Category: Storytelling

Posts specifically about writing and storytelling techniques.

The Spark of Life

There is something at the heart of every good story that makes it come alive. The flame in the lantern, the soul in the body, the crystal in an agate. A good story is like a child to its author–he made its existence possible, and to an extent he can predict what it will do, but it always goes to places he didn’t think it would go. It turns up in the kitchen, having drunk half a bottle of chocolate syrup, and then just grins at him. That’s the spark of life in a story; that taking off to an unexpected place is what makes a story come alive. Without the spark, it is only a collection of minerals arranged in a fine structure, with no faceted crystalline heart to make it lovely.

A good story is a beast. The author must approach it carefully, stalking with muffled feet and fistfuls of courage. It could leap up at any moment and bolt away, or do a jig, or spring for his throat. Some stories will consent to be tamed and go where the author leads. Others are bold and prefer to gallop this way and that as they please. Sometimes the author knows a story is too big for him, but he goes hunting it anyway. Other times he writes it because it seems easy, a tiny little thing–but the little things are always deceptively hard to catch.

Some stories don’t come into the world as beasts. They need to be coaxed to life by the author, who has just seen them as the faint and faded paintings that adorn the walls of ancient caves. At times life will come into the paintings of its own accord. They will begin to move and blink and step off the wall. The characters in the stories will look out at their authors and smile mysterious smiles. “We have hearts,” they’ll say, and the author, enchanted, must follow.

But at times the life doesn’t come. The author must find a way to put in the spark of life himself, not by singing into full bloom the seed that was already there, but by bringing it in from some outside source. This is very hard. There are many stories which are like a lantern, ornately carved by a fine craftsman, but which has no flame inside. A lantern, like a story, has a purpose, and without its flame that purpose will never come to fruition. How many stories have we all read which were like that lantern, with no life of their own and nothing to imprint themselves on our minds?

Still, there are certain things that the hunter after sparks may look for. These things bring the spark of life to a story: the enchanted air of the Perilous Realm, that breath of Faerie which comes out of the stories that touch on our deepest desires; the life and longings of another human being, unfolding before our eyes; the music of our deepest dreams, echoing from within the structure of the tale; the zest of relationships exuberantly lived on the page, as right and wrong unfold themselves in the lives of others. And there are many other things that bring life, but these are numerous and shadowy, defined only within the heart of each person who seeks solace in a story.

It is a powerful magic, to coax the life into a story. But if that is not done, if the author is weak or the story was never anything more than a bit of pigment smeared across a wall, then its only fate will be to fade off into the fog of unreality.

~ Jared

On Reading and Watching

Recently, I have been thinking about the difference between reading stories and watching them, and how our own inborn creativity takes part in our experience of story. There are two basic kinds of storytelling, which I will call picture-storytelling and word-storytelling. Picture-storytelling includes movies, TV shows, comic books, and anything else that tells a story through a primarily visual medium. Word-storytelling, on the other hand, consists of stories told without the aid of pictures, whether they are written down or verbalized. Both of these types of storytelling seem to be more or less as old as humanity. All you have to do is look at Stone Age cave paintings and take a few moments to consider our languages to realize that. Both types have their own place and their own advantages. However, I think that word-storytelling is the better of the two, and that picture-storytelling especially has fallen into decay in modern times. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the value of movies and comics and the skill and creativity that goes into making them. I very much enjoy picture-storytelling and our world would be a poorer place without it. However, I don’t think it can be denied that stories which are told purely in words give our minds more work to do, especially when compared with the modern forms of picture-storytelling, which leave little or nothing to the imagination. Sight is our primary sense. Fill up that sense, and suddenly the brain has little left to create. Deny it, and the brain must manufacture an entire world.

