Simplicity and Good Storytelling

“Once upon a time” is such a simple beginning. Yet so effective.
Is this a contradiction? No . . . not if you understand that true simplicity is not easy.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

(He is paraphrasing Einstein, who said: “the simplicity on this side of complexity was easy; but the simplicity on the other side of complexity took real thought and effort.”)

To add a thought from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)”

The most enduring story can be simple in many aspects. Consider a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both use the seeming simplicity of childhood to tell a powerful story about one of the most complex subjects in American culture: racism (the human causes and consequences).

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. . . . When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
– from To Kill a Mockingbird

I recall writing a short story in high school. When I got it back, my teacher noted he was duly impressed with my use of language, allusion, imagery, etc. But he didn’t understand the ending. I had failed to make it clear enough. I thought it was so obvious, the crowing glory of my tale . . . but a very intelligent reader was baffled. Good story? Not really.

Perfect sincerity and transparency make a great part of beauty, as in dewdrops, lakes, and diamonds.
– Henry David Thoreau

I remember when I drove a car. As a kid, I had grown up with long cross-country trips in the family automobile to visit my grandparents in California. My dad was a smooth, calm, masterful driver. So when I first got behind a wheel as a teen, then, I must have thought driving was exceedingly simple. When I encountered my first curve, I naturally tried to be as smooth as my dad, taking the turn with a slow, imperceptible nudge of the steering wheel.

Next thing I knew I was careering on the shoulder of the road. It took a powerful yank on the wheel to over-correct and swing me wildly back onto the road, where I swerved madly for a few long seconds.

Hmmm. Seems like my old man actually had a lot experience behind his smooth driving ability. He saw each curve in the road ahead and made many little preparatory adjustments unknown to us passengers . . . and so we flew through every curve like our car was predestined to follow the road.

I had just learned that the appearance of simplicity can involve a lot of skill.

Many emerging writers are like I was when first learning to drive. They try to look cool and calm, then they hit that curve in their story’s plot and end up careening back and forth. Or they zoom about from the start, hoping to impress us like a teenager trying to impress a date with a flashy car.

But great stories often have a much more direct route, with a smooth flow that seems as natural as a creek following a stream-bed that seems to have always existed.

Oscar Wilde said, “Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.”

He might as well have said: “A good story is not complex. We are complex.” Therein lies the crux of it. A good storyteller needs to learn when to let a story carry itself forward, when to get out of the way. And by doing so, to let readers fill in some part of the complexity from their own rich experiences.

In short, simplicity is not a beginning stage, something you graduate from. It is may well be the goal.

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.
– George Sand

What if your literary story were more simple, more sincere, more transparent in some way?

Would it be worse . . . or better?

A Wild and Overflowing Thing – How Important Is a Plot to a Novel?

Hey, I’m not disparaging the helpfulness of a good plot. It may be the skeleton of a novel; it connects each piece to the next.

(Sing along: “The shin-bone’s connected to the knee-bone, the knee-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone . . .”)

But one of the reasons I wrote How To Write Your Best Story was a strong feeling that plot isn’t why we read a novel.

Plot is generally not the basis of why I, as an editor, decide to acquire a novel for publication. And it’s not why readers buy a novel. For one thing, the plot isn’t something that we understand until later in the work, as things begin to connect. It’s like the skeleton of a person . . . it’s good it’s there (and its absence would be a problem!), but it’s not what attracts us to the person.

A number of influential writers have pointed out that plot isn’t as important as story. One was the late Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries (1993). The Stone Diaries won both the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S. and the Governor General’s Award in Canada, and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She won many other honors, and has been called one of the “most distinguished and honoured of all writers in the Canadian literary tradition.” (Not surprisingly, Shields was also an avid reader of Jane Austen, and eventually wrote a biography of Austen.)

Shields wrote an article, “Framing the Structure of a Novel,” published in The Writer magazine (July 1998). In it, she talks about her ideas for the structure of a novel, which she describes as “a wild and overflowing thing.” But . . . “yet its chaotic offerings are, when I look closely, attached to a finely stretched wire of authorly intention that reaches from the first page to the last.”

