Reflecting on Storytelling

Do we tell too many stories?  In a recent conversation with a foreign-born coworker, I learned that Americans tend to tell stories about things that they’ve seen, done, or thought, more than individuals in other countries do – particularly in business. We use these stories for a variety of reasons, but most of the reason for doing so in a business or academic sense is to illustrate a point. Point, point, where’s the point?  We also build stories as a way of being comfortable with our surroundings and knowing how to reach our audience. 

Today was an odd day. Although now I am hearing something about a utility vault flooding, it was initially reported that someone struck a pole and knocked down wires in Santa Cruz, resulting in a power outage.  Our power went out, though my wife made it to work.  I made it to work, too, but I neither had my alarms, nor a stove or microwave for my oatmeal.  What a way to wake up!  At least I wasn’t too late.   As it turns out, we didn’t have power at work, which meant that I was able to shoot the breeze with coworkers, go back home, go on a nice relaxing run, and go back to work at about noon.  By that time, the power was back on and I was one of several that were refreshed and ready to get back to business as usual.

After about two hours, we were pulled into a meeting with Noel Murphy, who is equal parts behavioral psychologist, stand-up comedian, and speech coach.  In that meeting, we were told to share a little bit about ourselves, and I forced the hand about being a novelist.  I think Noel was thrilled with that.  As we listened to his presentation – and played an active part, even when the occasion didn’t call for it – I couldn’t help but think about how his observations applied to characterization and, in turn, how they were similar to what I’ve read from Larry Brooks (Story Engineering).

One of the premises of Noel’s speech coaching exercise was the discussion of ‘sacred ground,’ ‘direction’ and ‘agenda.’  These loosely correlated to Brooks’ discussion of characters and character motivation.  Awareness of these three competencies also brought me back to something that I read in Wiggins and McTighe (and I hear the MAT program Lit cohort groan): backward design.   It’s funny, because this coincides with a step in a now-forgotten epiphany that I had regarding using backward design toward characterization, character motivation, and the characters’ outcomes.  This might be trying to tie three different shoelaces in the hope of securing a shoe, but please bear with me.

Let’s say that Jay Gatsby is our central character.  We know that his sacred ground is that green light, whether that means money or Daisy or the American Dream—whatever.  He desperately wants to be a success, and that is something that we can perceive through his actions or through that late conversation between Nick and Old Man Gatz.  Simplistically put, he wants success and wants to be perceived as a success (sacred ground), so he reads books about self-improvement, masters the art of appearing successful, and pursues his house in the Hamptons and Daisy (direction). 

Agenda can be looked at through several lenses.  First and foremost, what does Gatsby say that he wants out of life?  If you say Daisy—well, that’s a half truth.  Sure, he confides in Nick and even gets Nick to set up an encounter between Daisy and himself, but that’s an agenda for a small audience.  There’s an agenda for a larger audience – though not as explicit as what he says to Nick – which is being the man who throws all of the lavish parties and remains a bit of a mystery.  Then, at least as far as from a character standpoint, there are the real agendas, which are two-fold: cover the inadequacies and illicit activities that have given him some level of success, and resolve the years spent pining away for the socialite/heiress.  Finally, there’s the lens of the author’s set of agendas, and this is where Wiggins and McTighe come in.

Every author, whether Shakespeare or Cervantes or Voltaire or Fitzgerald, has an agenda for a character, something that they want the character to convey, something that they want the character to resolve, or something that they want to resolve by using the character as a vehicle or motivator for their plot.  This treads on some very shaky ground here, as now we’re digging into authors’ motivations.  What was Fitzgerald trying to convey through Gatsby?  The hopelessness of the American Dream?  How the pursuit of the American Dream is ultimately a vacuous existence?  Could it be possible that, in discussing Gatsby in relation to Daisy, that Fitzgerald is illustrating his own frustrations in marrying outside of his own class?  After all, Zelda was a princess.  Cue the groans from the gamers.  [In fact, Zelda Fitzgerald was the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court Justice, and Scott’s parents were actually quite affluent Northerners.] Whatever the case, Fitzgerald was ultimately trying to convey something through Gatsby.

Which brings me to Brooks’ Story Engineering and Wiggins and McTighe.  Having an idea about that outcome, and an idea about the appropriate agenda, is ultimately something that makes for better storytelling.  After all, what type of mystique would there be to Gatsby if, within the first twenty pages, we realize that Gatsby isn’t all that great – that he chews tobacco, spits it into a soda bottle, and occasionally forgets which bottle contains the Coke and which contains the juice?  How would we respond to Nick as the narrator if we knew that these events led him to become a priest, or that his association with Gatsby would ultimately land him in Sing-Sing?  In either case, I’m sure that the interaction with James Gatz’s father would lose its luster.  Oh, so ol’ Jimmy didn’t come from money? You don’t say!

