Cliché vs Story

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Some stories are timeless, but most are not. In fact, many a story that grips us when first experienced will become drab and lifeless the second or third time around. There is, of course, a very simple reason for this: more and more, media is designed with the fresh-newcomer experience as its sole focus. This means emphasizing on spikes of short-lived emotion instead of cultivating a long-lasting meaningfulness, which results in something like a “fast-food” story. They are lesser quality and will disagree with your digestion later, but they sure do look flashy and are pumped full of senses-pleasing fat and sugar. And, like blowing the sugar coating off of an otherwise bland pastry, each of these stories is immediately less palatable once you get past the shallow fluff. This has directly contributed to our become such a spoiler-averse society. Once I know who lives and who dies, who turns evil and who is redeemed, there is little left of the story that is actually interesting.

While this unfortunate trend exists in films, novels, and games alike, for this post I’ll draw each of my examples from the movie industry as its shorter-length format is especially susceptible to this weakness. In Hollywood, action films are scheduled for the summer months and horrors are scheduled for the fall, each entry crafted to ride a targeted wave of nostalgia in their season and wring out as much profit as possible before getting dismissed to the discount bin forever after. Let’s take a look at how a few specific genres focus on that first-time experience at the expense of each repeated exposure.

Comedy. Nothing is ruined by knowing the end from the beginning like a joke, a witty zinger just will not land if the audience is quoting it alongside of the main protagonist. Even worse, once you know what the punchline being built up to is, you may realize that much of the story is nothing more than setup for it, as opposed to actual plot development. I personally find that most comedies are only worth revisiting either when it has been so long that I’ve forgotten how each bit pays off, or else when I can share it with a friend who has never seen the comedy before, and thus laugh vicariously through them in their first-time experience.

Action. The summer blockbuster, the high-octane flick, the hero who can stand up to anything…except repeated viewings. A chase or fight sequence may be thrilling the first time you see it, but each punch and crunch just feels a little less impactful with each time you see it repeated. Soon you start to see the sequence more and more for what it actually is: choreography, two actors simply repeating an endlessly-rehearsed set of moves. The movie is showing its seams and the magic is broken. Also, the effects-heavy sequences that were considered cutting edge and photorealistic when released, stick out like an immersion-breaking sore thumb in as little as a year or two later.

Horror. Modern horror films eschew true fear and instead heap cheap gore and jump scares on the audience. Sure, this gives a quick gut-punch on the first viewing, but just like the punchline in the comedy, once you know what’s about to pop out from around the corner the effect becomes worthless. Predictable monsters aren’t scary and gore that was once nauseating will soon become  mundane. After the startles and discomfort subside, you’ll realize that these stories have hamstrung their own pacing, because you cannot create any sort of meaningful tempo or cadence while also maintaining a constant barrage of adrenaline spikes.

Romance. These stories are almost a meta example of the very topic we’re talking about. The vast majority of these focus solely on capturing that first-time excitement of meeting someone new and falling in love with them. And, like many real-life romances, repeated exposure transforms the initially charming quirks into grating pet-peeves. This first meeting is being cute just for the sake of being cute, isn’t it? This breakup at the end of the second act is pretty cliché, isn’t it? The music swelling at this vow of undying love is just manipulating an unearned emotional response from me, isn’t it?

Now, lest I sound as though I hate all movies, let me emphasize that not every film is so vapid and short-lived, just that too many of them are, and all for a lack of even trying. There are excellent counter-examples in each of these genres though. Groundhog Day is a comedy that holds up by interweaving its jokes with the main character’s development. He begins as a cynical and sharp egoist, and that is exactly the style of humor that is employed. As he gradually transforms into someone more sentimental and kind, though, the mood follows suit. In the Bourne Identity the action remains compelling in how it actually embraces the idea of a man rehearsing hand-to-hand combat moves ad nauseum until he can repeat them by muscle memory alone. This lends the choreography an honesty and makes both the amnesiac character and the audience uncertain of the depths of his potential. The Sixth Sense begins with creepy characters and menacing ghosts, but then goes out of its way to disarm them by revealing that they only seek to be helped. Then it shifts focus to the deeper fears of everyday jealousy and grief, phantoms that will haunt you for far longer. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a romance that takes place long after the typical first falling-in-love encounter. In fact, it takes place at a critical juncture where the relationship, and even life, is threatened to end forever. In an allegorical fashion it drills down to the fundamentals of both how love is lost and how it can be saved, thus remaining just as relevant today more than 90 years later.

There’s one thing each of the examples I’ve given have in common. They are stories first, and genre-pieces second. The easiest way for a writer to fall into the trap of making a short-lived story is to sit down with the intention to write the most humorous, or the most exciting, or the most frightening story, or the most romantic story ever told. With time that most adjective will fade out, and all that will be left is the…story. If that story is weak, the audience will soon see it for what it is and wonder how they ever tolerated such drivel. Writing should be approached with the intention to just try for the best story, and then incorporate themes of comedy, action, suspense, romance, or whatever else only as it pertains to the subject of that tale. If you’ve written an outline that calls for “some sort of epic chase sequence” as a bridge between the actual scenes where plot happens then you’re forcing action on top of a non-action story. If your story actually needs a chase, that chase should be inseparable from the plot, baked into its very DNA.

