Greetings, my friends! There is something big and scary coming around the corner that is most likely school related, but I am going to ignore that and write a blog post instead.
I was having an awesome conversation with Annie Xia @ Zoelogist about book formats and structures, and I realized I had quite a bit to say. Naturally I concluded that I should write a blog post about it. Hence, this mass of unintelligible rambling was born.
From third-person-past-tense to first-person-present-tense to verse to letters to legal documents, there are a multiplicity of options when it comes to formatting a book. Some books have colorful picture spreads and others have blood stains on the covers. Books are a diverse bunch.
But books are just one tool that we use to tell stories. Words are a tool, as well as grammar, music, pictures and movement. You could tell a story with a poem. You could tell a story with silence.
Stories are told through movies, plays, paintings, songs, etc. There are countless ways to tell stories. The question is, why? Why do we have so many different ways to tell stories?
Every structure requires a different process. If you want to knit a sweater you will need a set of knitting needles and a bunch of yarn, as well as decent knowledge about knitting. If you want to bake a pie you will need to gather the appropriate ingredients and mix them together properly using the right utensils. If you want to build a bridge you will need an entirely different set of tools. (Actually, I would need someone else to build the bridge for me, but that’s not the point.)
All of these tools become effective in the right contexts, but if you tried to build a suspension bridge out of yarn with a whisk and a jar of mayonnaise, you might have some problems.
Now watch, I am going to tie this into my story talk. It’s going to be nifty.
There are so many different tools for storytelling because some stories are sweaters and other stories are pies- each story needs different ingredients and tools in order to be effective.
The tricky thing about storytelling though, is that the tools often get mistaken for the stories themselves. It would be like someone getting so excited about the knitting needles that they decided to incorporate them into the sweater. Not a pleasant prospect.
Wow, I am going really crazy with the metaphors here. Someone needs to stop me.
Speaking of which, metaphors are tools. Humor is a tool. Pictures, tenses, all of it. These are all tools.
So if these are just the tools, what is the actual story?
As far as I can make out, a story is an emotional journey.
If you break a story down to its core, it becomes a small lump inside of you that quite possibly gave you mental scarring and trauma, but also took you on a journey. If it didn’t, what kind of story is it? I will tell you: it is a lame story.
When I say “emotional journey” I don’t mean it had to leave you sobbing on the floor. Some stories are funny, and some stories just make you think so hard that your brain hurts. But however big the journey was, it was a journey of some kind.
As a pseudo-writer, I think about this when I am reading or watching a movie, but I also think of it when I am trying to create my own stories. Once you have a semi-shapeless blob of a story that you have broken down to its core, you have to decide how to present it to the world.
The number of tools out there can be overwhelming, and it can be really easy to mistake the tools for stories themselves. We get caught up in the bells and whistles and lights and lose sight of their purpose.
The thing about tools is that they are most effective when you don’t even notice them. If the tools are blaring out at you from the pages, they aren’t doing their job properly.
For example, if I am reading a book that switches back and forth between the perspective of two characters, or between two different timelines, I don’t want to finish the book thinking, “Well, I have no idea why the book was written that way, but it was cool!”
I want the story to demand to be told that way. I want the tools to be so delicate in their crafting of the story that I don’t think about them, because I am so invested in the story itself. I don’t want to walk away from a story thinking, “Oh, that story was written entirely in documents.” Or poetry or whatever. I want to be blown away by the story that was being communicated and then remember the book’s format as an after thought.
That is not to say that I don’t like unconventional formats. I do. I think they can be truly effective when they are mastered, but truthfully I think there are a lot of books that use a unique format for the sake of the format and not for the sake of telling a story. This is where things get dangerous.
With every tool you pick up, you have to know what you are doing. Be intentional with everything. Don’t get too excited and dump a whole bottle of glitter over your story. You will probably regret it later.
Every step of the way ask yourself what the core of your story is. Ask yourself if you are using the right tools, or if you might need to go hunting for some new ones. Who knows, you may need to invent a whole new tool of your own.
If you are thoroughly discombobulated by this point, I don’t blame you. Stories are unequivocally important to me, but I can’t seem to wrap my mind around discussing them in an organized manner. Hopefully you got the gist of what I was trying to say.
When you are writing a novel or making a movie or any other art form, tell us a story. Tell us the best version of the story inside of you, and then you will have created something truly beautiful. Don’t let all the excessive noise get in the way.
What do you think of all this? Do you often contemplate the way stories are structured? Do you agree with my definition of what a story is or do you have another one to offer? (Please share if you do, I am eager to hear about it!) Do you find yourself becoming distracted by clumsily structured stories? Tell me your beautiful thoughts!