The Soul of the Story [Guest Post by Don Whittington]

[Today I’ve got something super special for you guys. I’m all psyched up about it. I’m doing my little jumping up and down dance that always drives my dog crazy. That’s how excited I am.

Why am I so excited? Because today it is my pleasure to present to you a guest post by one of my favourite bloggers ever. Don Whittington writes The Automat, a breathtaking blog about art and life. If you haven’t heard of The Automat, you’re not alone. In my opinion, Don’s work is criminally under-appreciated. Seriously. Someone should go to jail. If you like art even a tiny little bit you should go and check out his blog. But first, read this.]

Albert asked if I would do a guest spot here, and I admit that I am somewhat reluctant to write about writing. Part of what I believe to be wrong with the current state of fiction is that so many people are writing about writing they never get around to writing a decent story. But equally, I know from having been a beginner myself once upon a time, there are certain questions that never get answered, and if someone would just answer them for you, you could get better.

I am going to answer them for you. Sort of.

Myth number one: Writing must be good to sell well.

Are you kidding me? We have all read best-selling books filled with ham-handed sentence constructions, grammatical errors, misspellings, and glaring errors of fact. It should be apparent to anyone not born this morning that good writing is not the issue. The fact is, your use of language can be perfect and the world will yawn. Your plot construction can be a masterpiece of scene and sequel and everyone will ignore you at once and with spectacular harmony. This happens when you suffer from SPW: Shitty, Pretty Writing. You are reading SPW when everything seems extraordinarily well written, but you are still bored out of your mind. Most people, once aware of it, can get beyond this stage and conquer SPW, but sadly, some never do.

Language is important; language is integral to how your story functions even as your car’s parts contribute to its handling on the road. But people don’t buy fuel injectors, they buy Porsches. Here are things no editor cares about: “I wrote 3,000 words today!” “I have fifteen Chapters!” “I wrote a great log line!” “I framed my outline and hung it on the wall!” Here is what they do care about: “My protagonist is in so much trouble.” “That choice has destroyed her marriage.” “I killed my child!” “Timmy fell down the well.”

Story, story, story, story, story…(repeat 3,000 times and say, “I wrote 3,000 words today!”)

You’ve written 110,000 words but do you have a story? A real story and not some mood flecked throwaway crap destined for the mountain of forgotten New Yorker pseudo-intellectual-paeans-to-solipsistic-omphaloskepsis. Here’s how you tell.

Drum roll:

A real story can only occur when characters, about whom the reader has come to care, experience change or growth.

High hat!

I made that up years ago and it borrows heavily from everything everybody else made up before me, which is to say, I may well have stolen it. Hope so. It works.

Other things matter in that they help satisfy these conditions. Drama occurs when good people make bad choices. Pinocchio is like a little lesson in how to tell a story. He makes the wrong choice again and again and again. But a bad choice is not enough by itself. Something has to be at stake. Pinocchio can only redeem himself if he saves his father who is about to die because of Pinocchio’s poor choice.

Other details should be seen to. Does your protagonist have obstacles appropriate for his challenge?

John wanted pickles with his sandwich, but he knew that if he opened the jar, the dragon would devour his neighbor, Mrs. Jennison. “You can live without a pickle, John,” said his practical yet secretly tormented and surprisingly stunning wife Jane. “Never. I need only fashion a spiny armor from these bits of artichoke…”

In writing classes people practice exercises in which they ask the “What if?” question to arrive at story ideas. This is a great exercise, but remember to follow it up with the “So what?” question.

“What if everyone in the world suddenly had good breath?”

Remember that a story does not have to be complicated to enthrall. It simply has to be honest and effective. You get your readers to care about your character by caring yourself, as the writer. But readers have expectations. If your character suddenly steps out of character because that’s how you outlined the story, your reader will drop you in a heartbeat. People are subject to cause and effect, just as things are. During the telling of your story, you have probably rendered your outline obsolete. When characters begin to live, they sometimes do things you didn’t expect or want. Tough. That’s the briar patch we all want to be thrown into. Send your outline to sit in the corner with the people who count “was’s” and “POV” slips. Meanwhile, you follow your now grown-up, three-dimensional character who is changing the world, baby.

