I can feel my writing student’s collective eye roll as I write this; “Show don’t’ tell, do a run through for passive writing. Mind your ‘ing and ly’ words. Where’s the smell, there are no smells in this scene.” And so on….
No matter what kind of story you are writing, memoir, short story, or novel, it’s vital to engage a reader’s senses. Precise and concrete details are essential to effective storytelling. The best way to achieve this is by appealing to the reader’s FIVE senses—smell, sight, sound, touch and taste—to FULLY illustrate a scene.
Trust me, if your character walks into a bar, takes the garbage out, goes fishing, is out nightclubbing or stumbles upon a dead body at sunrise, there is a provocative smell. That smell will bring the scene to life (or death) whichever….
A dead body at sunrise might have a sight that would be more seductive than a smell; it’s up to you the author to decide which of the senses best suits the suggestive nature of your scene. Use the strongest description sense for your specific scene. In one scene, smell might be the most evocative sense to go with, in another, sound, or sight, or touch.
I have a heightened sense of smell, so for me smells are powerful. I still recall my pinched face when I read author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s description of someone’s breath, “smelled like a burp after you’ve ate pork sausage for breakfast.” That still grosses me out. Palahniuk’s common use of words that summon olfactory responses is a perfect example of showing and not telling.
And if you’re story takes place prior to modern sewer systems you have all the many stenches of humanity—before regular bathing and with piss buckets on every corner—from which to draw. If your story is in New York or Beverly Hills, the smell of perfume can help a character sum up the financial worth of a woman—or a man—or lack thereof.
And who can forget, Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Smells can be story gateways; the smell of coffee may take them back to a fond memory, or the taste of ice cream may take them back to a nightmare.
Revealing your story through the senses helps the reader to not just read, but to experience your story on multiple levels. Can you recall a particular story for it’s use of the senses?
Take a pen and paper and (if you’re not on quarantine) go sit in a coffee shop or café (wear a mask) and write down the smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste of that environment. No story, just details. Do any details, like the above-mentioned smell of coffee, take you back to a memory. Write that memory. Keep that list of details for when you write scenes that may need to be brought to life.
For a complete list of words to use to describe smell, visit this site, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/75-words-that-describe-smells/
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In storytelling, the term, universal truth can often stop a writer in their tracks. Simply put, that truth creates a common frame of reference for the story. Like classic myths, this “truth” also rises above culture and language. We recognize it instantly—it resonates deeply.
Shakespeare was a master at theme and universal truth. And he’s the best example of a writer who mastered those aspects of the writing craft and remains relevant to this day. Among his MANY stories, Romeo and Juliet is still popular because of its universal and relatable themes. I remember balling my eyes out in the 7th grade when my sister and I went to the Rose Theater 4 weekends in a row to watch Romeo and Juliet.
Tattooed on my sappy teen-age soul is the last scene; both Romeo and Juliet die because they both believe the other is dead. SOB, SOB, SOB, went the pre-teen girls. They died for love, unable to bear living in a world without each other. We cried through our popcorn, we cried through our Dilly Bars, and we cried so loud that on weekend 5, the theater owner finally tossed us to the curb. Then in the 1980s when we had VCRs, (link added in case you’re too young to know what that is.) Anyway, we got the video. Then we locked everyone out of the house, curled up with popcorn on the couch on a Saturday morning and again, we cried.
WHY does a story capture our hearts in such a way? Generally, it’s the universal theme and truth; love, longing, desire, loss….
The Universal Truth can be anything that grounds the story along familiar lines; lost love, a dying parent, a betraying spouse, man’s (or woman’s) best friend (Dogs), a funeral, a wedding, or a family holiday dinner, to name just a few.
In literary writing a universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. For example, when Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Most readers with a family immediately understood and agreed, making it a universal truth that transcends culture, privilege, time and space.
Additionally, a key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is a “universal truth,” also called “a life lesson.”
Life Lesson Examples:
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
You can’t always get what you want. (but you might get what you need)
Face your fears. (overcoming)
What goes around comes around (Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it). To survive is to live
A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story—a message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s details.
For example, the main theme in Gone with the Wind is survival during a time when traditions, ways of life and thinking, love and understanding are gone with the wind, like in the South during the Civil War, or any story during or post war. To submit that tradition, way of life, love and understanding can all be GONE WITH THE WIND, is a universal statement that was based on, or an extension of the universal theme of survival.
Why has Gone with the Wind been popular for so long? There are a lot of reasons (good and bad), but the strongest of which is the universal themes of the story. Survival and courage in a time of crisis, never giving up in the face of impossible odds, and of course the refrain “Tomorrow is another day” make the story timeless. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, orientation, religion, time or space, can hang on to. Readers and movie goers relate to the characters on some level or another. Because of this, it’s tough to pigeonhole Gone with the Wind as era-specific; it could be any era, any place, any time. Having said that, it certainly is a creation of its time, but the larger more universal themes and truths make it a timeless story.
