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David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants
How Story Parts Fit into a Whole (Part 1)

When I was young and found myself reading a great story, it seemed like magic, the way that the words transported me into another world, taking control of my subconscious, introducing a character's thoughts and beliefs to the point that I literally forgot who I was for a few hours. If you're reading this, you've probably felt that magic, too. That's why you want to become a writer.

But when you sit down as a writer and try to replicate that magic, you often feel that it's impossible to replicate. That something in your work is missing--and that may be true. It's easy to leave out elements of a great story. There's a lot to learn about storytelling, and there's even more to learn about storytelling in the written form.

Very often, the books that you read are just as confusing as they are enlightening. For example, when I was young, the first book that I purchased on writing was Strunk and White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE. It had a lot of handy advice for punctuating sentences, and very often I thought that the rules were helpful, but I read that book over and over and never felt that moment of "Aha, I've finally got it. I now understand how to write a story!" As an elementary primer, too much was left out.

As you begin writing, you're going to discover that none of the books you read will give you the whole big picture. They can't. Nor can your teachers give you everything that you need, either. There's just too much to learn. I've been writing this column for three years. I've got over three thousand pages of advice. I couldn't fit it all into one volume if I tried. You' might learn the basics of putting a sentence together in one place, learn a bit about writing beautifully in another--but those basic classes on how to compose won't help you with your storytelling because a story is so much bigger and more complex than writing at the sentence level.

As a frustrated novelist, you might eventually find a teacher who can help with developing a story by understanding how setting, plot, and characters interact, only to find that that won't help you get published. Eventually you have to go learn the business side of the equation, too, if you want to sell your work consistently.

As a teacher, I don't like teaching people the basics of writing. You can take college writing courses that will help you learn how to punctuate a sentence. You can even find that information inside some of the basic style guides, like the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE. Beyond that, if you want to learn to write beautifully, you might want to study with writing instructors who are great poets, who will teach you how to write with clarity and grace. You'll never learn all that there is to know about writing technique. It's a field of study that will last a lifetime. Yet no matter how great you become as a stylist, you can still be an utter failure as a storyteller. You've seen it hundreds of times, if you read widely. There are plenty of great stylists who either can't tell stories or really have nothing of interest to say.

So let's talk about the "elements" of storytelling, the basic blocks.

When I look at a story, I see the following major building blocks:

  • Setting--Every story has to occur somewhere, in an exact time and place, even if it is only an imaginary location. You can try writing something that could be "anywhere" and "any when," but your language will betray you. People speak differently in different ages and locations.
  • Character--Your story typically has at least one character. This character usually grows from and interacts with his or her setting.
  • Conflict--Your character must have a problem. This conflict might be with the setting, might be internal to the character, or might be with other characters. Just as the character grows from the setting, your conflicts grow out of your characters.
  • Treatment--The treatment is the way that you choose to tell your story. It's your personal spin as an author, the unique way that you choose to tell a story. It includes many of the elements that you'll learn about in writing classes in college--such things as the use of character voices, choices in metaphors, character voices, the tone of the story, and so on. It even includes all of the elements of your personal style, your personal word choices, your phrasing, the lilt of your own voice--things that you don't even think about and perhaps cannot change.
In essence, as you create a story for others to enjoy, you become a lens through which the story is viewed. Some authors try to elaborate and decorate their stories, and the stories become so cluttered that a reader has to work to discover what's happening in the tale at all. Other authors try to become invisible, so that the reader hardly notices the storyteller. Yet every author must make tens of thousands of choices when telling a tale, and that author's "treatment" not only conveys the story, it can add tremendously to the reader's enjoyment of a tale.

Now, some writers might suggest that there are other big elements to a story. For example, I know that some authors like to divide up storytelling into pieces like "description," "dialog," and "narration." But as far as I'm concerned, whether you tell me a story though narration or tell it through description and dialog, it's really only a choice that you as an author make in how to convey the story, not how to create the story. Thus, these are storytelling techniques, and so are really part of your own individual treatment.

Over the next few days, I'm going to talk a little about how the first three pieces of a story--the setting, character, and conflict--relate to each other as you create a plot. It's true that your own individual treatment comes into play, too. For example, when plotting a story, you might choose to write a tale in the future tense instead of the past, or you may decide to open with a flash-forward scene instead of putting the tale in chronological order. I'll save those choices for later. So tomorrow I'm going to talk about settings--about why you should start your story first by building your setting, and how characters evolve from settings, and I'm going to talk about some of the things that you need to consider when you create your setting.

Until then …


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