Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Magic of Stories

The other day as I sat on the beach at the edge of the breaking surf, I thought about stories and how they exert their pull on us as readers and writers, calling to us just as the sea calls to us.

What is it that pulls us into a story? And how can we as writers learn to exert this pull on our readers?

That pull, that tugging of our heart, begins the moment we open a book and begin reading the first page, the first sentence, the first words.

What do those words need to contain to hold our interest?

And what compels us to turn the page?

The background of the author--how many years he or she might have spent in school, where he or she grew up, whether he or she is married or single, with or without children--is irrelevant. (When it comes to the story, all we care about, really, is the story.)

All we want to know, as readers, is this: will the story hold our attention? Is it suspenseful? Can it arouse our curiosity and sustain it long enough to plant the all-important question in our mind: what will happen next?

That's the storyteller's gift, and it's all we really care about the storyteller. Does he or she have this gift to make us care about turning the page?

Part of the gift is knowing how to breathe life into a story, which means taking the reader out of his or her life into a land of make-believe.

How well we do the job will determine the number of people who want to read our work.

So our knowledge of the elements of good storytelling is crucial to our survival as storytellers.

There's the usual recipe: beginning, middle, and end.

And the usual ingredients: character, setting, and plot.

And the added spices that make the story uniquely our own: tone, pacing, and voice.

There's all this, and then there's the mystery, really, of how all these elements come together.

Hidden in each writer's heart, I think, is the key, and each story requires a different key to unlock it.

Sitting on the beach as the waves break and reflecting on the process of storytelling, I wonder how we find that key.

Maybe it's stubbornness--or plain hardheadedness--that keeps us searching day after day.

And yet, even on days when I dive into the surf and come up empty-handed, I still enjoy the process.

And that's a mystery, too.


laurasalas said...

I agree, Bruce, that it's a mystery. I read (or start to read) so many books lately that are perfectly fine. But that's not good enough anymore. If it's like I'm on a float riding the waves of a story, I usually stop reading--even if I enjoy the plot and like the character. Now I need a story to really pull me in, as you said, so that I feel like I'm swimming in the world of the I couldn't possible get to shore without riding the current of the story and losing myself in it. Of course, how to accomplish that as a writer? Sigh. No idea.

Bruce Black said...

I know what you mean. I find books around the house that I started months ago but put aside and never felt the urge to finish. They start off perfectly fine, as you say, and then something happens--that current (of electricity, of emotion, of something) vanishes, and I end up treading water for a few pages, and then I get out of the water of the book and seek another book that will pull me into the mystery and hold me there. I think the mystery involves the way a writer offers his or her heart on the page, but how to do it? That's part of the mystery of writing, I guess. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Laura. Always great to hear from you.

Dianne Ochiltree said...

It's a mystery, true...but a delightful one. Stories need to be a subliminal conversation between the writer and the reader, and as is true with intentional conversations, will have an infinite pool of tonal possibilities, of subject and object, and volume. If I feel an author is reaching out to me from the heart, I will keep reading even if there are things about the technique I'm not crazy about. It comes down to the sense that the writer has something important to say to me, the reader.

Bruce Black said...

A subliminal conversation is the perfect way to describe the exchange between writer and reader. How a writer manages to create the subliminal connection is part of the writer's craft, I think, but also part of the mystery of writing. As a reader, I almost always hope to *feel* the connection through the voice that emerges on the page. Without that voice, that sense of a pulse flowing from the writer's heart--as well as what you describe, Dianne, as "something important to say"-- I'll lose patience and eventually put the book down. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.