Tag Archives: storytelling

Stories – Knowing what to leave out

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“You need emotion to make a story compelling. But every story is really just a sequence of events that need to be told in the right order. Extraneous information slows a story down and can have people wondering about the ultimate point. It’s like telling a joke: You don’t go on detours about what the chicken was doing for the last three weeks before it crossed the road. You tell only the parts that propel the joke forward. The same applies to storytelling.” – Art of Charm

Campfires draw storytellers and audiences like moths to flames. The forest primeval, moon and stars, unknown animals hiding in the darkness, wind soughing through the trees, branches that snap, cries of birds, isolation from well-lit, safe, and civilized places, all these combine into a natural arena for the telling of tales.

If you read through sites like the Art of Charm, you’ll find many tips for telling a captivating story (with or without the campfire), including understanding that “Every story has an emotional core, and that emotional core is how the storyteller feels about the events they’re describing. Everything else is just window dressing.”

Don’t Duplicate Reality

Ineffective storytellers and those who can’t seem to tell a joke properly often think more is more. They not only put into too much window dressing but tell you how the windows were made and installed. The result is tedious because it’s not really a story, it’s a transcript.

While short passages of transcript-like, step-by-step narration can add impact, they usually destroy impact. They have all the excitement of a 24-hour webcam. The author and the storyteller must determine what’s not essential, what destroys the pacing, that dilutes the excitement and the fear and the derring-do.

Writing guidebooks frequently use the examples showing the difference between a recording of a real-life conversation and the same conversation as distilled by an author or a storyteller (because amateurs frequently believe that duplicating real life is the best way to convey a realistic story). While some say our lives are large-order stories, slices of life are not stories. For one thing, the reader/audience cannot spend the same amount of time reading or hearing a story as the same event took to unfold in front of that 24-hour webcam. Yes, you can say the webcam footage is real. But here’s the thing: real isn’t a story.

The successful author and captivating campfire storyteller will leave out most of that the webcam shows–or what their memories of the actual events they witnessed can recall. If you’re a reporter writing for a daily newspaper, you’ll take the most important moments of that webcam footage or that memory and put them first. Then you follow that up with increasingly minor details. That style is called the inverted pyramid because the most important stuff comes first.

Efficiently Moving from Beginning to End

The storyteller and the author do the exact opposite. They place the most important stuff at–or near the end–of their story or novel. As the story unfolds, the writer and the storyteller are very conscious about going from beginning to end in a dramatic way whether the story is driven by the plot or by a character. When thinking about what to leave in or leave out, the key is: does this fact, conversation, description, or thought propel the story forward? If not, it doesn’t belong there because it’s more transcript than art.

When a good editor says, “you need to tighten this up,” s/he means that the writer didn’t leave out enough of the stuff s/he should have left out and/or that even the important sentences are filled with extra words. When the Art of Charm says that the storyteller’s feelings about the story art important, we can take this advice in many ways. One way is that if the writer or storyteller doesn’t care, then neither will the readers or campfire audience. Another way is that when the writer or storyteller cares a lot, s/he will find it easier to pinpoint which “extra” scenes, descriptions, and dialogue weaken the tale-telling experience.

Knowing what to leave out is a true part of the art and craft of keeping the reader’s and listener’s participative attention.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

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The Fairytale Heroine’s Journey

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“When I first started teaching fairy tales at the university level, I noticed that certain tales had a similar underlying structure. They were all tales about heroines, from childhood to marriage, and in those tales the heroines went through a series of life stages: they received gifts, they were required to leave home or lost their homes in some way, they wandered through dark forests, they found temporary homes where they could stay for a while, they encountered friends and helpers along their journey . . . I describe those stages in more detail on the Journey page of this website.”

Source: The Fairytale Heroine’s Journey

Author, researcher, and college professor Theodora Goss* is doing for fairy tales what Joseph Campbell did for myths. That is, she is looking for underlying themes that can be found in many tales. It’s a developing process, and I’m looking forward to seeing this website evolve over time.

*Goss is the author of two wonderful novels, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and the sequel European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman.

Malcolm

Writers, ‘If you want immediate money, get a job’

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“Write because you enjoy it. Write for the long term. If you want immediate money, get a job. This writing career is about loving to tell stories. Readers want to hear about how great your story is, not how many copies you sold or how brilliant your promotion campaign was. Readers want to be lulled and drawn into a new world they love, not sold a popular fad.” – Hope Clark

If you’re on the staff of a magazine or newspaper, write news releases for a profit-making corporation or non-profit organization, write advertising copy, are among the listed writers for a television series, create computer documentation, or are employed in other positions that require you to create strings of words for pay, then you have a writing job and receive paycheck and possibly even have a benefits package.

