You Have Been Lied to About Storytelling

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“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught.”
- Ray Bradbury
 

The ideas I want to share with you today are an excerpt of something I originally mentioned in the epilogue of my novel, Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about writing, the biggest “secret” was something that no one ever told me. I never read it in any books or heard any teachers talk about it. No screenwriting courses teach it. No writing-advice forums on the Internet mention it.

So, what is the big “secret” I learned?

I learned that the common ideas of what makes “good” writing, and the constructs within which to compose a story, such as the Hero’s Journey or the Three-Act-Structure, are all bullshit.

In truth, the formula to concoct compelling writing requires only two things:

1. Characters the reader cares about.

2. Interesting experiences for those characters to have.

That’s it. Period. Nothing else matters.

Few “professional” writers will agree with me.

Every creative writing teacher on earth will tell you I’m wrong.

I’m not wrong.

I can prove it.

What is your favorite story of all time? Now, hold on, before you answer that, let me quantify the question – I am not talking exclusively about books or movies or television shows. I am talking about every story in your entire life. Which one is your favorite? Think about our most common form of storytelling. What is it? How are our most predominant stories constructed?

It’s not movies. It’s not books. It’s not television.

It’s our friends and family.

Right?

Think about it.

Which story is your favorite? I bet it’s not your favorite book. I bet it’s a story your grandfather tells about meeting your grandmother. A story your uncle has told you about his days in college. The story of you and your brother getting lost in the woods during the blizzard. Those are the most important stories in your life. Those are the stories of who you are.

We are all storytellers. Every conversation we have with people tends to consist of storytelling. The largest and most prolific and influential source of storytelling in our lifetimes comes from our verbal interaction with fellow human beings. The oral tradition is alive and well. Everyone is constantly telling each other about things that happened to them at work, or on a date, or with the kids, or at the family reunion, or going out to the nightclub, or what happened at the bowling alley, or their day at the beach, or the plane ride on their vacation.

Now, I ask you, have you ever listened to your grandparents talk about their day at the grocery store and when they are finished, you say, “Well, that story didn’t have a proper Three-Act-Structure.”

Of course not!

Did you ever listen to your friend tell you a hilarious story of their vacation, then say, “Well, that was a great story, but it didn’t follow the motif of the Hero’s Journey.”

No! That would be moronic!

Critics of books and movies make those ignorant comments, because they don’t understand anything about what makes a great story.

Don’t get me wrong. The Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act-Structure are very legitimate and valid ways to build a story. I’m not trying to undermine the legitimacy of these constructs or imply that the analysis of tales following these motifs are incorrect. I’m simply noting that when stories are diluted into their most raw and essential ingredients, they are far more simple than we have been lead to believe.

Hence, I reiterate, stories require only two elements:

1. Characters the audience cares about.

2. Interesting experiences for those characters to have.

In the grocery store example, the characters are your grandparents. If you care about them, and their story isn’t boring, you will listen. Plain and simple. Their tale will hold your attention. Doesn’t matter what the “structure” of the story happens to be. There doesn’t need to be an antagonist, or a conflict, or a character arc, or any of the bullshit they teach you in writing classes.

You need to have characters people care about.

Those characters have to be in interesting situations.

That’s it.

The end.

That’s the whole of secret of storytelling!

One of the greatest literary examples of this is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The book has no plot. The book has no structure. The book has no antagonist. There is no character arc. It’s a story about a kid wandering around New York City and hanging out. Despite breaking all rules of writing conventions and storytelling, it is one of the most enthralling books you can imagine.

Why?

Why does The Catcher in the Rye work so well, despite being written so unconventionally? Why is it so magnificent, despite breaking the rules?

Because it follows my two rules:

1. A character you care about.

2. He does things that are interesting.

Being a great storyteller requires nothing more.

Now, I do have to add, your technical skill does play a factor. One must be articulate and have a savvy vocabulary in order to obey those two rules. That is how a character becomes endearing and has those interesting experiences. Command of language is vital. Going back to the example of the grandparents and the grocery store, if your grandfather has a crippling stutter, it could make it very difficult to enjoy his story. Even though you adore him and he’s telling something interesting, if you can’t understand his speech, the story still falls apart.

Which leads me to another myth of writing, which I long ago learned is false, and that is when people constantly say, “The story is everything.”

Absolutely not.

You hear writers and filmmakers repeat that over and over again.

“The story is everything.”

“The story is the most important thing.”

Bullshit!

The story is irrelevant! The telling is everything.

Remember the 1985 hit “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head? Topped the charts in Europe and peaked at #3 in the United States? The song is about chess. Do you suppose there was a big demand for chess-themed pop songs? No. The song was catchy. That is why it became a hit. The story of the lyrics didn’t matter. What mattered was the way the song was composed. Good hook. You could dance to it. Storytelling is not about the story, it’s about the telling.

As a writer, you’re not a “story”, you’re a “storyTELLER”.

An audience never “reads a story”, they “experience storytelling”. As a storyteller, your job is to make that experience compelling and memorable. But more than that, because “compelling” and “memorable” are bullshit words your English teacher will use. What you write has to live in people. You are Dr. Frankenstein, giving life to the corpse of words. Sewing them together, electrifying them, making them walk the earth for eternity!

A great storyteller can make a story about drying paint, compelling.

A terrible storyteller can make a story about the first lunar landing, dull.

“Drying too fast in the arid heat, she watched the paint splinter; crevices forming across the surface, like skin on her grandmother’s brow.”

“The spaceship landed for the first time that ever happened before!”

Your telling can ruin anything.

Your telling can make anything beautiful.

That’s the secret to great writing.

The story isn’t what matters. What matters is the way you tell it.

 
“When you’re all alone out there, on the end of the typewriter, with each new story a new appraisal by the world of whether you can still get it up or not, arrogance and self-esteem and deep breathing are all you have. It often looks like egomania. I assure you it’s the bold coverup of the absolutely terrified.”
- Harlan Ellison