Storyville: Advanced Storytelling Techniques
Today we are going to talk about some advanced storytelling techniques. These are for authors that are already functioning at a high level. You get the basics—everything I teach in my Short Story Mechanics class—such as narrative hook, inciting incident, internal and external conflict, rising tension, climax, resolution (and change), as well as denouement (epiphany). You already understand the main components—plot, character, setting, dialogue, etc. What I hope today will do is add some more complicated structures, methods, and concepts that can help you to write original stories that really resonate.
I was talking to Ellen Datlow on her AMA at Reddit yesterday, trying to figure out the secret sauce that gets a story into an elite market, or a “best of the year” anthology. What I took away was this—a story has to hook the reader the first time, you can’t be boring (or cliché) and the ending has to really resonate. If she is engaged the FIRST TIME, she sets it aside. The SECOND time through it STILL has to grab her. Your story, in fact, should get BETTER with each additional reading—we see more, go beyond simple comprehension, and see the artistry at work, feel the emotion, understand the depth of what has been shared. I mentioned stories like “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson, as well as “Harvest Song, Gathering Song” by A.C. Wise, and even “Hippocampus”, a story I didn’t really “get” the first time through, but subsequently LOVED. Surprise us, engage us, and really dig deep.
Let’s get to it.
This is a technique and structure I’ve talked about a lot in the past, but I really like it. It’s based on the 1950 film, Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa. The basic plot and idea is that there are four characters—the bandit, the wife, the samurai, and the woodcutter. From Wikipedia: “The film is known for a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.” Things happen, and they all see different parts of the story—some overlapping, some drastically different. Which is why there is such a disconnect. What is the truth? We aren’t sure. We have to decide. I’ve done this twice in my own work.
My first attempt was “Dyer” a story set in Dyer, Indiana on the dunes. (It’s also a play on the word dire.) Four teens, one bonfire, four different stories. In the end, you have to decide who is telling the truth, and your feelings toward the characters CHANGE with each new section.
The second one I wrote was “Golden Sun”, which was co-written with Damien Angelica Walters, Kristi DeMeester, and Michael Wehunt. The basic plot is that a family goes to the beach, and the middle child, Bea, disappears. We each got a different character—father, mother, daughter, son. Each person saw different things, some overlapping, some contradictory, and in the end, the reader has to decide what is real, what is imagined, and what it all means. This story ended up in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eleven.
This is a tough structure, but if YOU the reader, as GOD, see all, know all, you can choose how to show it, how to manipulate us, and how to reveal the depths and depravity of the human condition. Comedy or tragedy, it’s up to you.
This is a much easier concept than the Rashomon, but I see people struggling with it all the time. It’s related to theme, mood, and atmosphere, but for me, it’s usually a concrete detail. The best way I can explain it is to think of a singular object, and what it represents. Then use that object throughout the story to drop HINTS about your story. It should help you to clue the reader in to something that is elusive—plot, character, setting, etc. You can also use more abstract objects to symbolize something—the color blue to represent depression, the color red for danger, the color black for death. Think of how the spiders are used in the film Enemy, and what they represent. Think of the aforementioned color blue and what it means in Kate Braverman’s “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta.” In my novel Disintegration, everything was falling apart—all mirrors are broken, there are car accidents, he is constantly knocking over and breaking glass throughout, etc. Whatever your object, concrete or more abstract, use it sparingly, in a range of doses (sometimes small, sometimes large depictions) to help get the reader to the truth of your narrative. An apple is temptation, a bird is freedom, a rose is love. Have fun with it!
This is a little more complicated, but you’ve probably used this technique before, and see it in stories, novels, tv shows, and films all the time. It’s defined as: “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.” It can be as simple as assigning human qualities to inanimate objects—the table squatted, the house leaned, the trees sighed. It can be more abstract—the wind moaned, the goosebumps ran like fingers over my flesh, time exhaled. It can be the human form incarnate, to represent a larger concept—Father Time, Mother Nature, or Uncle Sam. Especially in horror stories, or the fantastic, as well as science fiction, use the emotions, senses, and attributes of humanity to breathe life into otherwise lifeless objects. Show that the animals know more than we think. Create gods and goddesses that are fathomable. And then let your imagination run wild.
LEAVING ROOM FOR THE READER
I talk about this a lot in my classes. What you want to do is not define everything, not render judgment on every character, not provide every answer. It’s a tough balance between holding back, dropping clues, and leaving threads loose vs. revealing truths, letting things add up to a revelation, and having that important denouement (and epiphany). One way is through the classic show don’t tell technique. Don’t tell us the woman is beautiful, don’t tell us the troll is horrible, don’t tell us the organization is evil. Take these concrete and abstract details and SHOW us the world you are in, but let us decide what they are. You certainly can guide us—through the use of emotion, internal and external conflicts, action, and reaction. But character, for example, that’s layered and deep—nobody is one-dimensional. No villain is entirely evil, no hero entirely pure. So watch out for places where you TELL us who they are, where you TELL us the plot of the story, where you TELL us how to think or feel. Don’t. Chronicle, report, and document—and do it in ways that are filtered through your protagonist, for sure, let THEM react and define, but let the story unfurl. Is Dexter good or bad? What about Hannibal Lecter? Look at the ways the arcs and stories change for the cast in Game of Thrones. Who were you rooting for at the beginning, and who did you champion at the end? It shifted a lot, didn’t it? Leave room for the audience.
