Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kissing the Blarney Stone

I come from a family of storytellers on both my mother's and my father's side. My dad is umpteenth generation Dublin Irish, and like all citizens of that good country is a seasoned spinner of yarns. My mother's family comes from the Australian outback tradition of tall tales. On both sides of the family there's always been a saying that emphasises our approach to the art of talking about our adventures: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Now, I must immediately disclaim that statement and point out that we're not (usually) lying when we talk about our family history, colourful as it is on both sides. It's more that we understand the principles of telling a good tale, and semantics about getting it just right are not part of that equation.

I've been thinking about this because I had to deliver a little speech on Sunday as part of a fundraiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, in which I told the story of my daughter's birth, medical evacuation, intensive care treatment, and subsequent amazing recovery from brain damage. It's an incredible story, and because I'm so close to it, I never really think it through before I stand up and talk about it. I tend to start out talking about how I realised she was in trouble in the womb, then I explain what happened with the birth, what happened afterward, what the prognosis was, and how she's defied the odds (read here if you've somehow missed all this).

All of which is fabulous if you already know me. But for the first time on Sunday, I was standing up in front of a group of total strangers, and I was trying to get them to donate more money to a cause which is very dear to me. And if I'd thought about it a little bit harder, I would have realised that the principles of good storytelling are embedded in my genes, and there are a few key things you can do to make sure the audience connects with the characters and the story immediately. I'm sure it was an effective enough story, but it could have been more effective. There's a second reason I'm thinking about this at the moment, and that's because I'm currently working (again) on the first couple of chapters of BETWEEN THE LINES. Since this is all about writing, I'm going to give you what I consider five of the most important parts of oral storytelling- which are also hugely important parts of telling any written story.

1. Start at the start- but give your audience a chance to connect with the characters first

It's all well and good to tell the story from A to Z, with A being the moment where everything changes in your character's life, kicking off the chain of events that is your novel. But before you even get to A, you need to introduce your characters so that your audience knows who they're dealing with, and- this is important- you need to get them to identify with those characters if at all possible.

Case in point: the inciting incident in BETWEEN THE LINES is the point where Bill's brother Len attacks his future sister-in-law in the deep of night, then flees to the Army. But if I started the story there and threw you straight into the action and the emotional turmoil that takes twenty years to resolve, you'd be scrabbling to connect to my characters.

So before I get there, I'm starting out with a little introduction- the events that lead into the inciting event. Bill and his best mate (and Kit's brother) Tom finish shearing the sheep for the day. They've had a rough day because Len didn't show up for work, again. As they make their way back to the house, they meet Kit coming up the path- and following her up, hassling her, is Len. Being the bastard he is, Len doesn't miss the chance to ruin Bill's planned surprise proposal, and tells Kit it's coming. Bill has to propose there and then- but of course, Kit doesn't mind, because they're in love and they're going to spend the rest of their lives together.

Back at the house, they break the happy news to Bill and Len's dad. Len is surprisingly bitter toward his future sister-in-law, and when they get onto the topic of the war, which has broken out only a couple of weeks ago, Len and Kit have a big stoush over their respective views. Len stalks out to go drinking, leaving the rest of the family to celebrate. Later that evening, Bill and Kit retire to separate bedrooms with a hint they might see each other again before the night is up.

Bill doesn't know that when he goes to Kit's room, he's going to find Len already there...

So, you can see how much I'll have established before we hit the major incident from which all other incidents flow. The introduction is necessary to make sure the audience is invested in those characters before we get to that point- by the time we get there, after only one chapter, we'll know all about five of the major characters, their relationships, and we'll be aware that the war is looming in the background and will inevitably suck them all in.

2. Consider your audience when deciding your angle of attack

When I was talking on Sunday, I was helping to raise funds. I needed to emphasise the parts of the story that would a) explain the importance of the service we were raising money to support; and b) that would tug the heart-strings of the audience to encourage them to donate in support.

