More thoughts on good storytelling

From Rick:

I’m sure our blog readers will at once notice that the blog looks a lot different. I had to do an update to the software on the site and the old template I had used for many years for the blog did not run properly under the new software. Right now, the site looks rather plain, but the new template not free has a lot of powerful features that will allow the site to look really cool once I learn how to use those features. Expect to see many changes in the weeks ahead.

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Last time I did a short post on the key elements of good storytelling. If I had to boil that post down to a single sentence, it would be this:

Promise your reader an interesting story in the beginning and be sure you follow through on that promise with the rest of the story. The follow-though means interesting characters and good writing along the way.

But as we all know, good storytelling is far from being that simple. A lot of thought needs to go into making sure the story both fulfills its promise and achieves the writer’s purpose.

I also realized that I kind of left you hanging last time with the story opening I gave you. Well, I’m not going to print the rest of the story, but I will give you the next few lines so you can get an idea where it’s going. The story’s title, by the way is “Just Visiting,” and it’s a piece I wrote a while back and haven’t gotten around to doing anything with yet.

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Then the phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Mrs. Decker?”

“Yes.”

“This is the Dean of the college where your son attends…”

Moments later, trembling, with her husband beside her Ann dialed the number of the hospital the dean had given her. Fortunately, Ted had taken the day off to catch up on some projects at home.

“His condition is stable, Mrs. Decker, the woman on the other end told her.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That’s all the information I have, Mrs. Decker. The doctor will be available in an hour. I can have him call you.”

Ann slammed the phone down.

Ted put his arm around her shoulders. “Jamie will be fine.”

**********

One reader of last week’s post commented that he was glad I didn’t reinforce the idea that stories need to open with a bang (literally or figuratively).

Blockbuster openings are desirable for certain types of stories. If you’re writing a thriller with high stakes, you probably want a killer opening—think the Mission Impossible movies.

However, a blockbuster opening puts a lot on the writer to deliver an ending that lives up to and surpasses the opening. If you open your story with the Earth blowing up, how do you surpass that with an ending? All you can do is show how you got to that point, and while that might be interesting enough, a good story will need to have some big revelations in it to keep what is essentially backstory from getting boring.

One trick is to open with a key point of strong tension well into the story, then flash back to the beginning to bring the reader up to that point, and once you reach it, you continue to a blockbuster ending. This is very hard to pull off. If done poorly, the whole story can feel contrived.

To reiterate, your opening’s purpose is to capture the reader’s interest in some manner. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need a powerful opening to guarantee that your reader will read past the first page. Readers are pretty smart, and they realize that some stories need a bit of time to unfold fully. After all, if you reveal everything on the first page, then you’re left with nothing after it.

Let’s take what I consider a classic example of a big story sequence problem: The Star Wars saga. George Lucas said in an interview that when he was developing the story, he envisioned it as revolving around the fall and redemption of Darth Vader. But he also knew that he had too much material for one movie. Since he had no idea if he’d ever be able to make more than one movie, he used a well-known writer’s trick of starting the story in the middle. You see it done often in movies and TV series today. The story will start with the character or characters in an intense or life-threatening situation then you’ll see a message on the screen like X days earlier, or X hours earlier. And it generally works in a single movie or TV episode. Once the story catches up to that point, it then continues from there in real time.

Two of my favorite action movies that pull this off superbly are “Mission Impossible 3” (with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain) and “Swordfish” (with John Travolta as the villain and Hugh Jackman as the good guy). These movies work because once the movies work their way back to those opening extremely high-tension moments, the stories continue and build to strong climaxes.

The first Star Wars movie was packed with a lot of surprises and action, and it wraps up with a solid ending, yet it left that opening for a sequel where we saw Darth Vader escaping. Fortunately for Lucas, the movie was an unexpected hit, in part due to the ground-breaking special effects he used. And he was able to complete that part of the story arc with Episodes 5 and 6.