However, none of those positions are on people’s minds when they dream of becoming a writer. They’re dreaming of the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize or the New York Times bestseller list or of seeing the words “based on a story by. . .”in the credits of a blockbuster movie.

As Hope Clark said in a recent Funds for Writers newsletter that for most writers, sometimes it seems like nobody’s out there because few readers write Amazon reviews or comment on writers’ blogs. So that’s why she advises dreamers to write because they enjoy it.

When we’re young, and don’t know any better, we see our current novel in progress as the next bestseller published by a major New York Publisher. Subsequently, we’re depressed to learn they don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts and that most of the agents who send work to those publishers also don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts.

If you’re a Hollywood star or even a famous serial killer, you’ll probably get a contract from a major New York Publisher because they think your book will sell 50,000 copies or more. Seems unfair, doesn’t it? But then, publishing is a business. Yes, that seems unfair, too, doesn’t it? Perhaps it will seem less unfair if we acknowledge that most people in other professions don’t start at the top. They work their way up. Other than famous people, I think the same is true of writers.

We really have to like what we do. And when it comes down to the words on paper, we need to enjoy putting them there and acknowledge those words are there for our prospective readers. Those readers need to find something that inspires them, takes them into exciting places with exciting characters, or provides a respite from a long days at the office.

Yes, it’s hard to know what readers might want. I think that means that we have to do the best we can as writers and hope we connect with somebody out there who enjoys reading our words. Looking at writing as a lottery where we might strike it rich usually dooms us to failure. If it happens, it happens. Until them, telling stories is what inspires us more than seeing our names up in lights.

Malcolm

If you were God, what would you do next?

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Most people are scared to answer that question. In fact, they’re down right superstitious about even hearing the question.

Those who do answer the question tend to say either: (a) I would smite so and so, or (b) I would create world peace. Smiting a bad guy is easy. Creating world peace is easier said than done because there are too many variables involved for a mere human to deal with.

Okay, here’s where you find out that’s a trick question.

Those who aren’t writers often say that within any given novel, the author is a god. S/he can smite everyone who needs smiting and decree world peace without having to worry about the mechanics of it.

There are risks of acting too God like while writing a novel or a short story. Presumably, God (Himself and/or Herself) doesn’t have to worry about bad press whenever He or She manifests and Act of God. Human beings, being what they are, tend to believe that if an Act of God occurs and it’s bad, it must be their fault. They sinned, and so an Act of God paid them back.

If a writer puts an Act of God into his/her story, chances are nobody will believe it and the author will be paid back with a slew of one-star reviews on Amazon, and God help him or her if the book sells well enough to attract the attention of critics who will say, “The book was a wondrous sweeping saga until the last chapter when the good guys were trapped and suddenly–without warning or proper foreshadowing–a tsunami kills all the bad guys.”

Critics and readers alike will say, “I hate it when that happens.”

Basically, critics and readers don’t want the author to play God as s/he writes because the resulting story is unsatisfying, outside the reality of the novel, an example of the author writing himself/herself into a hole and cheating to get out of it, and other nasty criticisms.

Readers, frankly, are never willing to say that the author moves in mysterious ways and let it go at that. Authors who move in mysterious ways are variously bad, experimental, sinful, crazy, or tetched. Critics and readers typically want more order than authors want. They want the books they read to be safe and to fit within the world as they see it.

The bottom line is, the author can’t play God and has to let the story unfold however it unfolds. If you–as the author–step in and take any action whatsoever, it has to be sneaky and impossible for critics and readers to detect.

So, the author’s answer to the question “If you were God, what would you do next?” is “Little to nothing.”

That’s the reality of being an author. You have the power, but you can’t use it.

Malcolm

 

 

 

Keeping track of the old stories

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“If you know or happen upon a story, record it in some way. As a voice memo on a phone. In written form. Do the same with your friends and relatives. And archive the stories or send them to someone who keeps folklore records. Because this preservation is vital to ensure that we do not lose our old traditions or beliefs. Never assume that everyone knows why a particular road, or field, is called by a certain name. If you know the history, record it. Otherwise you do not know what may be lost in the future.” – Jon Buckeridge in “Once Upon a Time: Folklore and Storytelling” in The Folklore Podcast

Wikipedia Photo – Dutch Proverbs

Folklore is easy to lose. Mainstream history often runs roughshod over local stories. The stories themselves may have been passed from person to person to the extent that details have been lost or exaggerated or even changed. Yet, if the participants and places aren’t famous, the stories may be forgotten.

As writers, we can help keep those stories alive by writing down those we know and disseminating them in nonfiction or as the basis of our fiction. These stories can add a lot of depth to a novel.

