Thursday, June 26, 2014


We better get overtime on this project
Some would-be authors excel at building worlds, with Tolkien-esque depth and detail; from the socks the characters wear (or don't wear) to what coral grows in the oceans they have a whole world envisioned.  Others are supreme at creating unique, believable, flawed, and dynamic characters that linger in the memory and fascinate.  Some are gifted in description, able to turn a phrase that gives just the right imagery and pictures in the mind of the reader.  Each writer has their gifts and weaknesses, and each has what they enjoy doing and struggle with.

But the one area every author needs to be skilled at, or they are not worthy of the title, is the Story.  I don't mean weaving an exciting tale, or crafting a thrilling plot, not character development or "showing instead of telling."  I mean the soul of a book, the reason why its written.

All books have a plot: this happens, then this happens, and it comes to a climax with that event or thing, and so on.  The plot is a sequence of events and challenges which the characters face, a timeline of things that take place.  Every book needs one of those, too, even if its just folks sitting around talking.

No, I mean the Story, the reason why the plot takes place and matters at all.

Different people express this in different ways, but there are really only a small handful of different Stories which can be told.  These storylines are usually expressed in short phrases but each has a world of possibilities within them.  These are the core of the tale being told, when stripped down to its most basic and simplest expression.  Here are the most common and often used Stories in this sense of the word:
  • Man Learns A Lesson
  • Boy Meets Girl
  • Man Takes a Journey
  • Man vs Man
  • Man vs Self
  • Man vs Environment
  • Good vs Evil

Each of these different stories  has a wealth of possible plots, characters, settings, and situations that they can be told around, but the core inside is this one story that drives the tale.  By having a good story to tell, a book goes from being a sequence of events and people to a meaningful work that has something to say.

The story is different from a message or a "narrative" in the postmodernist sense.  This isn't a chance to hammer people with your pet peeve or to proselytize.  The story isn't about convincing or persuading, it is about a purpose and movement to your book other than things that take place.  It gives your book a why instead of just a what to the tale.

For example, The Lord of the Rings is an epic story, with many events, characters, and a beautiful, detailed setting.  But it has a beginning, middle, and end which moves from one point to another for a reason rather than just being a historical account of a fictional land.

Tolkien's masterpiece was written to be an examination of several concepts, but the basic core of it was the tale of Good vs Evil.  Along the way there were other micro stories within such as the "man learns a lesson" as Pippen and Merry grow up, there's an epic "man takes a journey" with Frodo's walk across Middle Earth, and so on.  But the overall Story told is of a struggle of good - weak, outnumbered, seemingly hopeless - against a vastly more powerful evil.  The triumph at the end is at great cost, against a great foe, for great good.

Not shown: sneakers she snuck on after the glass slippers
Or consider Star Wars: it contains several subplots with their own story, but the main storyline is Luke learning to master his abilities to face the great evil and save the galaxy.  It seems like good vs evil, but in the end, its about Luke's journey of learning to control the force and avoid becoming evil, and through that triumphing.  His journey is so compelling and his character so strong by the end, he saves his father from the dark side as well.

Another example is the old fairy tale of Cinderella.  An ordinary girl in awful circumstances finds a wonderful future through love by being just right for the prince.  What is Cindarella's Story?  Well its a sort of boy meets girl tale of romance, but the core of the Story is (Girl) vs Environment.  She is trapped in an awful place surrounded by people that despise and abuse her, and fights against this with her own abilities and the assistance of others, to escape and find a better life.

Other familiar books and tales have similar sorts of core stories that we know but don't pay close attention to beneath the entertainment.  If this is done well, the story is woven into the tale in such a way that you don't notice them, like the skeleton in a beautiful girl. She'd be a shapeless mass without it, you know its there, but that's not what you pay attention to or consider.

Almost all good books also have several of these Stories running through them in addition to the main one.  There's romance (boy meets girl), survival (man vs environment) and so on within the tale as the main Story is developed and explored.

Have you ever heard of Newton's Third Law?
By contrast, consider some other tales that have been told, which have no story to them.  What is the meaning and "why" behind American Beauty?  Or Requiem for a Dream?  What is the Story being told in No Country for Old Men?  Some of these may be exquisitely told with fascinating events and characters, amazing visuals and quality acting or directing in terms of movies.  But in the end they have no soul, no purpose, no why behind them.  They're just a sequence of awful and interesting events which comes to a conclusion.

No Country for Old Men seems to have something until the end when the cranky old sheriff is told off by his friend, basically saying "its not worse now, its always been horrible, life has no meaning or purpose" as the bad guy gets away with everything and drives off.  Its not that evil triumphs, its that the tale told has no meaning or purpose beyond basic entertainment.  It made the Coen brothers a lot of money and people forgot life for a few hours.

But in the end, its quality was diminished and its longevity truncated by having no Story behind it.  If you've ever read a book or watched a movie and at the end thought "why did they even make that, what was the point?" then you've just encountered this sort of empty tale.  Its like a very lifelike statue: it has the appearance of life, but ultimately is just a hollow facsimile.

By being able to write a good Story within your book, you have more than a mere retelling of events, but a spine to build around, a soul within to give the tale life and meaning and purpose.

So don't just write a fun book, tell a good Story!