A child's primer
This is a primer for children I wrote while trying to avoid another project. If it has one useful lesson, it's the idea that just because you care about a story, ie, you have emotional ties to a story, doesn't mean anyone else will. Your job is to make it stick in someone else's brain.
HOW (NOT) TO TELL STORIES
A guide for children
The most important rule for a story is that it must be a story.
A tree is not a story. A tree getting cut down is not a story. The last tree getting cut down on earth by the last boy or girl on earth who loved trees more than anything else so the last baby on earth can be warmed by its fire- now, that is a story.
So, a thing (a noun) by itself is not a story. A verb, that is, an action, by itself is not a story. Even a noun and verb, so something happens, is not a story. A story is when there is a verb and two nouns, two things that meet each other and don’t exactly agree- conflict. Two nouns meeting and getting along perfectly well- say, two birds landing happily in a tree, is not a story. Two birds fighting over a branch could be a story. But what if one of the birds was your pet bird, who flew out of its cage, and was fighting over that branch with a much more experienced and dangerous wild bird? Then, you would care about the story. It is something you most definitely would want to listen to.
And so I suppose a story is more than just two nouns and a verb and conflict. At least, any story worth caring about. For a story to work, meaning that we want to listen to what is being told, we have to care. And that might be the most important part of the story. Because if you don’t care to pay attention, then the story won’t be heard. It might as well not exist. And a story can’t really be a story if it doesn’t exist.
So the last tree being cut down by the last big girl or boy left on the planet, and all that is of some interest because there are immediately things we care about- us, the planet, babies, trees and so on. Now you might say that’s a bit unfair, that there are too many ‘lasts’ and this is all too much. And you might be very right. But, it makes for an easy example. You could tell an interesting story without so many ‘lasts’, but the important point is that from the beginning you began to care, and so the story had a chance to succeed. If you don’t care, or are at least a little bit interested, then the listener/reader won’t continue on.
And it is quite amazing, and I’ve amazed myself in this way, many times, how often storytellers forget these rules. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I think this has to do with our brains. Brains are where all our stories comes from, and our brains are wonderful storytellers. But our brains are full of sticky goo. And when a story pops in our heads, all the sticky stuff in our brains sticks to it- all the feelings we have, and memories, and so on. And all that sticky stuff is full of very strong emotions that make for a powerful show in our minds as we make up our own story. But then an interesting thing happens- that story leaves our brain and goes out into the world. And that sticky stuff is left inside our heads, and the story is almost naked; very little of the sticky stuff remains. So when the story is being told or read or watched and goes into someone else’s head, a lot of the emotions and memories that we felt are gone. At least at first. Now, only the strength of the story, its ability to attract the goo in someone else’s brain, is what will make it work. If it can attract the sticky memories and emotions in someone else’s brain, then they might feel something similar to what you did, and they might like the story. Maybe it needs some ‘lasts’, or something like that. But if the story isn’t sticky, then it won’t stay in their heads, and just slip away, and be forgotten.
This little instruction manual is to help you make sticky stories.
So where do you start?
It already seems there’s a lot to think about. Sometimes if you spend so much time thinking about something there isn’t any time left to actually do something. Everyone once in a while, and for some people, very often, a story will ‘pop’ in their head. And then once that story is in their head, they race to get it down- there’s a whole world in their head and it’s almost like it won’t fit! This is quite fun, and if you are lucky enough to have this happen to you, then do not spend your time thinking and worrying, just get the story out. There will be plenty of time later to think about the story and worry if one bit works or if some character seems too mean or nice. Authors find these are often the best stories, because they come from deep within, from the part of the brain where it’s the stickiest, meaning, stickiest for everyone, so when that story leaves your brain and goes into someone else’s, it’s bound to stick to the deep parts of the viewer and listener. These are the feelings that go very far back in time- fear, and love, and so on.
I think this is because when we spend more time thinking than writing, we are depending more on just the part of our brain that’s good at calculating- you know, things like numbers, when what we really want is a story with pictures and words using emotion. Maybe that’s what stickiness is all about, emotion. Feelings of fear and happiness and sadness. The thinking part of the brain is good for, well, thinking. But it’s a bit like that stern teacher, like a voice in your head saying ‘a monster really couldn’t have three eyes.’ But that might be the best part of your story! Maybe a monster with three eyes would feel different from all the perfectly competent but boring monsters with two eyes, and the three-eyed one would be the best for your story. Maybe not. But if your thinking part of your brain doesn’t even let you try and find out, then there may never be a perfectly wonderful story about an imperfect but very interesting three-eyed monster.
So if a story pops into you head, by all means write it down as soon as you can. But sometimes nothing pops in your head- as a matter of fact, your head feels quite empty! And to an empty head, a blank screen or a big white piece of paper is very scary. How are you going to fill it up? There’s nothing up there to pour out! Usually the best way to start is to, well, start. You don’t always have to start at the beginning. Maybe you have at most, in an otherwise empty head, a fuzzy feeling about a dog. Or maybe, unfortunately, you’ve been forced to write, when what you’d rather do is play a game on your computer or take your not so fuzzy dog outside to play. But you will find putting something down, even if it’s a single sentence, or even two words that fit together (or better yet, don’t fit together) will get your mind working. Any words. Maybe they’re the worst words ever written. That’s not so bad, because the worst words ever written will get your mind working to make it better, and then other words will come along, and so on, and before you know it, you might just have a story. Because even though our minds might feel empty, they never really are, and there are all kinds of things up there, and some of it might even be quite sticky.
