Friday, June 3, 2011

Busted!—Storytellers caught giving authors a leg up

As a developmental editor, I do the same stuff all editors do. I challenge word choice and track continuity and check for consistency in voice and clarity of meaning and errant punctuation. But my main task—and my true love—is to help you tell a good story.

Since this is where any thorough edit should start, one might think it is also where a writer’s education begins. This is not necessarily so. I learned an awful lot about stringing words and paragraphs together for maximum punch before I learned anything about storytelling. In fact, I had to seek out my teachers in this regard, and I am humbled to now step up to the plate and pass along what I've learned to other storytellers.

While the projects I assess vary greatly, I find myself recommending certain storytelling resources again and again. Since some of my favorite authors write about this topic, I thought I’d bust them here today. A summer spent studying these techniques would boost your storytelling skills. And if you happen to have a work in progress, your characters' problems will help you absorb the lessons all the more quickly.

Kathryn’s favorite books on storytelling craft:

1. Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon

I don’t think it gets any simpler and clearer than this. Romance writer Deb Dixon (who also gives an awesome one-day seminar by the same name) breaks down the basics of storytelling in a way that applies to any genre.

2. Story by Robert McKee

This one has a more academic feel, and at $35 (new hardback; amazon has it cheaper and you can get it used) it’s an investment, but if you make your way through it you will have provided yourself a top-rate education. Aimed at screenwriters, there is much here for the novelist to absorb. I’ve heard you can skip the expensive seminar—it’s all in the book.

3. A Story is Promise by Bill Johnson

Another book for screenwriters from which novelists will benefit. I highly recommend this book for writers willing to mine for story gold by learning the essential craft of writing a synopsis. By this book’s end, you’ll be able to go back and re-craft your opening line. Apparently once again out of print, snap it up used before it’s gone.

4. How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost

Literary agent Rubie built this revealing look at good storytelling upon the notes of his deceased colleague, creative writing guru Gary Provost. Again, sadly out of print (I was not consulted on this unfortunately), but snap it up used like I did. This description of story, translated onto your characters, will already help you:
Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he so strenuously sought, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in the past.

A few others come to mind: To learn about archetypal structure you can’t beat The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and The Key: How to Write Damn Good Myth-Based Fiction by James N. Frey (I outlined my first novel while reading this and Frey also gives a great plotting workshop); anything by literary agent Donald Maass will help you write and also sell (he also gives great workshops); and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby is another workhorse.

But if you read the first four—and are compelled to re-read them, as I have been—you will gain the tools you need to write compelling stories.

What are your favorite storytelling resources?

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Oddly enough, most of what I learned about storytelling came from an old history prof ... he taught me how to write ... by applying the blood-red pencil liberally and deservedly to my papers. It was tough love, but I learned how to tell a story ... which was important, because I sure as heck didn't know the answers!

  2. I liked, How to Write a Selling Screen-play, by Christopher Keane. It was excellent and made me pay attention to things I had not thought about - though I'm not writing a screen play, it was the most useful tool, aside from other writer's blogs.

  3. Thanks Dawn, I'll have to check that one out! Why is it the screenplay writers have such a corner on the storytelling market--anyone? Maybe because they're limited to 120 pages...

    And Chris: Sounds like you learned about the BRP early on. The storytelling dilemma: what to cut, and what to leave, to tell the most effective yarn?

    Sorry for my delayed comments--serving as registrar at the 63rd annual Philadelphia Writers' Conference today!

  4. I'm addicted to craft books! Whenever I come across a passage that hits me like a lightning bolt of truth, I make notes on an index card and tape it to my inspiration wall.

    I LOVE one of your suggestions: Story by Robert McKee. From that book, I wrote "Story tells us how to live" on a card.

  5. "Story tells us how to live": brings a tear. Thanks, Tamara.

  6. I'd add two to the list. The Novel Writer's Toolkit by Bob Mayer and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. Both excellent resources for a writrer


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