What’s the difference between a series of events and a story?

This post is for memoir writers. A slightly different version for storytellers is available here.

“If you’ve remembered something very well — a fight, a kiss, a plane ride, a certain stranger — there’s a reason. Keep writing until you figure out the significance of your most vivid memories.”

Kate Corrigan

We all intuitively know what a story is. If you watch a movie, you can tell pretty quick if the story is good or bad. But put pen to paper to write your own and questions like these nibble at your confidence:

  • “Is this a story, or is it just something that happened?”
  • “If it’s just something that happened, why does it matter?”
  • “Would anybody want to read about this?”
  • “I’m not a writer. I’m just crazy.”

When you do manage to push aside concerns long enough to string some words together, the first draft tends to be disappointing. Maybe you’re trying too hard, or it reads like a bunch of bullet points. Maybe you were right to doubt.

No. Stop that thought. Why? Because the value of a story rarely comes out in a first draft.

In this post I’ll discuss the most basic of story type, a news report, and then compare the difference with a more developed story. That should help you take your series of events and turn them into a proper story.

A report

There’s nothing wrong with reports. When I want to dress appropriately for the day, a weather report lets me know whether I need an umbrella or a jacket.

Most reports go like this:

  1. Something good/bad happened or is happening.
  2. Summary or call to action.

Reports usually end with a summary or a call to action.  

  • Summary: “So if you’re heading outside today, bundle up!”
  • Call to action: “People agree, the mayor needs to be held accountable!”

News reports are written fairly quickly and are meant to be consumed quickly. If there are people we meet in the story, it’s a fleeting mention, someone like a mayor who has a public profile, or a man-in-the-street quotation. There is drama but we rarely learn the ending.

Stories are about people

In a story, on the other hand, readers get to know the characters involved. They have relationships that are shifting or firm, roles they play at work or in their community.

They’re like friends we make but with no strings attached. We want authentic characters, people we can feel moving and breathing. They aren’t perfect in every way, because that’s both really boring and intimidating.

Readers are also looking for certain patterns of events in a story. That is:

  1. The main character  wants something. Or, something happens to make them  want something.
  2. Something stands in their way. They overcome it.
  3. They grow.

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

They want something.

The character doesn’t just want a sandwich. They want to win a contest, or a certain person’s love. They want to get out of one situation or into another. They want to change their life.

Sometimes this wanting is precipitated by an event. They receive some news, meet someone, lose something, find something, there’s an accident, or they receive a diagnosis.

Whatever it is, this event changes their life somehow and propels them to take action toward the goal. But this makes it sound like a mathematical formula, and it isn’t.

For argument sake, let’s say you’re diagnosed with a deadly disease. Wouldn’t you then be motivated to find a cure?

That’s how story works. One thing happens, which makes you strive for a response to what happened.

Something stands in your way. You overcome it.

In your quest to achieve your goal, the road cannot be easy. You need to have at least a couple of obstacles that block your progress. Readers want to watch as you size up the challenge, struggle to get over it then figure it out and get past it.

One of the biggest challenges in writing about your own life is to figure out what you were really struggling with. In some cases it’s easy.

If you enter a marathon, it’s a struggle to get yourself training, to develop your stamina. If you are performing a show, you need to get that act together. To win the attention of the person you want to love, you need to figure out what they want then see if you can give it.

But not all struggles are so clear cut. Life can be messy. By writing about it, you are defining what the struggle was. It requires considering the situation from all angles.

Potential obstacles include:

  • Yourself > If you’re trying to lose weight or handle a challenging relationship, you might be your own worst enemy.
  • One or more people > Everyone wants something from you. What they want might not be what you want. You also might not be able to give other people what they want when you need it.

A mother with a job, children and a husband has to juggle all of their needs. If one of them is more needy than the others, it can mean the other two miss out.

We all want and need things from each other. It is these conflicting needs that create the obstacles we need to get through. For more on this, see my 3-part posts on roles and relationships.

The past can haunt us until we decide on how to frame what we were struggling with. Through language, with our struggle defined, we are better equipped to deal with that struggle or let it go.

Pulling it all together

The first step is always to write a crummy first draft. Write a bullet list. Jot down your random thoughts. Get it down in chronological order. Kick that inner editor off your shoulder and just write.

Then look at it and ask yourself:

  • What am I really struggling with here?
  • What is it I really wanted? What did others want from me or for themselves?
  • What values does this experience speak to?
  • What did I learn from this experience?