 

The difference


 

Here is what I believe to be the fundamental difference between picture-stories and word-stories, and also between the Modern, and the Medieval or Ancient forms of picture-storytelling. Stories told in words (whether they be books or your grandfather’s tall tales) require audience participation–imagination–in order to work. Stories told in pictures do not. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. When a movie is playing, you really don’t have to pay much attention to it to absorb its story. Everything that you need to know is presented on-screen; the images to see are given you; the words to hear are all there and spoken by unique voices. The only thing lacking is smell and touch, and I’m sure that sometime in the relatively near future, virtual reality will have advanced enough to add those senses into picture-storytelling, as well. You do not have to participate in order to “take in” the story. It is all given to you.

Now consider a book. If you are to get anything out of a book, you must let yourself sink into it. You must actively use the words on the page to construct whatever they’re describing in your own mind. A book tells its story in collaboration with the reader. We don’t often think of this, because we’re so used to reading that we don’t stop to consider what we’re actually doing. But stop and consider it. You don’t have pictures of every character and setting. You don’t have different people speaking aloud all the dialog so that you can hear it. You must create all that in your mind–and a well-written book will also prompt you to create details of scent and touch (a thing which films very rarely do). Word-stories are like a game of telephone. The author must very carefully choose what to leave out and what to put in, in order to describe the scene which exists in his mind. Then he transfers it to the page or the empty air, and he must hope that he succeeded well enough, though most of the time he knows that he’s fallen short. Then you read or hear those words, and the scene is transferred once again, but this time into your own mind. Then you must must decode the author’s words and try to find his original vision of the scene. That is what we do when we read or listen to a story being told.

 

The importance of the difference


 

This decoding and re-creation of story is essential to its value. Storytellers need to embrace it. Of course, very often the reader will not be successful in properly decoding the author’s words. Some authors are afraid of their vision being distorted, and so they describe everything excessively in the hope that their readers will see exactly what they did. But that is a trap. It is precisely the uncertain aspect of word-storytelling, that it must be interpreted by the listener or reader, that is its beauty. That’s why reading is such a wonderful experience. Every story is different depending on who is reading it. Each reader brings his own background, his own understanding, his own context–his own way of seeing the world–and makes the story anew in his mind.

The human mind needs a creative outlet to be healthy. We are made in the image and likeness of God; as Tolkien would say, we are made to be sub-creators, modeling His great act of creation with our own smaller imitations. Not all of us have the skill to create great works of art, but anyone in full possession of his wits and senses can read or listen to a story and imagine it unfolding in his head. He can create it in his mind, using the words of another for a guide. Throughout our history we have told stories to each other, and through them we have been able to extend the ability to create to anyone willing to take it.

Recall how I said that the difference of participation exists also between Modern picture-storytelling, and Ancient or Medieval picture-storytelling. In the old days, the pictures were so greatly abstracted that they forced their viewers to use a good deal of imagination to understand their meaning. An iconographic painting is nearly as vague as a literary description, though the vagueness comes in a different way. When viewing this kind of story, the mind is turned not towards the pictures themselves, but towards what they represent. Now consider the Modern era. Picture storytelling has become incredibly widespread, and it has changed. No longer are the pictures abstract, stylized, and symbolic; now they are made to look real. More and more is shown, and less and less is left to the imagination. Another difference between now and the old days is that picture-storytelling has become most people’s primary exposure to story, whereas before, that exposure came predominantly from word-storytelling. There are people alive today who never read books! And it seems that we are mostly past the age when people would verbally tell each other myths and fairytales. Verbal storytelling today seems largely prosaic and lacking in the level of creativity which characterized it in the old days. Modern people still use stories as a lifeline when they have either no time to create art, or jobs which are oppressive and dehumanizing. But many of them only consume stories, in the form of movies and television, instead of participating in stories, in the form of novels and verbal tales. Modern picture-storytelling has largely lost the creative element that makes story an effective lifeline. For stories to truly be a lifeline, they must be of the sort that allows people to create through them, that allows people to exercise that vital creative part of their minds, instead of covering it with a blur of lights and noise.

