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Storytelling

Barbara

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I've recently been pondering the 'storytelling' aspect of writing. What makes a good story? Does a good story need to follow what's considered 'good storytelling', or is it much more free? What is it that make it a good story?

I read a book a while back, the name of which I forget, which didn't seem to follow any sort of 'template' of a good story, no three act structure, nothing like that. Had I seen a synopsis of it I might even have said, there isn't enough story. And yet, I couldn't put it down. Does it matter if we don't follow those 'rules' of storytelling if we can hook our readers? I'm guessing it doesn't, because if the reader enjoys it, then who gives a sausage?

Or is a good story simply a matter of taste and hence is something different for everyone?

Is it simply a case of resonating with the reader? If so then how do we make it resonate?

Maybe I need to make a list of books I like and analyse what they have in common. Why do I like them? Why do I think they're such a fab tale?

I don't have any firm answers. It's just something I've been pondering. But I am starting to wonder if it's simply a case of capturing a character and a mood and a compelling 'something'.
 

CageSage

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There are many forms of structure, and some seem similar to the three-act format, but many don't [especially Asian stories/fables], so it's not always the structure that makes it a good story.
What makes a good story is good storytelling, but the basics of words used, format, form, language, etc., don't count if the reader doesn't understand and slip into the story as easily as slipping into a warm bath [wine and chocs included].
It's about the attachment to the reader, which is why it's so important to know who the audience is for the story and how they form attachments to the opening stanza - and continuing the flow of story so it's both easy to keep reading and compelling to know what happens next [tension creates attention].

Sounds easy, but all the prep work we do with craft skills is merely the foundation of storytelling, and in the end, what matters is that the story absorbs the reader, and the 'how' is invisible to them.
 

Serra K

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Lately I've been watching a YouTube channel called Like Stories of Old. There is a lot of good stuff on this channel and the content resonates with me as a storyteller. There is a three part series on this channel (the videos are not overly long and are quite manageable in a single sitting) about how stories differ from real life, with a focus on the difference between the hero's journey and our own real life journeys. There are plenty more videos with varying topics, but I often turn to this channel when I get burned out by all the craft.

Structure and rules are a good anchor/foundation for storytelling, but twisting and altering a story so you can cram it into a strict set of formulaic guidelines, to me, is a tragedy. When I think about the types of stories I want to hear, the types of stories that I want to write, I almost always want them to be freed from such rules. After all, if we keep telling the same kinds of stories, how can we ever rise above the mounting troubles of our humble human society?

If stories are to remain meaningful, and do the work they are supposed to do, why should their structures not evolve in line with the evolution of the human psyche? These are just my thoughts, and there is a lot resistance to colouring outside the lines, as I have come to find. But writers are artists, and artists are visionaries. Sometimes the only way to solve a problem or settle a conflict is to break the frame.
 

RK Capps

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I read a book a while back, the name of which I forget, which didn't seem to follow any sort of 'template' of a good story, no three act structure, nothing like that

I've read a few like that: Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab are three I recall. I adored something magic in all of them.

I remember being really annoyed and disinterested with the ending of The Name of the Wind. There was no setup and payoff. It totally went off script and that felt so wrong to me, instinctively, that no matter how much I enjoyed his prose, for the first 3/4s is brilliant, I'll never buy his books again.

With Uprooted, there was setup and payoff, so while the ending felt drawn out, I was still satisfied.

With The Invisible Life of Adie La Rue, the magic was so strong, I didn't notice anything but the story. On rereading, I find on her second page, she set up the book with the line, "Seven freckles. One for every love she'd have, that's what Estele had said..." and then she builds the story around the seven loves. I'm not even sure there is an inciting incident, just a midpoint and climax. Pure storytelling carried me through that story.

The more I read, the more I find, if the tent poles of structure and there to help guide me through the story, i.e. inciting incident, midpoint, climax, and things are setup and paid off, I care about the characters, there's conflict of some kind and the author creates emotional investment, then they hit a sweet spot for me. On a line-by-line level, there must also be language uses that surprise me (I really can't enjoy a cliche without a twist), and then, the writer has me, they can do whatever they like and even small plot holes or instances of subtle head-hopping won't stop me from finishing a story. That's a tall order, but that's what makes me forget the world around me, anything else is a DNF for me.
 

Hannah F

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Investment and progression. That's what makes storytelling work for me. I must invest in the protagonist(s) at the start of the story and take some kind of journey with them. There must be some kind of conflict to keep me turning the page and wonder how it will be resolved. The ending can be closed or written in such a way as to spur my imagination. A story that does that can use any structure it wants.
A good recent example of compelling storytelling that cannot be ('Save the Cat' for instance) structure-boxed is Susannah Clarke's Piranesi.
 

