You’d think that with all the writing going on today, and all the advice out there about writing, we’d be churning out more masterpieces than ever. But it almost seems like the opposite is true. So what’s going on?
As an editor I see the same problems over and over. As a writer, I repeat the same problems over and over. We all do. Editing obviously helps with a lot of minor issues, and even some major flaws can be fixed with editing. But the one quality that counts most, and the one failure that’s consistent in the writing I see – and in my own – is the one that can’t be fixed with any amount of editing.
Writers just don’t know how to tell a story.
And if you can’t tell a captivating story, how will you ever get published? How will you get read, or if you do get published how will you find an audience? Because being published is not an indicator or a guarantee that you will ever have readers. If you’re writing, you must want readers, right? We’re all in this to one day be read.
But writing is what writers are interested in. Writing, and getting published. Everyone is writing everywhere, and wherever you look someone is telling writers how to write so they can get published. So much writing, and so much writing about writing.
Such a huge waste.
Writing isn’t what gets you read. It’s what gets the story out of your head, but it isn’t what gets the story into the reader’s head.
There’s one part of the narrative process everyone’s skipping over, the one part that’s most important to get right and the least understood, and that’s storytelling.
And to be clear, storytelling is not plotting. You can have a so-called plotless novel that’s a storytelling powerhouse, and you can have a heavily plotted novel with no storytelling value whatsoever. Writers focus obsessively on the one quality that almost doesn’t even count as long as you can string sentences together, but they do almost nothing to nurture storytelling – the one thing that brings the reader into the story. They don’t know how.
I certainly never did.
Just ask any editor or publisher and they’ll tell you that incompetent storytelling is such an overarching deficiency that editors aren’t eager to commit precious resources to fix something the writer doesn’t even understand about her or his own work.
Think about it.
It isn’t writing that keeps readers turning the page. If it were, lyrical literary works would be bestsellers all the time, and some of the worst writing out there wouldn’t be turning some people into millionaires. Really riveting storytelling can blind a reader to terrible writing. And on the other hand, beautiful writing keeps the reader mired in the words, not in the story; it can blind the writer – and sometimes publishers – to the importance of storytelling.
It’s all about storytelling. It answers for reader engagement in a way no other part of writing can. It is the narrative transportation system between the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind.
As a writer, I’ve never had problems getting my queries read. About 90% of the time I get a full manuscript request. At times I’ve gone up to two years into the consideration process before that final rejection. I’d lick my wounds, then go back to the writing.
And I’d keep going back to the writing when writing wasn’t the problem. It was the storytelling. I could see the lack of storytelling in my clients’ submissions, or in too many of the novels I was reading, but never in my own. The more contact I had with other writers’ work, the more I began to recognise that it was a universal fatal blind spot.
So the question is, what makes up storytelling? What urges readers to give up their weekends and forego sleep to plough through the pages of someone else’s imaginative output? What makes so many readers go back to the same stories over and over again throughout their lives?
Now, let me give you a bit of background so you can judge for yourselves my qualifications to even talk about this issue. I’ve been editing and writing for nearly thirty years. I have a business degree with a specialty in marketing but strategy also fascinated me. My master’s degree is in literature and creative writing, with a specialty in composition rhetoric.
These divergent backgrounds have helped me approach problem solving for writing from a completely different angle than other writers and academics who are producing all the workbooks and guidebooks advice blogs and writing methods and software out there, who all approach a textual problem with a textual solution.
So, there are some unusual skills I bring into not just diagnosing the problem, but also finding a solution to address all the problems writers face in story development.
Putting aside uncontrollable variables like genius and raw talent, I started analysing the best fiction ever written with an eye to understanding what it is about their shared storytelling qualities that has made devoted fans of readers generation after generation. Despite widely varying writing styles and voices and approaches, I wanted to know what storytelling choices in the most enduring fiction out there, literary or genre, keyed into reader engagement.
