Story doesn’t grab power. Story creates power.
-Annette Simmons, The Story Factor
What is it that draws us to storytelling? It’s one of the oldest forms of communication in society and is used as a way to enchant and educate. From fables, to folktales, to novels, to lyrics, to poetry, and through many other forms, the written and spoken word has become the easiest way to understand your life and yourself. Storytelling fulfills three basic principles:
- It helps you better understand the world around you.
- It aids your sense of perception and judgment.
- It timelessly applies to different stages of life and frames of thinking.
We grew up learning morals through Peter Rabbit and Dr. Seuss and have moseyed our way into more mature stories that help us figure our way through adulthood. Storytelling explains without demanding and teaches without telling.
The most basic representation of the power of story can be seen in the tale about Scheherazade, the main female character in One Thousand and One Nights. She manages to delay her imminent death by telling a story to her murderous king every night before sunrise. The promise of learning more keeps the king enthralled, and by the end of the tale, he has fallen in love with her and decides not to kill her.
This story is the foundation of the strength of storytelling. A plot is not a story. A plot is just a timeline. Your job, as the writer, it to weave a tale of honesty and truth into a story with characters, conflicts, and settings.
To harness the power of your story, try to look at your novel a bit differently. Instead of seeing it as a character and a plot, try to imagine it as a tool. It is trying to explain something to your audience. Now, figure out what it is and make sure the message is hidden in the lines of your story.
- Use all the senses.
Have you ever wondered what it is that creates immersion for you? It’s the idea that you’re actually there in the story, and to do that, you have to believe it not only with your mind, but with all your senses. Don’t just use sight; use touch, smell, taste, and hearing as much as you use sight.
- Cut extraneous detail.
Think about it like this: when you are in a meeting, or if a friend is trying to explain something or tell a story, you don’t care that they saw some pigeons on their way over to talk to you or that there were extra leaves in the yard this time of year. Detail is great, but unnecessary detail makes a story long-winded and lessens the blow of any sort of emotional impact you’re trying to make. Cut it out and strengthen your passages with only relevant information- that, in turn, allows you to make the relevant information shine.
- After writing the first draft, figure out the message if there is one.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but the easiest way to ensure your story sings is this: don’t force a message. Yes, fables were written with a moral in mind, but you aren’t writing a fable, are you? (If so, never mind the rest of this point!) You’re writing a novel and you don’t want to force a message. This is preachy and your readers are smart- they’ll pick up on anything that isn’t genuine. If you find there is a great message, then yes, weave it on in and flesh it out. Make it subtle so that the readers can draw their own conclusion at the end, but use your writing to point them in the correct direction.
If you’re interested in a great Scheherazade retelling, I’d recommend Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. It’s beautifully written and does a wonderful job of storytelling. This post was inspired by the book The Story Factor by Annette Simmons.
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