CageSage

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Lately I've been watching a YouTube channel called Like Stories of Old. There is a lot of good stuff on this channel and the content resonates with me as a storyteller. There is a three part series on this channel (the videos are not overly long and are quite manageable in a single sitting) about how stories differ from real life, with a focus on the difference between the hero's journey and our own real life journeys. There are plenty more videos with varying topics, but I often turn to this channel when I get burned out by all the craft.

Structure and rules are a good anchor/foundation for storytelling, but twisting and altering a story so you can cram it into a strict set of formulaic guidelines, to me, is a tragedy. When I think about the types of stories I want to hear, the types of stories that I want to write, I almost always want them to be freed from such rules. After all, if we keep telling the same kinds of stories, how can we ever rise above the mounting troubles of our humble human society?

If stories are to remain meaningful, and do the work they are supposed to do, why should their structures not evolve in line with the evolution of the human psyche? These are just my thoughts, and there is a lot resistance to colouring outside the lines, as I have come to find. But writers are artists, and artists are visionaries. Sometimes the only way to solve a problem or settle a conflict is to break the frame.
There are podcasts here that discuss different forms of structure. Not all of them, cos who knows how many there may be, but it's an interesting discussion. Click on 'most recent posts' and scroll down for the ones discussing structure.

Well, as they were scattered about like fairy-tale breadcrumbs, here are the ones I found:

 

Serra K

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@CageSage
Thanks for the info :) Do any of these, perchance, discuss story structures from a variety of cultures? I ask because I have stories within stories in the novel I'm writing. They are told by distinctly different cultures, e.g., I've based a set of these on the dreamtime stories I enjoyed whilst growing up.
 

CageSage

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@CageSage
Thanks for the info :) Do any of these, perchance, discuss story structures from a variety of cultures? I ask because I have stories within stories in the novel I'm writing. They are told by distinctly different cultures, e.g., I've based a set of these on the dreamtime stories I enjoyed whilst growing up.
It may be worth some research on the difference between definitions of fable [a short story with a moral], tale [fictional or true, told in an interesting narrative form], yarn [often with bits of truth but enhanced/invented details to make it more interesting], legend [traditional story that may be true, or is built from a fable for children into a story for adolescents], myth [a traditional story concerning the history of a people, or explanation of social phenomena], etc. There may be more, but the general structure of these items have some similarities the world over, not simply for structure, but for purpose and education. Finding the underlying purpose can often highlight the way they've been structured to inform, entertain, teach, or caution, and then use those structures to make/enlarge the known into something new that follows the same structural principles.
Most of the stories and songs I knew as a child were shaped as lessons about community and country, warnings and history combined.
 

Serra K

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It may be worth some research on the difference between definitions of fable [a short story with a moral], tale [fictional or true, told in an interesting narrative form], yarn [often with bits of truth but enhanced/invented details to make it more interesting], legend [traditional story that may be true, or is built from a fable for children into a story for adolescents], myth [a traditional story concerning the history of a people, or explanation of social phenomena], etc. There may be more, but the general structure of these items have some similarities the world over, not simply for structure, but for purpose and education. Finding the underlying purpose can often highlight the way they've been structured to inform, entertain, teach, or caution, and then use those structures to make/enlarge the known into something new that follows the same structural principles.
Most of the stories and songs I knew as a child were shaped as lessons about community and country, warnings and history combined.
This is really helpful to me. The purpose dictates the form. Thanks a bunch! I listened to one of the podcasts you posted above, the one about stories within stories and I like it. (There was a bizarre moment where I was searching online for the book Piranesi right at the moment when they started talking about it in the podcast. Talk about synchronicity!) Anyhoo, the site is added to my favourites bar for future enjoyment.
 

Pamela Jo

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IMO the beats and the 3/5 point thing are to train writers. Readers don't give a toss and probably are a bit bored with it since almost every movie and book has been influenced by Save the Cat these Days. If you've got a strong enough story and you're a good enough writer who can carry it through to a satisfactory end you can drop the training wheels. My first lesson in journalism school the prof scrawled MURDER in chalk on the blackboard, then SEX, and finally MONEY. Dropping the chalk he said, "The most important thing you will ever learn is what makes a good story. It will come down to some element of one of these words. A really good story will be about all 3." Then there's what my aunts and uncles would stay up past midnight doing when they got together. Stories about the adventures of living, you-have-to-laugh-or-you'll-cry stories, made-it-through-the-skin-of-my-teeth stories. Timing and delivery were crucial for those raconteurs. They had to keep their audience of peers interested and deliver the laugh or the gasp at the end while everyone was cold sober. (My grandmother was a teetotaller who would allow no alcohol in her house.) Yet a distant relation said that when they drove up to the house it would seem as if the house was pulsing with light, laughter and talk. Nobody got the musical gene in my family-instead they told stories. I don't know how to define it. It's like porn. You know it when you see it. Now I test a story against that crowd I remember listening to in childhood. Could it hold it's own at a 3 am card game against my uncles tales of creating rocket fuel for the space race or my father's one about catching the Baptist preacher buying beer and keeping him chatting on the stoop of the liquor store while he sweated bullets.
 

