Telling a story
"Feel like this sentence could have been written better".
"Grammar error. Could we use a better word here?".
Many years ago a large part of my time was spent on DeviantArt. A site where artists, vandals, and the vulgar can all come together to form a community. A community that's like the room that smells a little odd but you can still call it home. Initially I was drawn to it for the digital paintings but over time, my interests shifted me towards the written word. Here I felt like I could do something good, and be useful.
Those quotes above? Until several weeks ago, that is how I would critique writing. Poring over thousands of words a sentence at a time. My pencil would stand poised to strike over a printed version of someone's writing.
"LONG SENTENCE. USE A SEMICOLON!!!!"
It's both a blessing and a curse to be born "good" at something. For me, a natural ability to write "good" meant that I could immerse myself in a craft and produce decent results consistently. Indeed I wanted to make this a lifelong career at some point. Give me any topic that I'm minimally knowledgeable on, and I'll be able to write on it or critique it decently.
Over the many years of sporadic writing, decent is all my writing and critiques have ever amounted to. If my improvements in writing could be viewed as a chart, it's growth would be captioned, "Flatlands".
Things feel like they are finally turning around though. Late. But it's happening.
The change started as my interests shifted around and I spent more and more time immersing myself in the world of non fiction writing. Coming from a world of reading fantasy tales, I was greeted by non fiction that was as immersive as any thriller I've read. How? How could someone take something mundane, and weave it into a tale worthy of catching my attention the way a best selling Jeffrey Archer might? The words I read were wielded gracefully by masters of the craft. As much as I tried to get there, I constantly felt this invisble wall in front of me. A wall that stared back with the word "Decent" graffitied into it for eternity.
As I searched for the key, I tried to make my vocabulary larger. I consumed books on good grammar. And I wrote. Some of this moved the needle but only so far as to make me wonder if I was imagining it. My first possible "real" answer came to me in the form of critical thinking. The art of presenting an argument. Could this be what I was missing? The ability to present an argument coherently? Assuming this was it I threw myself into the study of constructing critical arguments. Premise, Proof, Conclusion. Over and over again.
Months later I felt I was ready. There I sat with sacred knowledge of how to present the facts and debates that would rage in my mind. I wrote. I picked topic after topic. I wrote some more. I was the hero, vanquishing the art of writing of fluff with nothing more than pen and paper. Or so I thought.
To my dismay my writing bore little difference to my previous style. Hardly anything had changed. To make the feeling worse, I realised I had completely overlooked the idea of writing about an event or a person. How could one use critical argument methods to write a profile of someone? Frustration swirled around me as I searched for an answer. I gradually stopped writing. Todo lists and memos accompanied by the occasional doodle filled my notebooks. And then when I was at my lowest, help came from an unexpected place
This video deconstructs how a 30 minute battle scene can become a movie within a movie. Somewhere at about 1:52 in Evan Puschak deconstructs the spectacle and charts the progress of the battle for each distinct "beat". And then he said the words that lit a lightbulb for me.
"What strikes me right away is that this shape resembles, almost exactly, a traditional story arc in minutiae"
As he moved through each point of this arc, something made me sense "This is it! This is what I've been missing!". By the time the video had ended, I knew where I had been going wrong. The words, the language, the critical arguments were all tools to use upon a strong base. That strong base, the missing piece, was narrative structure.
I had just discovered the art of storytelling.
As simple as the theory of a "beggining", "middle", and "end" is, the implementation of it can be complicated. What I had missed was that it wasn't enough to just tell these pieces. What about the flow? What about the emotion? Can the reader feel my rising excitement? Can they feel, as my pace slows down, and my lines lengthen out, the calm that I feel in the moment? At the end of it, would they have joined my journey of ups and downs? Of victories and defeats? Of hope and hopelessness? My eyes had been opened to a whole new world of viewing writing. None of this is rocket science but to me it felt like I had finally found the key.
No longer do I view a writing as a block of sentences, words, and punctuation. Those are important. But I start with the big picture now. What's the structure? What's the synopsis? What's the emotion of each individual "beat"? Where are the beats? And only when I'm done with that do I move into the minutiae.
This feels like a rebirth of writing for me. My journey towards being better. Better than "Decent". I'll still make lots of mistakes but from here on out, I know what to look for. After all these years, I'm done writing blind. It's time to tell stories.
Another video that came out recently that really spoke to me about storytelling with the mundane was a vlog from Casey Neistat.
Also, when writing this post I tried to structure it withing the parameters of an emotional story arc. The backdrop to the story, several struggles with moments of hope, followed by enlightenment and tie up of learnings leading into the conclusion.
Posted on June 15 2017 by Adnan Issadeen