Tag Archives: story-telling

The narrative difference between fiction and real life

You’ve probably heard some version of this saying: Fiction is real life without the boring parts.  I don’t know where this came from and am too lazy and under-caffeinated to google it but I agree with it.  I try not to write boring stuff.

Digression # 1  – Sometimes it is hard to tell what is boring or not.  A scene that takes me hours to perfect (and therefore feels tedious) can be read in under a minute and can feel exciting to the reader.  A friend working on a first novel recently texted me this:

Okay, so your narrative should not be boring.  It should also make an arc.  What the??   No doubt you’ve heard these fated words: narrative arc (the close cousin of a character arc, which might also make you shiver with dread).  The central conflict of the story must build in tension, come to a critical junction, and then resolve.

All the pieces (aka plot points, scenes, details, character choices) must fit this narrative arc.  Subplots as well as main plots weave together to form a cohesive story.  If you screw up the tension (peak too soon, have too many peaks, forget to have anything happen), the fictional narrative fails.

Digression #2 – I deeply regret that I can not tell you how to successfully do the aforementioned.  I muddle through with my own books.

But the point of this post was to point out a serious problem with real life not to tell you how to write a novel.  The problem with real life is that the pieces most definitely will not fit, and I so desperately want them too.  I want congruence.  I want a story that makes sense.  But shit happens–plot points that were NOT in my outline.  Then there I am, juggling multiple narratives that are most definitely NOT working together.

Digression #3 – Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance.

In my novels, I delete things that don’t fit my narrative arc.  (Actually, here is some solid writing advice: if it doesn’t work get rid of it).  In real life, the delete key is broken and I’m left with press enter to accept.  Then I get down to making meaning out of the hodge-podge.

Digression #4 – I put the mess into novels, where on occasion, the narrative behaves.

 

I love THE 500 HATS OF BARTHOLOMEW CUBBINS

I’ve had Dr. Seuss on the brain of late (like the rest of the kidlit and elementary school world, I suppose).  When most people think of the good doctor-ish doctor, they think about his mastery of rhyme and meter and his scrumptastic made-up words.

And yes, yes, yes, I love all that (especially the spooky pale green pants with nobody inside ’em), but it is, perhaps, easy to forget that Master Seuss was also a master storyteller.

So today I offer you THE 500 HATS OF BARTHOLOMEW CUBBINS.  It’s got a perfect story arc, great characters that evoke strong emotions, and lots of beautiful, symbolic pairings (the view up and the view down the valley, for example).

This is one of my favorites by Dr. Seuss and this is the actual tattered cover of the copy I’ve had for nearly forty years.  Pages are starting to fall out and I guess I’ll have to replace it but as the kids and I were reading it last night, I thought:

You can look high and low,
You can look far and near,
But the book that you want,
Is this one right here!

This weekend, my husband and I attended our kids’ school auction, which was a Dr. Seuss themed extravaganza.  Here’s a peek at my whimsical, Seussical attire.  Too bad it’s hard to make out that I chalked my hair pink.  I’m sure Dr. S would’ve approved.

One true thing

Much of the time writing is NOT fun.  In fact, at a recent writing retreat with my critique group, Viva Scriva, Liz R. and I were discussing the things we like to do more than writing (at least when we’re in the slog phase).  Much debate there was over cleaning toilets (me: prefer over writing; her: less than writing) and laundry (both: prefer), etc.

When I’m deep in a draft (or more typically in revision), my fingers are typing away while I’m thinking things like move that clause to the front, pick a better verb, and describe more viscerally.  I plunk away for a page or two then I check twitter or each a piece of dried coconut (me: prefer eating to writing).  Then I get back to it.  Hours later I’ve laid down a couple thousand words or revised a few chapters.

But sometimes, I find the flow of it.  I become my characters and they take me places I don’t expect.  I inhabit my scene as fully as I inhabit these pajamas and this desk chair.  When this happens, I ride the wave through and often find, much to my amazement, that I have written ONE TRUE THING.  Maybe just a sentence or an exchange of dialogue or a description that captures something’s essence exactly, the ONE TRUE THING is enough to keep me going day after day, page after page.