When a story is well composed and true to its core then two things happen. The first is that knowing the end from the beginning does not lessen the experience. If anything it only heightens it because now you can recognize the expert craftsmanship as it is happening. You notice how this early scene is effortlessly setting up for the character-inflection that follows in the next, you pick up on how the emotions evoked by the first half is contrasted by the opposite trajectory of the second, you take the whole work in as a single piece of art where every stroke supports every other. The other effect that happens is you get sucked into the premise and believe in the characters. Though you may still remember the punchline, anticipate the betrayal, know where the monster is hiding, and recite the closing vows by heart, you can’t help empathizing with the characters’ tension in the moment. These aren’t actors playing pretend anymore, these are real characters who you believe are experiencing all of these moments for the first time, and you always find their journey incredibly fascinating.

At this point we are brushing up against one other differentiator between single-season stories and timeless tales, one that has to do with whether the story’s focus is on the character’s experience or on the audience’s. There is a time and a place for both, but to do this topic justice would require a separate post all of its own. For now I’ll just say that for the types of stories we’re discussing now, it is often better to go the route of prioritizing the character’s experience and trust the audience to empathize with them. First, though, we need to conclude our Free Cleaning Service story. My intent in that title is to not manipulate the reader with short-term emotional hooks, or try to shoehorn the tale to meet some genre cliché. Instead I wish to imbue the suspense and dread deep into the atmosphere of my tale and allow them to manifest themselves as something more corporeal naturally and whenever they see fit. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!

Shadowy Corners

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For my profession I work as a software developer, so it’s not much of a surprise that I find the technology sector fascinating. I’m always interested in new developments, hardware and software alike, so when virtual reality first came on the scene I was anxious to give it a try. For the most part, the showings there have felt lackluster and halfhearted, but a few standouts have been quite exceptional and remained with me for a long while since. One of my favorite experiences was a short-film called Sonar, which placed the viewer at the helm of a small space-faring craft, following the trail of a crew that went missing some time ago. The story began with a sense of intrigue, soon became ominous, and finally concluded in utter terror. I loved every second of it. Repeated viewings of the piece still held the same punch, due to both the quality of the work as well as the extra immersion made possible by the VR medium.

Now, in general, I am not a fan of mainstream horror stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for suspense, I’m a sucker for intrigue, I relish foreboding and tension, and I’m always up for mounting dread. But more and more the genre has lost touch with those core tenets in exchange for just increasing the amounts of violence, gore, and jump scares. True fear is not the same as queasiness, and none of these cheap parlor tricks hold a candle to a truly terrifying encounter. In contrast, consider the last great nightmare you had, one that brought you to a point of terror so profound that your mind revolted and snapped you back to consciousness before the scene could be completed. Now that’s true fear.

Of course these sorts of sleeping horrors are, by their nature, unpleasant experiences, yet it is worth considering what value there is in that unpleasantness. One does not need to be a sadist to appreciate that nightmares are some of the richest dreams we ever have; the images are so very vivid, the immersion is so very deep, and the emotions are so very, very real. Beyond that, though, the fact is our core fears are, well, core to us. Frightening experiences, therefore, have the ability to help us to better understand our own selves. Our basic fears influence much of what we do, think, and believe, and coming to learn the names of these fears is our first step to gaining closure with them. On the one hand, understanding these fundamental worries helps us guard against the tragedies which we can prevent, and on the other it helps us to gain acceptance for the ones which we cannot. In this sense there is a degree of interest in fear that can be healthy, when we face them with the intention to see our own souls.

Of course, good horror authors know and utilize this when crafting their wakeful nightmares. They understand that the extreme and unrealistic dreads we hold, the mythical and supernatural terrors we conjure, all of these are only the personifications and exaggerations of the basic fears at our cores. Deep down we don’t really expect to be mutilated in some horrifying way, but we are afraid of pain, particularly of pain that is greater than our ability to bear. We don’t really expect to be murdered or devoured by a beast, but we do dread being in another’s power, of losing control in our lives. We don’t really know many people who have been possessed by demons or mind-controlling aliens, but we do see the reality of loved ones losing their higher cognitive processes and sense of self. As such, the good author does not try to scare the reader with a monster, they scare them with what the monster represents, with the way it speaks to and provokes a reaction from the fundamental fears that are common to all humanity.

Washington Irving was one author that certainly grasped this concept. In his classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he presents a monstrous being, one that is supernatural and terrible, and one who relentlessly pursues the protagonist with forces of inhuman evil. Yet in its closing moments we realize that this monstrous being was actually a fabrication. The headless horseman in all his dreadful glory was nothing more than common human envy dressed up once in Brom Bones’ costume and clothed a second time in Ichabod Crane’s superstitious imagination. The revelation that the villain of the story is a mere mortal who menaced and murdered Ichabod does not make the tale any less ghastly, though, if anything it only makes it more so. This speaks to an evil that is far more sinister because it is far more common and believable; the evil of what jealous men will do to secure their own interests.

Another excellent example is in the theatrical production Wait Until Dark. Here we have a heroine, Susy Hendrix, who is menaced by a group of hardened drug dealers and thuggish con artists. These dangerous men mean business, and a number of lives are lost before the final curtain falls. None of that is where the real terror is, though. What is truly frightening is that Susy Hendrix is completely blind. There is something horrible in the audience’s being able to see the obvious dangers which are shrouded from her in eternal shadow. Men are laying traps and drawing weapons right in front of her and she doesn’t even know it. The reason why this is so affecting is because it speaks to a core fear we all hold, a fear that even in broad daylight there may be unrecognized threats lurking right before us.

