Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Becoming A Visual Storyteller

NOTE: A little something I'm trying out for my writing students. It's not quite ready yet. Suggestions?

Writers want readers to keep reading.

Writers do that best by telling stories.
The best stories connect to the reader personally by offering them detail – or withholding it – in ways that compels them to continue.
Do these clips show or tell? Do they do both? What do they show? What do they tell? What do they withhold? Explain your answer.
I’ll take the last one as an example.
This clip tells us little. We don’t know who the man, the woman, or the child are. We don’t know if they have a relationship. We don’t know where they are, or what circumstances have brought them together. We know it’s winter.
This clip shows us a lot, or at least lets us assume a lot. (As writers, we can let our readers assume, because our readers are smart. But if we want them to assume, we have to show them the right kinds of clues so they assume at least some of what we’re going to tell them.)
We can assume the man is used to living alone; an unexpected noise, not of an animal or of the environment – but of a human being – startles him. We can assume the woman and child have a relationship. We can assume their presence in this environment is accidental or at least poorly planned– neither woman nor child are adequately prepared, clothing-wise, least of all the woman. We can assume it’s cold, because even with a blanket and wearing a jacket and sleeping near the fire, the man has to stoke the fire to get additional heat.
We can assume the man’s house is not their intended destination – if it is, why wait outside in the cold?
We can assume the woman is troubled. Her appearance is haggard. She is unkempt. She either left home without a coat, or has no coat to wear. And while her child has a coat, it is unzipped and she has no shoes on; only the feet in her pajamas protect her. No mother in full control of herself would allow her child outside in such circumstances, or allow her to wander off in such an environment.
And we, as readers/viewers, are begging for more. We want to know who these people are, and what brought them together. Most certainly, we want to know what happens to them.
This is excellent writing.
Do I expect this kind of writing from you?
Not yet. Because I’m still struggling with doing this kind of thing myself.
But I do want you to think about details. I want you to think about what you should show, and what you should tell. We can do this with any kind of writing. I’ll show you. Here’s my “This I Believe” essay.
I sat in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third grade classroom, next to the bookshelf.
When I got my school work done – and sometimes even before it was finished – I’d pull a book off the shelf to read. There I found the magical worlds of Robert C. O’Brien, Beverly Cleary, Alexander Key, and so many others.
I wondered at a new world alongside Jon O’Connor after he fell through that forgotten door from his planet into the wilds of the Carolinas, befriended by the Bean family, hunted by the greedy Gilby Pitts. I tagged along in the background as Henry Huggins romped with Ribsy, that ragged, sharp-eyebrowed dog beneath the bold serif font declaring his name on the cover of the book. I sat beside Mrs. Frisby in the rats’ library, rapt at the story of the how the rats of NIMH gained their intelligence and how they hoped to use it to stop stealing from man, and later soared with her on the back of Jeremy the crow in the film inspired by the book.
Then I promptly did nothing about it.
Oh, I did little things. A poem here, a short story there. But through several fits and starts, I never did what I set out to do, there in the back corner of Mrs. Barrett’s classroom at Lincoln Elementary.
Until 2010.
By then, my wife and I had a third-grader of our own, plus two other children. I was working as a writer – but as a technical writer at a Department of Energy laboratory, after ten years as a journalist. It paid the bills, but hardly satisfied the soul.
During a lunch break in late January that year, however, I sat at my computer mulling the madelines of memory. I pecked out a few hundred words, centered on two boys, bored at living in their primitive village, longing instead to climb the cliffs that ringed them in and climb toward the stars, then over and out the green pass that led to the world beyond.
Maybe, I thought, I have something.
So the next day, at lunch, I wrote some more.
Each day, it became an obsession. Write a few more hundred words about these curious boys, now departed from the only home they’ve known into a mysterious school training them to become –I didn’t know. I kept writing, on the bus rides home, late into the night on weekends. And at lunch. Many lunches. I posted snippets of this growing story on my blog. If anyone ever read them, I didn’t know it. I knew a third-grader who was reading them. And he kept insisting, staring at those words in the ethers, that the story continue.
It did.
By January 2011, those first few hundred words turned into 114,000 words.
I’d written a novel.
It’s unpublished. It’s unedited. It’s raw. But there, in that little folder on my desktop, in that binder at home, on the thumb drives were I’ve stored it, my first novel awaits the finishing touch that may someday lead it to sit on a bookshelf in the back corner of some dusty classroom where another kid will pull it off the shelf and fall into the world I created because that inner third-grader who still loves the rats of NIMH told me I had to do it.
I believe, with the proper tools and motivation, one person can indeed move a mountain. I’ve got other mountains to move yet, but at least I’ve finally written a story that’ll get me out of the foothills and back on that track I found in that desk next to the bookshelf in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third-grade classroom.
What do I show?
I show where and in what environment I decided I wanted to become a writer.
What do I tell?
I tell I’m still working on it.
What do I leave out?
I leave out that I’ve written three other unpublished books since then, and that I’m still working on them until they’re good. I hope I left you wanting to know more, but not so much more that you’re mad I left too much out.
This is like “Angels on A Pin.” There is no one right way to write, no one right way to tell a story. There are infinite ways to do so, and it’s up to us to find out which ways we can work with.

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