Don’t get too worried about how complicated your story is. That is a plot question, and those bits of business are plot points. Plot serves story, but it is not story by itself. People are stories. Plots don’t buy books, people do. (Though people also sometimes buy plots for when they’re done being people, but that’s another story.) Anyway, complications are not that important. At the end of the day, the vast majority of stories can be ground down to three types:

Kicking someone’s ass.

Winning someone’s heart.

Living with the consequences of having failed to kick someone’s ass and/or win their heart.

Simplistic? You bet, and thank God, because deep down we writers often are just not very smart.

Myth number 2.

Myth number 2 is that when you start out numbering things there have to be others.

[My thanks to Don for so graciously writing this post. And if you’re too lazy to scroll up to the top of the page to click the link to his blog, here it is again. Go. Read. You will be amazed.]

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14 responses to “The Soul of the Story [Guest Post by Don Whittington]

  1. That is a hilarious post and IMHO an excellent tonic for me as a wannabe. Thanks Albert and Don. Cathy x

  2. Myth number one: Writing must be good to sell well.

    Have you read Twilight? I’m not kidding. I will never forgive my writing group for all telling me I had to read it…and they LIKED it.

    • I’m with you Madtante, I did not like Twilight at all! The whole time I was reading it I had to keep reminding myself– this is written for a 14 year old not a 41 year old. I read the first paragraph of Eclipse (you know, so I could say I read the whole series) and closed the book. I couldn’t put myself through it, it was just too painful. I have friends (my age) that rave about how awesome that series is and how much they love it and aren’t their husbands wonderful for buying them the whole series of books and DVDs. Yeesh. I was beginning to feel, however, as if I were the only person on the planet who didn’t like Twilight so it’s good to know there are at least two of us! lol 🙂

      • It’s not that it was YA…it’s truly crap. That’s my opinion but again, I’m not afraid to give it 🙂

      • Yeah, I’m with you. In spite of my “Defense of Twilight” post a while back, I personally can’t stand it.
        I think that’s the point though. It’s popular in spite of being “bad.” Because there are people who care about the characters and what happens to them.

    • I respect your opinions but I like it. The writing’s easy to understand and I can just see Edward in his sparkling glory. It’s how SM presented the story. She’s a great story teller, which in the end, was all that matters. We might write well but if we can’t write the story that speaks to us, it won’t mean anything. It’s one of my favorite books but I know that some people don’t like it. That’s fine, too. We can’t all like the same books.

  3. Very much appreciated! and enjoyed. ( one of the many who do not have good breath… love my coffee!)

  4. Excellent. And Mr. Whittington has a new blog subscriber. 🙂

  5. Hi Don!

    Great post. I am constantly amazed and disgusted by all the crap I read. I’m listening to a book now that is painful to read. It’s not the first. The story and plot aren’t bad but the writing is dreadful! I keep slogging along because published writers have said– read everything, even the bad stuff, even the stuff that makes you think, I can write better than that, maybe especially read that stuff. This particular book has been an excellent lesson in how to write very bad dialogue.

    I like the “so what?” question that goes along with “what if?” I’ve never asked that question and I think it will help me get over the hurdle in my current story.

    Thanks Albert for turning over space to Don today, and thanks Don for all the great guidance!

  6. Just give us the keys to the Porsche and let us go! As to making the Porsche for others to enjoy . . . thank you for the look under the bonnet, Albert and Don.

    I am a lazy subscriber but a happy linker, do hope you don’t mind.

  7. Happy to know Mr. Whittington and having heard his work I heartily agree with Albert that his writing is SERIOUSLY under-appreciated. If you want to write, pay attention to him. He knows just a thing or two. Or a gajillion. He’s helped many an author. Love his blog. And now Albert has a new subscriber. 🙂

  8. You’re right. It’s the story that matters and not the grammar so much. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had good parts as well as boring but it sells quite well. I love the good parts and I could sit through the boring parts to get to the good parts.

  9. Ha ha ha ha! Re the Twilight series: I tried to read the leaked first draft of one of them and had to put it down because it was so badly written. I don’t think the story itself is bad, but it seems like a lot of other ones. You’re not the only ones who don’t like it! What drivel!

    Thanks, Don, for the post, and thanks, Albert, for this blog!

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