I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about the art of storytelling. And it’s become clear that everything I learned in school about the subject was wrong.
On more than one occasion I had classes where we were asked to write short stories. For the most part we had free reign. One high school teacher asked us to write stories that included a tsunami (this was shortly after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people). I’m not sure why this was an assignment.
I remember several teachers told me that our stories should consist of the following:
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
There was a graph with a line to illustrate how this structure is supposed to work. A condensed explanation simply stated that a story should have a beginning, middle and end.
My teachers said we needed to have a plot with lots of conflict. There should be a protagonist (good guy) and a protagonist (bad guy). Stories should also have a theme, whatever that means.
The result was a classroom filled with dreadful stories.
When I was in college I studied theater and started reading books about screenwriting. Still, there was an emphasis on structure and rules. Syd Field’s three act structure showed me charts like the ones I remembered from school. It referred to plot points and midpoints. Other books used different terms to describe the same thing. If you believe these “experts,” which I did, story is little more than a series of events.
Once upon a time, something happened. Then something else happened. Then this really clever twist happened. Then something else happened. The end.
I’ve recently started digging into the work of Ray Bradbury. You can find a lot of valuable insights in lectures he gave over the years, as well as his book “Zen in the Art of Writing.” Bradbury placed heavy emphasis — not on plot or characters or clever ideas — but on metaphor. Story is all metaphor.
If your story is called “The Mountain” and it’s actually about a mountain, you’ve misunderstood your job as a writer. That approach will lead to a random assortment of characters stumbling into random situations. If the mountain represents a question that’s been burning in your soul, you might have a story to tell. Your characters and their actions will have a purpose.
Plot and character are side effects. You can’t just fill in a plot graph, make a list of characters and claim to be a storyteller. You must find characters and actions to support your metaphors.