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Simplify Your Storytelling

Storytelling, Simple and Straightforward

I’ve got a couple really simple rules for most of the new writers that I work with: tell your story from start to finish, and tell it from the narrator’s point of view. That sounds obvious, right? Well you’d be amazed how much my writers hate to hear it.

My dad wrote his first book for National Novel Writing Month two years ago. He’d been a storyteller all his life, but that November was his first attempt ever at writing it down. I guided him through some prewriting, I gave him some pep talks along the way, and then November rolled around and he cranked out an 83,000-word book, all on his own. He spent a couple months on rewrites and edits, and then he asked me if I could look it over for him — give him some feedback.

That’s the first time I saw the pain and frustration and anger in a writer’s eyes, when all I had to say was, “Simplify your storytelling.”

Chronology and Point of View

Essentially, my feedback again and again boiled down to those two rules I mentioned before:

  • Tell your story from start to finish.
  • Tell your story from the narrator’s point of view.

Every chapter seemed to start with a teaser, a paragraph situated mid-way through the chapter’s storyline, and then a big narrative jump back to the beginning (picking up where the last chapter left off), and then catching up to the teaser, and then moving on. More than that, every chapter featured point-of-view scenes from two or three different characters — sometimes also making big leaps in time, sometimes overlapping. As I read the story, I had a lot of trouble telling when I was in the narrative, from sentence to sentence, and almost as much trouble telling who I was (or who I was following). The plot was fantastic, the story was excellent, but the storytelling kept getting in the way.

So I told him what you’d hear in any creative writing course. Stick to as few points of view as possible, only change during major scene changes, and only change for a reason. Point-of-view changes tend to jar readers, even when they’re done well, and when they’re done by new writers they can just be achingly confusing. The same is true for complicated chronology. Flashbacks, flashfowards, teasers and blunt-edged foreshadowing and narrative dialogue all serve, primarily, to keep your reader from knowing what’s going on. That’s not your job as a writer. Your job isn’t to be clever. Your job is to tell a story. So often the first step in doing that well is to discipline yourself to just stay out of the way.

So my advice for new writers is to just keep it as simple as possible. Start your story at the beginning, and make sure that everything that happens on the page happens in order. Start your story peeking over the shoulder of one character (your protagonist) and stick to that character until you write “The End.”

Practicing What I Preach

That anecdote I told earlier, about reading through my dad’s book, might seem a little cruel for me to share with the world, but the fact is it says nothing about my dad’s ability as a writer. In the last three years I’ve seen the same thing in every one of the novels by new writers I’ve looked at (which amount to nearly half a dozen). I’ve seen the same thing in the amazing novel of my writer friend Courtney, and she’s got as much experience as I have. Oh, and you’d better believe I saw the same thing in my books. Maybe not on the same scale, but it was there.

And you know how I responded? I simplified my storytelling. I’ve got nine novels under my belt, and all the training to justify any artistic flourish I want to include, but I decided I wanted to practice what I preached. So the next novel I wrote, I wrote in fixed chronology, fixed point of view, and with as much direct narrative as possible. I’ll talk in another post what exactly that last phrase means, but essentially I tried to make sure every sentence described something that actually happened — something that would be visible on camera if this were a movie. That stripped out all the inner monologues, all the dream sequences, all the figuring and misdirection and flowery description. I did my best, cold turkey, to write a simple and straightforward story.

Learning the Craft

I realize I might be on the verge of losing a reader or two, with this post. How cold and analytical and boring would the world be if all of our short stories and novels read just like news reports? Or, worse, recipes….

We’d be trading in Memento for Dude, Where’s My Car? We’d be trading in Lost for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Right?

Not necessarily. When I tried it, it was with a NaNoWriMo novel, a quick one-off that I spent all of two months thinking about before I committed it to paper. My wife, who’s read everything I’ve ever written, said it was my best work by far. My friends who’ve read it have become fans. I have test readers constantly asking me when the next book in the series will be done. It’s not boring and lifeless. It’s not plodding and simplistic. It’s just a good story, plainly told.

That’s because simplicity in the presentation doesn’t have to mean simplicity in the content, but that’s not the whole of the argument, either.