But she wasn’t convinced that the “wire of authorly intention” needed to be the conflict/solution kind of plot.

As she matured as an author, she came to believe that a good novel needed more of daily life, and more of the storytelling that real people do.

The old conflict/solution set-up feels too easy for me, too manipulative, and too often leading to what seems no more than a photo opportunity for people in crisis.

The structure of these kinds of novels could be diagrammed on a blackboard, a gently inclined line representing the rising action, then a sudden escalatory peak, followed by a steep plunge which demonstrated the denouement and then the resolution. I remember feeling quite worshipful in the presence of that ascending line. The novel as boxed kit, as scientific demonstration, and furthermore it was teachable.

It wasn’t until I had been teaching literature for several years and passing on these inscribed truths to others that I started to lose faith. The diagram, which I had by then drawn on the blackboard perhaps fifty or sixty times, began one day to look like nothing so much as a bent spatula, and yet my students, hunched over the seminar table, were dutifully copying this absurd image into their notes.

Suddenly, I wasn’t interested in the problem-solution story I had grown up with.  (. . .) None of this seemed applicable to the lives of women, nor to most of the men I knew, whose stories had more to do with the texture of daily life and the spirit of community than with personal battles, goals, mountaintops, and prizes.

About that time, I had started to pay attention to the way women, sitting around a table, for instance, tell each other stories. I noticed that women tended to deal in the episodic, to suppress what was smoothly linear, to set up digressions, little side stories which were not really digressions at all but integral parts of the story.

She goes on to question Chekhov’s dictum:

I wanted wallpaper in my novels, cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers, and I abandoned Chekhov’s dictum that if there is a rifle hanging over the fireplace, it must go off before the story ends. A rifle could hang over a fireplace for countless other reasons. For atmosphere, to give texture, to comment on the owner of the house, to ignite a scene with its presence, not its ammunition.
. . .
In short, I want to write novels that were both tighter and looser.

Shields also was an accomplished poet, with the poet’s skill in observing the world. But much of her insight, she said, came from being a mother:

I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of a personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. My children gave this other window on the world.”
[A Reader’s Guide to The Stone Diaries by BookClubs Canada, 2008]

Authors like Shields help us see that a good novel is like a good person. As a richly told and complex story, it has a personality and inner nature that is far more meaningful than the plot that has created it . . . just as we are more than the series of events we’ve lived through.

The Role of the Story’s Reader

It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.
—Italo Calvino (in the fictional voice of Marco Polo), in Invisible Cities

Calvino is expressing something very important about stories. They do not live in the head or the voice of the teller (or the writer). Good stories are shared.

A good story is one that the recipient is interested in. You don’t force-feed a story, you offer it. It is the listener (or reader) that causes it to have a real life.

Otherwise, it’s the age-old question of a tree falling in the forest: does is make a sound?

Calvino emphasizes how important it is to entice the reader’s ear, to pay homage to its role in the equation. The world of story is jointly entered by reader and writer. A story may begin with the writer, but exists then in the reader’s head. That becomes its true home.

As I wrote in How To Write Your Best Story:

Crick! Crack!

This phrase may not be familiar to you. It is the traditional beginning of a story in certain parts of the Caribbean.

To indicate their readiness to hear the story, the audience is supposed to respond:

Break my back!

It’s a bit mysterious . . . perhaps intentionally, like a magical incantation. The purpose is simply to join teller and listeners, to give notice that the real world is about to be left behind and the world of story entered.

The version more familiar to many of us is that sing-song phrase: Once Upon a Time. Although it requires no verbal response, it also signals a beginning, a crossing from one world to an imaginary one, a joining of teller and listener in the wondrous realm of story.

Good writers think about their audiences. A lot. They strive to understand them deeply, and they care about what will capture their attention.

Maybe beginning writers worry too much about shaping their own voice. (Surely they worry too much about whether they like their own writing.) But that’s not the issue at all.

