The Art of Storytelling

Well, that’s a pretentious title, if I’ve ever heard one. Also, kind of clichéd. Let’s see, what would a better moniker for this series be?

Like a Roller-Coaster, But Less Fun (for the writer) works.

Stories are all about give-and-take, push-and-pull, and a thousand other variations of the same cliché. I once got a really great review from Chris that explains this exact principle and why it can be applied to music, storytelling, pretty much anything artistic.
So, I had this instructor in school. He taught Pop Music, and it was all about popular music in America. He told us that a lot of kids asked him what he thought made music "good." He accepted the term was loose and variable, but said that in his opinion, the one thing he really looked for, was a cycle of tension and release, release and tension.
This was a review for chapter 28 of What Fates Impose: Pick a Little, Talk a Little, which to me is the last breathing space we got before the Heartbrake Hotel and DC arcs (or, if you’re really sardonic, the “Chuck and Sarah Deal with Their Exes” part of the story).

Storytelling encompasses a lot of things, words you’ve seen used here and other places: setting, plot, character, world (which is technically setting, but I always see "world" as the overarching blending of all of those principles). It’s a thousand different principles, some of which you actively have to think about, some of which might come naturally. And wow, the way I just put it makes it sound really scary and complex, and the answer to that is that it is, and it isn’t.

The simplest way to look at storytelling as an art form is to think back to your campfire days.

I’m sure it will surprise absolutely nobody that I was a Girl Scout. I was, for twelve years. I hate camping (I like nature, but I also like maid service), but every year I went to Girl Scout camp. Back when I lived in Jersey, this meant camping out in the middle of the Pine Barrens. Those not from the area may not be familiar with this local legend, but every year, my counselor told the story of the Jersey Devil.

This was, hands down, everybody’s favorite part of the weekend.

Now, first, the story had to be set. After a night around the campfire and dinner we cooked for ourselves, we’d crawl into our sleeping bags in the cabin, and Cecil would kill all the lights but one or two, and then she would start to tell the story of the thirteenth Leeds child. Moving slowly around the cabin, talking in a low-but-just-loud-enough-to-be-heard voice, she would weave her tale. Some of us knew the story already—if you’d been to that camp before, you had—some of us didn’t, but it didn’t matter. We were there for the telling.

If you’ve ever heard a ghost story well-told, you know all the tricks. Talk in a low voice, to ensure that your audience gives you their undivided attention. Build up suspense by implying you know something the audience doesn’t. Hold a flashlight up to your face to make it truly spooky.

And then scare the hell out of them by shouting when they’re least expecting it.

Writing a story is just like that. Sure, the medium is different, but before men and women were writing stories down, you had lyrical poets like Homer wandering around, entertaining the masses with a well-told tale. Some people are natural-born storytellers, able to figure out just want the people like to hear and how to hold their interest, just like some people are natural-born used car salespeople (my mom’s claim for me). But no matter the format, people just want the story.  Like with the ghost story, you want people on the edges of their seats, wondering what's going to happen next, following your tale to the end.

You don't want them to shut the book on chapter seven.  You want them hanging on to your every word until they've finished the last sentence of your novel or fic, and chances are, you want them to walk away either smiling or thinking.  The minute they start reading what you wrote, you're the one telling the story and they're the audience, which means you're the one creating that world, those characters, that plot, all of it to keep your readers hooked on what you have to say.  You're the only one whose words matter, which means you have to choose them well, but you also have to tell them a story that will make them think--or won't make them think at all, depending on what genre you're writing.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try and write a series on the art of storytelling.  I'll talk about my favorite subject (characters), but I'll also delve into the art of pacing, the art of setting and world, and of course plot.  And hopefully, with just a little bit of luck, I'll sound like I know what I'm talking about.

- Frea


  1. alladinsgenie4u20.2.11

    Nice read. Thanks :) Eager to read about characters as well as other details in the coming parts.

    "You don't want them to shut the book on chapter seven."

    Now why did this line remind me of Chuck 3x07. ;)

  2. "...just like some people are natural-born used car salespeople (my mom’s claim for me)"

    Talk about a backhanded compliment, ouch.

  3. Ayefah21.2.11

    My favorite part of writing legal briefs is the "facts" section, which is basically telling the story of the suit from your client's perspective. There's an art to incorporating the legally relevant facts while not making it sound like a laundry list.

  4. Thanks Frea :) , an interesting read as always. Looking forward to reading the rest of the articles, some of us really do need all the help we can get. Still toying around with the idea of putting fingers to keyboard on a story/Chuck fic, been mulling over plot ideas for ages. I haven't done any serious story/character driven writing since school nearly... ten years ago so you could say I'm intimidated to put it mildly.


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