A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. – Raymond Chandler
Do you ever get the feeling that some things people write are too flat, too thin to really be of any use?
Like management theories, for example.
You can pick up a textbook and see models, two by two matrices favoured by professors and consultants, that try to capture what is going on in the world out there.
But, in reality, they don’t – but why?
Terry Pratchett, in one of his books, talks about some cultures having a view that taking a picture of people was like stealing a bit of their soul.
And he said that if you looked closely at people who had a lot of “exposure”, who had lots of pictures taken of them, they seemed less substantial, less real.
And I think that’s what happens to ideas as well – as they’re passed on and refined and made more general, they lose their substance – they stop being rooted in something real and become fading memories of something someone once understood.
Which is why fiction matters so much – why writers who look again at the reality out there, even if its a reality they construct in their own minds, are much closer to what’s going on than these lofty theoreticians.
And if you want to get a feel for how this plays out you only have to watch a course on Coursera on writing and then watch this TEDx talk by Ryan Gattis.
Gattis talks about the elements of immersive story – five things you must have to make a story work.
These five things are the kinds of things you will learn in any introduction to writing class – they’re craft skills that you refine through practice and effort.
You have to start with hooks, things that snag your audience’s attention.
You need a few of these and you might to wait till they take hold before you start to reel in the reader.
Your writing cannot be predictable, be boring – you need to take the reader down one path and then change things around – keeping them guessing and therefore interested.
But you also need to have a chain of events – you need cause and effect if you want to avoid simply having a random series of things happening and confusing your reader.
It’s not enough to be a master at describing what you see out there – the facts of the case.
You also need to connect with your reader on an emotional level – and that means sharing and creating feelings.
And throughout your writing you have to have specific, concrete detail – that’s what makes your story believable.
To see how these elements are used by someone who knows what they’re doing watch Gattis’ presentation – it’s hard to turn off and stop halfway through.
And that’s because anyone can have these elements – but the thing that holds them together, Gattis says, is authenticity – how real you are.
And he has an interesting approach to what it means to be authentic – on the lines of it’s when you show others who you really are rather than what you want to show them or what you believe they should see.
Now, this resonates with something else I was watching which was Brandon Sanderson on plot.
He said that people were sometimes surprised that editors very quickly rejected their work, and he argued that was actually completely understandable.
Bring up a piano, he said, and have someone play who has been learning for a year or so – someone who’s worked hard to improve and practised their stuff.
Then bring up a concert pianist, a professional with a score of years experience, and listen to them play.
How long will it take before you can tell the difference between which one is better?
And it works the same way with a novel – you can tell in the first few pages whether the writer is good or not, experienced or not.
And it works the same way in most places – you can tell people who have business experience, who know their stuff from the people who are new or that are full of hot air.
You have to spend the time working on your craft, whatever that craft is.
When you’ve spent that time then you’re in a position where you can use these elements in an effective manner – when you have the skills to do the basics.
Which is when you can take down your defences, when you can start to let the real you out, the one that people can connect with.
Because it’s one thing to know what these elements are – it’s an entirely different thing to have mastered how to use them.
As a lecturer said to us once when we had completed an MBA course – “You now have a Masters in Business Administration – that doesn’t make you a master of business administration.”
That comes later, with time and practice and perseverance.
Which is why I think that you should take the time to go deep into ideas, into situations – because it’s only when you do that that you will get the really interesting stuff.
The stuff that you can use in a story that people will stop and listen to.