Right now, sitting here at my computer, everyone under quarantine, my dog is bored, my husband is watching the tv on LOUD, and I’ve gained four pounds that I will call the quarantine four (like the college fifteen) anyway, I’m kinda liking that mantra, Tomorrow is another day.
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‘The collective fear on their parents faces that day, settled in Sylvia’s bones. The Nazis had tried to force her parents, God fearing Christians to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. Since they refused, they knew they were on the list of undesirables.’
I wrote that this week for one of the stories in my WIP, a collection of short stories. My fictional character’s life was changed the day her parents paid the ultimate price for their values.
As a writer, it’s vital that we understand the history of our characters, the choices they’ve made either willingly or unwillingly. We need to know what happened in their past because the past is, and always will be relevant to the present, and it will form the future. It informs the world we inhabit and it informs the choices we make. This goes for our fictional characters as well.
So when my character’s parents made that brave choice, they knew full well that not swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler would likely be a death sentence, but they stood strong in their values. That choice altered the lives of the entire family not for that moment in time, but for generations, for all time. That decision in 1944 charted the course for my character’s behavior in 1976, giving a deep layered background for the story and every choice she makes.
Don’t get sidetracked by your character’s backstory (it’s easy to do), and certainly don’t do info dumps of narration, nobody likes that.
But DO pepper your stories with enough seasoning (backstory) to give it the full flavor that will deliver a satisfying read to your audience. And if in that read you can educate and illuminate the reader, all the better.
I have a clear objective with this particular story, and that is to show, not tell, that white supremacy attitudes (worldwide) lead to a ravenous hunger for power and ultimately, a thirst for blood. However, as with any writer who has a specific message or agenda, the best way to get that across is through story, not from a pulpit. Stories change hearts, hearts change minds. Pulpits just piss people off. Be a storyteller not a preacher (unless you’re actually a preacher, in that case, preach on.) Don’t beat people over the head with your message, tell them a story.
“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’”
– Robert McKee
Can Writers Learn Lessons from Bad Storytelling?
In Fargo speak, YOU BETCHA!
Twenty years ago a magazine editor told me that she admired my writing style because I ‘creatively broke the rules’. Huh? Thankfully, they bought and published that article in a glossy (old school for you younglings) magazine and I got paid. Thing was, when she said ‘broke the rules’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant. That sent me on a LONG journey of learning the rules so I could break them knowingly and with intentional, instead of accidental style.
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” —Jack Kerouac
That being said, there are many writing ‘rules’, but there are none that need ALWAYS be obeyed. As a matter of fact, conforming to rules often stifles artistic endeavor and can destroy an otherwise good story. Freedom, however, comes with responsibility. Any writer can break the ‘rules’, as long as it passes the onerous test of an audience. And (to quote Shakespeare) therein lies the rub.
It’s important to remember some rules of good #storytelling. For example, characters are what they do. Goes to follow that if your character doesn’t DO anything, you’ve got a problem. Story events should ALWAYS influence the character’s behavior, conversely the character’s behavior should impact story events. Actions and reactions produce revelation and insight, culminating in a meaningful emotional experience for the audience. And so on…but you know all that, right?
Now, I love a good book and a good tv-binge because I study storytelling in all genres. My most recent tv-binge, after Stranger Things (which delivers on SO many levels) has been The Last Kingdom. In the Last Kingdom they stuck to some solid storytelling principles, and delivered a historically accurate and captivating drama. Oh, did I forget to mention the bevy of handsome hunky actors who actually have acting chops? Then there’s that….But, after season 4 Ended, and while anxiously awaiting season 3 of Stranger Things (July 2019), we needed to find another mutually acceptable (that’s a husband wife thing) tv-binge.
We settled (after much debate – another husband wife tv watching issue) on Frontier, starring the ever resting on his gorgeousness, JASON MOMOA, (AKA Auquaman) with ZOE BOYLE (Downton Abbey) and ALUN ARMSTRONG (KRULL, and too much British Fabulousness to list).
We started watching, hopeful that the perilous era of the 1770s in Canada’s fur trading wars would provide some great entertainment. It had a boundless premise; by the late 1700s, French, Scottish and American immigrants have destabilized the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control in the fur trade. The HB company provokes a bloody battle for control of power and wealth, led by (here’s our bad guy) Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) and opposed by the savage (good guy) Declan Harp (Jason Momoa) a rogue and fierce former HB employee. Since hubby and I like #historicalfiction drama that explores aspects of a real history, we decided this could be entertaining, and certainly Armstrong has the serious acting chops to tell the story, right?