 

Reclaiming imagination


 

We are at our most human when we are creating, when we are giving of ourselves, when we pour out our hearts and forget our personal pettiness. This is one reason why reading books and listening to tales can be so wholesome. Because word-storytelling is intrinsically creative when experienced by the reader or listener, it enables us to access that deeply creative part of ourselves. Consistent enjoyment of word-stories, therefor, can teach us how better to worship: for true, deep worship, where the heart and soul cry out to God and all else is forgotten, is a very creative thing. Word-storytelling trains up and strengthen our imaginations. Consider that God asks us to give our whole selves to Him–and that the whole self includes the imagination. An example of just one of the myriad ways in which worship can be creative is the Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer. This sort of prayer emphasizes (among other things) gazing into the eyes of Jesus, envisioning His Holy Face and basking in the love that radiates from it. How is that possible if we do not use our imaginations, as they are consecrated and strengthened when offered up to Our Lord? And how are we to make a good offering of our imaginations if they are atrophied from lack of use?

Thus, the fostering of imagination through word-storytelling is essential. It is fundamentally different from the fostering of imagination that happens even through good picture-storytelling that still gives us room for our own visions. It is of a higher order because it is so much more all-encompassing. It is harder to embrace, but better for the soul. Word-storytelling is good for the heart and good for the mind, in a way that picture-storytelling can never be, no matter how good the story is. And if we are to reclaim the power of our imaginations, and the potential for deep, creative worship contained therein, then we must never stop reading.

 

Peace!

~ Jared

The Value of Writing Poetry

So I have kind of a funny relationship with poetry. I never really understood it as I was growing up, and because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t like it. I thought it was silly and worthless and couldn’t imagine why anyone would care to read or write it. (I was a very silly child and held that opinion about a lot of things) I did eventually grow out of that narrow view, but for years poetry still wasn’t really “on my radar”. Even after I started writing stories, I hardly thought about it. It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I made my first attempt at writing poetry, but ever since I’ve been in love with it. It’s a wonderful thing! Good poetry can express what nothing else can, not prose or a painting or anything. Poetry is, I think, the closest we can come to truly speaking our hearts. But, more than that, writing poetry is an extremely valuable exercise for writers and non-writers alike. I think I’ve said on this blog before that I think everyone ought to write. I’m going to amend that statement: I think everyone ought, not just to write, but also to write poetry.

Now, a lot of people might protest. They might say that their poetry is awful, that they have no talent for it and no one would ever want to read it. But that isn’t the point. Even if your poetry is truly awful, I think there can still be benefit in it for at least one person–for you, the writer. Of course, ultimately, we must strive to write poetry that can be enjoyed by many people, but to start with, entertaining yourself isn’t bad.

One of the most obvious benefits of writing poetry, for anyone, is that it can be a great help for working through tricky emotions. Writing about any difficult, emotional subject can be a helpful way to order your thoughts and feelings, and writing about it in poetic language can be extremely cathartic, because poetry is such a good way to express those emotions. Poetry also helps you to look at the world differently, to see more of the pattern and rhythm in it–and the attention that you have to pay to finding precise descriptions of things in your poems can bring out the beauty of the world around you in a whole new way, because you start to notice more.

For people who also write prose (and especially fiction), writing poetry has even more benefits. It will help you learn to be concise. It will help you learn to pick just the right images and descriptions to convey an emotion or meaning. The rigors of writing with rhyme and meter will not only help to give your prose a nicer flow and a more rhythmic sound, they will help you to get a better grasp of the language. The very tight restrictions of many forms of poetry (especially the more traditional forms) are probably the most useful thing I’ve found to help me learn to make better use of English, in addition to being a lot of fun in their own right. Almost as useful is poetry that eschews traditional forms and uses your own, self-imposed guidelines, because that teaches you to do on a small scale what you must do over the course of an entire novel, if you want to keep everything properly in line with itself.

In short, poetry, besides being beautiful and excellent all on its own, is also very useful for all kinds of people, I think that everyone ought to cultivate a habit of writing it–even they aren’t very good and never show their poetry to anyone. There are many more benefits besides what I’ve written down here. Try it yourself, and see!

