John Ostrander: Narrative Selection
We’re all storytellers. It’s the common currency of our social interactions. We use story to explain, to amuse, to communicate and a host of other tasks in our daily lives. Some of us get to make our living telling stories. Some of us are better at it than others.
The problem with some people who tell stories verbally (and I have been guilty of this from time to time) is that we tend to lose our audience. That’s because we forget to check in with those who are listening. If the eyes of the listener are glazed ever so slightly, you’ve lost them. It’s harder to tell when this happens when you’re writing a story but it can happen there, too, and often does.
A big question is – how much do we need to tell to communicate the story? Actually, I should say how little do we need? What’s the minimum? What is really necessary? What is necessary to know and what is necessary to tell?
I have what I call the iceberg theory. The bulk of an iceberg exists under the waterline; only about ten percent of it shows above it. That other ninety percent is necessary, however, for the top ten percent to show. That’s plenty enough to sink an “unsinkable ship.” The same is true with character and story: you have to know a lot about the characters, the setting, the background of the plot and so on but only a small part of it can or should be used. You’ll sometimes have an author (and, yes, this is another thing of which I have been guilty of from time to time) who, having done all this research, wants to use it. Guaranteed fatal error; the audiences eyes glaze and they’re lost.
Or the author may want a certain scene or bit of dialogue in the story because, you know, it’s so swell and makes them look really clever. Those bits need to be cut out unless they are moving the plot, the characters, or the theme forward. It’s called “kill your darlings.” Elmore Leonard said that when he goes back over a draft he removes anything that sounds like writing. He’s pretty successful and that’s good advice.
A lot of the time, whether in story or in real life, I think we over-explain. We don’t want to be misunderstood and there’s lots of good reasons for that; we see all too many examples of people not only misunderstanding but willfully misunderstanding. Witness the current presidential election season. However, it’s fatal in storytelling.
Some rules I try to follow in my storytelling: 1) Assume the reader’s/listener’s intelligence and goodwill. Assume they want to be told a good joke or read a good story. 2) What is the minimum they need to know to understand the premise? Usually less than you might think. 3) When in doubt, cut it out. If you’re not sure a line/character/scene is really working, try taking it out and see if everything still makes sense. If it does, then delete the junk permanently. 4) Fewer words are better. Leave your audience wanting more instead of wishing you were done already.
What you choose to tell is what makes it your story. Another person might choose different elements to tell the same story. It’s why different people can tell different versions of the same joke.
Remember, glaze is fine on a doughnut; not so much in your audience’s eyes.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell, R.N., CNOR, C.G.
Thanks, John. Good communications advice. Working on that one.
No glazed eyes over here on this article. Thanks for the great advice and reminders!
The fine line to walk though… I find… is where information is crucial to the enjoyment of the character / beat / moment. But my rule of thumb has been “if it requires explanation, it most likely isn’t going to hold the attention of the reader.” … and then I find a new way to approach the script.
Hey, Mr. Ostrander you should check out this link, you might get a kick out of it: