Any fool can tell a story. Humans do it all the time:
“Hey, you’ll never guess what happened to me on the way to work!”
“Omg funny thing about the photocopier”
“Remember that time we woke up in a skip?”
But there’s a difference between telling stories, and being A Storyteller. One is the everyday communication of life and the other is something magical and vital.
Harry Potter is a great example of the latter, and it’s even more fascinating because the actual mode of story telling – the writing itself – is really not that great. Don’t get us wrong. All hail Queen JK, but her sentence construction in the first book? Eesh. I mean, how did that even get past the first round of editing?
So how do we elevate ‘storytelling’ into A Story? How do we get from ‘this happens, that happens’ to full immersion? There’s something in a great story that invites us into the fiction world, that allows us to suspend our disbelief and leap into the current of the tale without a lifeline, that lets us discover the deeper truths of life through obvious lies, that makes us sit up and go ‘oh!’. And that’s where the magic happens.
But. As we’re sure you’ve realised by now, we can’t unravel all of that right here because in reality it’s several PhDs’ worth of thoughts, HOWEVER, in true WHQ style, we can give you a gratuitously sweary listicle that will get you started down the path of storycraft and what it means. So here you fucking go:
1. Get out of your head and into the world
Creating a believable world is one of the cornerstones of telling a great story. Think about that one friend you have who sits in the corner of the pub, commanding the whole table, regaling you all with hilarious anecdotes about that time you all got shitted and ended up hanging upside down from a chicken wire fence, and the story is compelling and brilliant even though you’ve heard it a hundred times before. She starts by placing you all firmly in the picture, in time, in place, in context, and she makes you care: “Do you remember when we went to that party at…where was it? That weird block of flats on the seafront, and Jules took some liquid acid off that guy in the bogs and we were all like whoa what are you doing?! And then he offered us some and we ended up on the beach at 3am laughing at the waves and it was h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s…”
This is really all you’re doing, but in novel form.
In Harry Potter, JK Rowling has created a huge magical universe that sits on top of our real world and it’s all (mostly) believable. How does she do this? Partly she recreates the real world so well (Little Whinging, Surrey will never not be funny or accurate) that we feel we can trust her, so we’re willing to go along with the supernatural stuff for a while until we find ourselves immersed in it. Partly, she relies on existing tropes and tales to make us feel comfortable: the archetypal wise, beardy wizard with a pointy hat and purple cape; the witch who turns into a cat; magic that comes from wands. Partly, it’s an adventure we can all relate to – miserable pubescent child discovers he’s not only adopted but special in some way. Add to that Rowling’s generosity – she knows the world inside out and she enthusiastically invites us into it.
The thing with generosity, though – interestingly, it can go either way. You can make your world just as real even if you’re sparse with the minutiae. Look at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Right from the off we’re only given tiny little crumbs and clues as to what this terrifying dystopia is. We have to work for the answers, but she gives us just enough information that, collectively, we begin to understand the horror of what’s unfolding. And, because she’s not given us an easy ride, because she constructs that world so well, we feel the horror of it deep in our sternums. Even though we know it isn’t real – [insert incisive political comment about the current state of Western society here] – it becomes part of our deeper human truth.
Things to thunk in your brain: How are you representing your world? Why would the reader believe it? How are you making your readers feel comfortable? How are you making them feel uncomfortable? Do you need to be generous or sparse? Are you making your reader work or are you handing it to them on a plate?
2. Planting seeds for a late harvest
One of the finest moments for any reader is seeing the story come together towards the end. It’s by no means an easy trick to pull off, and for events to make sense later, you need to start planning for them early on. This isn’t just the basics of plotting and making sure you’ve got all the right beats at all the right points, this means giving the reader verrry subtle clues as to what’s going to be happening later in the story. This can be as simple as adding an early reference that the protagonist loves cracking nuts, so later, when he comes up with the solution to the major crisis while endlessly cracking nuts, it all fits neatly. Or it can be as complex as having a subplot that resolves to fix the main plot in an unexpected way. Back in Harry Potter world, this time the Prisoner of Azkaban, we see that Hermione is drowning in school work – unusual for the hardworking brainiac – until we discover she’s using a time travelling device to cram in more classes. Later, the magical trio will use that same device to solve the Big Problem of the story. This almost seems like such a minor detail early on – just some background colour or glib characterisation – that it doesn’t twig till later that it’s important info.
Seeding your story with info happens right up until the end of the editing process, so always be on the look out for nuggets of information you can lay down early on.
Things to thunk in your brain: What info do you need to sneak into the reader’s brain without them noticing? Do you need a list of stuff so you can check it’s adequately seeded? Do you have minor subplots that link back into the main stream of the story and how?
3. Point of view
How much do you need to worry about point of view? Here again we have one of those infuriating writing issues where the answer is: just enough but not too much. Good ol’ Harry Potter is written in a bog standard third person omniscient and it works just fine. There’s enough complexity and intrigue and twists and turns that a straight run through the story in a comfortable and familiar POV works great. (And yeah, it’s also a kids’ book but shhh.) But then there’s Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which tells an old and familiar story – everyone you love dies in World War II – and spins it into something beautiful and ethereal and just ohmygod-my-heart-is-aching-so-hard by telling the story from the point of view of Death. Or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Good Squad, which tells a bog standard story of a troubled young woman finding her way in the world via the point of view of a number of other people in her life, thus creating a vivid tale which leaps through times and swoops in and out of truths.
Is first person present pretentious? Is second person gimmicky? Is third person past tired and boring? Eh. Tomato Toh-may-toe. Find the way to tell your story in the most effective way possible and you’re laughing.
Things to thunk in your brain: Try this exercise from Seven Ideas in Seven Days and see if it makes you look at your story any differently. Take a situation and change the channel until you find something new, eg:
Channel 0: Answering the phone to a cold-caller
Channel 1: [what about the circumstances?] A burglar answers a ringing phone without thinking and ends up talking to a telemarketer while they rob a house.
Channel 2: [what about the cold-caller’s perspective?] A telemarketer is making a routine sales call when they realise they know the person on the other end.
Channel 3: [what about the telemarketer’s supervisor?] Marketing supervisor is sick of one particular employee making personal calls on their shift and secretly records their calls to catch them in the act, only to discover a terrible secret…
Keep going as many times as you like to get a broad, vivid, diverse array of perspectives, and then choose which ones help you tell the story most effectively…
Above all, experiment. Try a whole buttload of different approaches to POV, world building, and backseeding to gradually flesh out and develop your storytelling techniques until you start to see little diamonds emerging from the gloom. Pull out those bits that feel ‘right’ and analyse them; figure out what it is about the parts you’ve really nailed that sets the tone and atmosphere and feeling for your story. Then try to weave those methods into the rest of it.
AND REMEMBER, SWEET BABIES: Storycraft is something you never stop learning. It’s different for every single story you write, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it so long as it serves your writing in the best way possible. So give it a facking go and launch your stories into the world with aplomb.