~ Jared

Musings on Writing

Lately, I have been considering in depth my place as a writer, what I want to write, the mark I want to leave on literature, the direction I want to take my storytelling–my “writing identity.” This is occasioned by the fact that my methods, aims, and storytelling interests have changed significantly in the past year or so, but my conception of who I am as a writer hasn’t changed with them. Before I was writing out of an intent to get published and be famous (in fact, my goal was to be published by the time I was 20. Look how that’s turned out!); I wrote very quickly and without much thought; my stories tended to be concerned with “big things” like saving the world and whatnot. My style tended to be abrupt and action-focused (though I do think I’ve usually had a fairly decent balance of description and interior exposition in my stories). But all those things are different now. I write because I enjoy it; because it’s good for me; out of the pure joy of creation; because sub-creation is a way of worship. Many of the ways in which writing is good for me I’ve outlined in my last writing-related post, and I’ll add here that it helps me to maintain a calm emotional center. I always get a little unhinged if I don’t write often enough. My writing process itself has slowed down considerably, as I’m generally inclined now to take frequent breaks and think about each sentence and paragraph, take time before and after a writing session to contemplate the scene I’m working on, take breaks of days or more in the middle of chapters to allow my subconscious to work on a difficult plot problem.The subject matter of my stories has become “smaller,” and I’m much more inclined now to write character-driven stories with strictly localized consequences. My style has become (I think) much deeper and more poetic, and I take much more time now to produce vibrant descriptions–but on the other hand, I also try, especially in my short fiction, to master the power of the unsaid, and imply just as much as I write explicitly.

 

At any rate, all that meant I needed to rethink a little bit, and the thought process and its implications seem worth sharing. It really didn’t take me long to come to a conclusion, and that conclusion was born out of this realization, which I’ll quote from my Facebook page, where I originally posted it.

It was fantasy and adventure stories that sowed the seeds of wonder and joy in my childhood, nourished and kept them alive during my dismal teen years, and, with the water of the writings of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, brought them forth to grow and blossom as I became an adult.

I want to add my own contributions, even if they’re very small, to that pool of wonder.

Those fantasy and adventure stories were mostly written for children or young adults. And ever since my childhood, whenever I have longed for a story, to escape this world and enter another, to go on an adventure, my mind always went back to that kind of story: to the children’s sci-fi/fantasy adventure and/or slice-of-life tale. The epitome of that style is what I most want to write, deep down in my soul, and generally what I most want to read. The merits of children’s spec-fic are many, and I won’t go into them all here. But in my opinion that genre is one of the best. It’s surprising, really, that I didn’t come to this realization of what I most want to write sooner. But at any rate, that’s where my heart is, and now my mind has caught up to it.

 

There’s a reason I said “adventure and/or slice-of-life tale.” That’s because I think a slice-of-life element is crucial to creating a story that a person can really lose himself in. The best children’s spec-fic stories, Harry Potter, for example, almost always have some slice-of-life element. Getting to see the daily lives and achievements of the characters makes them seem so much more real and human. And beyond that, I think there is an important philosophical reason to show the small and mundane, and that is that normal life, simple and mundane things, regular emotions and institutions, are really extremely important, romantic, exciting, adventurous. This is illustrated in a simple and profound fashion by Christ in the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. Matthew 13:31-32 (NKJV)

and also in a more complex fashion by G.K. Chesterton (one of my favorite writers, and one who has had a huge influence on my life) in many of his works, especially Orthodoxy. Whether or no a person happens to take the words of Christ to be authoritative, I don’t think anyone can deny that great things very often start from seemingly small and insignificant seeds. And I will take it a step further and say that the great things that start from small seeds often go in disguise as very mundane and normal things, when really they are quite fantastic. And the heart of slice-of-life is those things. One of the strengths of children’s literature in general is a tendency to have a stronger slice-of-life element, and that is something I want very much to carry through in my writing.