I've told the same story to many people for many different reasons- to help parents of other kids who've been through the same thing, for example, at which point I need to emphasise different things- a) the seriousness of our original situation and prognosis; b) the fact that we defied all those odds, and so can they; and c) the therapies and techniques we've used to help our daughter.

In BETWEEN THE LINES, I expect to have a wide range of audiences. I'll have people reading a family saga, who are interested in the relationships; I'll have people reading a war story, who are interested in the action; and I'll have people reading literary fiction, who are interested in the issues (like the morality of war). I need to be able to speak to all of those audiences- and in part, that's why we have subplots in our stories. In the scenes with Bill and Kit, I'm focussing on what they mean to each other, and what Bill stands to lose if he goes to war (or if he doesn't). In the scenes of both war and the home front, I'm emphasising the horror and the impact of war on individuals.

If I take the scene where Bill and Kit get married just before he ships out to war (and after her brother and his best friend has been killed at Gallipoli), I can play it in a couple of ways, for example:

Focus on Bill's happiness at marrying Kit and his sadness about being away from her; or,

Emphasise the absence of his best man, her brother, and his nerves at going to face the same guns that killed his friend.

There are many other options, but you can imagine how differently the above two would turn out, and they'd still be the exact same scene- just focussed on completely different elements of that scene.

3. Emphasise the right parts of the story

What I mean by that is, give the high points of tension their due limelight. I can spend a hundred pages following Bill and Jared through the 1920s as they struggle to run a huge sheep and wheat farm on their own in the middle of a drought and the Depression, but in the scheme of the overall story, it's not important enough to warrant that. Sure, it covers enough time, but I'm not writing an almanac- I'm writing a novel.

So, I'm going to pick the important parts out of that decade, and I'm going to hit on those, and none of the rest. And those important parts are relatively few: Bill's father dies; Bill starts sinking into alcoholism and becomes violent at times; Jared starts to play football just like his uncle Len. That's about it. The hard times they experience during those years will be evident in their actions and reactions in the important scenes that take place in 1939 and 1940.

Emphasise the important parts, and you can't lose.

4. Put the most energy into the exciting bits

On a related note, next time you're relating a particularly exciting story in person, pay attention to the way you talk and use gestures. I'm willing to bet that if you're anything like me, your vocal tone will get higher, your words will spill out faster, and your hands will get wilder when you reach the really exciting bits of the story.

This is a comment on pace, really. When you're writing a scene of high tension or fast action, you can't choose the same words or the same way of putting them together as you would when you're writing a conversational or calm scene. You need to use shorter sentences, more dialogue, snappier verbs. This is a topic for elaboration on another day, but you get the point- more excitement needs more energy to convey the action to the audience.

5. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Last but not least, the old family adage. In this context, what I mean is, use a combination of all of the above to focus on the right aspects of your story for the message you're trying to convey. In my case, like I say, I'm not creating a non-fiction account of a soldier or a war. I'm writing fiction, and I get to choose my focus. This might not make my work particularly suitable as a reference for an essay, but it's not supposed to be.

Exaggerate, elaborate, embellish- make your story something that people will remember. Pick the big moments and make them memorable; create larger than life characters who people can understand and identify with.

You're writing fiction, after all- if there's any time it's okay to lie, it's right about now.


  1. Anthony Laurence AllenMay 1, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    To be sure, to be sure, Claire - good points !

    Never hurts to make a few "speaker's notes" to capture the essence of your points 1 - 5 and guide you on your way ;0).

    As they say at:

    "Effective storytelling is a fine and beautiful art. A well-developed and presented story can cut across age barriers and will hold the interest and reach its listeners. Stories will be remembered long after other orations. Knowing and applying the basics of storytelling will strengthen your stories."

    Love Dad

  2. Brilliant post Claire. Sometimes I worry that I'm adding too many weird things into the story - meteorites, anyone? - but then, real life is always stranger than fiction, isn't it? And a lot of what's found its way into the story is stuff I discovered while researching...