- by Dara Girard
Tell us a little about you and your site WiredForStory.com.
I’ve always loved story, and I think it’s because, as the gruff newsreel producer says in the opening scene of Citizen Kane, “Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.” Story is a way of finding what makes people tick, and by extension, what makes us tick, since the answer isn’t found in what we do, but in why we do it. Which appeals to me, because I’m really nosy, and always want to know why, about everything.
Which, as it turns out, is pretty normal. As neuroscience is proving more and more, we are literally hard-wired for story. We think in story; it’s how we make sense of the world. As a result, there are certain elements we unconsciously expect and respond to in every story we hear. It’s not the beautiful writing that grabs us, it’s the story it is harnessed to.
That is what my site is all about. I believe it fills a very important gap in the information out there for writers. There are a myriad of fabulous sites that concentrate on writing (meaning the prose) and on external story structure (the plot). My focus is on story itself – which is quite different from plot. Plot is just what happens; story is what it’s about. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” My goal is to remedy that.
You’ve been an agent, editor, teacher and literary consultant. What made you decide to get involved in helping writers develop their fiction?
Back when I read manuscripts for a living – for publishers, agents and film studios — I’d so often think, I know exactly where this novel goes south, and I’d be dying to call the writer and say, “You’re so close, all you have to do is . . .” but of course, I couldn’t. Still it always nagged at me. Soon writers I knew started asking me to take a peek to see where their stories went off the tracks, which triggered my own personal “aha” moment. I realized there’s nothing I like better than ferreting out the story they wanted to tell, and then helping them make sure it’s actually there on the page.
It’s like being a detective, and because I’d read so many well intentioned but really bad manuscripts, I realized I’d developed a very good sense of exactly what it its that commonly goes missing in a story. Working with writers who are in the process of translating their vision of the world onto the page is just about the most exhilarating thing I can think of. It’s such a privilege to be allowed into their story’s evolving world and watch as it comes into being. Plus, I get to ask so many really juicy questions along the way. It’s intoxicating, and if I have an addiction, that’s it. Although I admit, caffeine is a close second.
In a past blog you disagreed with one of Elmore Leonard’s writing rules about what readers tend to skip. He says readers tend to skip what’s in a character’s head, but you disagree. Why?
Because story, first and foremost, is about how someone (the protagonist) makes sense of the world while navigating a deceptively difficult quest. It’s not just what they’re trying to do, but why – what it means to them, and what they need to overcome, or give up, to get it. That’s what draws us to story, and at the end of the day, that’s how story transforms readers. By allowing us to not just see, but experience, the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s where the real story takes place.
After all, story is the world’s first virtual reality; it gives us access to the one place where we have no other way to get to – inside someone else’s mind. Think about it – how often does what you say match what you’re actually thinking? I often think that a good definition of story might be, “It’s about the things you can’t say out loud.”
And that’s a big part of the pleasure of reading – to experience the things people don’t actually say, and sit back and think, “Me too! I thought I was the only one!”
And to be fair, I think that what Elmore Leonard was probably getting at when he said that readers often skip what’s in the character’s head, is that this is an area where many writers are very weak. They give us long, stream of consciousness ramblings (think, interpretive dance), or worse, explanatory exposition that is clearly there solely to give information to the reader.
Ah, but when done well, it’s almost invisible. Here’s a great example from the master himself — Elmore Leonard — from his fabulous novel, Stick. The title character has just left his friend Rainy at the bar, wishing he hadn’t gotten involved in his scheme:
Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying “man” all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.
Hello? Aren’t we in Stick’s head there, listening as he makes sense of what’s happening, and tries to decide what to do next? You betcha! And guess what, it’s from Stick’s point of view that we see most of the action, and Stick who makes sense of it all the way through, as he tries to decide what to do next. Why? Because that’s where the story is!
You’ve mentioned that readers are ‘gloriously heartless’ when it comes to rejecting a writer’s work. How can knowing this help a writer improve their craft?
Readers are a heartless bunch, no doubt about it. They couldn’t care less about a writer’s hard work. They read solely for their own pleasure. That means they want to be hooked immediately, grabbed by that sense of urgency that makes them want to know what happens next. As John Irving said, “Whenever possible, tell the entire story of the novel in the first sentence.” Not, dazzle them with your prose, but tell the story.
In this, it helps to always keep in mind that as far as the reader is concerned, everything in a story is there solely on a need-to-know basis. It keeps you honest, and less inclined to hold onto your beloved darlings (digressions by any other name), if you know the reader isn’t going to wait around for you get the story back on track – they’re already channel surfing, looking for something good to watch. And we’re novelists, which is to say we want to keep them reading!