 

This view of the world which has sprung up in me in the past couple of years is integral to the shift in my writing. And that’s because, as I finally realized in the past few days, the way that someone tells a story is inextricably linked to the way that person sees the world! This is another realization that it seems I should’ve had much sooner. I suppose it was so obvious it went right over my head. The way that I process and think through stories, the way that I relate them and tell them, the aspects of story that I dwell on, the words I use to describe things–all of it is affected by a change in worldview. And perhaps this is why we like some authors more than others, and feel a subconscious connection to them; because the way they see the world is more in line with our way. At any rate, I see the world differently now; I see the importance of the small and mundane; I see the value in planting a spark of wonder in a person’s mind, itself something seemingly small, but with great consequences; and my writing has changed. 

 

How have personal growth and new realizations shaped your writing?

~ Jared

What Writing Has Taught Me

Last night, a friend of mine posted a series of questions on Facebook, and one of them was the title to this post. It’s a very interesting question, and it was interesting to me to read the various answers that people gave. It seems that all the writers I know have learned a great deal from writing. It would seem that an author’s most extensive school, next to life itself, is his own writing. My own answer to the question was that I’ve learned how to better understand both myself and other people through writing. This is critical to telling a good story–an author must have a very solid understanding of humans and their nature in order to create memorable and convincing characters. An author’s daily exercise is (or should be) to imagine himself constantly in the shoes of others and to twist his mind around in order to think the way they think. This, combined with constant observation of other humans, is really fantastic for increasing understanding. But as I told my friend last night, that’s only the answer that was on the top of my head, and in order to fully answer the question, I’d probably need to write an essay. So, here I am, making a blog post about it.

 

It’s actually pretty difficult to sum up all that writing has taught me. Compared to many of my writing friends, I started late–though I’ve made up stories as long as I can remember, I only started writing them down when I was 15, and didn’t write more than forty or fifty pages during the next couple of years, until I was 17 and really started writing in earnest. Yet since then, writing (and the friends I’ve met through it) has had a huge impact on my life. I still think, after further reflection, that understanding, both of myself and others, has been the biggest thing that writing has taught me. Yet there are many other things that have come along with it. Writing has taught me to see the world in a way entirely different from the way I saw it before. Now I can see the threads of stories woven throughout the world, through the past and the present and extending into the future. I can see that each person is creating his own individual story, telling a tale of love and adventure with every new decision. I can see, if only in some small part, the way God tells His story of the world, and the infinite subtleties of His planning and foreshadowing (it is true, this realization is one that’s come more through study than through writing; but without writing, I wouldn’t have thought to find this conclusion in the midst of the things I’ve learned through study).

 

Writing has also taught me how to communicate my heart and soul, something which I had never known how to do before. I can still write better than I can speak, but writing has helped me to become a more confident speaker, to be better at finding words to say. This ability to communicate has been vital in helping me to understand and come to grips with my often violent emotions. Through writing, I’ve learned to find more joy and wonder in life, because it’s very hard to lose sight of the world’s beauty when you’re able to write an exciting and poetic description of the most mundane and prosaic thing. I’ve learned to see the way stories shape humans, and to find the threads of primal truth running through any tale. I think my writing has informed my life as much as my life has informed my writing. And the two become ever more entwined, because life is ingredients for writing, and writing is zest for life. Through writing and telling stories I’ve learned how to remake myself and my world, insofar as I’m able. I’ve learned to see how the forces of life shape a person and how a person can shape those forces. I’ve learned about truth, love, beauty, the heart, the soul. I have been able to see firsthand a microcosm, though a very imperfect one, it is true, of God in comparison with His creation. I think I’ve learned a little bit about pretty much everything through writing. It has been, along with the stories and other writings of certain authors, my friends and family, and the events of my life in general, a main thing that God has used to teach me.

 

I think I could go on. But that probably covers the most important stuff. I think everyone ought to write. It hardly matters if you can write well or if you’re particularly creative. Write poetry, anyway! Poetry is the song of the soul! Or write a story! Because stories are truth in symbols. At the very least write a journal, or write down your thoughts; it’s an ideal way to reflect and understand.

 

…well, there is my extremely biased opinion, anyway. Peace!

