Story Simplified – introduction

Story Simplified

This is the first in a planned (very long) series of blog posts which will eventually build into a non-fiction book. I’m writing the book ‘live’ on the blog, and all the content is subject to change before going into book form. The blog posts themselves will also evolve.

But… why write yet another ‘how to’ book on story telling and fiction writing? There are literally thousands of books on these subjects out there already, and many of them are absolutely wonderful. I’ll be drawing on some of my favourites as we go along, referencing them so readers can check them out for themselves, and discussing their good and bad points.

So what will be different about this book / blog series? The clue is in the title: it will be ‘simplified.’

The aim is to reduce story telling to core ideas, which can be expressed in a few pages of a book  or in one, focused article or blog post, usually of less than 1,000 words. This will mean ‘chunking it down’ – breaking the fundamentals of story telling into bite size pieces which are easy to digest.

This will involve condensing everything I’ve studied and learnt about story telling down to basic first principles – to remind myself, to embed that learning, and to ensure I’ve understood it, by testing whether or not I can explain it clearly. The content will:

  • Provide a clear introduction to storytelling to anyone who is interested
  • Act as a refresher, reminder, cheatsheet and quick reference for writers and other storytellers.

The blog posts and book chapters will follow a number of key principles:

  • Make it simple enough that it acts as an introduction to the subject and one that can be read by a young person who wants to know more about how stories work
  • Make it complete enough to allow someone to start telling their own stories
  • Make it practical and useful – not a discussion piece, but a guide for those who want to write their own stories.
  • Make it true enough that even someone with years of experience telling stories, someone who has studied the subject extensively, can gain value from the material as a reminder or reference.

I also intend to refer to well known stories as we go along, because this is the best way to illustrate the ideas and information. Some of the stories that will be used the most include:

  • The Harry Potter series of books / movies
  • Star Wars (especially ‘A New Hope’ – the original movie and the 4th in the series)
  • The Silence of the Lambs – because of its superb structure, it’s a book and movie, it’s very well known and has been intricately dissected in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.
  • Casablanca – because everyone has seen it. (You haven’t? Go watch, thank me later).
  • More … this list will expand in time.

Is Storytelling Insanely Complicated – Or Dead Easy?

Creating stories can seem like the easiest thing in the world: when you view a beautifully told tale, it can so inevitable, so perfect, it seems to have sprung into life fully formed. And indeed, some stories and the characters within them do spring from the sub-conscious with a life of their own.

And yet, there is so much to take into account: from climaxes and crisis, crucibles and conflict, character and complications through to narrative arcs and archetypes, plot points and protagonists, three, four and five act structure, theme, tension and show and tell.

Story is complex, but the same is true of so many things in life, such as driving a car, or hitting a tennis ball. These activities are also insanely complicated when you stop and think about. Indeed, if you start to think about your driving too much, you’ll probably be a danger to yourself and all those around you. Think about your tennis shots too much and you’ll fluff it, miss the ball entirely or end up with a bad case of the yips. The trick is not to think about. Your body and your unconscious mind know how to drive and execute tennis shots better than you do. Let them get on with, while you think about work, or love, or last night’s TV show.

The same goes for storytelling. Plenty of people have created brilliant stories without ever studying the techniques or reading a couple of hundred ‘how to’ books on the subject. One of the best ways to learn story is simply to read widely, internalise it all, and let your subconscious do its thing.

That may be all the advice you need: if you bought the book, you can return it now and ask for a refund. If you’re reading this on the blog, no need to bookmark it, your work is already done.

But there will be more advice to come, plenty of it, and much analysing of the techniques and craft of storytelling. Why? Because when we learn to drive or to play tennis, we could do it by watching someone else and copying what they do. We learn faster and deeper, and ultimately achieve higher performance, if we supplement that by also learning the ‘how to’. We need to know which pedal does what, what the controls do, the rules of the road, what the signs mean, how to behave in lanes in different situations. We need to groove our backhand and make slight adjustments as necessary. Only once we have developed the muscle memory can we go into flow and put our unconscious minds in charge. So there is a place for knowing the hows and the whys, the ins and outs, the methods, procedures, ‘rules’ and strategies.

So, ‘Story Simplified’ will be an introduction, a refresher, and a way of testing our understanding of how and why stories work, and how we can craft great tales that engross readers and fire their imaginations.

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