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The Art of Writing: What makes a good story?

March 11, 2015

What makes a good story?

Storytelling is coming into its own as a spoken-word art. It starts of course with the written word. With the beginning, the middle, and the end, so carefully crafted that the listener, or the reader, is drawn into the story before they are aware of it.

“Storytelling is joke-telling,” says Andrew Stanton (Toy Stories and Finding Nemo, among others you will know). “It’s knowing your punchline, your ending—knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal.”

Meaning, to me, if you don’t know how your story ends—and I mean to the very last period at the end of the very last word in your story, novel, poem, article—you can’t know how it must begin, or what has to be said throughout to bring your reader to that end. Not every story is a joke, not every tale is funny, but every one has a punchline.

Tom Albrighton (ABC Copywriting) noted some key points of storytelling, including drama (well, yes), relatability, immersion, simplicity, familiarity, trust in the story teller. All good measures to involve the reader. But I like this one best: “agency,” the art of letting readers work out the meaning of the story for themselves.

I discovered this concept by accident, on reading Hemingway for the very first time in my life, less than a year ago. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” chosen at complete random as the first to read from an anthology of all Hemingway’s short fiction.

And here’s what happened as I read this: There was no backstory provided, just the characters immersed in their world, doing what they were doing, saying what they were saying. I sought in vain for an anchor to hold the story, and in such seeking I leapt from one word, one sentence, to the next. I became invested in the story, shaping it in my mind as I went, thinking I knew what was happening and what was going to happen.

I was wrong about that, of course. The penultimate moment, when it came, not when or what I expected, was all the more powerful for the weaving of the story that had happened within my own mind. I had no word for it then, but I do now: “agency.”

Your job, as the storyteller, is to give that to your audience.

P. S. These hints were published in Toastmaster, the official magazine of Toastmasters International, an organization that every writer who wishes to promote a book through public speaking and book events. (More on Toastmasters in a future post).

P. P. S. Not all of Hemingway’s stories have this effect. The next one I read (and the last, as it turns out, largely from the failure of the promise) left me cold.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 12, 2015 11:18 am

    According 2 Ur wise comments U r going 2 love my story, I hv selected 2 read tonight.
    Look forward 2 seeing U.

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