In fact, both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Wait Until Dark can be considered as examinations of that same core fear: the fear of disguised danger. If we tally all the things we do to keep danger at bay, we realize that safe-living is a truly herculean effort. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, look both ways, check expiration dates, phrase things carefully, wear thick boots, apply mosquito repellant, put the cover on our pool, discharge static electricity, turn off circuit breakers, signal each turn, apologize quickly, brush our teeth, back away from stray animals, have regular check-ups, stretch before we run, and so very, very much more. And we do all of this before anything bad has even happened. Even so, there lurks in all of us the sense that there are dangers we cannot account for. We realize that no matter how vigilant we are, threats remain in every place and every hour, things we do not see, forces we cannot quell. We become paranoid, consumed not by a fear of what is lurking in the dark, but simply of what might be. However, with the help of stories that give us insight to this unpleasant aspect of our lives, we may come to accept the uncertainty of life. That reality may still unsettle us, but it does not have to paralyze us. We can just live, and let come what may.

Truly frightening tales will always have a unique quality of being as fascinating as they are unnerving. Next Thursday I’m going to take my own stroll down a haunted path and hope you’ll be willing to join me for it. My purpose will simply be to draw out a root fear or two that applies to all of humanity. If I am able to succeed, the story will be discomforting in how it holds a mirror to the most basic human fears. Whenever this happens, it leaves a sensation that the tale somehow knows each one of us on a personal level. So you’d better watch out, those monsters aren’t just going for Mina Harker and Dr Jekyll, they’re coming after you!

Wandering Thoughts

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So my morning went a little something like this:

• I woke up
• I brushed my teeth, got dressed, grabbed my sack lunch, and left for work
• I took my morning meetings and started preparations for the team’s upcoming conference presentation
• And this continued until lunch

Also, my morning went a little something like this:

• I woke up
• I remembered that this evening I had a scheduling conflict between helping a neighbor move or going with some friends to catch a movie
• I spent some time convincing myself that my friends need me, and being there for them is just as worthy of a cause as lifting furniture
• In my morning meeting someone thanked me for how I had helped him when dealing with a difficult customer
• That praise for a kindness I had done pricked my conscience. I messaged my friends to say I wouldn’t be able to make the movie tonight

There are two completely different stories in these timelines. One is the story of what happened on the outside, the other is within. These aren’t the only two possible stories, either. Another telling might just focus on my transitioning emotional states, and still another might blend my waking moments with my daydreams. Many stories will, in fact, take a few of the possible arcs available and blend them together.

Without a doubt, the most common approach is to focus on the chronological and factual events, but interweave them with a character development arc as well. Often in this approach the author looks for clever ways to have the separate paths mirror one another, and also may add little variations such as swapping between different timelines or maintaining two seemingly-unrelated plotlines that eventually converge. These are minor alterations, though, and the basic flavor remains the same for almost every story made. Because this sort of template is so common it allows for very direct comparisons between all manner of different stories no matter their genre, and there are entire critical reviews that essentially do just this.

Of course, there are exceptions to this most-common template, stories where the transitions seem jarring and disconnected. In these one most realize that the connecting tissue between moments is not based on time, character, or setting, but rather on the emotional tone. Thus, the scenes may feel similar, even if they don’t look so. Because of how much this approach flies in the face of most mass-media stories, these sorts of tales are usually considered non-traditional or experimental, and this perception has resulted in creators reserving this structure for more introspective endeavors. Less likely is the reader to be following some external character’s narrative as they are to be shown a mirror to their own insides. The scenes do not derive their meaning from what happens on the page so much as what happens within, an emotional journey of the audience’s own thoughts and feelings, each following sequentially and naturally towards some sort of personal resolution.

Examples of this sort of storytelling would include the Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, where we cut from scenes of a family at various points of time to celestial bodies floating through space to prehistoric dinosaurs. And through it all is a thread of the interconnected nature of life, that we are all parts of one cohesive whole, just as how individuals are conglomerations of uncountable smaller pieces. Another example would be Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which presents a most eclectic and erratic sequence of scenes, progressing from a man’s unexplained transformation into a beetle, to his family’s revulsion of him, to his pitiful death, to the family selling their business and moving away, to the parents discussing that their daughter is well-ready for marriage now. And then it ends. Rather odd, isn’t it? It’s easy to be dismissive of such a plotline, and yet it is reminiscent of the stories we tell ourselves every night in our dreams, where bafflement and unexpected metamorphosis, both in character and tone, are simply par for the course.

In fact, the comparison of these sorts of stories to dreams is an apt one. This sort of emotional-free-association scene-crafting was no doubt derived from the mind’s natural ability to journey through a stream of consciousness. In our sleep, daydreams, and meditations we learn that in the mind facts and fantasies are not separate entities, each naturally follows the other. The flowing mind does not concern itself with chronology or accuracy, and it certainly does not feel obligated to fit its wanderings to some specific template or predefined arc. More than anything the mind just feels its way through memories, ideas, and emotions, picking them up and setting them down based on the most tenuous of connections. The sensations can pulsate between fascination and horror instantly and effortlessly, and the combinations of old things into entirely new expressions is constantly amazing.

