story”, there is a difference between showing and telling. More accurately, the narrator should “show the story” in the sense of let it unfold, let it reveal itself like a movie does. Don’t write an essay.
example of telling:
war brings great suffering, especially to children
example of showing (from Baghdad Exceeds Its Object):
Make haste, Safia, you little scamp, you pig-tailed qasida,
put that fat flap of scalp back on your crown,
now’s not the hour for teenage pranks,
it’s time to go to school!
“OK, I’m sitting at my keyboard ready to start writing a story. Now what do I do?”
Look at all your backstory material. Make lists of characters and other types of information. Start to make groups.
let it grow out of the backstory
Place the photos of your characters next to each other in pairs, think about their biographies, and get them disagreeing about something. What are they saying to each other? Listen and write it down.
the history behind the situation extant at the start of the main story. This literary device is often employed to lend the main story depth or verisimilitude. A back-story may include the history of characters, objects, countries, or other elements of the main story. Back-stories are usually revealed, sketchily or in full, chronologically or otherwise, as the main narrative unfolds. However, a story creator may also create portions of a back-story or even an entire back-story that is solely for his or her own use in writing the main story and is never revealed in the main story. In role-playing games, a character’s back-story is usually called his or her background.
ring the changes
“ring the changes” (origin of this phrase)
Model another story; repurpose other media
Retell another story. First, re-situate a story from its time and place to your time and place. Reverse the gender of all the characters. Now re-write the story, word for word, making the changes you need to to fit the new time, place, and people.
Example | If the model story has two old women in 1980 in a New York City penthouse drinking vodka tonics while talking about their husbands, you change it to two young men in 2007 in Delaware Park jogging while talking about their girlfriends. Where the model story has two sentences describing the penthouse, you write two sentences describing the park. Where the model story has a sentence describing the vodka tonic, you write a sentence describing the guys’ running shoes.
Do the same thing with a movie. Re-situate and retell. In another class, the students watched Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which takes place in Norway over a hundred years ago. Resituate it to South Buffalo in 2007.
For example, illustrate/film on of these old-time radio shows
plant a seed
Let the story grow organically.
Let’s ring the changes on the Gary Provost quotation above. First, we’ll change it from 3rd person to first person singular.
Once, something happened to me, and I decided I would pursue a goal. So I devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop me, I moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, I learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize I had sought so strenuously, I had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision I satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.
Now first person plural.
Once, something happened to us, and we decided we would pursue a goal. So we devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop us, we moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, we learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize we had sought so strenuously, we had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision we satisfied a need that had been created by something in our past.
Now let’s ring the changes, layering in your backstory.
Example | The way this season could have turned out.
This year, we got a new coach and we decided we would aim for winning the conference championship. So we devised brutal conditioning and practice regime, and even though we played some strong teams, we got into the play-offs as the eighth seed. Then our freshman point guard and second leading scorer got cut from the team for violating the rules of the brutal regime that we had all agreed to …
a triggering incident
Write out from the center.
Example | Hurricane Kaminski is the trigger. Take a snapshot of Joe looking up and seeing the Freon 113 beginning to blast from the sprinkler head. There’s the center. Make lists of who, what, when, where, how, why. Then make a timeline of what led up to that snapshot moment and also what happened because of it.
Then you have two choices:
- give yourself permission to lie, to change what really happened to what could have or should have happened
- tell it as it really happened and then ring the changes (see above) on it
write backwards from the ending
Example | Start with the wedding and work back to when they first met.
start with a timeline (aka outline)
Especially good for historical events
Sketch it out, sort of advanced doodling. Sketch out flashes and snapshots of action, then assemble them chronologically.
Tip | Don’t even think about a “thesis statement” or “topic sentence” or “theme”. Think conflict, think people under stress.