October 7, 2013

Simple is the Key to Telling a Story

By William Dietrich

Tell a story.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? We tell jokes, pluck incidents to illuminate how our day went, or confide memories to friends.

Yet many aspiring writers are excellent stylists struggling to determine what their book is about, and thus tell a gripping story. Life meanders. Stories have beginnings and ends.

Another difference between reality and story is that a story has to make sense. Even a fantasy novel needs internal logic to prevent the reader from feeling cheated. Game of Thrones has consistent rules, not wild magic.

I’ve spent a career as a journalist, nonfiction writer, and novelist, and the necessity of storytelling runs through all these.

My Ethan Gage series has a fictional American on quests during the Napoleonic wars. It’s Ethan outsmarting a dangerous world.

When I struggled recently with an essay on the North Cascades Mountains, it didn’t work until I told myself, ‘Tell a story, dummy.’ A personal one about a climb and avalanche introduced the broader topic.

So here are storytelling tips.

What is the problem, and what is the solution? A newspaper story, for example, can be primarily a “problem” bad news story, or a “solution” good news story, but both poles are almost always implied. Problem: war. Solution: victory, or negotiation, or surrender, etc.

I recently read Cheryl Strayed’s nonfiction book WildProblem: I’m messed up. Solution: Find myself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

Or Michael Connelly’s mystery, The Black Box. Problem: A 20-year-old cold case. Solution: Look at things in a new way to realize the protectors could have been the perpetrators.

Next, what is my protagonist’s desire? It might be love, power, fortune, fame, or saving the world, but the writer must make their hero want something they initially can’t have. In The Barbed Crown, Ethan at various times wants love, family, treasure, or triumph, but Napoleon stands in his way.

What are the obstacles to your hero’s desire? There’s nothing more boring than a happy vacation story. What we like are vacation, wedding, or workplace stories of disaster. Every comic strip revolves around obstacles. Do you have enough?

A story needs suspense, and suspense comes from posing questions in the early pages not answered until the last. Readers are curious. Keep them turning pages to learn how the mystery is solved, the character transformed, or good triumphs over evil. Will Cheryl finish the trail? Will she resolve her life?

Insert tension. Many dreams are about anxiety. So are good stories. Star-crossed lovers, ticking time bombs, impossible deadlines, messages gone awry, missed flights, ruined survival food, and implacable weather works again and again because we like to be anxious. The greater the tension, the greater the reader’s relief and satisfaction at the end.

Finally, surprise us. Complex characters are less predictable. Gone Girl changed my expectations again and again – and I loved being fooled. 

William Dietrich is the author of a dozen novels, including the bestselling Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures that have sold into 30 languages. He has written several nonfiction books about the Pacific Northwest and was a career journalist, sharing a Pulitzer at the Seattle Times for coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He has taught writing at the university level. Research for my novels has taken me to the Arctic, Antarctic, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Australia, Sicily, Greece, Paris, Britain, Hungary, Tibet...hey, someone's got to do it. I've traveled on a sailboat in the South Pacific, landed on an aircraft carrier, flown in a B-52, visited the South Pole, and been terrified flying with the Blue Angels. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, won National Science Foundation fellowships to Antarctica, and speak frequently on environmental issues. I've covered Congress, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the environment, science, social issues - even the military. He is married, with two grown children and lives in a house looking out at the San Juan Islands. Connecting with readers is one of life's biggest thrills. Website: 

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