Barbara

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You know those moments, when you hear a snippet somewhere of 'something that has happened to someone', and you're thinking 'Wow, this would be a good book/film'? I look for those vibes when I work through an idea.

I often test a story idea by writing a one line pitch, then asking does that make someone say 'that would be a good book'.
 

Hannah F

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I learnt (by trial and error with lots of errors) that the best way to see if the story works is to write the structure then the synopsis. Then write the synopsis again. And again. The more fluid and interesting your synopsis becomes, the better your story will be.
 

Serra K

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You know those moments, when you hear a snippet somewhere of 'something that has happened to someone', and you're thinking 'Wow, this would be a good book/film'? I look for those vibes when I work through an idea.
This happened recently when I saw a documentary about Chinese foot binding. I'd love to write a story about someone who endured that...
 

Josephine

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This happened recently when I saw a documentary about Chinese foot binding. I'd love to write a story about someone who endured that...
I came across a book in a charity shop a few years ago called Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Chang. She's writing about her great aunt (I think? an older female relative anyway) about how it was to be a woman in China in the first half of the 20th century, when western ideas were beginning to compete with imperialist traditions, and before communism. I found it super super interesting, a really evocative glimpse into a particular time and set of cultural norms that were in their last days. I also enjoyed that it was about the author's relationship to her great-aunt (who had refused as a child to have her feet bound, as it happens), and her own experience of being of Chinese heritage in the US.
(Sorry this is a total tangent... I'm enjoying the storytelling discussion though!)
 

James Arlington

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Good points, all. I recently read something about the Illiad, by Homer, where, as if everyone knows, it starts in the middle of the story with the Trojan war ongong, then we learn why and how later on. I start my current story (we can't agree on titles), with Salvatore being sent off on his voyage as punishment from his father. A few people don't like that, they want to know the backstory and see the relationship between the lovers etc. before they "feel" invested in the characters, or even the protagonist. Most people who have read this agree with my approach, however. We see in flashbacks their relationship. I'm also reading the bestseller, The Lincoln Highway, and it starts with the Warden taking home the juvenile deliquent after his incarceration. We don't know the backstory, and to tell you the truth, I didn't, in the first few pages, feel that I liked this kid, until later on when we learn what he did and his circumstance. It also didn't grab me on page one or in the first 700 words (as agent Pete says stories must). In any event, who knows anything....
 

Serra K

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it starts in the middle of the story
This made me think of The Passion. Even though it's a movie, it begins in the middle too. Jesus is taken into custody and we see his life in flashbacks. I personally think this movie is a masterpiece, and proves that this structure not only works, but builds on the consumer's emotional engagement with a layer upon layer approach. I find this far more meaningful than being hit with a sort of check list of reasons for why I should care from the beginning of a story.
 

Hannah F

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Even if you start in the middle of a story and introduce layers through flashbacks, you can still create a compelling character that the reader will immediately invest in. Historical fiction (or fact) has an advantage there because we already (probably) are familiar with the MC(s).
 

Hannah F

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This made me think of The Passion. Even though it's a movie, it begins in the middle too. Jesus is taken into custody and we see his life in flashbacks. I personally think this movie is a masterpiece, and proves that this structure not only works, but builds on the consumer's emotional engagement with a layer upon layer approach. I find this far more meaningful than being hit with a sort of check list of reasons for why I should care from the beginning of a story.
Ah, but like a card trick, the check list shouldn't be obvious at all. That is the skill of the good writer. Starting with an MC being taken into custody can be fraught with emotion, so even though we don't yet know why he/she/they have ended up in that situation, we care. We are invested. And we want to know.
 

Serra K

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you can still create a compelling character that the reader will immediately invest in
I agree with this 100%. The first layer, and perhaps the second, should be applied within the first pages I think.
Historical fiction (or fact) has an advantage there because we already (probably) are familiar with the MC(s).
Definitely. If the MC is well known, a lot of the work is already done.
Starting with an MC being taken into custody can be fraught with emotion, so even though we don't yet know why he/she/they have ended up in that situation, we care. We are invested. And we want to know.
I think this is a good point to make for @James Arlington and his story about Salvatore. His having to be sent away from home is a deeply emotional situation, and I think, an appropriate way to begin to the story.
 