Using your answers, your task as a writer is to contrast your perspective in that time with what you know now, then to share the lessons you learned. You don’t sugar-coat the moment, or paint yourself as wiser or more noble version of who you are.

This process helps you to better understand what happened, who you are and why this event matters.


My storytelling philosophy

The earth beneath our feet is always moving.

In life we desire stability while we also wait and wait and wait for what’s coming next. We want to be safe and secure, but we also want more than what we have, which means taking risks.

Stories are a means to find the stability we crave, and grow. To accept the moving nature of life events, to get past those obstacles that stand in our way and in the process, change and grow.

Stories allow each of us to consider what we’d do if placed in a certain situation. They are about how we survive the challenging changes of life.

Changing your life is hard. Whether you want to lose weight, or become something you’re not, it takes making concrete changes and sticking with them. Most of us aren’t great at doing that. It takes a few stabs. A few fights with ourselves or our relatives.

But in overcoming the obstacle, you learn something. You as a person change and grow. You gain wisdom about yourself, others or the world in general.

The change you go through in a story doesn’t have to be huge. The difference can be as small as a change in your mindset. How one day you learned the value of… kindness, generosity, friends, birthdays… or something else.

Stories are places where we struggle to understand what it means to be human. What matters and what doesn’t.

“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”

The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. A concise, elegant exploration of time.
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REVIEW: Into the Magic Shop

Crisply written, full of surprising turns and excellent questions, Into the Magic Shop is both a memoir and an approachable introduction to how our brains work.

James Doty brings two things to the conversation:

  1. His knowledge of the brain as a neurosurgeon
  2. One heck of a life story to tell

James’ mostly absent father drank their money away and disappeared for days. His mother suffered from severe depression, spending most of her time in bed. Then one day, he walked into a magic shop, looking for a trick thumb, met Ruth, and his life changed.

Ruth taught James the most useful magic trick: How to relax both his mind and body. Now we call it mindfulness.

Because Doty learned to manage his thoughts and emotions, to come up with a focused intention for what he wanted to do with his life, he grabbed life and shaped it into something of his own devising. But not without some serious bumps.

He wished for money and success and all its trappings, only to find himself surrounded by riches but not much more. He’s at the top of his game, but considered an asshole.

It is a story about values. About how what we think we value sometimes is what holds us captive. The lesson I appreciate the most is that, it is only when we set ourselves a clear intention that we get where we want to go.

Doty offers a fascinating and thought-provoking journey. Through science and powerful argument, he explains how and why relaxation technique, meditation, opening the heart and setting clear intentions are not just good for you. They are magical powers which, if we all embraced, might make the world a beautiful place.

How actors use these principles

Since Stanislavski, actors learned that the process of relaxation is a key tool to performing on stage. Actors use their minds and bodies as a means to enter into the  character they are playing.

In a process I call “steeping tea” (news reporters call it “gathering string”), actors focus their thoughts to actually change their minds to be more like the character’s. They might:

  • Write a journal for the character for the year.
  • Research on the time period or place where the character lived.
  • Write the story of key chapters in the person’s life.
  • Imagine in as much detail as possible, moments from the story that aren’t included. The moment before they enter a scene, for example. Or a story from their childhood that still pings at them today.
  • And much more…

Then they throw it all away.

The body and the mind are linked quite closely. By using either the mind or the body, they are finding ways to become the character. When they get up on stage, they trust that the “experience” of being that character is in them. They are like a pot of hot water that has been steeped into tea.

How can writers use this?

Writing is a kind of performance. Where an actor is trying to discover how to play a character, as writer you play every role, and cinematographer, set designer and so on.

Exercises like these — the exploration you do explore a situation– can help you take your writing up a notch. That is, use your mind and even your body, to get into the worlds of your characters and the scene you are creating.

You might:

  • Find a song that suits the mood and rhythm of a scene you are writing.
  • Write the “moment before” for each character.
  • Stand up and act out the scene from each character’s point of view.

Close your eyes. Put yourself there mentally. Put yourself there physically. Then see what comes out of your pen.

REVIEW: Writing Tools

If you write you need this book.

Roy Peter Clarke’s focus is on providing a writer a box of tools. From copy editing to point of view and project management of writing projects, his insights and common sense approach make this the most useful writing book I’ve seen in years. His background point of contact is in journalism, but the lessons can be applied to all writing styles.