While the mind’s tapestry of colors and ideas and beliefs and doubts is without question bizarre and strange, it also seems important. I consider it no coincidence that artistic and creative expression often finds itself trying to imitate this natural mental process, because though it is a strange dance, it is not a meaningless one. Very often as we come out of our dreams and meditations we find that the chain of thoughts has had some special significance to us, that there was a reason to their being. Maybe their purpose was to communicate a meaningful message, to answer a question, or even just to simulate an emotional environment that we needed. Our minds are designed to work this way for a reason, and we can derive real value from allowing them to do so. When the mind recycles the same  familiar corridors too frequently, it will feel restrained, which may lead to unhealthy outlets. A most common one is trying to artificially fabricate creative-flow with mind-altering drugs and chemical stimuli. These mere imitations of the natural creative process leave the mind all the more mundane after their effects wear off, leading to a habitual cycle.

So if nothing else, please take from this that all of us need some time to daydream in our lives. It’s healthy, it’s natural, it’s fun. And so long as you’re doing it, why not write down the journey? I can practically guarantee that writing a story from this more free-flowing bent is not going to give you a bestseller, this sort of stuff just doesn’t fly off the shelves. However there is a deeper value from the exercise, one of being creative on a more fundamental level than you may have ever experienced before. If you let go of rules like a proper beginning, middle, and end, if you stopped worrying about following character arcs and tropes, if you let go of preconceptions of pacing and entertainment…what would you make? It’s okay once-in-a-while to give up outlines and backstories, to do something a little more abstract and bizarre. No one, not even you, knows where it will take you. For once hold your pen, not as the dictator of a world, but as the discoverer of it.

 

Of course, this method will probably make a lot more sense if I just show an example instead of trying to describe it. On Thursday I’ll share with you one of these journeys that I once took a few years ago. It’s something that has stuck in my mind ever since, I hope you will be able to find something personal in it as well. I’ll see you there.

For the Children

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I am both the father of a toddler and an animation enthusiast. Combined together, these mean that I read and watch a lot of children’s content and, as a result, have developed no small frustration for how many of them are of dreadful quality. When I see something that is immature, irresponsible, or poorly produced I imagine the rationale for such abysmal production values is something along the lines of “Well yeah, it’s bad…but this is just for kids.” Whether or not this statement is ever actually said between producers and creators, this “well it’s just for kids” mentality pervades our media and it is a deplorable notion. We give our children the worst we have to offer, when they of all people are the most deserving and needing of our very best.

I believe the root cause of this trend is based on an assumption that children won’t care about half-baked efforts because, well, children are stupid. Why else would they put up with such drivel? This idea, though prevalent, is based entirely on the fallacy that a person’s amount of knowledge and context is the same as their intelligence. Knowing more is assumed to equate to having a better mind. People frequently make this mistake when interacting with foreign visitors, too. Because a foreigner does not know the language or cultural customs they are talked down to and assumed to be simple-minded, although they may be geniuses in their own land.

When I look at my three-year-old son I get the distinct impression is that he is quite an intelligent person. Not that he is an intelligent toddler, not that he is intelligent for his age. Just that he is an intelligent person. In fact, I get the idea that he is more intelligent than I am, myself. True, his mind is still developing, and his ability to comprehend complex concepts is still maturing, but that does not make him dumb. When I tell him a story I want to respect his inherent intelligence. I may, for the time being, tell him stories that are simplified, but I know the difference between simplification and talking-down-to, and I never do the latter.

Another assumption people make about children’s tales is that they can’t tackle difficult topics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is perfectly fine for children’s stories to deal with subjects such as death, divorce, or even abuse. Indeed, it’s important for youth that are dealing with these life events to have sources to guide them through these minefields. But the children’s story that takes on these matters should approach them gently and sensitively, with utmost care for youth’s tenderness. The intention should be to provide a place where these traumas can be contemplated in a way that feels safe.

There are, fortunately, a few examples of children’s stories that do a very excellent job of respecting their audience and also speaking from the heart. One that I’m personally very fond of is Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss. Dr Seuss speaks passionately and reverently of how wonderful the child being read his story is. He spends a great amount of time praising their greatness, but he’s also going to warn them that they have some weaknesses, too. He tells it to each child straight: they absolutely will fail at some point in their lives, but that that will not be the end of their story. Instead of condemning them, he assures that they can get back up on their feet, off to more wonderful things as soon as they are able.

Another great source of passionate, child-respectful stories is found in the decades-long work of Mister Rogers. With him every child’s emotions were validated. You weren’t a bad person for feeling sorrow or anger, loss or brokenness. He loved you just as you were, and as a friend he wanted to help you process through those feelings. It wasn’t all sober treks across the landscapes of the heart, though, there was also time for fun. His show’s daily trips to the land of make-believe gave a clear message to children that indulging in a little healthy pretend is not just acceptable, it’s vital!

A third example of an excellent children’s story, and one that is far more recent, would be the Pixar film Inside Out. Its portrayal of emotions and childhood development resonate deeply and also compassionately. Its depiction of complex adolescence is so on point that it came as no surprise when I learned of how the film-makers involved professional psychologists in the creation of its themes. Paul Ekman and Dachner Keltner’s expert consultations shine through in the finished work, resulting in a portrayal that is both honest, and also teaches healthy behavior and coping methods. This sort of dedication to accuracy and education elevate the film past the status of just interesting to truly important.

