Sunday, November 15, 2009

Common Storytelling Techniques

Common Storytelling Techniques
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman

All good stories draw the reader into the writer's world, making the reader forget the creator behind the creation, but how does the writer accomplish this? How does the writer, as John Gardner describes it, establish the "vivid, waking dream"?

A successful story makes use of certain storytelling techniques, methods that draw the reader into the writer's imaginative world. To understand how these storytelling techniques work, let us examine some basic approaches any fiction writer should know.

Begin at the moment everything changes for your main character.

Unfortunately, many writers draft warm-up beginnings, long sections of back story, explanation, and exposition that represent the writer's search for an entrance into his story. Successful fiction is all about change: change in your character's life and change in your character's approach to his life. Some ways to introduce change for your character:

• The mysterious stranger. A stranger appears in your character's world, demanding that she take action. This device is often used in fantasy. In Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo's life is disrupted when a mysterious wizard (Gandalf) appears, insisting Bilbo go on a quest. The mysterious stranger can also take the form of an object, such as a letter, a diary, or a clue to a treasure.

• The quest. Closely related to the "mysterious stranger" beginning, the quest can be triggered either by the arrival of a stranger or by the character's desire for change. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy's adventures begin when she runs away from home. In John Fowles's novel, The Collector, the main character's desperate need to be loved sets him on a quest to kidnap the perfect woman. In Larry McMurtry's book, Lonesome Dove, the main character's dissatisfaction with the status quo inspires him to initiate a cattle drive to Montana.

• Disaster. Disasters of any form require a character to respond. In Anne Tyler's novel, The Accidental Tourist, the disaster in the opening scene is personal (the spouse demands a divorce). The disaster can also be the product of natural events, such as earthquakes or floods, or manmade actions, such as murder or war. In Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the murder of a museum curator sends the characters on a quest to find the motivation for the crime.

Stories and chapters are constructed of scenes. Writers get lost in exposition when they forget the importance of scenes. Every scene contains one or more of the following elements:

• Action
• Description
• Dialogue
• Internal Monologue

To understand how these devices function in a scene, let us look at each one of them individually:

Action. When writing action, the trivial or the commonplace can be summarized. It isn't necessary to know that the character took three steps left, walked ten feet forward, and then pushed open the door to enter the room. The reader can easily assume these actions, and they aren't particularly important to the story. As Lawrence Block advises, "Get the character in the room!" For such trivial movement, it's fine to summarize: John entered the room.

However, significant events need to be depicted by specific details. For example, suppose you have a character—Sylvia—who is concocting a potion to poison Dan. Since this poison is important to both the characters and the plot, it's wise to use specific details when Sylvia makes the poison: Breaking off the seedpods, she tossed the stem aside and cut the pods into equal pieces. A white juice seeped from the pods as she ground them with the oil. When the liquid was fully blended, she poured it into a bowl and held it over the fire. As the mixture warmed, it dried to a fine, brown powder.

Description. When writing description, it's important to remember that the specific is more effective than the general.

General: He wore a hat and a raincoat.
Specific: He wore a porkpie hat and yellow slicker.
With description, less is always more. One precise adjective is better than a pair of vague descriptive words.
Vague: a dark red mini-van
Precise: a maroon mini-van

Dialogue. In a scene, dialogue performs three important functions:

• Advances the plot. Characters engage in conversation and reveal information about themselves or the story that have a direct impact on the plot.

• Enhances character development. What a character says and the way in which he says it reveals much about his personality. A teenager may use sentence fragments and slang, but a psychiatrist may speak more formally, with complete sentences and precise diction. A con man can be charming when he speaks and repulsive when he acts.

• Builds tension. Dialogue creates tension in a scene when characters either lie or withhold important information.

Internal monologue. This is defined as your character's thoughts. However, thoughts should always be triggered by speech, events, or setting. If a character spends pages ruminating about his life with no apparent reason, the reader begins to suspect that the author is using internal monologue to dump back story and exposition.

What about back story? Back story is the history of your characters, the events that have happened before your story begins. When is it appropriate to use back story? Perhaps the best answer to this is to think of back story as a decadent dessert. You never serve it at the beginning of the meal, and it's best savored in small bites.

Happy writing!

Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.

Visit Ms. Gassman at her Web site:
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