SO, the first 4 episodes had some problems, there’s a lot going on there, but we thought, okay, we’ll hang in for the actors. One thing that bugged the heck out of me was the incongruous quotes at the beginning of each episode. RED FLAG! They were from people like Alan Greenspan and Ice T, who, though quotable, have NOTHING to do with the period or the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company, or the Indigenous tribes, or ANYTHING at all to do with the subject matter. It was like some teenager said, ‘Hey, this’ll be cool,’ without any regard for the audience. The quotes were SO incompatible they took me out of the story before it even started.
As a writer, that’s a serious golden rule, and the LAST thing you want to do to your readers and or viewers, NEVER take your audience out of the story.
Anyway, we hung in there UNTIL… in the middle of episode five we hit a wall. Despite the good actors, the potential for a fascinating period drama, our collective eye-rolling during episode 5 did us in. The writing, regarding female interaction with males, had to be done by a team of 13 year old sniggering boys. I could just hear them in the corner of their office/playground giggling and saying, ‘boobies’. In the scene where the lovely actress, #BreanneHill who plays barmaid, Mary endeavors to ‘seduce’ an officer, it was clear no female was involved in the writing of those scenes and others involving men and women interacting. It was sophomoric. We stopped watching.
It didn’t even rise to the level of being disgusting or repulsive or anything remotely like that – that would require skill –
no, it was just stupid, and insulting. And that’s another golden rule you shouldn’t break, NEVER insult the intelligence of your audience.
As Robert McKee says, a writer must have ‘respect, not disdain, for the audience’.
A good #story should make the audience feel emotions in reaction to the story as it unfolds. Every time #Frontier hinted at an emotional connection it then jumped (leaps and bounds) to another #storyline and didn’t return to the one I thought I was going to connect with. For example, the first episode we leave a young Irish girl, Clenna played by Lyla Porter-Follows, stranded by her lover and trapped in an English prison. By the time we return to her in Episode 5, I no longer cared about her or the potential love story. That needed to be set up better to have a pay-off.
Even good #writers can get caught up by a notion or an emotion that disengages them from their audience and results in a story that loses traction or takes an unexpected direction, so it’s vital to stay on alert when writing. The best works connect with the audience and sustain a connection throughout the story.
If a writer falls into the deception that their audience is stupid, incapable of understanding story nuances and that considering them is nothing but an inconvenience, they are as doomed as their story.
Frontier bombs on many fronts, but mostly in its #writing, it fails to do anything truly meaningful, it wants to be a mature gritty, violent #drama, and in some ways it is, but really it’s just a hodgepodge of activity with no heart at its core. A story needs an undeniable truth, and a heart at its center.
Netflix has some GREAT writers and GREAT programming, this just didn’t rise to that level. And though I really want to believe that Jason Mamoa can bring a little more to a story than his powerful presence, he should go get an Indie Film role and prove that he can rise above his screen stealing image and show us if he can ACT. Because when the writing is weak, the actor needs to be that much more skilled.
Anyway, a writer must know the rules to break them successfully. That’s the art, and that art requires skill. In the betrayal of them, an onus of great power is on you as an artist. It’s important to know the rules/guidelines of writing because your audience has expectations and if you let them down, you lose them. If you aren’t familiar with some of the rules out there in the blogosphere, a good place to start is with Stephen King’s top 20 rules of writing.
“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.”– Robert McKee
THANK YOU for letting me rant about bad writing, and hopefully in this rant you can find a few nuggets. If you liked this, please share on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest or wherever you socially media. Thanks for reading. Cheers, Mindy
I’m a storyteller. Most of my friends are storytellers; playwrights, poets, novelist, singers, songwriters, and artists of all mediums. We all tell stories for different reasons, and yet for the same purpose, storytelling aids us in understanding the world around us.
Storytelling predates writing. The most primitive forms of storytelling were usually oral expressions. Storytellers come in many forms, with many voices and tools, from poetry and literature to graffiti and fine art. We need storytellers, artist and writers, to elicit passion and emotions, especially in dark times when we can so easily avert our eyes from troubling events like a cultural revolution, rebellion, social injustice, corrupt politicians, police brutality, the imprisonment or genocide of an entire people.
Though the ancient origins of storytelling have vanished into the mist of time, the importance of storytelling and those who tell stories has not. From cave dwellings to the recontours of Native Indian lore, families and cultures with strong narratives and passionate tellers, thrive in their collective story.