OPEN-ENDED ENDINGS THAT SATISFY
I wanted this technique to follow number four as they often have a relationship. How can you write a story that is not all wrapped up, a bow on it, every plot and storyline addressed, every thread connected, and still have it be satisfying? Here are a few ideas. You must address the MAIN internal and external conflicts. So, if the asteroid is going to crash to Earth, killing us all, well…you either stop it or you don’t. That can’t linger. If the protagonist is suicidal at the start of the story, due to past abuse, feelings of worthlessness, but this event helps them to realize that they have value and worth, then YES, good, you have to address and resolve that. So, those are the two main elements. With secondary characters, I try to tie up as many loose ends as I can. Ask yourself what you need to know, and what you don’t. Quite a lot of those questions don’t need to be answered, but if we never understand the motivation, if you never resolve the main emotion driving them, then that will linger—and not in a good way.
I like my stories to ripple out, to resonate, to have an effect on the reader that stays long after the words have ended. So for open-ended stories, how can you do that? After you’ve addressed the main components as I said above, you show how this has been a catalyst for change. And what is that change that’s coming? We don’t know yet, right? It’s the beginning. The end of my novel Disintegration ties up the main threads, but the protagonist? What he realizes is that there is still room in the world for a killer like him, that he has executed bad people, his family has moved on, and yet, we still need people to fight evil, no matter how ugly it gets. At the end of my first novel, Transubstantiate, while the immediate conflicts have been addressed, the story isn’t over. There is a moment when the computer entity reboots. It continues. The cast of characters has won, they are united, they have grown, and changed, and worked together. But it’s not over. Those are just two examples, but hopefully you see what I mean here.
IN MEDIAS RES
This is a pretty simple one. You don’t start your story at the beginning of your protagonist’s life. You start your story in medias res, Latin for “into the midst of things” or “into the middle.” It ties into the inciting incident—that moment in time after which things will never be the same. When is that moment for Bruce Wayne? It’s when his parents are killed in that alley. That is the moment where his life changes, and Batman is born. Where you start your particular Batman story, that’s up to you. But I guarantee you that whether it’s Batman Returns or The Dark Knight, it starts in the MIDDLE of things, in the heart of the action, or with some new, huge, threatening event unfurling.
I see a lot of questions about multiple POVs. If you’re writing first person, that’s easy—you just have a new scene, or a new chapter. The “I” is Jacob, it’s Marcy, it’s Assigned. All you have to worry about is their voice, how to differentiate. But if what you’re really worried about is how to deal with multiple characters and perspectives when writing THIRD person, it’s a bit trickier. The easiest way I can say to handle it is this—never reveal the emotion or thought of a character that is not your protagonist, nothing INTERNAL. Unless you are treating your story or novel like you do in first person—with dedicated scenes or chapters—never reveal the emotion or thought of any other character besides your protagonist. Let me see if I can show you a quick example:
BAD: Marcy ran into the alley where she ended up face to face with Darren. His coat of fur bristled. Darren was furious, ready to tear her from limb to limb. Marcy wondered if he could still remember her, their relationship, the love they had before the infection took over. Glancing down the alley toward the light, she spied Marcus, gun in hand. Marcus knew this was not going to end well. He was too late.
You are head hopping here all over the place! Whose story is this? It’s Marcy’s, but man, I get Darren, I get Marcus. It’s a mess. Here is how I would rewrite that.
GOOD: Marcy ran into the alley where she ended up face to face with Darren. His coat of fur bristled, she could see the anger in his red eyes, his gnashing teeth ready to tear her from limb to limb. Marcy wondered if he could still remember her, their relationship, the love they had before the infection took over. Glancing down the alley toward the light, she spied Marcus, gun in hand. Marcy knew this was not going to end well, tears running down his face as he screamed, running towards them. He was too late.
Can you see the difference? Keep this all within MARCY. We still get Darren’s anger, his hunger, as well as Marcus’s sorrow, and urgency, but we stay out of their heads!
Whether your story is one giant loop, or a series of repeating loops, you can do a lot with this structure. The key to BOTH variations here is that something has to change. I was just talking about this in my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop last night, discussing the story, “Through the Flash,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is the definition of insanity, right? So as we follow Ana, stuck in a loop, forced to repeat this day, filled with love, and family, and violence, and torture—it’s when we finally see a difference, a break in the pattern, that we feel like maybe they can get out. This isn’t hell, this isn’t forever. Because those character go through so much—we use variation here in the looping to show the range of human desires, both good and bad—we care about them. I also just got done watching the Amazon Prime show, Tales from the Loop, and it’s also excellent. Melancholy, but so well done, the imagery, the depth, the originality. We see this community from so many different sides—a protagonist in one week’s story is a background character in the next. So well done. I’ve done a few myself—such as “Requital” which was in the Lost Highways anthology. So whether it’s Edge of Tomorrow or The Dark Tower or Looper it’s all about setting the baseline response, and then playing with variations, escalating the tension, raising the stakes as you go.
I hope these example have shown you some advanced ways to tell your stories. If you get the basics right, set up your foundation, and have a structure running through your story that is solid, you can play around with some of these more complicated techniques. Good luck!
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