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View Full Version : Great Storytelling-What Are The Ingredients?



Cranky
07-29-2008, 08:42 AM
This thread was sparked by some discussion in the How Did JK Rowling Become Rich? (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=109137) thread; specifically this post: *hat tip to Shweta*


Though, I do think "great storyteller" could be explored in more detail than we often do in comments around here. Great storytelling is after all a combination of factors that we can learn :) It's a lot of what Uncle Jim's thread is about, as I read it.

So, what do you think? What makes a writer a great storyteller? What skills are important to master if you want to be a great storyteller? What do you think are the most important parts of storytelling itself?

Shweta
07-29-2008, 08:46 AM
I'd love to know. I want to be a better one.

I sense that plot and pacing and other things I have only a vague intuitive sense of are important here...

Cranky
07-29-2008, 08:48 AM
I'd love to know. I want to be a better one.

I sense that plot and pacing and other things I have only a vague intuitive sense of are important here...

Yeah, I think those are pretty darn important, along with great characterization.

I have more ideas (though I am by no means expert, lol), but I'll have to wait until tomorrow to articulate them...I'm beat tonight!

Shweta
07-29-2008, 08:51 AM
I think it's not just great characterization, but sketching out the main lines of interesting characters in a few evocative words, so that the reader gets the character hook and understands them as individuals right from the start. That lets the character details be fleshed out more slowly, without the character ever seeming murky.

There's interesting subtle characterization that doesn't do that, and might be wonderful writing, but isn't as good as far as storytelling goes, I think.

^Graff
07-29-2008, 08:54 AM
I sense that plot and pacing and other things I have only a vague intuitive sense of are important here...


Yes, and JK Rowling is a perfect example, here. Clearly what made Harry Potter a best-seller was not JK's deft prose.

Mumut
07-29-2008, 09:21 AM
An interesting story is essential. Great sentiment, cleaver words, perfect grammar are all nothing if the story sucks. And as Shweta says, the character must grow on the reader.

Shweta
07-29-2008, 09:23 AM
But what makes a story?

"Great storytelling means having a great story" is surely circular?

I know we've had this conversation in various shapes before but I feel like we seldom get to the heart of it.

^Graff
07-29-2008, 09:38 AM
Part of it, I think, is that the plot has to be important to the reader. I think the best way this is accomplished is by making the POV character grab the reader's interests, whether through sympathy/empathy or through badassery. If the reader is invested in the character, ze'll be more than attentive through the story, especially if that story is perceived as important by the POV character.

Taking it back to the Potterverse: Harry is instantly sympathetic. The abused member of a household whose "special" attributes we're given glimpses of very early on in the plot. By the time he's freed that Brazilian boa constrictor, we want to follow him wherever he'll end up.

So: character who is put-upon, to play up reader sympathy; special powers whose full scope we don't quite understand; interesting early plot-hook that reveals the character's essential goodness.

Once that's set in place, we're then shown the bigger picture, which is actually bigger. It's more epic than the earlier mundane plots. The reader feels that this plot is bigger than the reader and bigger than the POV character -- but the reader also has to feel that there isn't some other character who can do the job just as well. There has to be some sense that the protagonist is the person to fix the problems in the world.

I'm not sure how much this makes sense, but they seem, to me, to be elements that make up "great storytelling."

Toothpaste
07-29-2008, 09:38 AM
I find a unique perspective on every day things really sticks out for me. When someone describes a situation, feeling, taste etc, of an ordinary nature in a very precise and yet oddly extraordinary way . . . that's very special.

So yes . . . a unique perspective.

katiemac
07-29-2008, 09:59 AM
I think pacing has a great deal to do with it. Knowing to reveal this bit of info here, but hold off on this bit; reveal this piece a bit later on and then by the time you've unraveled everything so well your readers are surprised by the dramatic climax but shocked they didn't see it coming.

Ageless Stranger
07-29-2008, 02:26 PM
I think the sense of discovery and mystery can all so be a very pwerful force. Whenever I read a story, if the world is realised enough, it just drags me in. A good example of this is the gunslinger which conjures a mystery world AND character in the form of Roland. I wanted to know who the gunslinger was, what had happened to his world, who the man in black was, etc.

On the other hand I read the City Watch series by TP because Sam Vimes is a brilliantly realised character operating in both serious and humourous terms, in a world that has been carefully built up over many volumes and has it's own mythology.

