The Telling is Separate from the Story

Blueprint of a ship

Like this, but with words

In my last post I covered what David L. Robbins taught us about the first half of being a storyteller — the story — during his “Redline your Writing” talk at the 2011 Write-Brained Network Writing Workshop. Today we’re going to focus on what David said about the second half — how you tell the story.

If “the firetrucks have to be going to YOUR house” was David’s mantra about story, for the “telling” part of the equation it was “clarity is paramount”. When you write a story, he said, your only task is to give the reader the blueprint to build the story in his head.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: As a storyteller, your ONLY task is to give the reader the blueprint to build the story in his head.

To do that effectively, avoid flaccid language that has too many modifiers and physical redundancies. Pick images and modifiers carefully and with an eye to building the image in the reader’s head. Remember that sometimes less is more. The simpler your language, the more the poetry comes out. That doesn’t mean you have to emulate Hemingway. Just choose carefully.

David used the following example to illustrate this:

The clock struck seven, and the cock crowed.

I myself am guilty of that kind of construction. But David warned that a sentence like that diffuses its power. Which I take to mean that since it’s about two different things, it’s hard for the reader to picture them both at the same time. As readers, we digest a whole sentence at once. We don’t stop until we reach a period. So in this case, one image — probably the clock — is going to get glossed over as the reader moves on to the next part.

If the second clause was something about the clock itself that would help build the image in the reader’s mind, the compound sentence would be fine. But these are two separate ideas, so David advised letting them stand individually:

The clock struck seven. The cock crowed.

Because the reader now knows what each sentence is about, it’s more powerful.

On a larger scale, David said to start the action of the story as close to the complicating event as possible, but remember that you still need a character your readers care about first. The story should get complicated a third of the way in, more complicated two-thirds in, and by 20 pages from the end the reader shouldn’t know what’s going to happen.

Barge into a scene; stumble out of it. Start a scene at an ending, something that makes the reader want to know what’s next. And avoid the Don’ts.

What are the Don’ts? Ah, well, we’ll cover that next time. 😉

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