Think about times spent sitting around the kitchen table with your family – your witnesses on this journey – as they tell and retell all the often cringe-worthy memories of you as a child, or their experiences during the Great Depression, or whatever the family stories are. Think how bonding that is/was, how it informed your sense of who you are and where you come from. At my grandma’s house, all of us crowded into the yellow-vinyl kitchen booth, drank weak Folgers coffee, my aunts’ chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, and talked like ‘mag-pies’ grandma always said. And at that jam-packed table every story started with “I remember that time you….”
Capturing and retelling the stories of our collective history is vital to understanding our existence on this planet – trust me, when grandma is gone, you’re gonna wish you took notes, and you’re gonna remember with heartache and joy, every story she ever told you. Our stories are important.
Storytelling is vital to the human experience. It allows us to digest information with greater ease by more effectively linking that information to our feelings and then our thoughts. Generally, once we’ve felt something, we don’t forget it. I recall years ago, seeing the movie, Dead Man Walking, and how when my friends and I left the theater we talked about the death penalty, I recall feeling very differently about that controversial topic after seeing one man’s poignant story.
One of the reasons I wrote my novel, Return to Sender was to reiterate the history (lest we are doomed to repeat it), and the stories I grew up with as the child of a Korean War veteran, about the atrocities of the brutal North Koreans against their own people, and most especially against their own orphans. A topic as timely today (sadly) as it was in the 1950s. In my novel I paid tribute to the most haunting aspect of the Korean War for both my father and my father-in-law; the slaughter of innocent children by their own people. Having these precious photographs of many of these children made their stories personal to me.
There are certain aspects of history that resonate deeply with all of us. For example, my talented neighbors, Jan and Chris Hopkins, who make a great mead (home-made wine), but who are also internationally recognized, multi-award-winning artists, illustrators and storytellers. Their most recent creative endeavor of depicting the WWII internment of the Japanese in America, was motivated by Jan’s desire to learn more about her cultural identity. As a child of detained Japanese Americans, there was a lack of information about her family legacy and the ordeal of internment that they endured. Jan needed to know her story, so she and Chris have set out on a mission to share their stories through visual arts. Their joint exhibit at Everett’s Shack Center for the Arts starts June 21st thru September 2018.
Chris is a historian through his art. His paintings tell very specific aspects of the American story that resonate with
him on a soulful level. He captures moments that harken back to moments like this young Japanese-American woman who is pregnant, alone and just ‘relocated’ to an internment camp – what does the future hold for her and her unborn child now that her country (America) has turned on her? It is important to humankind to keep those stories alive so they never happen again.
Chris also painted an entire series of over 60 paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen which travels the country in art shows, like locally at the Shack Center in Everett. The Tuskegee Airmen series portrays the adventures of the first African American fighter pilots, their crews, families and legacy.
As an illustrative historian Chris has captured this pivotal moment in time; At the onset of World War II, the segregated US armed forces declined to train African Americans as pilots until a lawsuit opened the door. The Army Air Corps acquiesced to an experiment training pilots at Tuskegee University, Alabama. In March 1942 the first class of African-American aviation cadets earned their silver wings and became the nation’s
first black military pilots. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained over 1,000 black aviators for the war effort. Chris started his Tuskegee Airmen series as part of his work for the Northwest chapter of the Air Force Art program. Over the years, the series evolved beyond the Air Force Art program to become a personal mission and passion for him. Every one of these paintings tells us a vital part of our history; who we were, who we are now, how far we’ve come, and sadly how far we have to go.
Or below, this modern-day image, social commentary, where a homeless mother and her child sit starving on the steps of the land of plenty, a posh bakery, where inside, too busy to notice, are two girls on their phones. Just as I tell stories with words, Chris uses images, and is a perceptive storyteller of our times, the good and the bad.
Regardless of medium or craft, storytelling is significant because it can illuminate moral, ethical, spiritual lessons in non-preachy ways that people can easily contemplate. Great stories engender empathy by helping people relate to someone they may never have connected with before.
Just as important as our intimate family stories are in reminding us where our faith and courage comes from – be it strong Scottish, Jewish, Irish, or French roots – and what our ancestors overcame, it’s also vital to keep historic stories alive so we never forget what our fears and prejudices can become.
What stories matter to you? Tell them.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
And, big kudos to my neighbor; Art Work by Chris Hopkins Selected for Inclusion in Major Traveling Exhibition Organized by Norman Rockwell Museum – Reimagining the Four Freedoms
In 2017, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, sent out a call to artists to create works that would reimagine President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear— or explore the meaning of freedom today, for possible inclusion in the major touring exhibition: Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. From 1000 submissions, 36 artists were accepted—including two works by local artist, Chris Hopkins—for the contemporary section of the exhibition, titled “Reimagining the Four Freedoms.”
In our time of troubling HOMELESSNESS in a country of plenty, this painting is particularly poignant.
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