Yes, a distinct “voice” is a good thing for a writer, don’t get me wrong. Calvino isn’t saying not to have a voice. He is saying that, contrary to what the writer’s ego may desire, it’s not exactly what “commands” the story. The effective voice offers stories that resonate with his/her listeners. The best writers look for that intersection between what they want to say and what their readers need to hear . . . or what will benefit their lives in some fashion.

Stories live in your readers’ ears. Never forget that.

6-Word Stories Aren’t Really Stories. Sorry, Mr. Hemingway.

Contrary to what some like to claim . . . 6-word “stories” aren’t really stories.


The myth began, I believe, with a blithe (and clearly inaccurate) statement by Ernest Hemingway that this 6-word “story” was possibly “his best prose ever”:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Okay, that’s interesting. It’s a concept. It’s a start of a good story.

But it’s not a story on its own.

What happens after that? The 6-word purveyor has offered a clever prompt. The reader of those six words then fills in more of the story. A lot more. I.e., the reader uses this little emotional springboard to become the real storyteller.

(Or not. Just as likely, the reader is intrigued, amused by the cleverness, flashes on a image or two, and goes on without being in contact with a real story.)

Hey, it’s a cute way to get us thinking about effective prose and brevity. I have no problem with the 6-word challenge as a fun and intriguing exercise. Fine with me if Hemingway wants to cite it as a good example of what a few well-chosen words can unleash in the imagination. It’s just not a story.

(It’s been suggested this was in response to a bar bet. Sure enough, it has all the depth of things said while leaning on a bar after a few drinks and only a cocktail napkin to write on. Lots of emotion and sincerity, not so much a showcase of the complete craft of literary storytelling. Good thing Hemingway went back to his flat and wrote some real stories.)

Wired Magazine did a 6-word story writing exercise in 2006, based on the Hemingway bit, asking famous science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers to submit 6-word “stories.” The results are a lot of fun. Here are a few examples:

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
Orson Scott Card

Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.
David Brin

Heaven falls. Details at eleven.
Robert Jordan

Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.
Margaret Atwood

Intriguing? Surely.
Creative? Very!
Fun for the writers? You bet!

Stories? No.

A story simply needs to do more. It needs to offer more, provide more substance.

What’s the shortest possible story? Is that a useful question? A story is as long as it needs to be to fulfill its promise.

But if someone sat down with a promise to share a story, and said, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” and walked away . . . I’d feel cheated. If I went to a page in a book expecting a story, and read “Heaven falls. Details at eleven” and that was it, I’d be annoyed. I’d hope the author wasn’t paid in full for writing a story.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

How To Build a Better Story – Sense of Place

A good story has a richly imagined setting that is visual, interesting, and contributes to the story, just like a character would.

Unfortunately, too many beginning writers have a place that can only be called sadly generic. It is hastily sketched, with few concrete details, and those that are provided tend to be stereotypical.

Place helps explain who we are and why we are different from others. Pay as close attention to it as you would to a beloved character. If drawn fully, the place will bend your characters to it with its great gravitational force. It will move your characters to action; it will fuel their passions; it will silence them with reverie. Such is the river in The Wind in the Willows, seen by moonrise in this beautiful passage:

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces—meadows widespread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day. . . .
—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

The same magical spell of place is found in Redwall series of Brian Jacques, in his descriptions of the great halls, kitchens, and wine cellars of Redwall Abbey; the paths of Mossflower Woods; and the exotic places beyond.

It was about an hour after dawn when Trimp [a hedgehog] opened her eyes. . . . Feigning sleep, the hedgehog maid peeped out from under her blanket, savouring the day. Downstream looked like a long winding green hall, with alder, bird cherry and weeping willow trees practically forming an arch over the sundappled stream, which was bordered by bright flowering clubrush, sedge and twayblade. Blue and pearly grey, the firesmoke hovered, making gentle swirls between sunshine and shadow in diagonal shafts. Snatches of murmured conversation between early risers were muted in the background, with the sweet odors of smouldering peat and glowing pinebark on the fire. Trimp wished that she could stay like this forever, happy amongst true friends, in tranquil summer woodlands by a stream.
The Legend of Luke, Brian Jacques

Beginning writers too often either ignore a sense of place, or perhaps they avoid it. Incorrectly, they fear that a generic setting will somehow draw in more readers with its commonness.

