Let Me Interrupt You There

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Talking It Out)

Being interrupted is one of the most hated parts of communication. Every idea that we speak of comes with it a desire to be completed. To be stopped short of doing so is like feeling a sneeze that never comes to fruition. Understandably, interrupting another is therefore considered bad manners, and yet sometimes we feel the need to do it even so.

Conversations are not lectures, and the purpose of them is not to have one person express their opinions only. Each side needs to feel understood, and will therefore pull the conversation into a different direction as needed for them to be able to attain full expression.

A poor conversation will therefore become a constant war of jerking the focus back and forth. Each individual sees the other person’s expression and their own as being mutually exclusive, thus only one perspective can be conveyed, and so it must be their own. These sorts of conversations are called arguments, and they represent the worst possible form of communication. The inevitable result is that neither side receives full expression and both leave dissatisfied. This might occur by each escalating until they are shouting over one another, or else one turning submissive and just tuning out the ranting of the other.

That type of conversation is combative, whereas the ideal conversation would be collaborative. In collaborative discourses each side is actively trying to help one another to express themselves. They are each seeking to understand the other, as well as together uncover a shared middle ground. Each side leaves not only feeling fulfilled, but also larger in insight. Where argument shrinks you further into your own perspective, healthy discussion broadens it.

Interestingly, though, interruptions still occur in healthy conversations, they just take a different form. Instead of being competitive such as “oh never mind that, listen to this…” they become clarifying statements such as “hang on, I didn’t quite understand you there, did you mean…”

Positive conversations can also use gentle interruptions to cue where you think greener fields lie. They are a succinct way of asking “can we talk about this other matter now?”

 

Isn’t This a Story Blog?)

Thanks for that friendly interruption, guess I got a little off track. Because yes, all this does relate to story-telling, and I was hoping this conversation would steer towards that at some point!

In the end, a story is made up of many different parts, all of which need their say in the overall conversation. Plot needs to be thickened, characters need to be arced, tension needs to be built. A sloppy writer will slap these things back-to-back with no thought for how they gel together as a whole. It will make for a story that feels like it is combating with itself, each scene being a rude interruption to the one that came before.

But a skilled writer will let each scene seamlessly transition from one to the next in a way that collaborates in a cohesive narrative. Just as how two courteous conversationalists will take the last statement of the other as the launching point for their own piece, the next scene in the story will wait for a lull in the action of the current, segue on a shared theme into the new premise, and then proceed to express itself more fully. Even if the new scene is thematically contradictory to the prior, it will still feel like the two belong together and form a shared message.

Consider how this is accomplished in the example of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Two of this book’s voices are quite opposite to each other: one being that of rousing, epic action, and the other being of calm respites with fanciful fantasy characters. Are these two halves of the story breaking the overall narrative? No, they actually support one it together.

This is because one of the story’s overall themes is that good things are worth fighting for. The heroes of the story are convinced that there is a beautiful world which is deserving of their sacrifice to be preserved. In order for us to be convinced of this point as well, we need to spend some time in those beautiful places. And so an extended deliberation among Ents provides essential depth to the world and making the stakes of later conflict feel like they truly matter. We are intrigued by the odd mannerisms of the passive creatures during their entmoot, and then invigorated to see their race rescued through the rousing battle at Isengard. Each of the two sections combine to form a satisfying arc for the species.

 

Characters Arguing)

There is an example of interruptions in story-telling with my last entry of Washed Down the River. Here I had one character pick another up in his car, and then the two of them discussed the details of the case they were working while driving to their next lead. As they went, the discussion of the case was suddenly interrupted when Daley suggested doing something rash in regards to it. This derailed everything, and soon the two men were arguing about Daley’s aloofness to his friends, family, and life. Each of the two interrupted the other, and each tried to force their own perspective on the other, much like how the narrative forced this scene of conflict out-of-the-blue upon the reader.

Of course neither character was left satisfied by the conversation. Each became more entrenched in their own perspective. Then, right on cue, the two men arrived at their destination and the argument was put on pause as the case interrupted into the fore.

The sudden transition from case to argument and back to the case might seem disjointed, but it was so intentionally. The staccato of quickly moving pieces was meant to reflect the tension playing out in those scenes. At the same time, necessary housekeeping tasks were accomplished, such as reminding the reader of other threads that are a part of the story, and also of providing a distraction while loading in the next scene.

In the end I think I wrote scenes that feel chaotic and disjointed when taken individually, but which smooth out the overall narrative when viewed as a whole. One might say that I am trying to take many jagged parts and fit them into a unified mosaic.

With my next post we’ll be continuing that process, and along the way I will try to utilize each transition in as effective of a manner. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

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.