It's mystery that draws us in, description that puts us in the world, pace that keeps our eyes moving, character that makes us care and plot that makes us think. It's a tricky recipe that can ultimately come together in any number of ways. I prefer to work on character and world building than long narrative asides or commentary, because I don't think it would add anything to the story, TP on the other hand does these brilliantly and to humourous effect.

Ultimately though, I think great storytelling is too pure and mysterious to quantify.

JimmyB27
07-29-2008, 02:39 PM
I think you have to write about Real People. This is not the same as real people; I'm not advocating putting all your friends and family in your stories, or only writing non-fiction.
What I mean by Real People is that your characters should not come across as characters, but should fool your readers into believing they are Real.
Once you have your Real People, you have to put them into Real Situations. Same deal, the only place these situations have to be Real is in the minds of your readers. Believability, not accuracy is the key.

Those, imho, are the key ingredients. The way you bake them is important too, things like pacing and structure and so on. But I think that if you have Real People in Real Situations, you're certainly on your way to a winner.

As to how to achieve this, these are not, imho, things that can be taught in the traditional sense. Instead - read. Read, read, read and read some more. Read good books, bad books, any and all books you can get your hands on.
And then write. Write, write, write and write some more. Write good stories, bad stories, any and all stories that come to you.

JJ Cooper
07-29-2008, 02:49 PM
When I think of great storytelling, I think of my Pop. As a boy, I loved to listen to his tales. Always had a beginning, middle and end. Always had elements of surprise and suspense. Never gave away the ending and I never figured it out (although the clues were always there). He never spoke above me with words I couldn't understand (so he pitched the story for his audience). And I know his stories were based on his experiences, but embellished to keep them exciting. Best of all he paced his stories so well, using his voice to perfection. To me a good storyteller is all of this.

JJ

CaroGirl
07-29-2008, 04:09 PM
I think an interesting Voice is important to most storytelling. If you have a compelling character, to whom interesting things happen and who's surrounded by equally interesting characters, you've at least got a good start.

Making sure loose ends are tied up and the plot is satisfying is also essential for telling a good story.

akiwiguy
07-29-2008, 04:15 PM
I think there is a kind of paradox in good story telling. It is "real" enough to be believeable and yet at the same time larger than life and far more fascinating than every day experience. A good story teller can make even trivia fascinating.

In fact, forgetting all of the technicalities of the craft that have to be learned, I have always thought that the stand-out characteristic of great literature compared with that of us lesser mortals is that almost every phrase, and certainly every paragraph, can stand alone as being somehow interesting in its own right. How that is accomplished is I guess not so easy to figure. But usually bad writing is saturated with everyday dialog or narrative that is ... ummm, every day. Description of say a characters clothing would seem to be there just to fulfil a need to explain what they are wearing. A skillful writer would tend to make that in itself a fascinating little mini character study in its own right, possibly within one sentence.

My favourite book on writing is perhaps "Crafting Scenes" by Raymond Obstfeld (sp?) and (I am paraphrasing here from memory) he describes a whole work as floating, being kept bouyant and supported by all of the scenes. Introduce a lot of flat, weak and forgettable scenes and eventually the whole thing sinks into mediocrity. I think good story tellers measure their words, making each scene important and in some way absorbing and fascinating. That's what keeps us reading. Nothing is there to fill a gap, or for no good purpose.

BenPanced
07-29-2008, 05:03 PM
Personally, I think believeable characters make for a great story. You have to somehow relate to them and their motivations; if the author keeps them at arms' distance and doesn't let me get to know them, it's hard for me to care what happens.

ideagirl
07-29-2008, 07:16 PM
Yes, and JK Rowling is a perfect example, here. Clearly what made Harry Potter a best-seller was not JK's deft prose.

Or Dan Brown's prose in the Da Vinci Code! It was truly execrable. But he knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Cranky
07-29-2008, 09:31 PM
So I've spent some time thinking about it, and I really think that great storytelling isn't something you can actually quantify, either.

It's more like a really great stew. Individual ingredients sort of blending together to form a more delicious whole. The same ingredients used in different proportions and with different spices will yield a different stew each time, imo. That's how you end up with "There are no new plots." The same ingredients go into each story, but how the cook throws them together is what makes it unique.