But it’s the specificity found in a given place – the details of the environs of Lake Wobegon or Mitford or Middle Earth – that give a work of fiction a compelling sense of reality.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

Anton Chekhov, Master Storyteller

In developing my concept of three essential elements of literary storytelling, just published in How To Write Your Best Story (Crickhollow Books, 2011), I did a lot of consideration of why we are drawn to the work of famous writers, past and present.

While there are plenty of ways to analyze (and over-analyze) great work, my goal was to put my finger on a simple approach to storytelling skills that the emering writer could use immediately and effectively . . . to better understand the nature of a good story and how to write one.

One of the literary luminaries I turned to was Anton Chekhov, a Russian writer considered to be one of the greatest short-story writers of all time.

Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was a master storyteller, a beacon to those who followed his glittering lead, such as Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver (two writers who considered Chekhov one of the greatest influences on their own work).

Here is the beginning of Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” (Yes, it begins with an evocative description of place, an approach dear to my heart, as you may know by now. Weather, no less.)

The whole sky had been overcast with rain-clouds from early morning; it was a still day, not hot, but heavy, as it is in grey dull weather . . . when one expects rain and it does not come. Ivan Ivanovitch, the veterinary surgeon, and Burkin, the high-school teacher, were already tired from walking, and the fields seemed to them endless.

Then, Chekhov delivers a compelling line:

“Last time we were in Prokofy’s barn,” said Burkin, “you were about to tell me a story.”

Ivan Ivanovitch begins to tell his story – “Yes, I meant to tell you about my brother” – but just as he lights a pipe, the rain begins . . . and we have to wait as the duo tromp to a nearby farm, wash up, and retire to the drawing room.

And only when the lamp was lighted in the big drawing-room upstairs, and Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch, attired in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, were sitting in arm-chairs; . . . and when lovely Pelagea [a beautiful maid-servant], stepping noiselessly on the carpet and smiling softly, handed tea and jam on a tray – only then Ivan Ivanovitch began on his story. . . .

The hook has been baited. We all sink into comfy arm-chairs in the mind’s parlor . . . and wait for the story.

At first, the story (about Ivan’s eccentric brother whose goal in life is to own a farm with gooseberry bushes) seems to be just an odd tale about a goofy person. By the end, though, Chekhov brings it home to a core human issue: what is needed for a person to be happy?

How is happiness earned?

And to what extent is it ever truly deserved?

Chekhov’s storytelling technique strikes with delightful efficiency the three elements I believe are essential to a good story:

  1. a curious starting point,
  2. what happens,
  3. at the end, an arrival at some rewarding point of meaning that the story holds or interesting ideas it spawns . . . not necessarily a moral, but why the tale has stuck in the head, why it is worthy of telling.

These three elements are at the heart of How To Write Your Best Story, a slim volume I wrote to explore in a practical way the time-tested storytelling techniques that great authors use (and that you can use too!) to turn their works into bestselling books, to win major literary prizes, and to delight generations of devoted readers.

The King Died and then the Queen Died of Grief (Plot or Story?)

Plot is one thing. And Story is another.

According to E.M. Forster (the talented and very British author of A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and other novels), in spouting his opinions about the importance of plot in fiction in his 1927 book, Aspects of the Novel, pointed out that a simple and uninteresting type of “story” is:

The king died and then the queen died.

(Personally, I’d say that’s not a plot, but neither is it a story. It’s just a series of events.)

A plot, in contrast, is (according to Forster):

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

Sure, the second version is more nuanced. There is a causality to the sequence; one thing spawns another thing.

A story though is something different. And it’s far more complex, effective, and artistic than the somewhat priggish British novelist Forster would admit. (Forster called a story a very low form of art, saying it was “the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time.” Although he had to admit in that same work, “yes – oh, dear yes – the novel tells a story.” As if he were slightly embarrassed to have to concede that point.)

A story, in my view, is:

The king died and then the queen died . . . and there was something interesting about that. Would you like to hear the story?