Rich.

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What is it that make it a good story?
Emotional and/or intellectual engagement, I think. How you create that depends on your audience.

Does it matter if we don't follow those 'rules' of storytelling if we can hook our readers?
In terms of commercial fiction, I think this is akin to asking, 'Are we still playing tennis if we rub out the lines and take down the net?' That's not to say you can't do it, but it does make the job harder.

Or is a good story simply a matter of taste and hence is something different for everyone?
No, I think there's more commonality than that. Base emotions are universal, and successful stories play on those (even starkly intellectual stories that are all thinky-thinky provide emotional pleasure – they satisfy a base need for seeking).

Maybe I need to make a list of books I like and analyse what they have in common. Why do I like them? Why do I think they're such a fab tale?
That's a really good idea. You'd think it weird if you met a musician who didn't listen to and analyse music. And you don't want to spend your writing life reinventing the wheel.

I think it's easy to fall into the trap of fetishizing originality. A well-told tale can contain nothing more original than an interesting voice or a gentle twist or an unexpected setting and still be a fantastic story.

What's the saying? 'I stood on the shoulders of giants...'
 

Pamela Jo

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Good points, all. I recently read something about the Illiad, by Homer, where, as if everyone knows, it starts in the middle of the story with the Trojan war ongong, then we learn why and how later on. I start my current story (we can't agree on titles), with Salvatore being sent off on his voyage as punishment from his father. A few people don't like that, they want to know the backstory and see the relationship between the lovers etc. before they "feel" invested in the characters, or even the protagonist. Most people who have read this agree with my approach, however. We see in flashbacks their relationship. I'm also reading the bestseller, The Lincoln Highway, and it starts with the Warden taking home the juvenile deliquent after his incarceration. We don't know the backstory, and to tell you the truth, I didn't, in the first few pages, feel that I liked this kid, until later on when we learn what he did and his circumstance. It also didn't grab me on page one or in the first 700 words (as agent Pete says stories must). In any event, who knows anything....
In the Huddle we get a very limited view of what is in your head. I say go with what you want to write. I think you understand that it will be harder to sell-because agents and publishers also get a very limited view of the story. Your writing is going to have to be 10 times more engaging, rich and detailed. In the end you pays your money and you takes your chances. You decide where you want to lay your bets. I really liked your most recent blurb. I would pick up the book and scan the first chapter after that. I am probably in your target audience, but I'm going to have to see writing as rich as a marzipanned wedding fruitcake in that quick perusal. Shelling out money would depend on detail, detail detail. It's what I like in historical fiction. For me it should be like a travelogue to a new country. I want to be transported there smelling, tasting, touching, seeing. Then I want to learn the history, the politics-the stakes for the characters. The love story is not your selling point for me. If you go with that as the sizzle to your steak you're going to disappoint historical romance readers who'll want a lot more sexy time and complete focus on the love story. Your story seems to be more about the time, the place, the politics, the action. More Candide than Romeo and Juliet? Or maybe more like one of those Michenor, Irving Stone novels that were bestsellers in the 60's. Hawaii. The Agony and the Ecstasy.
 
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JohnBertel

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What makes a good story? Does a good story need to follow what's considered 'good storytelling', or is it much more free? What is it that make it a good story?


Another question is, can you talk about story structure without taking the medium into consideration?

Creators of movies and plays can be reasonably certain that their story will be consumed in one sitting, and in the case of TV series that an episode will be watched with only a short break or two. But authors have no idea when readers put a book down and how long it takes before they pick it up again.

Does it then make sense to say "now we've had two very intense dramatic scenes, so now we will have a campfire scene so the reader can relax" if the campfire scene is read several days after the previous scenes? And what about something like the midpoint. Many stories have the protagonist changing from reactive to pro-active but is that scene usually placed in the middle because after an hour in a cinema the audience needs something fresh, or is it an innate feature of a good story that this happens somewhere around the middle? And is it placed in the middle of many novels because authors have followed story structures meant for movies?

On the other hand, maybe (some) readers have a strong sense of the story in a book no matter how they read it, and so the principles of storytelling can be used in all forms of media.
 

RG Worsey

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Going back to the original question, my personal definition of a story is:

A creative work that arouses curiosity and then satisfies it. This can be anything from a 20 second TV advert, to a long series of novels.
 
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