Part of a series of articles for the new writer
I’ve been making the rounds of the various writing venues, and counting the stories that are told as a transcript of the storyteller at the podium, against those in which we seem to literally be with the character, as observers and participants. By my count, it’s close to ninety-five percent told as if the reader were sitting across the table from the writer.
Now, good sense would seem to say that they’re on to something, and that if so many people write that way they must be right. Certainly, the reviews people give each other on such sites would seem to say that. Unfortunately, a look at the bookstores says that while many books are written in omniscient mode, few are written as an extended one-sided conversation between writer and reader.
So the question arises: How can intelligent people make such a dumb mistake? Why don’t those stupid editors realize they’re wrong and embrace the majority viewpoint?
It’s the answer to that question that’s the subject of this particular rant.
First, I need you to perform a thought experiment. You’ll like it because we’re about to make you a famous storyteller, one who fills theaters with people anxious to hear what you have to say.
Ready? Here we go:
Tonight’s storytelling performance will be especially good, and the house is sold out. It’s a story that has love, betrayal, adventure, and a host of subplots that will grab the audience where they live, and bring a standing ovation at the conclusion—and it has every time you’ve performed it.
There’s only one problem. It’s a half-hour before curtain time you’ve come down with laryngitis. You can’t even whisper. So what can you do? Cancel, and refund the ticket price? It looks like that’s the only choice, until…
The stage manager says he has a great idea. His nephew has volunteered to take your place. The boy’s not a trained storyteller, of course, and he’s neither read nor heard the story. In fact, he’s never been on stage before. But he loves to read, though he stumbles occasionally on unfamiliar words.
Unfortunately, because of the short time before the curtain goes up, and your uncooperative throat, you can’t even give the boy stage directions, or pointers on how to present the various characters. So it’s going to be a cold-read of the words of your presentation, by someone without a clue of how you want it done.
So, here’s the question: Given that situation, what do you think the chances are that there’s going to be a standing ovation tonight? What are the odds the nephew will duplicate your expression, body-language, tone, delivery, and those little pauses you toss in for emphasis? How about where you just sigh, give the audience a long suffering look, and then spread your hands in the eloquent shrug that’s your trademark? Will he know to do that—and where?
You had better be saying “really good,” because that is precisely the job every writer assigns their reader. And that’s exactly how much training they have for the job.
That reader takes your words and will apply the proper voice to it as they read—but only if you make it clear exactly what that voice is. And if you don’t, they’ll have to guess, and do that before they even know what a given line will say.
So… Would you like to know why you can’t use a transcript of you telling the story, directly, and why the techniques of the fiction writer are a lot more than just fluff? It’s because the reader can neither see nor hear you. It’s that simple—or should be. Somehow, though, no one ever seems to get it—other then those pesky editors who keep rejecting our stories.
Since the reader can neither see nor hear you, how can you talk to them? You can’t.
How can you let them know about your protagonist, and what their life has been like? You can’t.
Who is there to bring the reader up to date and introduce the opening of the story? No one. You just open it. You raise the curtain, cue the actors, and you get out of their way while they perform your little play—or better yet, live it.
Is it beginning to dawn on you that you haven’t a clue of how to do that? It should. It’s what I’ve been telling you for all along. Face it. You can’t write. Your mother can’t write, and your neighbor is even worse. Why? Because writing fiction is no more a natural skill than was learning to place words on the page in the first place.
There you sit, ready to write your story. You’ve even diagrammed it, so you know every character, every thought, and every expression on everyone’s face. All you need do is record it. But in what medium? You have a choice. It could be told on film. It could be a play. You might tell it verbally. Or, you could turn it into a novel.
Now, if you write it as a screenplay, do you need specialized knowledge? Of course. And if you write that film script can it be used for a stage version? Of course not, the constraints of the media differ. Having a slow motion fight on stage would be pretty silly, for example. But slow motion is an effective tool in filmed work.
My point? Why would you believe that storytelling and novel writing use exactly the same techniques? Given that you were taught nothing about making a film in school, why would you believe you were given what you need to write a novel—or a story to be told by the campfire?
But we all believe we know everything about the act of writing. Every single one of us, even our teachers believe that. When we sit down to write that story we’ve mapped out, we never doubt, for one second that while we would need to learn the craft-set used for what amounts to brain-to-screen translation, we already own the brain-to-novel set, and the brain-to-storyteller set. But we don’t. What we do own is the brain-to-gossip set, and the brain-to-office-writing set. And it all boils down to something I’ve already said, in quoting Mark Twain, who was an extraordinarily perceptive man: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
So you want to be a writer? Great. I applaud you, and encourage you to go for it. The world needs more crazy people. And you want to be a published author? Fantastic. But here’s a secret: Experience is a stairway, one that leads upward. But education? That’s the Star-Trek transporter that allows you to zap past whole flights of stairs.
If you’re looking for a shortcut to success—the magic bullet that rockets you to the top—turn to another writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
So what can you do? Where do you turn for a writer’s education that will give you the tools you need but won’t bankrupt you? Start at your local library, there’s a wealth of information there, written by those who know from experience what works and what doesn’t. And while you’re there, look for a book titled, “Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain.” It’s the book that every writer needs to have in their library, because it covers the basics of how to approach the job—the nuts-and-bolts elements that all stories have in common. It tells how to get out from behind the podium and into the prompter’s booth, giving direction and purpose to the actors without getting in their way. And if Swain’s work isn’t there, look for Jack Bickham’s, Scene and Structure, a book almost as good.
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.