May it happen for you.

“Into the fire with you” – character transformation through crisis vs reframing the narrative

Temple of Fire burns during Burning Man

Recently my critique group and I got down to serious psychologizing about a main character in one of our mss.  It got me thinking about the differences and similarities of character transformation in fiction and human transformation in real life.

Someone smart–who I wonder?–said fiction is real life without the boring parts.  My seven-year-old daughter, well-schooled by her K/1 teacher and her writer mother, says, “I hate books without trouble!”

So true!  In most compelling fiction, we take a flawed but likeable main character and do one bad thing after another to her.  Through this crucible of fire (every once in a while, I love a good cliche), she is transformed.  She learns.  She grows.

Now I’ll be the last person to say there’s no trouble in real life.  Damn, but I’ve had my share of the slap-down by Life. However, I think it is pretty rare for us to experience something difficult, have an epiphany in the moment, and be instantly transformed.  Maybe people who’ve had near-death experiences know this kind of transformation, but that’s got to be rare.

The more common psychological state is that we–often unconsciously–develop a fixed “narrative” for ourselves.  For example, “I failed to attain my dream of becoming a ballet dancer because I’m not talented and special enough.”  That “story” can haunt our psyche for years (or mine, as the case may be).  It requires mental effort and commitment (and therapy) to REFRAME the narrative.  Mine now says something like, “I wasn’t able to reach the level of professional achievement as a dancer that I wanted because I was young and didn’t have proper mentoring from my parents or my ballet instructor.”

Rewriting our own narratives is HARD work!  And it’s boring work.  Maybe that’s why we like fiction and the transformation by fire it offers.  Maybe we’d also like fiction that shows the slow, hard work.  Maybe we need to remember that our own story matters.

“At any given moment you have the power to say this is not how the story is going to end.”

– Christine Mason Miller, Ordinary Sparkling Moments

Be the teller of your own narrative. Make it a good story.

I’ve had a really good writing week.  For me that means being  so deeply immersed in my book that it begins to seem more real that my actual life.  I surfaced this morning–Saturday, and thus a non-writing day–and reacquainted myself with “normal.”  (Nothing like cleaning bathrooms to get your head out of the clouds.)  I went for a run in the forest near my house in spite of the icy, driving rain.  There’s this ginormous hill that I’ve never been able to run all the way up.  For the last year in which I’ve been running regularly, there’s always a point on that horrible hill where I have to stop and walk a bit.  Except this week.  This week, I’ve run all the way up every time.  By the time I get to the top I’m sucking wind and cursing under my breath, but I’m also fully back in my own life again.  And I’m reminded that we must be the tellers of our own narratives as well.  It’s not enough for our characters to have adventures and grow and change.  We have to attend to our own stories too.  I plan on making mine a good one!

Exposed by Narrative

When we meet someone new, the storytelling begins.  We deliver the cleaned-up, well-practiced narrative of our lives with the smooth proficiency of a pitchman.  We spin it to impress, to entertain, to woo.  If—after time—that someone seems a likely lover or a potential friend, we flesh out the plot with all its nuances of regret and loss, its pains and unfulfilled desires.  We are revealed.

As a novelist, I traffic in these blemished, yearning narratives that show the beating hearts of made-up people.  My characters suffer at my hand.  Unless I let them triumph.  And I watch, at the ready to strike them down again, or maybe to extend a peace-offering.

It has been a long time since I’ve told my own tale like that.  I am surrounded day-by-day with those dear ones who know my story in all its wrenching detail.  Or with those who do not need or want to know it.

Upon breaking that long quiet over lunch in a deserted restaurant, I feel flayed, exposed, and slightly dangerous.  It’s like my story could wrest itself away from the restraints I’ve placed upon it.  Perhaps it could swell into something unexpected, something worse.