In your post “8 Random Writing Tips” you said that “The bigger the word, the less emotion it conveys.” That’s an intriguing premise. Could you share an example?
Sure! Believe it or not, I learned that from a very successful trial lawyer, whose job depended on making people feel for his client’s plight. You can’t feel if you have to think first; feeling is immediate, a reflex. And with sentences like the following, what the reader tends to feel is annoyed:
He smiled at her with diffidence, his cheeks emblazoned with a delicate hue of roseate.
The big words – diffidence emblazoned, roseate – force the reader to stop and think about definitions and pronunciation and meaning, which stops the story cold. Ah, but imagine the same thought written like this:
He smiled at her rather shyly, two pink patches on his cheeks.
And you don’t have to take my word for the power of that second sentence; it’s from Ha Jin’s Waiting, which won the National Book Award.
I think the problem is that writers often believe having a distinctive voice means using long, poetic, “dazzling” words. This is reinforced by the notion that “writing well” refers to language rather than to story. But the truth is that big words stop the story and yell, “look at me,” while plain words get out of the way and simply tell the story.
Which is why my motto in this is, “Eschew obfuscation.”
You believe that emotion is crucial in storytelling. Why do you think many writers tend to forget this?
I believe that emotion drives story – if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading, period.
I suspect that the main reason writers tend to forget this is because they simply don’t think about it in the first place. Might sound glib, but very often the most obvious thing is the easiest to overlook.
The second reason emotion goes missing in a story is more to the point: Writers often believe that readers will feel emotion based on what happens externally, without realizing that the emotion readers feel is based on what the protagonist feels. In a story everything gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. If it doesn’t affect her — even if it’s birth, death or an asteroid taking out Texas — it’s neutral. Read: boring.
This is where the story often goes missing. Writers write scenes that are externally exciting, but forget to tell us how the protagonist is reacting, what she’s thinking, how she’s making sense of it. They expect readers to figure it out on their own. That’s not the reader’s job. It’s the writer’s.
What do you wish writers understood about your job as a literary consultant?
That it’s not about line editing or language; it’s about story. I recently read a great interview with a very successful novelist, in which she cautioned writers not to share their manuscripts with too many people, for fear such critiques might result in destroying the purity of your prose. My pulse went through the roof reading that, because it’s so not the point. It does nothing but reinforce the notion that the story is in the prose, rather than that the prose is there to serve the story. A good critique doesn’t touch the purity of the prose. It’s not about the author’s voice. It’s about the story it’s telling.
My job is to dive into the writer’s story and ferret out the places where it works, where it doesn’t, and why, and then help the writer see not only how they might remedy it, but understand the relevant underlying story principle, as well. I believe that story can be taught, but voice can’t. Voice is what the writer brings to the table from the get go; the goal is training it to tell a story.
In your interview in The Writer (January 2011), you mentioned how many writers fall into the trap of worrying about beautiful prose instead of compelling storytelling. Despite evidence to the contrary why do you think this myth still lingers?
I love this question, and I can tell you exactly why. Most writers are under the mistaken assumption that if they’re good with words – if they write beautiful prose, if they create a compelling characters, great scenery, and write insightful dialogue — they’ll have written a story.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. Because even if they do that incredibly well – unless they’re a natural storyteller, and few are — chances are they’ll have written what’s known as a beautifully written “So what?”
Words are there to serve the story, not the other way around.
Why do writers think it’s all about words? Because the first job of a good story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it is a story. Literally. When we’ve surrendered to a good story, we respond to it neurologically as if what is happening to the protagonist is happening to us. So it doesn’t feel like a story, what it feels like is life. But here’s the key thing: it’s the story that creates that feeling, not the words.
So where does the problem come from? Although we’re wired to respond to story from the first sentence we read, most of us have never deconstructed what, exactly, it is we’re responding to. And so we assume it’s the prose. The fabulous voice. The humor. The compelling character. But we’re wrong. What hooks us is what lies beneath the prose – the story itself.
After all, if it were the prose, would The Da Vinci Code really be one of the top ten bestselling novels of all time? I think not.
What thought would you like to leave us with?
That’s a great question, and since all stories begin making a point on page one, I’d like to turn it around and ask writers, What thought do you want to leave your readers with? As writers, we’re the most powerful people in the world, we can change how people think simply by putting them into the skin of our protagonist. And yet, one thing writers often don’t ask themselves is, What do I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What new perspective do I want to give them? Interesting question, isn’t it?
Look for Lisa’s upcoming release (Summer 2012) WIRED FOR STORY: Unlocking the 12 Cognitive Secrets of Story to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Sentence.
If you can’t wait until next year for her fun advice visit her site at: www.wiredforstory.com