So I guess in a way, I'm with Toothpaste on this one. Unique perspective is what takes a story from being ordinary into extraordinary, and each writer will find different ways to do that.

Bah.

This isn't very coherent still, but it's the closest I can come at the moment.

kuwisdelu
07-29-2008, 10:15 PM
I think pacing has a great deal to do with it. Knowing to reveal this bit of info here, but hold off on this bit; reveal this piece a bit later on and then by the time you've unraveled everything so well your readers are surprised by the dramatic climax but shocked they didn't see it coming.

I agree. In fact, I'm going to say that great pacing is probably the most important aspect of story-telling. Pacing and perhaps the unique perspective bit. Better than having a great story/plot, or even good characters. I think with great pacing and perspective, the very best storyteller ought to be able to tell about watching paint dry, and it should still be spellbinding.

jannawrites
07-29-2008, 11:03 PM
It's more like a really great stew. Individual ingredients sort of blending together to form a more delicious whole. The same ingredients used in different proportions and with different spices will yield a different stew each time, imo. That's how you end up with "There are no new plots." The same ingredients go into each story, but how the cook throws them together is what makes it unique.


Excellent. I like the way you put this.

And I think the concept behind the quote in my siggy goes a long way.

ideagirl
07-29-2008, 11:49 PM
I think there is a kind of paradox in good story telling. It is "real" enough to be believeable and yet at the same time larger than life and far more fascinating than every day experience.

I agree there. To me, the best reads are always books that make me feel like "Wow! This is amazing, incredible, unfamiliar, yet it totally rings true, it feels absolutely real!" (Or, if it's a historical/alternative history novel, "I'm sure this is exactly what it was like/what it would've been like!"). I want to be transported into a different way of looking at life and/or the universe, but one that somehow feels absolutely right and almost familiar, despite its strangeness. And no, this doesn't mean I'm into sci-fi--I do love certain sci-fi novels (Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, for one), but most leave me cold because they feel like the most boring aspects of real life (characters like the shallowest people you knew in high school or at work, etc.), with nothing unfamiliar except the fancy sci-fi hardware.

The feeling I'm talking about can be gotten from almost any kind of book. A nonfiction example that comes to mind is Seabiscuit (the book, not the movie based on it--good enough but, as usual, nothing like as good as the book). That book starts with a classic "story people love" (underdog, or in this case underhorse, and his human handlers who are also underdogs, coming from outta nowhere to great victory that they absolutely deserved, but that no one thought would ever happen). But that's not why that book is great; it's a great read because that classic great story arc is executed with such vivid detail: everything and everyone in it is rendered slightly larger than life, and yet not so much larger that you can't empathize with them; and all the sensual details that evoke that place and time are exquisitely rendered, really bringing it to life.


My favourite book on writing is perhaps "Crafting Scenes" by Raymond Obstfeld (sp?) and (I am paraphrasing here from memory) he describes a whole work as floating, being kept bouyant and supported by all of the scenes. Introduce a lot of flat, weak and forgettable scenes and eventually the whole thing sinks into mediocrity. I think good story tellers measure their words, making each scene important and in some way absorbing and fascinating.

The way I'm thinking of this concept lately is that, in effect, each chapter in a novel is, or should be, a short story in its own right--or, not quite a short story, but that's still a good idea to keep in mind. A novel is similar to a book of connected short stories with recurring characters, except for one thing: a collection of connected short stories has no plot arc (it doesn't so much move from point A to point B as add up to a big overarching portrait of those people/that place/that time), but a novel does have an arc. In a novel each chapter pours into the next, contributes to the next and to what comes after.

So, with that difference in mind, the point remains: each chapter should be its own fully-realized little work of art.

TPCSWR
07-30-2008, 04:06 PM
I believe it depends on the writer, what they're trying to say, what they're good at, what they're bad at and the reader's individual preference.

Some great stories stand on worldbuilding alone, with cardboard cutout characters, but that's fine, because the reader is looking for escapism. I think this is HP's main advantage, as it is with a lot of children's novels. Kids are generally looking for escapism, rather than amazing prose. A lot of them also like the familiar so they can put up with the characters. This is speaking very generally, remember, and there's plenty of kids who don't fall into that category.

Other writers can sustain a novel on characterisation, making it an interesting look into the minds of others. These are usually the ones with the tormented characters or the "growing up" (not just in age) stories.

