Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 9 of 10)

We end with a strong takeaway.

When we choose to tell a story, unless we're doing it only for entertainment, we give our readers something to make them ponder—even if they ignore the meaning.

Novelists of earlier times often addressed readers and told them the message they wanted them to grasp. As a child, I enjoyed Aesop's Fables because each story ended with a lesson for life.

These days our writing needs more subtlety, especially in illustrations or short pieces. If you've crafted a first-person story, you can say, "That day I learned . . . " Readers automatically transfer the "I" of the author to themselves.

Most of my blog entries present a takeaway, even when I'm not telling a story. I try to keep the words simple, direct, and easy to remember. The principle is the same: Leave readers with something they can take from our writing. Or another way to say it is: We reward them for staying with us.

A good takeaway is memorable;
it also enriches others' lives.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 8 of 10)

We build toward a meaningful climax.

I'm still using my opening sentences from Part 3 of this series about Dad and Christmas. If this were a novel or a short story, I'd set up the tension—slowly—and show the problems and hardships the family suffered—perhaps the loss of his job. Maybe their house burned and they had no insurance. What if someone had broken into their home and stolen all the presents and their money?

The previous sentences build the tension (the problem or conflict). Part of the building in any good story is to start with a problem. Instead of solving it, intensify it.

All the while, we're moving toward the climax. We start resolving the issues. Think of it as a ball of string. We unwind by resolving the last-mentioned problem and move toward the center. The initial problem (no Christmas presents) is the last one to solve.

Thus, once we set up the initial tension, everything else—including more conflict—propels us toward the ending. The solution. The resolution. The answer.

I continue to build a story 
to push readers to the climax.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 7 of 10)

Occasionally I read an illustration that refers to the girl or the man. We go along for two or three pages until the author says, "Her name was Cynthia and this is my story." No one cares about Cynthia, and withholding her name doesn't add anything.

By contrast, years ago I read the autobiography of the late actress Frances Farmer. Her 54-word opening stayed with me because of what she revealed and what she withheld:
For eight years I was an inmate in a state asylum for the insane. During those years I passed through such unbearable terror that I deteriorated into a wild, frightened creature intent only on survival.

And I survived.
I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats, and poisoned with tainted food.

And I survived.[1]
Her opening arouses emotions. She puts readers right in the middle of her pain. She didn’t clog the writing with dates or reasons for her incarceration. She saved lesser details for later. That makes good writing.

I focus on reader involvement—
that's the best way to start a writing project.

* * * * *

[1] Will There Really Be a Morning? By Frances Farmer (New York: Dell Publishing, 1982) p. 9.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 6 of 10)

We need to build suspense. Many writers don't get this simple principle about building suspense: It means we withhold significant information to build interest. Recently I read a manuscript and the first three paragraphs told me about a waif who was abandoned by her father and emotionally abandoned by her mother.

Paragraph 4 begins, "I was that child."

My response: Who cares? She told us many facts, but she didn't involve us emotionally in her story. Had she started with herself, she might have made us care.

By building tension, we nudge the reader onward—something that makes them want to know more. What happens next?

In the third blog of this series, I used this opening: "We won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year." With tears in his eyes, Dad turned his face away from us.

Let's build on those two sentences and add suspense.

Dad stared at his hands. "I wanted . . . I wanted to make this a special Christmas . . ." He didn't need to say more, because we understood.

What have I done? I've withheld the detail that you want to read. Why weren't there going to be presents? Why the teary eyes? I built on that by showing the broken heart of the father. Then I added one more significant detail: "We understood." No presents at Christmas and we understood?

Good stories 
withhold significant information.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 5 of 10)

Our pastor told meaningful, personal stories every Sunday. And they were fine illustrations. But I got tired of them because he was always the hero, the person with exactly the wise word, and he never failed.

