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David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants:
Storytelling as a Fine Art


In case you haven't noticed over the past two years, I talk a lot about storytelling—about the parts of stories—inciting incidents, character arcs, climaxes, and so on. I also talk about writing as a profession, but I don't talk much about the art of composing beautiful, lyrical sentences. There are some good reasons for this.

First of all, I think that there are those who can teach it better than I. When I was studying at the university level, I had some wonderful poets and professors to learn from. Nearly all of them had a strong literary bent. By this I mean that they were writing stories for magazines like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, or The Southern Review—the most popular of the literary magazines. They were adept at teaching things like style, voice, and description.

Yet none of them wrote genre literature. None of them were writing thrillers or romances or science fiction. Which brings me to my second reason for not wanting to teach these skills: I've long been interested in trying to understand the things that my teachers couldn't tell me about.

What my teachers didn't teach was story structure. In fact, at the time that I was going to college, I literally could not find a single book on how to plot a novel. A couple came out just as I was ready to publish my first, but storytelling seemed a mystery to me.

Indeed, it was a mystery even to some of my professors.

You see, the literary reaction against formed stories that took place in the early 1900s made it unpopular to teach things like "How to Plot a Novel" in college courses. Part of the problem was that my professors had never learned it themselves. There were those in academia who insisted that life is a random series of events, and if we write formed stories, we're sort of perpetuating an absurd lie. Ultimately, if life is meaningless, then we can't make sense of it.

Well, to some degree they're right. Our lives aren't stories. We can't always make sense from them, can we?

I don't know. Most of the times, life does make sense to me. Maybe the purpose of life isn't to always make sense of things, but to learn how to respond to things. That's the way I tend to approach my stories. If my character learns a lesson at the climax—great, but sometimes the message is as simple as, "If you see a train coming, get off the tracks!"

So I haven't given certain types of basic writing tips primarily because I was more interested in exploring some topics that I couldn't learn about elsewhere, and exploring that topic was important to me. I learned a long time ago that a well-formed story is more powerful and enjoyable than one that lacks form or which tries to obfuscate its form.

So I wanted to study story, but in college I spent most of my time tackling different issues—learning how to write with clarity and grace.

Thus it was that some 18 years ago I began to write a book called "Storytelling as a Fine Art." At the time, I didn't feel as if I had mastered the craft. Instead I felt like a student who was noticing lots of cool things. I wanted to get them on paper and see if I could make sense of them. To a large degree, many of my Daily Kicks have come from this first project.

Yet today I want to emphasize something: a great plot doesn't make a great story. Over the years in Hollywood I've seen a lot of scripts with promising tag lines. Yet very often, the dialog was only adequate, or characters weren't fleshed out, or the descriptions were just pedestrian.

For me, a plot is like the skeleton of a dinosaur. You could wire up the vertebrae of a T-Rex, hook up its femur and skull and other bones, and get an idea of what it looked like, but even a completed skeleton only hints at the monster. You need to put muscle on those bones to get a real idea of its composition, and then flesh to get the textures of the creature, and you'd need pigments to see its coloration. You'd need to finish by putting in things like eyeballs and nostrils, and little cowbirds living on its back as they fed on parasites. In short, the bones are just a skeleton. Even if they're put together perfectly, it won't bring your story to life.

Just as your characters need to work on multiple levels—just as they need to be realistically drawn and complex—your plot needs to be brought to life. Part of that process requires you to learn to write beautifully on a line-by-line basis.

My writing tip for the day is quite simple: it isn't enough to become adept at storytelling. You need to master dozens of writing skills before you can bring a story to life.

These multifaceted writing skills are best learned mentor to pupil, directly, hands on.

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