Some use issues to their advantage, this is where The Da Vinci Code falls in. It took a hot topic, presented it in an interesting manner and caused controversy. I hopefully won't offend anyone by this comment, and I don't mean to, but these are usually the trend-followers, the one-hit wonders, or those with a small dedicated following before/after the one or two high-selling books when the topic was hot (and I'd rather be the latter).

There's also those with beautiful, evocative imagery and prose (not necessarily about beautiful things), these tend to be more for the "higher" readers, but it varies.

Allegory and moral allegory can also be used to tell a great story, either by using issues as mentioned before, or as a way of sending a powerful message. In MG and lower these are also popular with parents who want to teach their kids "good" things.

Any and all of these can be combined in various ways, with various other things thrown in. In a nutshell, write to your strengths but make sure you can either cover or make a passable attempt at your weaknesses, because there's more than one way to tell a great story. My 2c, anyway.

Judg
07-31-2008, 03:00 AM
I'm kind of amazed that nobody has mentioned conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. You could have a poem, a portrait, a mood piece, but not a story.

And conflict does not mean fighting. It can be the disparity between dreams and reality and the efforts made to reconcile the two, for instance. But we have to care about the conflict being resolved. And for that we have to care about the character.

Another good thing to keep in mind is the balance between feeding and starving. (Hat tip to Barry Eisler for this concept.) You have to give the reader enough information to avoid frustrating him and yet deprive him of enough to keep him reading.

A good storyteller is constantly creating questions in the reader's mind. That's what keeps the pages turning.

Nakhlasmoke
07-31-2008, 03:30 PM
I'm trying to think of the books I loved, and what it was about them that drew me in and made me read them again.

Intriguing premise, the promise of conflict, interesting characters (well-rounded, not necessarily sympathetic) and voice/language.

I can forgive lapses in one or two of these elements if others are very strong.

simplyaven
08-02-2008, 09:11 AM
Magic. All books and authors I love (and millions of people around the world too) write about magic. Don't think of mainly dwarves and elves. Magic could be in the mailbox or in your pan while you're preparing supper. Two examples: Markes and Amado. Brilliant every day descriptions surrounded by magic. JKR - no need of even pointing. Dan Brown - same, just set in different environment. All the fairy tales on which many contemporary bestsellers are based - same. Isabel Aliende - even the recipes are spiced with a pinch of magic. People need to be reminded about the extraordinary glint in their ordinary lives.

sunnyxlove
08-02-2008, 09:23 AM
I love the HP books because of the interesting characters (same goes with Lord of the Rings)

maybe this is the secret to JK Rowling's success? (that and good plot, marketing, etc.)

Dawnstorm
08-02-2008, 10:09 AM
"Great storytelling means having a great story" is surely circular?

Depends on how you view the question. I see two potential questions here:

1. What events catch our interest so that we want to hear about them (great story)?

2. Why does Grandpa bore me to tears while I could listen to grandma forever, even when they're telling the same story (great story teller)?

As to Rowling, I don't think her story's too special, but she's telling it well. Her main strategy, I think, is that she's writing to the cliché and just when you're comfortable with your judgement of a character she pulls the carpet from under your feet. She could have been a bit more consistent, there, I feel. For example, if you view the houses for values you end up with Slytherine = bad, Griffindor = good, and the other two are insignificant. I also think the all-power of (motherly) love gets a bit corny eventually, but since that's the thematic and ideological core of the books, I don't really mind that as much as the house-thing. Still, she keeps up enough of an ironic distance towards her stereotypes that she managed to hold my interest.

In the end, much of it is subjective, so that you'd end up with a typology of readers along the dimensions of "what events interest me?" and "what story tellers manage to seduce me?" If people are looking for a one-size-fits-all-approach I suspect they'll end up with wide appeal, but little intensity.

John Ravenscroft
08-02-2008, 04:49 PM
I think there are a number of fundamental concepts when it comes to creating effective fiction.

Conflict was mentioned above - and I agree that conflict is vital.

A more general notion (it includes the idea of conflict) is this:

An effective story shows a character trying to deal with a problem that has disrupted his/her story-world.

If you're writing pieces in which the Reader, having read maybe 500 words, isn't aware that this is a story of a character with a problem to solve, you're not really writing a story and you need to spend some time thinking about structure.

Any thoughts / comments?