So, what is the consistent theme in all of these examples? What exactly is it that makes for a good children’s story? It’s really quite simple. Make a good story…for children. Be just as creative in your tale for children as you would with any other story, share a message that’s just as heartfelt, and be just as honest about it. Still do your research, still talk to experts, and still put in as much thought and hard work into getting it right. Do your outlines, your character sketches, your drafts, and do them thoroughly. Be passionate, be sincere, be dedicated. Let your great driving motivation be to help and delight your young audience, not just to make a quick buck off of them. In short, all the time and love and commitment you would put into any other story, your children’s stories deserve the same treatment.

When a tale is written with the honest labor and kind intentions outlined above, it is going to be a good story. Not good for its age group. Not good compared to other children’s books. Just a good story. It will be a story that can be enjoyed by everyone, including children. More than that, you’ll feel downright proud of yourself, knowing that you’ve helped a wonderful young mind along its way to health and happiness.

For the last three weeks I’ve shared some stories that were primarily intended for a child, my toddler son. Each one of these stories I outlined, drafted, and iterated on as much as I did any of my other tales. Each one I have tried to imbue with a special kernel of novelty. I’d like to finish this series of Phillip the Mouse adventures with two more entries. They are simple and gentle, but also still bear important lessons for every age of reader, given that they speak to perplexities we all face, youth and aged alike. Come back on Thursday to see how those turn out, and then next week we will move into entirely different territory.

An Important Lesson

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Why do we make stories? That’s an open-ended question, of course, given that the potential answers to it are legion, ranging anywhere from making a living to leaving a legacy to I-was-just-bored-and-needed-something-to-do. Even in the course of making a single story the reasons for doing so may change several times. When I first started sharing bedtime stories with my son, the only motivation was just trying something new to help him relax and get sleepy. My decision to continue with it, though, evolved into trying to engage him with important life lessons.

I want to promise that there are wonderful worlds out there waiting for him to explore them. I want to impress on him that there are dangers out there, too, which he needs to be wary of. I want to reassure him that he is a wonderful boy of infinite worth and always will be. Certainly I can and do tell him these things plainly and directly throughout the day, but I’ve come to appreciate that these concepts last longer in the mind when reinforced with a good story. We love to learn by analogy, and fictional stories and events can ring more deeply with our cores than any other communication.

I am by no means the first person to realize the great power of stories in teaching lessons and conveying messages. This purpose for creating them seems to be both ancient and universal, perhaps the most prevalent answer to the question I opened this blog with. There can be found samplings of moral tales from every region of every time in the world. There are Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights, Russian bylinas, African myths, Aesop’s Fables, Chinese proverbs, Christian parables, and more. Many of these were written without knowledge of the others, suggesting there is something inherent in our humanity that seeks to preserve important wisdoms in the form of stories.

And which of us today wouldn’t want to communicate something of meaning and importance in our own stories, too? That might be easier said than done, but it is a distinction most authors hope to achieve. Do I really have the right to ask people to give me their time and attention unless I have something important to say?

Of course, to be able to say something important means you have to know something important, and then you have to be able to communicate that important something effectively. That first part might seem the harder ask, but really I think it is the simpler of the two. If we are willing to set aside our false modesty and go through a little introspection, I’m convinced each one of us will find that we have a nugget of real value that we could share with the world. This is part of our human condition. We live, we learn, we internalize, and do so in a way that is unique to our character. If you dig down in your heart, you’ll find an important lesson or two locked up inside. Now comes the second bit, the actual communicating of that kernel of wisdom. This part is tricky, and it’s entirely possible that the would-be author might not yet have the skills necessary to give voice to those insights. Please don’t take that as a discouragement, though, the way is there for any who are willing to try. It is simply a matter of putting in the work and practice, and there are a few techniques that can help you along the way.

1)

First off, what is a kernel of wisdom anyway? The definition I find most helpful is it is a truth. It is a principle. It is universal. It is a constant that any reader in any situation will be able to find a place for in their own lives. Our actual situations and events are periphery and context that can change, but the principles at their core remain the same.

James’ neighbor asked if it was his baseball that broke his window, and he honestly admitted that it was, offering to help fix it.

James’ drunk father asked if he was the one that broke the television set, and he dishonestly said ‘yes’ so that his little brother wouldn’t get hit.

At first these scenarios seem like complete opposites, yet at the core of each is the same kernel, one of using the truth (or lack thereof) as a tool for taking a burden. If you think you have found something of significance to say, but want to be sure of its merit, try giving it this litmus test: does it apply universally? Anything that does is worthy of a story.

2)

Now one of the tricky things about these little wisdoms we have is that they can resist the written medium. These are not events that can be laid out in a chronology, nor are they a dialogue that can spoken. These vague concepts tend to be things we are better able to feel than put words to. Sometimes the best way we have to express them is in recounting the entire experience where we discovered them, which of course, already presents the concept within a story form.

My mother passed away and I felt a gaping hole left in my heart. More than anything I just wanted to hear her voice again, to hear her tell me that I was still her son and she loved me. One night I dreamt she was alive, but I had traveled away to a different country. In the dream I again had that desire for her to call me her son and say that she loved me, but I realized it was alright even if she didn’t. I knew she was still thinking those thoughts away where she was, and that was enough. When I woke up, it was the same.