Then I went to work putting what I was learning into context.
I asked myself: what does it take to get the story that forms in the writer’s imagination to take root in the reader’s imagination?
If you trust Dickens and Tolstoi, Graham Greene and Hemingway, if you trust Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and Stephen King and Margaret Mitchell, and all those other great writers we’re still reading today, storytelling is everything. Even character development works synchronously with story development. If you have poor story development, characterization suffers. It has to. What happens to character depends on what happens to story. It’s why the most memorable stories also usually produce the most memorable characters.
I began to analyse method to the story process in a way I had never seen done before – not online, and not in any of the textual material that’s available.
If you think about the story as a body, you have to have a skeletal system that provides form and structure. In order for it to make sense, the parts have to connect to each other in a specific way to give the whole its shape. The same is true in something like architecture. You can have the most outrageous appearance on the outside of a building, but if you don’t abide by certain physical principles of structure and engineering the building simply won’t stay standing.
You can’t just throw something together and hope it will turn out right in the end, yet writers do this all the time. Editors and readers know when you’re offering them a mess, even if you don’t realise it. Even stream of consciousness is purposeful and still great storytelling in the hands of a master. You have to compose deliberately, consciously, with a keen eye for cause and effect. Everything in narrative is connected, but not in the way writers think framed in a series of plotting details.
Then there’s the musculature that provides force and locomotion. If it functions well it pulls the reader along as though the story has a will of its own, and the reader has no choice but to submit. If it doesn’t function, it trips the reader up. It moves one way then another or shifts focus until the reader finally gives up long before the story actually stops moving and dies – which is usually well before the last page anyway.
So there was this idea that something has to keep a story together to give it authority and credibility so readers can trust that the writer knows his or her own creation and what to do with it. Something has to keep it moving to generate the kind of page-turning momentum that gives storytelling vivacity.
But none of this matters for writers unless you address three other problems in story development: continuity, management, and tools.
Serious writers have always intuitively known that uninterrupted story development was crucial to storytelling, and to solve the problem they’ve done everything from writing on the walls to taping sheets of paper together to keeping bulging files and plastering sticky notes everywhere.
What other choices are there? Designers have blueprints and computer-aided design. Composers have scores. What do writers have that can help them manage story development?
The answer has always been inadequate. Paper. Then computers.
No workbook or guidebook or complicated software can ever do the job properly. The forms are not a good match for narrative function. And the hallmark of excellence in design is the perfect fit between form and function. Form must properly fill the gap between function and need.
In fact, the tools writers use every day – the paper and screen forms – actually contribute to the problem for writers simply because the act of turning the page or tabbing over to another screen disengages the writer from story flow. There is no way to access every part of a narrative at once. And if you want strong story development, this is critical.
Then there’s the problem of how to deal with the constant change that comes with each draft and rewrite. Writers try juggling it all in their heads but there are a lot of dropped balls in every manuscript, and a lot of balls still being juggled that should have been dropped, which only contributes to the mess industry professionals see ever day.
What are writers to do, then?
Well, I’ve taken everything I learned about storytelling, and everything I assessed about the writer’s needs, and designed a revolutionary new premium story development tool that will do what no other workbook or guidebook or software can. It will turn writers into storytellers.
It’s like nothing writers have ever seen before. It’s so groundbreaking that Writer’s Digest, part of the largest media empire in the world dedicated to writing, wants a first-run copy to assess for a possible feature article.
Follow this blog for updates so you can be among the first to turn your work into the kind of story that will keep readers turning the page.
NarraForm, the world’s only panoramic storytelling tool, providing writers with the continuity and perspective needed for beginning-to-end control of story development, has launched on Kickstarter. It’s the only story development aid anywhere based on unique storytelling benchmarks found only in the best fiction the world has ever seen. Become a backer and be among the first to change how you create and develop stories, and at great values that won’t be possible once NarraForm goes retail.