Before I continue, let me point out two important lessons for any writer. The first lesson is that regardless of how vast your story concept or how many novels you think you’ll need in order to complete it, always bear in mind that if the first novel fails to captivate your reader or leaves the reader unsatisfied, then any sequels will have little or no chance of ever being read. And in the old days when traditional publishing was your only viable option, if your first novel, for whatever reason, didn’t sell well enough, then your sequels might never see the light of day.

The second lesson is that if you plan a multi-novel story arc, then you need to be sure each successive novel is strong enough to keep your readers interested, just as with your opening and successive scenes in a short story or single novel.

When author Robert Jordan started his expansive fantasy series “The Wheel of Time,” he had originally planned it to be six volumes. The first was published in 1990. The series grew to twelve novels (and each one was at least 600 pages long). But Jordan died in 2007 with the twelfth book not completed. Another author (Brandon Sanderson) was brought in to finish it from Jordan’s extensive notes. However, Sanderson decided that Jordan had too much material to put into just one more book. The series ended up being fourteen volumes, the last published in 2013 (with that paperback being over 1100 pages!).

You might wonder why writing a series that’s popular enough to be able to last that long is a problem for any writer. Well, in Jordan’s case, it almost didn’t get finished because of his death. The other problem is that it’s difficult to find readers dedicated enough to wait over twenty years to reach the end of the story.

I don’t say this to discourage any writer from having an expansive vision, only to caution you that if you’re going to invest that much time into one writing project, you need to be sure that you leave yourself an out if the series doesn’t pan out or doesn’t garner the audience you hoped for. At the same time, you need to be sure that you don’t leave any audience you have hanging by not giving each book in the series a satisfying conclusion. And I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of doing that with every novel I’ve written, although my first one merely left an opening for a sequel and didn’t leave the reader hanging. Likewise, “The Mosaic” left a clear plot point for a sequel, one that will likely leave some readers disappointed if I don’t cough up the sequel soon.

Let’s go back to Star Wars. When you toss out a surprise reveal like Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, it’s rather difficult to top a surprise like that when you backtrack into Episodes 1–3 with Anakin growing up to become Darth Vader. To make such a story compelling, you need to add some surprises, but as I said, it’s rather hard to pull off one bigger than the one already done.

Regardless of how you view the success of the second set of movies (the “prequels”), you hopefully understand the enormous problems of presenting the movies in the order that Lucas did and the challenges of crafting Episodes 1-3 in a way that made them feel fresh.

In all fairness to George Lucas, we must remember that when he made the first movie it wasn’t subtitled Episode 4. That subtitle came later once the movie’s success guaranteed more in the series. But Lucas never expected he’d get to make a sequel. So, despite the grandiosity of the whole story concept, he set out to make the best single movie he could. Fortunately, that first movie was a hit and he got to see his vision through to the end.

Of course, Star Wars is the only movie to spawn successful sequels. Think of Back to the Future. But also remember (if you saw those movies), that the original did not begin as a series, and the story did not begin “in the middle.” The successive movies built on the original, which did leave an opening for a sequel nonetheless.

And we have Harry Potter. In that case, the first novel began at the beginning of the story and Rowling did not have to worry about sequence issues. Fortunately for J. K. Rowling, the first novel did well enough that her publisher allowed her to continue the series through to its conclusion, and the books did so well that, despite the years it took Rowling to complete the series and for them to be released, her reading audience stayed loyal (if a bit impatient near the end).

When it comes to writing novels, you take an almost suicidal risk if you do what Lucas did and start your story in the middle of the series unless you know you’ll have a following. What if Robert Jordan’s first “Wheel of Time” novel had not been a success? The key point to remember is that, while some authors have pulled it off, we too often see second novels that don’t measure up to the first.

The art of storytelling consists of two parts. The first is to craft your story concept in such a way that you don’t paint yourself into a corner if you decide to expand on your ideas later. The second part is not to produce a sophomore effort that’s inferior to your first, particularly if it’s part of the same story, and thus alienate or kill your future readership.