There’s something poignant in this, but it can be difficult to extract the core and transplant it into another story. Generally I think when we try to express this sensation it gets reduced down to something like “your loved ones are always with you in your heart,” although I do feel something gets lost in that translation. Perhaps you might not ever be able to reduce the concept you wish to convey into a succinct sentence, but you still need to become thoroughly familiar with it. Then you will be able to look over what you have written and know whether it evokes the intended feeling, or diluted it.

3)

Have you noticed that each of the miniature story examples I’ve given have opened with a lifelike quandary, one similar to what a reader might face, after which the principle reveals itself to give the solution to that problem? If you want a blueprint for how to build a story around the principle you want to teach, you can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true method. It’s been kicking around the narrative world for at least a couple millennia and still remains relevant.

Problem: the tortoise is slower than the hare. Solution: the tortoise remains consistent and steady.

Problem: Simba runs from the past and his guilt. Solution: Mufasa helps Simba to remember who he is, the son of a noble king.

Problem: Arjuna is conflicted about going to war and the losses it will entail. Solution: Krishna teaches Arjuna to let go of worldly attachment and just pursue the greater good.

The thing about principles and truths is that when you live without them, problems come up in life. You feel like you aren’t progressing towards your goals as quickly as you wish, or you feel burdened by shame and think yourself worthless, or you feel directionless with no clear path to follow. But then, when you find truths and principles, they free you from the problems you faced. When a story follows this pattern, it is merely reflecting back to the reader shades of real life and will therefore resonate.

4)

One burden you don’t need to worry too much about is if your audience will “get the point” of the message you have embedded into your story. It can be tempting to try and spell it all out, but doing so denies them the opportunity to tease out the lesson on their own, which will give them the longer lasting impression. In fact, it’s not necessary for your message to be consciously comprehended at any point in the telling. As I suggested before, many of our life lessons do not come to us written in fortune-cookie sentences, but rather in an experience that elicits an emotion. If your story does nothing more than to replicate that emotional experience in another, then the message has successfully been taught. For this reason, lessons can be incorporated into stories for any age. Perhaps my toddler son doesn’t know how to put the words to the principles I am trying to share with him, but if I do my job right then he’ll naturally internalize them based off the feelings he felt, and they will guide him just the same.

There’s another reason why you don’t need to worry about whether or not the audience is capable of receiving your message, but for this one you’ll have to let go of any sense of ownership you thought you had. Because, you see, the reader already knows whatever it is you’re trying to share, and you’re not going to give to them anything they don’t already have. That’s just the way principles work. All of the universal truths already exist inside each one of us, and we do not need anyone to tell us what they are. What we do need is someone to remind us of them when we have forgotten them, to awaken the parts of us that have always been present, but asleep. A truly profound story is one that resonates, and it resonates because it has attuned itself to the message that is already in the heart.

5)

Finally, I think it’s important to address a question that might be nagging some of you right now. What if the author is just looking to write something mindless and fun? Does every story have to have a message? Quite frankly, I would say yes. The reason being that even if you don’t intend to put a message into your story, one will be there anyhow. It’s unavoidable. There never has been a story told that didn’t have a message, and your story, too, will suggest something about the world, whether for better or worse, whether honest or deceitful. As such, there are plenty of “mindless” flicks and novels out there that are laden with unintended and irresponsible messages such as “the only way for a hero to resolve a dispute is through violence,” or “a woman might be tough, but she could never be a match a real man,” or “it’s okay to be a bad person, so long as you’re funny at the same time.” Given that your story will be saying something, isn’t it worth ensuring that it is a something you believe in and that will be good for the world to hear? There’s nothing wrong in perusing your story ideas and taking a fun one out for a ride, but just drive responsibly and be sure you go somewhere good with it.

 

As I said earlier, I think all of us want to be able to take some of our inner light and put something important into our stories. I would go further still, and say that as a writer it is, in fact, your duty to use that skill to make the world a little brighter. That’s not an easy thing to do, but the very fact that it is difficult is what makes it a worthy quest.  Best of luck, and I hope to see you on Thursday when I introduce a couple more Phillip the Mouse stories, each that I told to my son as an effort to resonate some life lessons to his heart. Until then.

Hey, I’m Talking to You

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I remember a strange experience I had with communication several years ago. It was while I was at university, working as a Teaching Assistant and occasionally covering lessons for the Professor. One day while lecturing I had the distinct impression of the words emanating from my mouth, hanging in the air, and then falling to the ground, never being received by any of the class members. I didn’t blame the students for their blank expressions, I knew I was having trouble explaining the concepts in an intuitive and accessible manner. The words I was stringing together might have formed valid sentences, but to the class there was no meaning therein. All my life I had assumed the two (words and meaning) just automatically went together, now I knew they did not.

Ever since that day I have remembered that communication is composed of two halves, a giver and a receiver, and it simply does not occur when only one of those is present, or when the two are unable to meet on common ground. Similarly, though a written story may seem like a self-contained entity in-and-of itself, it is actually only a medium for communication, and therefore is forever incomplete if never opened, read, and understood. A story requires a meeting and comprehension between both a giver and a receiver, or else it is just words in a void with nowhere to go.

