What Is It With Humans and Story?

What are the earliest stories you remember from your childhood? Mine involve journeys into worlds different from mine: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Secret Garden. As a teen, my favorites books were the ones that transported me into another world: The Hobbit, Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. It was probably no surprise that I started traveling abroad as soon as I graduated from university and never really stopped.

Universality of Story

Understanding humans’ connection to story can improve your writing process and product.

As a school girl, I remember studying ancient Greek writers in English class. More than 2000 years later, we still refer to Aristotle as an authority on storytelling.

It’s not just the Greeks: anthropologists tell us that story is found across all cultures. Stories connect listeners and tellers. We start hearing stories as infants and their patterns form imprints in our brains. When we read a story, we expect those familiar patterns. When we don’t get them, we get disappointed or upset; we might even toss a book across the room or leave a bad review on Amazon.

Patterns

As writers, we’d best meet our readers’ expectations when it comes to story pattern. I think it helps to be reminded of the basics, especially since I didn’t study creative writing for my bachelor’s or my master’s.

1. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, and each serves a purpose.

2. Stories have shapes. Kurt Vonnegut describes the shape of a story in this 1995 video.

Modern data mining analyzed 1,700 English-language stories and found there are only 6 story shapes.

3. Someone, i.e. your protagonist, or something, has to change over the course of the story. If you write well, the reader will change too.

The Role of Genre

When I started to study creative writing – in my forties – I had been doing business writing for so long it had beaten out any creative leaning from my writing. I was so determined to pursue writing for creative purposes, I resisted genre labels, as I felt they would constrain my imagination.

But after discovering Story Grid, I have a new take. Story Grid is a book, two podcasts (Story Grid and Writers’ Room), and a website (storygrid.com). Its creator Shawn Coyne finally convinced me that genre is a way of thinking about story patterns and that readers expect certain things from their chosen genres. I started listening to the podcasts and fell down the rabbit hole. Coyne has 25 years of experience as an editor and a much more to say to writers than what’s mentioned in this blog.

Coyne references Robert McKee a lot. McKee is a story guru who is deeply involved in the Hollywood movie industry, but his books, Dialogue and Story, and classes influence writers across media.

This Pens Around the World group recently began an internal discussion about genre classifications, prompted by member Sue Borgersen. The article she shared described how writers are both “defined and cursed by their labels.” How do you feel about genre labels – helpful, hindering, or a mix?

Write What You Love to Read

Reading thoroughly in the genre(s) in which you write, you’ll get a good sense of that genre’s patterns. Some writing teachers recommend also intentionally reading outside your own genre to develop yourself roundly and to see techniques other masters employ.

As I mentioned, I love to travel, and that is one of the subjects on which I write. I read Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, and Pico Iyer. One of my favorite books ever is West With the Night by the brilliant Beryl Markham. Rather than shelving these books with travel guides, I see travel narratives as adventure stories. Eventually, I had an epiphany when I realized I could map my main character’s arc to the age-old “hero’s journey” –   one universal pattern Joseph Campbell described as existing in folk tales from throughout the world.

There’s a sixty-something-year-old woman in one of my writing groups. Like me, she’s relatively new to creative writing. But for forever, she’s read everything Steven King writes. Dracula, Freddy Krueger, Jason, It – she loves them all. She recently re-watched The Silence of the Lambs. I think I’ve finally persuaded her to start writing in this genre.

What genres do you most enjoy reading and writing? Are they the same as you read as a child, or have your preferences changed over time?

3 Comments

  1. Kimberly, thank you for addressing a subject that is integral to the human mind: storytelling. It’s a wonderful aspect of the human condition. We attempt to understand ourselves and our world through stories. If they’re any good, they help us grow.

    I feel like I spend much more time reading about how to write than actually writing! There is just so much out there that helps us, but sometimes it just intimidates me. I’m a big fan of Robert McKee. Although his emphasis is on screenwriting, his lessons (online and books) are applicable to all fiction writing. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is updated in “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler. These books, plus many more, help to educate the novice. But it did, indeed, all begin with Aristotle.

    I find the genre issue to be quite frustrating. When a story idea forms in my head, I am not ready to decide which label it should have so that I can hawk it to a publisher who’s worried about which shelf it can be slotted into. But for writers out there trying to make a living from their pens, this is really an issue.

  2. I won’t go quite as far as Debbie. I don’t think I spend *more* time reading about how to write than actually writing, but I do spend a good deal of time reading about it. Just at present I’m reading through Philip Pullman’s collection of essays on the subject *Daemon Voices*. (Highly recommended, especially if you’ve read and like any of Pullman’s own stories.)

    Another book I’d recommend is John Yorke’s *Into the Woods* (subtitled: *How stories work and why we tell them*). Like McKee, Yorke is a guru from the moving image side of storytelling. (He’s worked for BBC Drama and Channel 4 and been involved in many successful British TV and Radio series in different genres.)

    For those of us who are not scriptwriters, though, the relentless emphasis on character dialogue from the likes of McKee and Yorke, can be a distraction. Stories that are not dramas don’t necessarily develop through spoken exchanges. So, though I rate Yorke highly (and McKee for that matter), I’m not sure I’d personally grant them guru status.

    As far as genre goes, it’s good to think how you as a reader feel about it. I have favourite genres. I’ll go to my local SF bookshop and browse the science fiction shelves but not give fantasy (or horror) a glance. At my library I’ll pick up a detective story rather than a thriller. Genre categories are useful. I know what I like and the category helps me choose something that might appeal.

    At the same time I find myself filled with negative feeling about writing within a genre. When I’m asked what sort of stories I write, I don’t like to categorise my writing self. I write what I write, if someone else wants to categorise it, pigeon-hole it, put it in a genre box labled “urban fantasy/magical realism” (or whatever), that’s their business, not mine. And it is business, of course. The whole genre-flora is something that publishers and booksellers dreamed up.

    But do I protest too much?

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