You’re better off ensuring that you can continue the story before you write and release the first novel. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard is to write all or at least more than one novel in a proposed series so you can release a second one soon after if the first catches on. That way you don’t risk losing readers while they wait too long for the next book. This has the added advantage in that if you realize you made a mistake in the first book that affects the second book, then you can fix the first one before you release it.

* * *

Another point I’d like to make about storytelling deals with a comment I’ve heard on occasion from new writers. In one case, an author had his story rejected by a magazine, and the editor provided comments. The editor found a number of problems with the story and had multiple reasons for turning it down, but some of those reasons dealt with problems in the sentence structure and punctuation, in other words, the writing mechanics aspect of storytelling. The author attempted to defend his writing with the statement that he was a writer not a grammar expert.

We all recognize that grammar and punctuation may not be the strongest skill of some writers, but these writers are nevertheless great storytellers. One of the reasons editors exist is to help remedy the work of those writers who have issues with writing mechanics. Indeed, some well-known writers have problems with grammar and punctuation.

Let me remind you that the term “editor” has multiple meanings in terms of job function. One definition that we as writers often think of is “a person whose job is to correct and revise writing so it can be published.”

But there’s another definition that carries a different meaning and that we sometimes overlook or don’t realize: “a person having managerial and sometimes policy-making responsibility related to the writing, compilation, and revision of content for a publishing firm or for a newspaper, magazine, or other publication.” While this definition embodies the first one, it carries other duties of an editor.

Going back to the writer’s comment, consider that if a writer is submitting to a book publisher, the writer has the understanding that the publisher will fix any problems in the manuscript prior to publication—if the manuscript is accepted for publication.

And therein lies a caveat. If the story or book meets the publisher’s requirements, the publisher may be willing to overlook and fix some spelling and grammatical problems. However, if an author submits a manuscript riddled with errors, that author is not going to make the best first impression. If you were an acquiring editor for a magazine and saw the first pages of a manuscript riddled with mistakes, would you be inclined to accept it? If the errors are frequent enough or serious enough, you might not even read past those first pages and will reject the story.

With every acquiring editor or publisher, there is a point beyond which the number or type of errors will outweigh any other decision to accept the manuscript for publication, and unfortunately, there is no fixed point that determines where the scale tips against the author. Even my personal views as a magazine editor/publisher vary in this regard. It’s not always a matter of how many mistakes but how the writing overall is and whether the errors are common typographical errors versus sloppy writing.

A large publisher can well afford to pay a good editor to clean up an otherwise superb manuscript. Smaller publishers and magazine editors, who do all the work themselves may not have the time to do what the author should have done in the first place. It’s not the job of magazine publishers (who often do the job out of pure love and are not paid for their efforts) to revise an author’s story in order to make it acceptable, beyond simple proofreading to fix minor errors.

Any author who says that knowing proper grammar and punctuation is not part of a writer’s responsibility is either making an excuse for bad writing or is simply too lazy to learn how to write properly. If you know you have issues with your writing, then you need to engage an editor or find an individual or critique group who can help you with your writing.

I do not blame any editor who rejects a story for inadequate grammar and punctuation. These are first and foremost the writer’s responsibility. It is the writer’s job to learn how to convey what he means to say and not make the reader guess what he meant to say.

Writers who submit their work are effectively submitting a job application or résumé. They’re not going to be hired if their application demonstrates their skills are inadequate for the job they’re applying for. And no editor or publisher is going to publish something that makes their company or magazine look bad.

I have no problem with writers who acknowledge that they need help. As a magazine editor and publisher, I’ll go out of my way to ensure that any submission I accept is as clean as possible by fixing the oversights and little things that are easy to miss. But unless I’m getting paid to edit someone’s work, it’s not my job to go beyond simple proofing and correcting erroneous punctuation.

Good storytelling involves the use of appropriate grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. Just to clarify, I said “appropriate,” not “grammatically correct.” I fully recognize that many rules can be broken, particularly in fiction, but this is quite different from poor writing.

I’ve ranted again, haven’t I?

I promise not to rant in the next post.

–Rick

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