If you want the words of your story to go somewhere, to be picked up by an audience and internalized, then you have to know how to speak so that you can be heard. How you do that, depends first on deciding who your audience even is. There are multiple criteria by which you can filter the entire human population down to the subset your story is meant for, but there is one initial division that comes before all others. Are you writing for yourself, for one other, or for a group?

Writing for yourself is pretty straightforward, it means you are writing something that resonates with you, regardless of whether it resonates with anyone else. Perhaps you’ve thought of the book you wish you could be reading right now and, since it doesn’t exist, decided you’d create it yourself. Or maybe you’re just trying to process some personal drama, using your creativity to hash out all its possible permutations. You are speaking to your own hopes, your own fears, your own life situation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is writing for a group. Here you identify a grouping, defined perhaps by age, language, social status, or common interest, and you compose something that you think will appeal to that crowd. Perhaps the most prevailing reason for this approach is that you wish to ensure maximum profit potential for your book as a commercial product. Thus you begin by identifying which subset of society you can best sell to, and then write in the way most likely to catch their attention.

In between, though, there is the story written for one other. The story won’t necessarily be about the author’s greatest passion, nor is it composed to be marketable to the widest possible audience. This is a story that it is written for a friend, a family member, or maybe even a nemesis. Perhaps you are writing to a member of a particular societal clique, but you are addressing that member, not the clique as a whole. As such, it is more akin to our common day-to-day communications. Me speaking to you. When one adopts this more conversational approach to storytelling there are some unique and charming results that naturally occur.

First of all, whenever you speak directly to someone on their own terms, you’re fairly likely to succeed at getting their attention. When I come up with bedtime stories for my boy, I make sure to use language that is suited to his understanding and that focuses on his own interests. As a result, he seems to be much more engaged with these stories than with most of his printed-for-the-masses storybooks. The lack of this directness in for-the-masses media is a problem for many blockbuster movies and bestselling books today. Because they are intended to make the maximum profit possible, they have to appeal to the widest audience possible, which results in them being as generic and featureless as possible. Many stories are unwilling to say anything beyond the mundane and obvious, out of fear of alienating a potential subset of society, which gives them a far shorter staying power. Going back to the verbal communication analogy, this can feel like listening to a speaker at a conference, one who is speaking both to everyone and no one at the same time, versus the experience of having someone look you in the eye and say something to you. I think most of us would prefer that second situation, even if we didn’t end up agreeing with everything that was said. We’d certainly remember what was said for longer.

Well what about when a story is written for oneself? That’s certainly writing for a very focused audience, isn’t it? It is, but the communication you give to yourself is again different from the type you give to others. Unfortunately, we can be very hard on ourselves, criticizing our every flaw, and regretting that we aren’t the successes we wanted to be. I imagine this occurs because of all the emotions we’ve ever felt, negative ones most easily bubble to the surface. While drawing from this well of disappointment can certainly be a therapeutic way to process these feelings, it can also make for some pretty bleak stories. Why should the main character get a happy ending if it feels dishonest with my own life? But things change when we speak to others. While we may be very hard on ourselves, we can be very kind to those we love. We tend to assume the best of them and wish the best for them. When we design a story from that point-of-view, all we wish to communicate is dreams coming true, love being found, adventures being shared, and good triumphing over evil.

I’m currently working on a novel that had its genesis in one of those pessimistic self-talks. The original design of it called for a family of explorers to come to a new island and, by their hard work and patience, raise a flourishing trade and community from the wilds around them. And then a monster comes and kills them all. Comically bleak, isn’t it? But that was fitting, because it was some bleak emotions that I was processing and trying to convey. It all had something to do with how our human failings can destroy all that is beautiful around us. Then I started to think about how this would be received by anyone else reading the book. I have several friends who have faced human failings in their lives, and I wouldn’t want them to read a book like this and think it was condemning them. Ultimately I felt the message wasn’t for the greater good, and the ending changed accordingly. There is still a monster, and it still seeks to destroy, but the story now suggests that it can be defeated by the very beauty it is trying to ravage, and innocence can be reclaimed.

Winnie-the-Pooh, The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Thomas the Tank Engine. Some of our most timeless tales and characters have come as a result of an author crafting a story for a specific individual. These stories are book-sized wishes for their readers to have lives as full of adventures and hopes as are contained within the tale. They are immortalized communications of love, given and received decades ago, yet ever fresh and new.

Of course, I do not mean to disparage the other types of audience a story can be written for, they each have their own pros and cons. I do feel, though, that this more direct and conversational form of story-communication too often gets overlooked. So if you find yourself struggling for inspiration, try asking yourself what sort of story you’d like to tell to the ones you love most. In the meantime, please come back Thursday when I continue with two more tales of Phillip the Mouse. Each of these are drawn from the bedtime stories I’ve shared with my toddler son, and each was designed based off of his personal interests and life events. They are examples of ways that I have used stories to speak to him about himself, and let him know how special he is.