When it comes down to it, this isn’t the right way to write, and I’m not pretending it is. This is a tool, this is an exercise or a mindset to work in while doing your writing. I said from the start that this is advice I give to new writers. As you pick up practice, as you gain experience and start to learn how to read the same page as both a writer and a reader, you’ll get better and better at decorating your storytelling with all the beautiful touches that make great artwork out of simple stories.

As a new writer, though, that shouldn’t be your focus. Unfortunately, until someone points it out to you, it’s not terribly easy to tell the difference between storytelling (with all its artistic flourishes) and just writing a story. These embellishments show up in new writers’ work, not because they’re trying to overstep their ability, but because it’s the sort of stuff they’ve seen in Lost and Memento and there’s this feeling that a good story has to look like this.

As a teacher, as a writing coach, I approach it the same way the renaissance masters approached their training. I separate artwork (the true expression of an individual’s unique vision) from craftsmanship (the mastery of skills and abilities necessary to express that vision). That’s the whole point of these two rules. That’s definitely the point of this post:

Learn to think of writing as your craft.

Think of writing as a set of skills and abilities you need to develop, not a finished product you need to create. Yes, you’ve seen works of art that included masterful touches of chronology or point of view. The first step to getting there yourself is learning how to dissect the things you’ve seen — to take apart the storytelling from the story, the content from the presentation — and then learn, one at a time, to do your best version of each of those things.

So, when it comes time for me to give advice to new writers, I like to recommend starting with the story. A good story will sell papers. Save the polish and shine for your master works. While you’re still getting started (or just for a change of pace, if you’ve been doing it for years), take a shot at simplifying your storytelling, and present a compelling tale as clearly as you can.

4 Responses to “Simplify Your Storytelling”

  1. Ok, I lied. I will leave you a comment. But I still want to figure out the OpenID thing.

    Anyway, this reminded me of reading the new Dune books by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson. I love those books, but one of my largest complaints is that it changes point of view over and over again. I like that it has several different plot points that coalesce together into a story that encompasses a large scope of topics and plot points, but they do it so frequently that you never get settled into the character or plot of the current scene. Just when it starts to get interesting they skip to the next one. It’s too complicated.

    This was one of the things I was impressed about concerning Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. The vast majority of it is from Ender’s point of view, with only a few spaced out asides to the actions of his siblings. I was impressed with how he draws you into the story so much that if your phone rings, it’s jarring. You have to realize after that split second of confusion that you are not living in that world, you are not Ender.

    There’s a strong case for simplicity. Thanks for making me think about it.

  2. Trish Pogue says:

    I agree with you so strongly on this point. I admit that I LOVE long winded novels that leave little to the imagination, i.e. Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I am fascinated by the novels that start off running and don’t stop till the last page. I hope more readers will begin to see the merit in simple storytelling.

  3. Courtney says:

    Gah, Aaron. Do you have any idea how much this kind of challenge freaks me out?!?

    ;o) Of course, you do.

    A couple of recent reads that I think meet this challenge well: The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. She breaks the simplicity rule by writing in first person singular present tense….but in spite of how that sounds, she tells a straightforward story that is incredibly vivid and easy to read. She got “highly recommend”s on my blog. ;o)

  4. Aaron Pogue says:

    (That first post is from my friend Carlos, who usually gets to have a name, but my failed attempt to implement easy OpenID login left him all scrambled in this case.)

    Actually, on that note, it’s been two weeks and we haven’t done a thing with the OpenID stuff. I’ll admit that I gave up on it when I realized success still wouldn’t be what I was actually hoping for. I basically wanted to make my site recognize Google Account cookies, so if you were logged into GMail, you’d also be logged in here (just like if you want to Google Docs or Picasa).

    Apparently to do that, I’d have to BE Google. And if that were an option, I wouldn’t be here talking to you guys, that’s for sure!

    Ahem. Anyway. I’ve certainly read novels where the dynamic point of view filled the experience with magic and wonder. Most of the time, though, they just annoy me. Even in the books I like, the perspective changes tend to be annoying.

    Thanks for your support! I mean that both in reference to your appreciation for this blog post, and for your feedback back when I took on this challenge myself. I don’t think I could have had the discipline to limit my writing that way without your encouragement and praise.

    You’re an amazing test reader! I should write a blog post all about you soon, but it would just make all the other writers jealous….

    First person is enough to worry me, and present tense is even worse, but all great art comes from people (who know what they’re doing) breaking the rules. I’ll have to check those two out.