My personal favourite is the chapter on generating a story question. Here, he talks about the “story engine” — a concept I first learned about from Sol Stein. Mr. Clarke refines this concept and shows how a question can help a writer to tame those sub-plots.

This is most definitely a go-to resource for editing your work and punching up your prose.

REVIEW: The Art of Memoir

I heard Ms Karr interviewed on the most wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and was so intrigued ordered it.

At first I loved the voice in this book on writing memoir. So authentic, honest, gritty and modern. But soon the book became all about that voice. In some cases, the nuggets she attempts to deliver are so much in “her voice” that it’s hard to understand what she means. This book is supposed to help someone write memoir, but there are times when the message is so opaque, it’s unclear.

That’s not to say there aren’t bits of value.

I agree on how writers need to learn how to include the “carnal” in their writing to capture readers. And yet I disagree with the use of the word “carnal.” She is talking about the senses: Visual, auditory, sensory (touch), olfactory, taste. Many a memoir midwife will tell you, the doorway into writing about the past is through the senses. Recalling the smells, tastes, touches brings a writer into the moment, which leads to other memories. But to me, the word carnal implies sex. Of course, a memoirist can dive in between the sheets, but there are so many more planes to sensual experiences. So it’s a quibble, and she very likely has her reasons.

Karr has great points and bits of advice on finding voice, integrating back story, including some excellent examples. I’m normally not keen on authors who use their own books as examples, but she is wise in how she uses them here.

A great bonus is the last section with a list of memoirs and books on writing memoir. Very useful.

I recommend this book for people who are currently working on a memoir, but not just starting one. My reason: This is sold as a synthesis of her great experience in teaching memoir and writing memoir. But it is not a step-by-step how-to. Half of it is skippable. But the nuggets are so valuable, to a writer who has dug in and going would find some great ideas to reflect on and lenses to review their work.

REVIEW: On Missing Out

Are you missing the joke of life? Are you ever satisfied? Do you seem to always live the life you don’t have? Do fantasies seem more real than the world around you?

Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst who also spends his Wednesdays writing. Originally standing firmly in the Freudian camp, from essay to essay and book to book he has drifted into the world of philosophy. In this book he looks at:

  • How we can never understand what we really want until we can recognize the nature of our frustration.
  • How knowing what we don’t want — what we are running from — may show us more about ourselves than what we think we want.
  • How (in my view) our world has shifted from one where morality meant something to one where morality is a game, where the Good Person is replaced by the Impressive Person, and being caught lying is now the crime as opposed to lying itself.
  • We always want to be somewhere other than now, and we spend our time searching for the escape. To paraphrase Anna Freud, fantasies are the one area of our life where we can have our eggs any way we want them but we cannot eat them.
  • How our yearning, our striving, our continual hope for satisfaction is a game we play with ourselves to deal with the shifting sands of life. That frequently, our search for satisfaction is about revenge.
  • Some thoughts on why we get pleasure watching the mad attempt to get what they want. About how the mad are actually those who are filled with the certainty of their view of the world, and how seeing them in character form helps us to face the madness of the world around us.

Whew! Heady stuff.

And not written for the pleasure reader, either. Phillips has this annoying habit of using clauses within clauses within em dashes and brackets. This style makes some of his passages difficult going. For example:

But one of the strange things about satisfaction is that its anticipation precedes its realization; that it happens twice — not quite the first time as farce and the second time as tragedy — but first wishfully (in fantasy) and then in reality if one is lucky.

Each sentence is itself a Russian doll, then each paragraph enters the realm of thought tornado, with so many ideas flying about it makes you dizzy. Luckily they are all thoughts packed with insight.

He is a fan and student of literature, particularly Shakespeare, and uses the verbal arts as a launching pad for many of his thoughts.

The back flap of the book promises that Phillips will explain how, “if we accept frustration as a means to finding out what we really want, satisfaction becomes possible.” But I must admit, these plot points are made only through the subtextual connections in this book. Leaps of thought are required.

One can fault this book for its optimistic marketers who wanted to sell it to a mass audience, the inability of the editor to help refine the focus and for the copy editor letting Phillips get away with dense prose. But it does have immense value.

As a writer with a background in theatre and a keen interest in the origins and purposes of story, I found this book eminently thought-provoking.