~ Jared

In Which I Ramble About NaNoWriMo

It is November! National Novel Writing Month! Also, No Shave November, which correlates because there is less time for shaving when you have to write so much. Anyway, this is my third time doing NaNoWriMo. The first year went beautifully. I wrote a story that was based off the Cinderella fairy tail, which had barely been planned, and it just took off during NaNo and I finished easily. That was exhilarating, writing that story. The second year didn’t go so well. I attempted to do the same thing again, an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment story, and it tanked spectacularly. I got the 50,000 word goal, but only because the entire second half of those words was nothing but short stories, anecdotes, and historical essays about the story world I had been attempting to write a novel in. This year is a bit different because I’m not writing a new novel. I was already at least halfway through a story when November came around, and I didn’t want to put it aside for a month to write something else. So I decided to use November to finish that story, and if I had leftover words after it was done, I would fill out the rest of my word goal with short stories, like I did last year.

 

So far it’s going reasonably well. I’m not getting in amazing, ultra high volume writing sessions, but I have so far been able to make my word goal every day and not had too much trouble deciding what happens next. Picking up in the middle of a novel for NaNo is kind of a different experience. The characters and story are already established, and the real difficulty is just in continuing to plod ahead with the novel. I didn’t have one bit of the usual start of NaNo excitement, because the story-starting excitement had long since faded for this novel. But on the other hand, I didn’t have all the uncertainties that go with a new beginning. This story is familiar and comfortable to work with, which makes it easier in some ways despite being lacking in the excitement. I suppose that could be kind of a metaphor for relationships, now that I think of it. Novels are like people in a lot of ways, after all. Very ornery creatures.

 

At any rate, thus far NaNoWriMo is going well. Almost a third of the way through, and no major hiccups yet.

 

~ Jared

3 Day Novel

Well, I’ve done it again! For the third time in the past four years (and it is rather strange to think I’ve been writing that long, really), I have finished 3 Day Novel. I’m not really sure what the point of this post is, other than to brag. This 3 Day Novel went off a lot easier than previous ones have. My story came out, overall, a lot more polished and finished (at least, I think that it did). It doesn’t seem to have as many loose ends to tie up as stories I’ve done previously. Incidentally, it’s also my first proper attempt at writing a survival horror story, and also my first time using an inanimate  object as a narrator. Thinking back on it, I feel like the most major flaw in the story is that none of the characters ever really settled into their personalities. But then, it isn’t really a character-focused story.

 

One thing I learned from this is that sometimes, it really is better to just do things on your own. Now, I am always one to ask for and offer help whenever I feel that it’s needed. I have very little desire to accomplish things on my own when they could be accomplished more easily–and with more enjoyment!–by doing them with someone else. Of course, I’ve always recognized that some things really are best done alone. But maybe independence is the better route in more things than I thought. The reason I say this is that this particular 3 Day Novel is the first one which I’ve done solo. I was doing it in a group–but the difference from previous 3 Day Novels was that, this time, no one in the group was attempting to rely on and/or help the others. The first two times I did 3 Day Novel, I did it in tandem with one of my close friends. We were trying specifically to work very closely together and steadily offer each other support and help. That seemed like it would be easier. 3 Day Novel is a big task, and it seemed like having an ally could only improve it. However, that wasn’t exactly what happened. It was nice to have someone to work closely with. But on the other hand, there was also a certain amount of pressure that came from the knowledge that this other person was, at least to an extent, relying on me for help. More troubling was the extreme amount of emotional stress that 3 Day Novel puts you under. That stress resulted in multiple fights which, in hindsight, were rather silly, but in the thick of things, they were incredibly important and distracting. Even a person who is normally very controlled and calm can get snappish under the pressure of attempting to write a novel in three days. So, for this at least, going solo–not attempting to rely on anyone else–seems to be the better option. And now I’m wondering if there are more things than I generally think for which that is the case.

 

At any rate, I’m very happy with my experience this 3 Day Novel! I’ll definitely be doing it again next year, and I would encourage anyone else who likes to write stories to give it a try. It’s truly an experience that should not be missed.

 

~ Jared