Everwrite

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This last Thursday I wrapped up my latest short story entitled Imposed Will, and felt very satisfied as I did so, thank you very much. In fact I’ve had great satisfaction in wrapping up every story piece that I’ve done for this blog, more so than I had expected. You see writing short stories is something new for me, I always felt the only option I had was full-sized novels and nothing else. I guess this mindset was because that was what I spent my time reading, so that was what I wanted to write. While I still like the idea of writing something large and meaty, and am working on such a novel in my spare hours, I have already seen benefits from this regular short-story publishing, and hope that I will always make time for it. Here are just a few of the perks I’ve seen thus far:

1)

My main reason for even starting this blog was to get into the habit of writing consistently. I had been kicking around several story ideas for awhile, and every now-and-then made a halfhearted attempt at progressing with a few of them. I did not have any sort of consistency or schedule in place though, I wrote when I felt like it and not when I didn’t. Any time I would hit a snag where the story wasn’t quite shaping up my motivation would tank instantly. By deciding to write shorter pieces, though, I found it much easier to remain motivated. I can far more successfully commit to write about 3000 words for two blog posts every week than commit to a 70,000-90,000 word novel in a couple years. That’s kind of surprising when you think about it, though, because as far as the sheer word count is concerned, 3000 a week is the much greater commitment. In just 12 months I will have produced over 150,000 words, enough for two novels. Yet somehow it feels easier, because it is so much more manageable of a number to deal with in the short term. Now that I am in this habit of weekly small increments, I have been able to go back to those bigger novel ideas I had and seen ways that I could break them up into similar couple-thousand word chunks per week. Suddenly they don’t seem nearly so daunting.

2)

Another thing I tend to do with my full-sized novels is plan them out exhaustively. I do several layers of detail, trying to map out how each scene and each conversation is contributing to the overall arc. It’s not a bad thing to do, but usually while I am in this process I suspend all more fleshed-out writing efforts. The result is that when it comes time to start penning the first draft, I feel out of my depth and freeze; skeletons are a lot more comfortable to me than full-fleshed beings. Writing short pieces consistently means that I no longer feel like I’m leaving that toolset rusting in the shed. I can still do outlining and iterating when I feel a need for it, but now it doesn’t have to be at the expense of exercising the other facets of story-crafting. Also, because I write more bite-sized stories, I am able to quickly swap between ones that specifically focus on different skills within writing. One week I’ll do a dialogue piece, and the next I’ll do some scene descriptions. I’ll get lots of practice on how to do a start, a middle, and an end. Along the way I’ve been becoming very acquainted with which areas are my strengths and which are my weaknesses. I definitely have my weaknesses, and I can focus on doing short stories that will help me get practice and improve on them.

3)

As I mentioned at the start, finishing each blog has given me a strong sense of satisfaction. It just feels so good to accomplish things, even little ones, and that boost encourages me to keep going at my bigger pieces as well. The fact is, I had developed a disappointing habit of making goals and deadlines for my writing that I never achieved and never put any faith in. Setting them was just going through the motions of what I thought “real” authors do, and even as I did so I would feel a twinge, knowing that these goals weren’t actually going to be achieved. Writing short stories has helped me to start trusting in my own promises again, something that had long-since been lost. I committed to do a new short piece every week and I’ve been succeeding at that. I committed to do 4-5 of those short pieces strung together in a larger series over the period of a month and I’ve been accomplishing that, too. Now my goal is to bring together a dozen of those series’ into a year-long volume and I don’t doubt that I’ll be able to fulfill that goal, too. I’m still a little hesitant to introduce large-scale timelines to my larger novels, but for the time being I’m committing to writing a little in them every other day and I’ve been fully keeping that promise to myself. Once I’ve done that for a bit more, I expect to have confidence in expanding my outlook further.

4)

The two problems I just mentioned–one of feeling better at planning out a story than at actually writing it, and the other of not carrying through on commitments–these together resulted in a lot of ideas, but nothing to show for them. So many, in fact, that even if I worked full-time for the rest of my life on these stories I don’t think I could ever produce them all. I was in the difficult position of having to decide which ones I would bring to the light of day, and which would fizzle out, never to be shared. Fortunately, I don’t worry about that anymore, because I’ve realized that many of the ideas I had are able to work as smaller pieces . Often instead of having a whole storyline, my brainstorming would simply have resulted in a single scene or concept, one that I intended to expand on later. Now those individual scenes and concepts are perfect material for a short story, and I can I can breathe to life within a single. I’m able to get out a lot more of the ideas, including ones I was contemplating killing off, and that feels wonderfully liberating.

 

Not too long ago I had some pretty productivity-decimating problems. I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, the lack of both ability and consistency to bring them to fruition, and the resulting frustration of never getting to say the things I wanted to say. The idea of sacrificing some of my novel-writing time to pen short pieces initially seemed like the worst possible distraction. However I found it provided a much-needed breath of fresh air that reinvigorated me and redoubled my efforts in all other creativity. Thus the time spent away from working on my novel has been more than made up for by my improved productivity when I come back to it. If any of my earlier quandaries resonate with you, then I’d highly recommend trying to start jotting down some short stories of your own. You’ll get a variety of rich experiences, improve your writing skills, finally have results to show for your work, and better productivity in your larger projects. While you’re at it, why not start a blog to showcase those short stories in? That way you’ll also get the satisfaction of publishing your work, even if it’s on a smaller scale.

Another way that I’ve kept myself regularly delivering on new ideas is through bedtime stories to my toddler son. I’ve invented a recurring character named Phillip the Mouse and each night is another one of his many adventures. This, too, has definitely been a very rewarding practice, and on Thursday I’d like to share a couple of these stories with you. See you then!