When my wife and I moved to a small Georgia town in 2002, the subdivision we chose was once part of a farm. The subdivision was named after one of the city fathers; his name can be found in local and county histories, and in walking tour notes. The subdivision’s streets were named after members of the farm family. We were the first owners of a house that had been built the year before. You could see in the property’s deeds who owned it before we did. But you won’t find the links there between the street names and the family members’ names.

Long-time residents had known the family, so in time we learned where the street names came from. The developer/builder also knew this. We moved out two years ago. I wonder how many people in that neighborhood today know where their street’s name came from. I don’t recall the homeowners association documents including any neighborhood history. In a brief Google search, I can’t find that information on line.

I’m sure somebody in town still knows it. But have they written it down? If not, the information will disappear in time along with any remembrances people had of the family members and what they did or where they ended up. Quite likely, none of them are famous and, to my knowledge, they didn’t factor into any city or county news stories of note. But in a lot of locales, the names of streets have histories connected to them that might make for good background information in a short story of a novel.

“Stories are the very basis and heart of folklore. Certainly, when you look back at cultures that did not have a recorded history per se, or who relied on outsiders to chronicle their histories, the essence of them is held in the stories. Without those stories they will die. We need people with passion and drive to not let them die. For Jon, it does not matter whether you believe that the supernatural elements of these stories are real; what matters is that the stories, the culture and the history, and heritage of those who call a place home is preserved and held up for future generations. It is something that every person has a right to.” – Podcast Introduction.

Many of us remember our parents and grandparents telling us family stories when we were young. We remember some of them, but unless we wrote them down, we’ve probably forgotten most of them. Too bad: that’s the kind of information that can be passed down to children and grandchildren and, when it figures into the local history and development of a town or county, it quite possibly should end up in local history books, short stories, and novels.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s Kindle short story (which is based on Florida folklore) “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” has been nominated the 2018 Pushcart Prize.

Being preoccupied – one hazard of being a writer

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If somebody wrote a blues song about living with a writer, it might start out something like this:

My baby’s lyin’ next to me, but I ain’t here,
My baby’s lyin’ next to me, but I ain’t here,
I’m just a haint who ain’t dead, cause she’s off yonder inside her head.

My wife told me many years ago that she can always tell when I’m working on a novel or a short story because I’m not in the room even when I’m in the room. She says I’m preoccupied, but we both know it’s more than that. I haven’t gone off into a trance, but I’m getting close.

I can pull myself back from this preoccupation if I have to, if the cops bust into the room or the world ends, but otherwise the story in progress is so addictive that it has more power than “real life.”

dadreamWhen a writer’s in a writing trance, the sights and sounds of his/her story display in the mind’s eyes with greater clarity than memories and dreams. It’s almost like s/he is there with the hero being chased down the street by muggers, the people escaping from a burning building, the troubled woman on a swing, the lovers walking on a beach in the moonlight , or a room full of employees getting chewed out by the boss.

It you’re a writer, you know what I mean. If you live with a writer, you have my sympathies.

Once the story’s complete, the daydream quality of my non-writing hours disappears and I’m back to normal. Thankfully, I don’t work on multiple stories/novels at a time, so when I write the words “the end” on one story, I don’t immediately become preoccupied with the next. I say “thankfully” because being not fully present with others when you’re supposed to be watching a TV movie together, shooting the breeze on a car trip, or sharing a carafe of wine at a fine restaurant always comes off as disinterested uncaring.

One of my pet peeves is people who text or talk on their cell phones when having dinner with my wife and I or who have have come over to play cards or shoot the breeze over drinks. Few things are more rude than that even though most cell phone users think the world will stop if they don’t answer every call. While writers don’t mean to be rude and caught not listening or not responding to others in the room, they can’t always help it. And we come across as worse because we don’t have a cell phone plastered against our ear while everyone else around the dinner table sits in limbo while we yak about something inconsequential. Cell phone interruptions are an accepted kind of rudeness; daydreaming in front of others is not.

Maybe I need a sign around my neck that says: Sorry to be rude, but my short story’s calling I’ve got to take this.

Most people will either think that’s a joke or that the writer is crazy, that is, unless they’ve lived with a writer and his/her trance-like moments and understand what’s going on.

Seriously, it’s not that really want to ignore you. It’s just that I haven’t yet found a twelve-step program to cure my writing addiction.

–Malcolm

Still addicted after all these years, Malcolm R. Campbell is currently preoccupied with the sequel to “Conjure Woman’s Cat.” 

 

 

Storytelling, dreams, and magic

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Life in Truth (as opposed to the “life actual” world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.” – Jane Yolen in “Touch Magic”

MRbloghop2016When we wake up from a dream, we’re aware of the fact that we didn’t realize we were dreaming while we were dreaming, but accepted what was happening as real no matter how improbable it seems in the light of day. Daydreams are somewhat the same. We’re imagining surfing in Hawaii or climbing Mt. Everest when somebody says, “you look like you’re a thousand miles away.”