I would recommend it to those who love Shakespeare, theatre, writers interested in delving into the depths of their characters and anyone who has looked at the world and wondered why they are not driven made by its workings.

On Missing Out by Adam Phillips

REVIEW: The Comic Toolbox

This little book is jam-packed with tools that will help any and every writer, regardless of genre. With down-to-earth language, and brief explanations, Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks.

From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty).

As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

His explanation of plot structure is a 9-point list:

* Who is the hero?
* What does the hero want?
* The door opens
* Hero takes control
* A monkey wrench is thrown
* Things fall apart
* Hero hits bottoms
* Hero risks all
* What does the hero get?

If you include all of these points in your story (as he explains one by one), then it will work as any kind of story. This list parallels and expands slightly on the 3-act structure of commercial feature films (inciting incident, Climax 1, 2, 3). The only thing I’d add to his list is that when the door opens, the character walks through it. Because until the character acts in a way that reveals character, the story engine doesn’t get in gear.

What’s really useful about a tool like this is you can fit the answers to the questions on a single page, so it serves as your pencil sketch, thinking tool, your briefest of outlines, to help you manage the narrative arc of your story. Great stuff.

Since it’s a comic toolbox, it covers the comic premise, comic story types, joke types, situation comedy, sketch comedy and more using oodles of easy to understand examples. After introducing each simple tool he encourages you to try them out.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is its title and sub-title, The Comic Toolbox: How to be funny even if you’re not.

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write.

Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective.

How are we going to get out of this?

Dragon Smaug by Tim Kane“The best stories don’t come from good vs bad, but good vs good.” – Tolstoy

If you’re a plot geek like me, this quote is both interesting and instructive. It’s been pinging at me lately, because I think it holds an interesting nugget about the challenges of our times. And it speaks to so many things; Terrorism, Trump, Brexit, Egypt, Palestine, weight gain and tweets.

In stories that are good vs good the conflicts are more internal. Everyone is both a good and a bad guy in a way. It’s about how each of us has our reasons for doing what we do. These are the hard stories to write, because they’re about moving targets we all deal with every day. At their best, they are metaphorical or philosophical.

Plot lines that involve bad vs good feature a clear black hat vs white hat. Detective vs murderer. Superhero vs Dark Menace. FBI vs Terrifying Terrorists (or choose from a broad assortment of racial delineations).

I’m starting to wonder if the predominance of such clearly delineated conflicts has impacted how we all think. That perhaps, by scarfing down simplistic stories, our brains no longer recognize that moral lines are usually complicated and confusing. We yearn for simplicity in a complicated world, so we reach for what’s easy. There are bad people. Here are good people. There’s no in-between. Period. End of sentence.

Life is about change. Stories help us to rehearse for the emotional aspects of life’s challenges. At their best, they show us how to look beneath the easy surface answers. To recognize that a bully bullies because he was bullied himself. How one blow leads to so many more. How we are all human, we all need food and shelter and love and acceptance. That really, there is no “us vs them”. And when there is an “us vs them” (aka duality) we end up in dangerous places. And I think we’re in one of those places now.

In these conflicts, the black hat-wearing dame has a huge ego. She wants to rule or destroy the world and take all of the riches and keep them to herself. She is the dragon hiding in the mountain, sitting on her pile of gold.

But ya know what? The white hat is just as egotistical as his black hat wearing sister. Because although he doesn’t want to destroy the world or rule the world, or keep all of its riches to himself, he is adamantly certain of where to draw the line between good and evil.

It’s all about judgement: Above the line, below the line. Good enough, not good enough. In this climate, negotiation isn’t possible, because that would involve giving in to evil. Life is about competition not collaboration. Rules apply to everyone else, not me. In fact, they’re for dupes and need to be broken. The other side is always entirely wrong. Lock them up, they’re crazy.

Plus, because everyone is delineated as entirely good or entirely evil, none of us are allowed to make a mistake. One false slip and you’ve “gone to the dark side.” You’re garbage. Go away and hide.

A desire for simplicity, for clarity, has got us here. But it’s a mental habit that has obvious down sides. So, how can we get out?

The only answer I’ve found is to look for what is common between us. To find ways to stop thinking in judgemental ways.

What do you think? Do the stories we tell have an influence on our society? Has the predominance of stories featuring good vs evil as opposed to good vs good made us expect the same in real life?  Share below.

FYI: Comments involving partisan politics will not be published. This blog isn’t about that. We need some safe zones, right?