This is the compelling aspect of a story. The storyteller suggests there’s something really interesting you’d probably like to hear more about. For instance, perhaps . . .

The odd thing, you see, is that the king, you see, really liked chicken soup. He would positively swoon at the wafting smells of a pot on the stove, simmering with all the fragrant herbs and bubbling sounds and the promise of tender morsels of chicken swimming in vegetables.

But this particular day, the regular cook was sick. And the queen, despite a lack of any cooking ability, decided to make the king’s soup herself.

After all, she said to herself, how hard could it be to make something as simple as chicken soup?

A story promises some sort of linkage to the sequence of events, some version of a plot, but most of all, it delivers:

  1. something intriguing to catch our fancy initially,
  2. some selective and purposeful details to draw out the tale into an appealing journey, and
  3. some conclusion that makes it clear why this story has been deemed “Worth Telling.”

Those three things form the short outline of my book, How To Write Your Best Story. That book of advice for writers looks at effective storytelling techniques used by great literary storytellers, from Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain to Willa Cather, E.B. White, and James Thurber to today’s literary luminaries, including Neil Gaiman, Ivan Doig, Patrick Rothfuss, and others.

If you understand the real value of good storytelling in literature, beyond the plots of kings and queens dying of grief or a bad batch of chicken soup, you’ll write better.

How To Build a Better Story – The Power of Repetition

[An excerpt from How To Write Your Best Story, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, 2011]

Good storytellers know the value of throwing away the thesaurus and using one of language’s most beautiful forms of expression: repetition. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her excellent book of advice and exercises for writers, Steering the Craft, “Repetition of words, of phrases, of images . . . all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.”

Delight in repetition is seen in its purest form in the child who wants to hear the same story, time after time, told in the same way, perhaps with embellishments but with most of the same words repeated in familiar litany.

Repetition works in literature for adults, too.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

What is notable about that famous opening line?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Repetition is a device pulled from oral tradition, from the bedtime stories of Three Bears or Pigs or Billy Goats Gruff to inspiring speeches by the likes of Winston Churchill:

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The success of this technique is rooted in its simple language. As Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges noted:

“At the beginning of their careers many writers have a need to overwrite. They choose carefully turned-out phrases; they want to impress their readers with their large vocabularies. By the excesses of their language, these young men and women try to hide their sense of inexperience. With maturity the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style.”

Maturity in a writer doesn’t mean throwing around a lot of fancy words. A secret of successful writers is the ability to tell a story in a way that focuses everybody’s attention on the story, not on the brilliance of the author, pulling strings like a poorly concealed puppeteer.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

How To Build a Better Story – Try a Traditional Start

Why does your imagination spring to attention when you hear a phrase such as: Once upon a time in a far-off land . . . ?

It doesn’t say much, except: I’m ready to tell a good story.
And it asks, implicitly: Would you like to hear it?

Who can resist such a hook dangled before the imagination? When such a question is put directly to a listener or reader – an outright invitation to hear (or read) the story that follows – it’s not common that the person will answer: No thanks.

That person (who may be an editor or a literary agent) is more likely to succumb to that universally deep-seated urge to want to slide under the nearest feather comforter and plead: “Yes. Tell me a story. Please!”

Of course, how long they keep reading is a different matter! But your first challenge is to get them to start reading . . . and in a positive frame of mind.

Consider how a good number of great classic tales start with a compelling hook that is really little more than a clear signal that a good yarn is coming.

A most extraordinary thing happened in Petersburg on the twenty-fifth of March.
– beginning of “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol

Or . . .

This is the tale of the wonders that befell on the evening of the eleventh of December, when they did what they were told not to do.
– beginning of “The Ice Dragon, or Do as You Are Told,” by E. Nesbit

Why do these work? Because they invite us in to the magic circle of the story.

Even more active story starts are really often little more than an invitation to the reader to get ready for a good tale. For instance, consider the beginning line to Charlotte’s Web.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Many would claim that’s a case of in media res, a Latin phrase that just means starting a story in the middle of action. Yes, but consider how that start by E.B. White is also an implicit beginning to a story. The opening line is proposed in a way so that, if the teller paused, the listener would say, “Tell me more.” The action underway is significant, and has been summed up in a sentence; it calls for the rest of the explanation of what this story is about to come immediately.