Years later, on my fifth Sunday as a pastor, I said, "I was so angry, I lost control" and described my bombastic actions. After the service, Margaret Calloway rushed up to me, embraced me, and said, "Thank God, we have a pastor who gets angry and fails like the rest of us."

Her remark changed my style of preaching and later, my writing. Readers assume we're somewhat successful—or why are we writing? When we tell only of our achievements, we do harm in two ways.

First, we imply we're above failure and therefore better or more mature than they are. Second, we imply that they're inferior because they struggle over issues that don't trouble us.

I fail often—but I keep trying.
That concept tells readers that I'm one of them.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 4 of 10)

Too many writers feel they have to write an overwhelming, cataclysmic statement with powerful verbs. That rarely works.

When we tell a story, think of taking the hand of someone and saying, "Let's walk together." We want to interest them, not overwhelm them. If we can start with a simple statement that presents tension (a problem), that's all we need.

An article I wrote a few years ago began:

I couldn't understand why the Africans didn't remember their kindness toward me. I used twelve, easy-to-grasp words. In that article, I told of my return to Africa 15 years after I had lived there.

We don't want to overwhelm them with big, overstuffed words; we don't write to impress. We want to communicate. We do that by showing respect for our readers and their need to be involved in the story.

I forget the heavy drama when I write;
I focus on telling a good story that readers grasp.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 3 of 10)

Within the past several years, I've published five compilations. The submissions arrived, and I rewrote them for a consistent tone and voice.

Too many of them started badly. Here are two examples:

1. "It was the saddest Christmas of my childhood with no food and no presents until an angel named Harry Reeves brought us a large box on Christmas Eve."

2. Many patients die during surgery, rush through a dark tunnel, see a brilliant light, then find themselves at the pearly gates. I suffered from cancer, was pronounced brain dead, and found myself in the company of angels.

In both instances, the writers summarized the story in the opening sentence, so why would I want to read them? Good stories grab my attention and emotion with the first words and beguile me with what lies ahead.

"We won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year." With tears in his eyes, Dad turned his face away from us.

That's a good beginning because the opening

* grabs our attention;

* shows tension—a problem;

* makes us care.

I like to think of beginning sentences as earning the right to receive readers' attention. Readers owe me nothing—so my first task is to interest them enough that they'll continue to read.

Good beginnings entice readers to continue reading.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 2 of 10)

"I want to hug readers with my words." That's how my website begins. For some, that statement might sound too subjective.

Think of the act as putting our arms around a friend in a corner of a noisy room, lowering our voice, and speaking directly to that person. Some writers describe that as writing to a specific type of person.

As we write honestly, and with our own voice, we can hug our readers. Not everyone writes warm, loving words. We can write objectively—if that's who we are—as long as we write to draw in our readers (or hug them) with our words.

But regardless of our style, we can embrace our readers. Here's the way I started my monthly newsletter shortly after my wife died: "I can think of nothing more difficult than giving someone permission to die. You may have to do that."

The response told me that my words hugged many readers. And I wasn't trying for sympathy or pity, only to help them when they faced a similar situation.

By reaching out to their needs, I hugged them.

If I write to touch lives,
I embrace my readers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Telling Stories (Part 1 of 10)

Good writers tell good stories. That's the simplest way to say it. It doesn't matter if we're writing nonfiction or fiction—the principle is the same. A novel is a series of stories collected in one major story. We need to think of each scene as a story.

If we write nonfiction, illustrations make our prose readable. I caught on to the importance of that years ago when I found an old copy of Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. That book, first published in 1952, remained a best seller for decades, and a number of older writers referred to him regularly.

Every chapter gave a principle, but he wrote two or more stories to illustrate. That was insightful for me—and that was 40 years ago. Today, a nonfiction writer who can't tell good stories rarely sells.

Without giving a dozen reasons for telling stories, I assume you agree on their importance. The next nine blogs will focus on how to tell good stories. (Did you notice I told a story? It's about Peale.)

Stories convey truth,
sometimes better than stated principles.