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Monday, April 27, 2009

Story Telling Basics

Story Telling Basics

This weekend I found myself up to my elbows in unpubbed hopeful manuscripts through digging through the slush pile. It's an interesting journey, but frankly I don't think I have the stamina for much more because I have other pressing things: writing my own novel, marketing Lever, and kid stuff. Template's got to be picked up again soon also. Let me just say that I have a new appreciation for editors and agents who wade through this unpubbed stuff all the time.

In my humble opinion, and recognizing that I'm not an expert (although I have wrestled mightily with writing issues), I am picking up two common problems that recur in almost all of the manuscripts I've looked through so far. They are:

1. Too much backstory!

2. The lack of a compelling story question.


These aren't surprises, I'm sure: just like knowing that if you want to lose weight, you've got to eat fewer calories than you burn. Let's talk first about backstory. I once had it explained to me that backstory is like meeting someone at a casual event where you have to chitchat. If a person comes up to you and starts telling you his life story: I was born in Arizona, my mom was a supervisor in a nursing home that was shut down after twenty-one years because of the suspicious deaths of five patients, I'm researching laws for importing Chinese kumquats and kumquats are often categorized as citrus and are grown on evergreen shrubs or short trees that produce 80 to 100 fruits each year, you'd probably start eyeing the door. (Think of Adrian Monk's annoying neighbor Kevin, who won't shut up). Similarly, in a story the reader wants to WATCH the character and make his own judgments, not be told a lot of stuff that he's not sure what parts are relevant. Why the heck should he even care? He doesn't know the characters! Pretend you're filming your story: Would your scenes show lots of flashbacks?

The second problem is a little more difficult to do well, but it's GOT to be done well if you want your story to be published (or at least traditionally published; you can publish anything yourself). You need to start by intriguing your reader with a situation or a character, and then maintain tension throughout the story. Beautiful writing is nice, but it doesn't cut it.

I have a few tricks for developing story questions, but since these each take a little explanation, let me start in on these on my next blog entry. In the meantime, keep writing :-)


Billy Coffey said...

Great post, Amy! A good reminder that if you don't have a good story to tell, it doesn't matter how well you tell it.

Rita Gerlach said...

Excellent post, Amy. I can't wait to read the next post.