Indeed, it’s basically a story that starts, “Once upon a time a girl named Fern Arable was looking out the window and saw her father headed to the hoghouse with an ax. Why? Well, listen and I’ll tell you why.”

It’s not only children’s book that can start this way. Consider the start to Patrick Rothfuss’ New York Times–bestseller, The Name of the Wind.

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

This is the literary equivalent of “Once upon a time at the Waystone Inn . . .” Or “It was a dark and stormy night” . . . except there’s no storm, just darkness and quiet.

Every story need not start with a traditional call to story. But I’m surprised that more writers don’t make use of its effective power to make us look forward to what comes next.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

How To Build a Better Story – Read Your Work Aloud

Read at least a portion of your work aloud!

Stories were once upon a time primarily told orally. Not surprisingly, the cadence of what we consider to be an appealing story derives to great extent from what sounds good to our ears.

Also not surprisingly, a good number of excellent literary storytellers honed their skills by telling their tales aloud. It emphasizes the need to entertain an audience, to string sentences together in a pleasant way, and sometimes to let the story find its own way.

Richard Adams, for instance, spun an emerging story to his children on a series of car drives, till they began to ask regularly for “the rabbit story.” It became the bestselling book Watership Down.

Roald Dahl spun many of his fantastic tales to his children as he leaned against their bedroom’s doorframe.

Alice in Wonderland was created in 1865, in first draft in a boat, to entertain three children – the Liddell sisters, ages eight, ten, and thirteen – as Rev. Charles Dodgson and another minister rowed the children on a outing up the Thames near Oxford. To pass the time, Dodgson began a story about a little girl named Alice (the middle girl’s name), looking for an adventure. Pleased with the tale, young Alice asked Dodgson to write it down for her, and the reverend obliged with a manuscript that eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Brian Jacques, author of the popular Redwall series, began it as a story for students at a school for the blind in Liverpool, where he delivered milk and volunteered as a storytime reader. For that audience, he knew he had to develop a style that would read well out loud: funny dialect voices, beautiful descriptive passages reminiscent of some of the loveliest elegiac moments in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and lots of swashbuckling action.

As a teacher, Philip Pullman told stories from the Odyssey & the Iliad to his students. He chose not to read the stories, but instead to “stand up and tell them the stories face-to-face,” which he did week after week, for twelve years of teaching young teens.

[T]he real beneficiary of all that storytelling wasn’t so much the audience as the storyteller. I’d chosen – . . . [for] good educational reasons — to do something that, by a lucky chance, was the best possible training for me as a writer. To tell great stories over and over and over again, testing and refining the language and observing the reactions of the listeners and gradually improving the timing and the rhythm and the pace, was to undergo an apprenticeship that probably wasn’t very different, essentially, from the one Homer himself underwent three thousand years ago.

As I wrote in How To Write Your Best Story:

Oral tellers have an unfair advantage. They can see immediately if their story is holding an audience’s attention. As needed, they can modulate their voice, vary the pace, exaggerate gestures. They whisper or growl; they slow down or spring into sudden action. And they watch to see if their delivery technique is working; if it isn’t, they modify it on the spot.

Good writers have to learn to do the same. You can’t literally watch, but you can try to do this in your mind’s eye. One helpful technique to is to read your work out loud. Let your characters fill the room with their arguments and passionate speeches – it will help you visualize a reader taking in your written words. Will they be sitting on the edges of their chairs? Or might they squirm in boredom?

In a 2003 interview, crime-novel author Harlen Coben explained his choice of career by saying what writers should hold dearest to our hearts: “I love stories.” And he offered his image of professional motivation:

“When I’m writing, what I pretend subconsciously is that we’re cavemen, we’re sitting around the fire, and I’m telling you stories. If I bore you, you’re probably going to pick up a big club and hit me over the head.”

– from How To Write Your Best Story

[I think, by the way, that’s an image lifted from E.M. Foster’s work, Aspects of the Novel.]

