Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dissecting Stories

By Mark W. Danielson

Forget high school biology, this dissecting pertains to storytelling. I emphasize the word storytelling because whether a story is told over a campfire, written in prose, or sung, it remains a story, and for each story, there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sure, every writer knows that, but sometimes the creative process sidetracks us. To retain audiences, our stories must be compelling, logical, and unique.

To prove my point, consider this line, “Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed.” For some, grins emerge as images flash of an old TV series, but younger people are probably saying, “And?” This first line from The Beverly Hillbillies theme song is an excellent example of storytelling because of how it draws you in. Certainly, it helps that the male singer is likeable and sounds like he’s sitting across from you at a campfire, but the lyrics are what invites us to listen to his story. Since novels don’t normally have audible narration, its first words must immediately captivate the reader’s interest with the same intensity as The Beverly Hillbillies’ tune.

The middle of your story contains the key points you want your readers to know. If I was to quote the entire Hillbillies theme song, you would know that Jed was hunting, shoots his gun, his bullet goes into the ground, and up comes crude oil. This song packs a lot of information into a few words, and when combined with the visual images on screen, leaves an indelible mark. If a writer’s intent is to convey a message, then the story’s middle must express clear elements that are interesting enough to carry the story to its conclusion. In this regard, every word must count. If it doesn’t sound right when you read it aloud, then re-write until it does.

Stories end with summaries from the beginning and explanations of the middle. The Beverly Hillbillies theme song ends with the Clampets moving to Beverly Hills where neither the Clampets nor Beverly Hills is ready for their lifestyle clashes. Did this thirty second song captivate its audience and tell this story? Considering the show’s longevity and the fact that we still remember it, I’d say yes. In fact, the black and white Beverly Hillbillies sitcom is sustainable enough to be back on Retro TV. Imagine that.

I chose this theme song as an example because it still sticks with me after all these years. How many books can you name that have this same effect? For me, it’s Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum because of the images it summons. Few books have piqued my interest that way, but that’s the difference between a classic tale and just another read.

Understanding story composition is easier than ridding a catchy theme song from your head. If you don’t believe, see how long it takes before The Beverly Hillbillies goes away. That’s the power of well-scripted words.


Charmaine Clancy said...

That's a fantastic template. Simple and effective. Thanks :)

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good advice and an innovative template, Mark. After reading your post, the Beverly Hillbillies' theme song won't stop playing in my head. I loved the show at the time. :)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Break out the banjo, Jean, we're going to Beverly Hills!

Charmaine, Jean, as much as I'd like to take credit for the template design, I borrowed it and used it for this blog because of its simplicity. No matter how complicated a story is, this template still works.

Morgan Mandel said...

Now, If I can just be organized enough to fill in your template on my next novel. It's too late already for this one.

Morgan Mandel

Mark W. Danielson said...

It's never too late, Morgan. Remember that summary you have to do? (I really hate writing summaries.)