And I shake my fist at the Novelist, who knows a story without trouble is no story at all.

Love LOST? Adore THE OFFICE? Immerse yourself in THE ART OF IMMERSION by @Frank Rose

I’ve been book-talking this fabulous book by Frank Rose to anyone who will listen.  If you are interested in the psychology of story-telling, the creative genius behind LOST, THE OFFICE, or THE DARK KNIGHT, or the way media is rapidly changing– read this!

A few tidbits:

“People don’t passively ingest a marketing mesage, or any type of message.  They greet it with an emotional response, usually unconscious, that can vary wildly depending on their own experiences and predispositions.  They don’t just imbibe a story; they imbue it with meaning.”

“Dickens fashioned tales with cliff-hanger endings to keep readers coming back. … More significant, however, was the way he improvised in response to readers’ reactions. … On occasions when a story was faltering, he paid much closer attention to what his readers were saying.  … Scholars have come to see such give-and-take as crucial to Dickens’s method. … In Dickens’s own time, serialized novels were hugely controversial. … The format seemed dangerously immersive.”

“In a mid-sixties discussion with Jean-Luc Godard at Cannes, the idiosyncratic director Georges Franju became thoroughly exasperated with [his] unconvential techniques.  ‘But surely, Monsieur Godard,’ he blurted out, ‘you do at least acknowledge the necessity of having a beginning, a middle, and end in your films.’  To which Godard famously replied, ‘Certainly.  But not necessarily in that order.'”

“For a whole generation of Hollywood writers in their thirties and forties, Horowitz [executive producer on LOST] quipped, ‘Star Wars was a gateway drug.'”

“The most dependable way to forge a link, whether to a colleague in a new job or to strangers on Twitter, is by relating information–a process that often involves telling a story. … Storytelling is a simple act of sharing. We share information. We share experience. Sometimes we overshare. But why do we share at all?”

OK – if those snippets, all from the same book, haven’t convinced you to read THE ART OF IMMERSION by Frank Rose, you’re on your own!

Never doubt that your story matters. It maintains the past AND creates the future.

This morning I stumbled from my bed to the coffee maker, turning on NPR along the way.

The first story to penetrate my brain was about President Obama’s upcoming trip to Asia.  The reporter began, “The narrative President Obama is going tell…”  He went on to describe how the future of the US economy lies in Asia rather than Europe.  So our president is going to tell a story that he hopes will create the future for the US that he desires.  You understand me?  Stories can create the future.

The second piece was from Story Corp, a project beloved by me because it collects and values the stories of everyday Americans.  In this segment, Frank Curre, a Pearl Harbor survivor, tells the story of that attack.  He describes helping with the rescue efforts and concludes by saying,

I still have the nightmares, never got over the nightmares. And with God as my witness, I read my paper this morning — and right now, I can’t tell you what I read. I can’t remember.But what happened on that day is tattooed on your soul. There’s no way I can forget that. I wish to God I could.

Frank Curre may wish that he could forget, but I, for one, am glad he can’t because his story maintains the past.

Finally, let me share with you a bit of science.

In THE ART OF IMMERSION (an amazing read), Frank Rose describes the research of Demis Hassabis, a game designer and PhD neuroscientist.  He studied the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory.  If memory works by assembling the bits and pieces of the experience during recall (rather like a puzzle than vs. a video tape), then he supposed the processes of memory and imagination should be linked.  He found subjects with damage to the hippocampus and put them through a series of visual suggestions (e.g. imagine yourself on a beach).

The results were amazing.  People who had damage in the memory center of their brain could not dredge up complex imaginings. In other words, the same part of Frank Curre’s brain that remembers the bombing of Pearl Harbor is also capable of creating the future.

We are hard-wired for story.  And it MATTERS!

Report from KidLitCon 2011 – CONNECTION and AUTHENTICITY

KidLitCon 2011 was all about CONNECTION and AUTHENTICITY.  It was invigorating like this killer mural I passed in Seattle.