But who should be in your story, and what should they do? After all, isn’t that what a story is, somebody does something? Which comes first? This is a very old question, but in some ways a silly one. You can’t have somebody not doing anything- that’s not a story. And you can’t have somebody doing something without the somebody. You need both. When you begin, you might have a better idea who the main person is in your story, but less of an idea what exactly they do- that’s fine. Or you might have an idea about something really interesting and exciting happen, but only have a slight idea who the people in the story will be, and that’s OK, too. You will find as you create the story and it becomes more alive, the other parts of the story will begin to fit and belong together. That’s the wonderful part about your brain-that’s what brains are really good at! Putting things together.
Writing a stories is a little bit like learning to play the piano, but also very different. When you first learn to play the piano, you need sheet music to follow along, to tell you what to do. But with stories, there is no sheet music- it’s like you’re writing the music as you’re learning to play! Fortunately, creating stories is much more natural than playing the piano- from the moment you first hear words, people are telling you stories, and you have a natural ability to make stories, that is how we make sense of the world. But, just like playing the piano, the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the better you become. So if your first stories sound like you don’t know how to play the piano, don’t worry. If you do it enough, the stories will get better and better.
Getting back to the ‘who’ of your story. Do you have to know everything about the main character to begin? No. That would be quite boring. There are some people who say you must spend a long time figuring out everything about your main character before you start- where they went to school, the name of their first pet goldfish, what they had for lunch three days ago. You could spend so much time trying to figure out what they had for lunch three days ago that there’s no time to write your story. You should know some things about your character, like, are they mean or nice? Would they help an old lady across the street? Those types of things, or else when it becomes time for them to do something in your story you won’t know how they act, and then, well, there’s no story. But much of the fun of creating stories if letting the characters become alive and tell YOU what they might have had for lunch three days ago. It’s what makes your story alive. It’s like you could imagine them walking off the page and talking to you. And just like there is no way you could know everything about an interesting person you met (if you did, they wouldn’t be interesting!), you shouldn’t know EVERYTHING about your character. There should be some mystery.
What if your character and your story seem… well, already told before? In some ways, every story has been told: two people fall in love, a hero fights a villain. There are some people who believe that there are only seven basic stories, some eleven, some a hundred. And you might find whatever story pops in your head bears similarities to a story you’ve heard before, and it likely will, which is fine. Because there’s one thing about your story that is different from every other story ever told- YOU. That is the most important part of your story. While there are lots of monster stories, you may have a strange fascination with bright pink monsters with three eyes who are very awkward and shy. By all means, stick to that story! Not a story about a Frankenstein monster (which is a very fine story, but it has already been written). While stories tend to have the same basic parts, and often have similar actions, it is the paths that only you can follow -because of all the things that make you you- that will make it interesting and different. If it doesn’t end up being interesting and different, then it might never be listened to or watched, and I think most of us want someone to hear our stories.
It is much easier to write a story if you have a story to tell. That is when usually- but not always- you are able to race along and it is like you just trying to do you best to keep up with a wonderful and exciting creature running through a magical forest. This is great fun! You are not making things up- they’re happening. You are in another world, like this one, but even more so, where all is so new and alive. And the stories we remember best (although you musn’t worry if your story will be remembered- no one can know that except for time- and future time hasn’t happened yet!) are stories. [Another point to remember, as just honored in the breech- don’t separate the beginning of a sentence too far from the end, just like a story’s beginning shouldn’t be unnecessarily separated too far from its end.] We remember stories not for their pretty words, but for the way the parts fit together and make us feel. Ideas, stories, and ice cream flavors, stick in people’s brains because of how they make them feel. That’s where all the good stuff is, deep inside are brains. It’s where are feelings are. And, unfortunately, that is where some bad stuff is, too. Two of the strongest feelings, love and hate (what is left, fear?) are responsible for so much of the good and bad in the world- think how much they’ve done!- and those are the feelings a strong and memorable story stick to, deep inside our brains.
Now, some people very purposefully will force their characters to do and say one thing, or make their stories go very purposefully in one direction, often to make a point. And you might ask, isn’t that what every storyteller is doing? Aren’t they changing things around to get their stories to stick? Yes and no. Yes, we change things around to make stories better. But you will find the best stories (best meaning true and honest- like a story that’s always been there, discovered by you- the difference between the most perfectly opulent and magical stone you found in the forest and an overly shiny carved gemstone in a brightly-lit shop at the mall- wait!!, breaking my distance rule, again), the best stories pull you in, as in a rapidly moving stream. You are not pushed in. Because once you feel that push, you will feel forced, cheated, and the waters in such a stream taste of dishonesty- a very bitter taste. Sometimes it is an aftertaste, only when you get to the end. Sometimes it occurs right away. But, either way, you will feel lied to. And once lied to, there is then no connection between you and the author, or you and the characters, and what is the point of a story, after all, but to connect us with each other and those wonderful genuine feelings deep inside ourselves? Where the sticky stuff is- this is where life is deeper and richer and more wonderful. This is where we want to live.