In any event, consider reading at least some extended passages of your writing out loud. Read the first three pages. Choose some other bits at random.

By reading aloud, you’ll appreciate the real value – cost vs. benefit – of each word. It pays to choose the right word, the most brilliant image, the ringing cadence. And you’ll stumble over the misplaced or mischosen or unnecessary words.

As you do . . . remember that caveman, reaching for his club.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

How To Build a Better Story – More Eccentricity!

More Eccentricity!

The writer’s challenge is to tell a fresh story. As William M. Thackeray (Victorian novelist, author of Vanity Fair), summed it up: “The two most engaging powers of a good author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”

But how do you put a fresh spin on old, familiar things?

Odd or quirky is, it turns out, naturally interesting. We are drawn to look more closely at something that deviates from the ordinary or expected. We are intrigued by something strange, unpredictable, peculiar, curious. We want to know more about it.

The word odd comes from the Middle English word odde, from Old Norse oddi: a point of land. In other words, it is something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

You want to make your story familiar but different – in an intriguing and appealing way. You want your story to stand out from the crowd.

This may seem obvious. But many beginner stories are what I’d call centric. They plunk themselves down safely in the middle of the expected; they refuse to venture far from normality. Beginning writers may be afraid or unwilling to challenge, threaten, or puzzle that sense of normalcy in their story.

But a story is about something different that happened. A story by definition is eccentric . . . . It makes us wonder about its origins. And it catches our interest.

Something odd needs to appear early in a manuscript to catch the attention of agent or editor. Those savvy shoppers of literary works are not looking for familiarity, but for freshness . . . especially in the first pages.

Remember, there is a stack of fairly equivalent works available to any editor, piled high in stacks or entire rooms of slush-pile submissions. Unless your story quickly offers a quirky aspect, it will quickly be tossed aside.

– from How To Write Your Best Story

More eccentricity makes a story memorable, intriguing.

Think of great characters in literature: Sherlock Holmes with his many odd habits, Long John Silver with his peg-leg and parrot, The Cat in the Hat with his colorful, crooked hat. Eccentric quirks like these don’t carry the whole story, but they capture our interest and draw us in to a place where the magic of story can happen.

Why? Because our attention is drawn to something odd. It reminds me of the iconic “More cowbell!” Saturday Night Live sketch with Christopher Walken, Will Ferrell, Jimmie Fallon, and others.

In it, some studio musicians are recording a tune, and producer Walken is looking for something he can really get excited about. He decides it’s more cowbell, so Will Ferrell begins to pound on it energetically (as the others try not to collapse in laughter).

As the sketch progresses, Walken and Ferrell agree that’s exactly what’s needed: more and more cowbell!

Why is this goofball sketch so memorable? Because it’s eccentric. The cowbell is the clanky, offbeat element in this bit of comedic genius. The phrase passed into American usage, on t-shirts and mugs, as a catch-phrase for: Hey! We need something more to catch our interest!

For your story, to make it stand out from all others . . . the literary equivalent is: more eccentricity!

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

Stories are Like Spiders and Spiderwebs

Stories are like spiders and like spiderwebs.

That’s what Neil Gaiman thinks.

Or he does via the invisible narrator of the trickster tales found in Anansi Boys, his 2005 novel.

Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each.

Congrats to Neil for his Newbery Medal, just awarded by the illustrious (and hard-working, long-into-the-night-reading) committee, for The Graveyard Book.

In praise of The Graveyard Book, Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, said that “one might call this book a small jewel, but in fact it’s much bigger within than it looks from the outside.”

That reminds me of something Eudora Welty once wrote about the art of storytelling, how stories turn into something unexpected as they grow and swell with unseen forces: “In the end,” she said about the trick of the tale, “I tried to make the story’s inside outside and then leave the shell behind.”

As Welty herself described a Faulker story “The Bear,” it swelled up “like a balloon with forces invisible, so the time and space within the story is somehow greater than seemed physically possible.”

Time and space is caught within a tiny story . . . like we are caught, with all delight, by the gossamer webs of tiny Anansi, master storyteller and trickster, in the guises of Gaiman, Beagle, Welty.