This becomes harder with episodic works, such as series (books, TV, movies, whatever).  By this time, my faithful readers will know that I’ve been using Star Trek and Frasier as character studies to see how characters develop over time, how they become endearing (or not), and how their roles function.  Gene Roddenberry was on hand at the inception of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  That said, he probably envisioned Lt. Worf and Lt. Commander Data as counterpoints to a mostly human crew, and may have even envisioned these two as foils: one learning what it means to be something other than human in an otherwise human existence, and the other one learning what it is to be human.  That said, do you think that he envisioned B4?  Do you think that he envisioned Data going after Praetor Shinzon as he did?  All things considered, he probably didn’t, but the framework was there from the beginning, leading to the eventuality that Data would learn what it is to be human and even display characteristics that would be considered admirable or heroic to humans.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling probably didn’t foresee the events of the last five chapters of The Deathly Hallows when she began work on The Sorcerer’s Stone– or maybe there was some tea leave reading there – but she had all of the framework in place for it to happen.  When Harry lives with the Dursleys, he leads a somewhat loveless and friendless life.  By the end, it’s his love and friendship (along with that of others) that ends up saving Hogwarts and himself. These shouldn’t be insane spoilers by now, folks.  In TSS, there are hints of Harry being a powerful wizard, and the wizard of prophecy – ‘the Boy Who Lived.’  Guess what happens at the end?

Yes, Fitzgerald and Rowling are geniuses – or, if not, then they were given genius-like powers during the course of their major works.  For the rest of it, as Brooks might contend, it isn’t that simple, and that’s why we write copious notes, organize those notes, reorganize those notes, and then end up throwing caution to the wind anyway.  Somewhere in writing, there lies the dueling human needs of structure and spontaneity.  Combine that with self-expression, wit, and wisdom, and we have our core beliefs and our means of conveying them.  Wiggins and McTighe would contend that, though we may want to throw out those notes scrawled on napkins, TP, or those damned TPS reports, that the one set of notes that we want to keep is that of the outcomes.  What is our agenda?  What do we want to convey about X through Character A, B, C or D?  We need to work backward from those outcomes before we can unearth the effective story behind it – something that I believe Mr. Brooks would support.  We may have all of these hang-ups of what a central character is supposed to be – is he a Jay Gatsby or a Tyler Durden?  However, that’s useless unless we have a firm understanding of what we want to get out of the character and work backward from there.

For example, if we inevitably want Pedro to become our story’s Casanova by the end of the book, having girls on the side of the girls that he’s having on the side, we better know how and why he becomes the Casanova, and what it really conveys.  We also better have a strong idea of the change that this represents and the character growth that needs to happen to bring this change about.  Say that Pedro is a hump-backed, buck-toothed, uneducated malcontent.  How would any of this lead to Pedro becoming Casanova?  What would be your real agenda as a storyteller, and how would turning Pedro from Neanderthal to Nouveau Riche make a good story?

Sure, the medium of storytelling probably won’t win your company that big IPO, and probably won’t stop the Lords of the Internets from creating some stupid cartoons about your pompousness/cluelessness/value relative to Twilight.  However, if you’re the type of person who likes to tell stories, regardless of your understanding of audience or your mastery of English or any other language, you do it because you’re familiar with it, it makes you comfortable with your surroundings, and maybe – just maybe – it will help someone else understand who you are and where you’re coming from.

After all that, let’s just say that I’ve got a lot to do before my third novel is ready for NaNoWriMo and the long road that leads from an idea to a hefty tome.  With only 28 days before NaNoWriMo starts, I am a bit nervous at the prospect of going into the month without having a clear message in mind, character arcs mapped out, and the ‘blocking’ (so to speak) for individual scenes already on hand.  Especially with the rigors of the job having been ramped up, I don’t want to leave too much to being ‘on the jazz.’

Post Script: As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think about the Tamarians; facepalm if you get the reference!  And now for something completely different: tales of my recent vacation may eventually follow – prepare accordingly.

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One Response to “Reflecting on Storytelling”

  1. Eamon Says:

    As usual, very interesting stuff on the process of writing. Good luck with NaNoWriMo! If only the start didn’t coincide with the start of basketball season as well…

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