Authors hope readers will react to their books like this. We want the reader to step into the story and, as the words flow forward along the pages, believe a little or a lot that the story is real. When a book is compelling, readers are often startled when the phone rings or somebody knocks on the front door and they find themselves back in “life actual” in somewhat the same way they react when they wake up from a compelling dream.

It’s said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that when stories contain human interest and a semblance of truth, readers will temporarily suspend their judgement about the implausibility of the plot, setting and characters. Readers willingly suspend their disbelief and see the novel, short story, play or movie as life actual rather than life in truth.

A general fiction author will take us to a real place, or at least a realistic place, in our own comfortable domain of life actual (sometimes called “consensual reality”) and tell us a story that could happen (or might have happened) in the “real world.” (I put “real world” in quotation marks because both Quantum physicists and spiritual gurus have called into question whether the world we perceive as real is real.)

Contemporary fantasy authors will take you to a hidden place within the world we know where magical events occur. The Harry Potter series is a good example of this. Most of the magic within Rowling’s books was confined to Hogwarts and other magical locations. The consensual reality at Hogwarts was different from the consensual reality in London, and both readers and wizards knew that they were traveling between parts of the world with different rules.

perception2Magical realism authors bring magic into the world we know. In a magical realism story, the magic is part of the characters’ everyday life and is accepted as just as real and viable as the cars they drive and the pots and pans in their kitchens.  The characters don’t see magic as something with the world “maybe” attached to it whether that magic comes from the land, from ancestors or spirits, or from the spell casting or innate abilities of the people involved.

The authors of general fiction (or realistic genres), contemporary fantasy, and magical realism all want readers to suspend their natural disbelief in the reality presented in the novel, and accept it as real in the same way they accept dreams and daydreams as real. In some ways, readers are like those who go up on stage during a hypnotist’s or magician’s performance and say, “Yes, I’m willing to be hypnotized” or “Yes, I’m willing to be fooled by your illusions.”

Perception is Reality

Storytellers, hypnotists and stage magicians (illusionists) can place you into somewhat of a dream state in which you accept what’s happening as real because we believe that perception is reality in one or more of these ways:

  • Psychologists might say you see the same reality as everyone else, but are impacted by it differently because of how you feel about it or yourself.
  • Quantum physicists might say that reality is more than we perceive with our physical senses and that our thoughts or our presence impact it in ways we may not realize.
  • Those who study and accept what used to be called “new age” belief systems will say that our perception and our thoughts create the reality we experience and that we can be taught how to do this consciously.
  • And others will say that our perception of what is real can changed temporarily due to hypnosis, strong emotions or other traumas, alcohol or drugs, or some other life actual cause.

When it comes down to it, most authors don’t think about “perception is reality” while they’re writing. Learning one’s craft brings authors the techniques they need to tell a page-turning story that readers perceive as real while they’re reading it. Most of us want to be tricked one way or another when we watch a hypnotist’s or a stage magician’s performance. We don’t usually think about being tricked or enchanted or hypnotized when we pick up a novel, but that’s what happens if the story on that novel’s pages is well told.

Magical Realism or Just Plain Realism?

I see the world as a child of the new age. I’ve had arguments with publishers about whether my novels and short stories should be called general fiction or magical realism because I believe everything in my stories is real. But, publishers, bookstores and readers tend to like seeing the genre labels because those labels help them choose the ways they like being hypnotized or enchanted (in a magical sense) by an author.

What do you see?

What do you see?

I’ve always written about the world I perceive. Until others pointed it out, I didn’t realize I was writing magical realism. I had to ask, “What makes my stories fit into that genre?” Publishers, editors and writing gurus kept telling me, “You and your characters. . .”

  1. View the spell for creating a pillar of fire or jinxing a troublesome neighbor as no different than a recipe for mac and cheese.
  2. Assume haints and other spirits are just as likely to be in the forest as deer and raccoons.
  3. Give myths and legends just as much credence as recorded history–or suggest they’re more accurate
  4. Think trees, rocks, storms and the land itself are conscious.

I said, “Yes, of course I perceive everything that way. Doesn’t everyone?”

As it turned out, most other people don’t share my perception of reality in their day-to-day lives; however, enough of them like being lured into short stories and novels with that kind of perception to make magical realism a popular genre.

I think I was the last to know.

The world as we know it draws lines between our dreams and our waking hours, between illusion and five-senses perception, between magic and non-magic, and between life actual and life in truth. Magical realism takes away all those lines.

Malcolm

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button for a list of other blogs in the hop. Links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.