(Forgive the cross-posting with VivaScriva.com, but I couldn’t decide which blog needed this post more!)

Unlike many writers’ conferences, which are tinged with an air of desperation, the path to publication was NOT the focus.  Instead KidLitCon attendees are primarily bloggers focused on connecting authors and their books to readers.  Not as marketers (though some authors assume that every blog is a lightly veiled form of advertisement) but as matchmakers devoted to getting the right book in the right hands.  Need proof?  Take the passionate conversation with Colleen Mondor about how her review of a book she loved could “best serve the book.”  Inspiring!

It was deeply satisfying for me to meet others (in person, since I had connected with many via Twitter) who are committed to the tripartite nature of story-telling.  There must be a story, a teller, and an audience.  CONNECTION—I love it!

Another key take home for me was that these connections had to be AUTHENTIC.  Truth starts with the story.  The panel on diversity (Lee WindSarah StevensonBrent Hartinger,Sara RyanJustina Chen) reminded us that the heart of the story is inhabited by authentic, non-stereotypical characters whatever their ethnicity and orientation.  Writers (no matter their ethnicity or orientation) must get it right for truth to infuse the story.

Much discussion on authenticity circled around how we review books.  Bloggers make many choices about their own process and the key is transparency.  If you only discuss books you like (book recommendations vs. critical book reviews) then say so on your blog.  If you’re taking on the crucial job of true book reviews, remember that critique is not a litany of failures.

Authenticity was also a theme of Holly and Shiraz Cupala’s presentation on DIY marketing.  They urged authors to focus on giving value to bloggers, potential readers, book store buyers, and librarians.  We shouldn’t be trying to trick people into switching tooth paste brands.  We should be trying to fill a need.  Shiraz shared a quote from Simon Sinek: “People don’t buy what you do.  They buy why you do it.”  Isn’t that another way of saying we all want the heart of the story?

Perhaps the best gift of KidLitCon 2011 was the synergy with Angel Punk.  Devon Lyon, Matthew Wilson, Jake Rossman, and I presented a panel entitled The Future of Transmedia Storytelling: Angel Punk, Pottermore, and Skeleton Creek.  (For those of you who weren’t there, transmedia tells interwoven but non-overlapping story lines through multiple forms of media.  In our case, film, comics, novel, and online.)  Transmedia is about CONNECTION because of fan participation in the story-telling process and because each form of media engages and unites a different set of fans.  It was exciting to see the enthusiasm of other KidLitCon attendees for both our approach to story-telling and the heart of our story itself.  (Thanks, you guys!)

I’m still flying high from KidLitCon 2011.  I left with real, true, new friends—CONNECTION and AUTHENTICITY.

Transmedia, Talk Back, and the Power of Story

 

So my new project, Angel Punk, is a transmedia project, and I’m going to be on a panel at KidLitCon in a few weeks discussing transmedia.

“What the heck is that?” you ask.

Transmedia means storytelling through multiple forms of media: film, text, images, audio, blogs, tweets… you name it.

“How is that different from Star Trek?” you ask.

Good question.  Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other astronomically popular franchises started in one form of media,  a TV show, a movie, or a book.  It became popular and the story spread to other media forms.  Transmedia starts out in multiple places.  We recognize that there are multiple points of entry into a story both because some consumers prefer books or gaming or movies and because some facets of the story are more interesting to some readers than others.

One key component  to transmedia projects, however, is consumer (I hate that word but reader/viewer don’t cut it) participation.  More than ever we want to be a part of our favorite stories.  I have a quidditch t-shirt.  I geek out following Neil Gaiman on twitter.  I get sucked into online explorations of the Game of Thrones universe.  Most transmedia projects want talk back.  We want to know what people like and don’t like.  We want to include consumers in the process.  We want some collective consciousness on board for story telling.  If you think about it, it’s like that game where everyone takes turns making up a few lines of a story.  I love it!

See you around the social media fire pit for the next story session!