Monday, February 18, 2019

Studying Stories as a Writer

The main fiction shelf in my house. 

Reading as a Writer

Reading helps us take in writing lessons on an unconscious level. When we read books in our genre (or even outside of it), we take in plot arcs, pacing, character development, purposeful dialogue, luscious descriptions, imagery, and metaphors. And, we take it all in without even thinking about it. It’s part of the DNA of the stories and books we read.

Let’s Not Forget Storytelling in All Forms

There are many ways to gain an unconscious knowledge of storytelling, to experience the DNA of stories. Storytelling can come in many, many forms. We have books, movies, short stories, poetry, T.V. or streaming show series, music, dance, art, and oral storytelling. We even have casual story-sharing moments – “Did you hear how I drove my parents to the grocery store and out for coffee in ten inches of snow last week?” (Yes, I really did that.)

How Do We Know a Story is Good

The DNA of story is wound in us and through us, individually and multi-culturally. Everyone loves a good story. And, what makes a story “good?” We know what makes it good intrinsically because we’ve read, viewed, listened, seen, and heard good stories, and sometimes great stories. We’ve also read, viewed, listened, seen, and heard terribly told stories, so we know what those are, too.

Studying the Craft Still Has a Purpose

We still need to study the writing craft or study our storytelling guides with a magnifying lens from time to time. It can truly help to slow down and take a long look at how each component of storytelling works within a story we love.

Last year, I spent several months reviewing every single superhero movies I had seen, but instead of just sitting back and watching them with family (okay, I did that, too), I watched most of them with a notebook and pen in hand and I took notes about scene changes, character development, dialogue, scene settings, mood, imagery, and metaphors.

I’ve been working on a superhero novel for a few years now and I “knew” something was wrong with my novel, but I couldn’t seem to pinpoint it until I watched all those movies, took all those notes, re-read a few dozen superhero novels and comics, read a few craft books, and asked myself questions while reading over my draft(s). I also took a course on Superheroes from edX which helped me understand the genre from a historical, pop culture perspective.

Just a few of the titles. I had to use the library for many of them.

I had the DNA-intrinsic knowledge of storytelling and the superhero genre to guide me, but I needed to study the intricate details of the genre and the craft of writing to see exactly what I was missing.

Tweet-able Take-Aways

As writers, we need to give ourselves time to enjoy stories as an audience and as students of our craft. #amwriting @TheIWSG

We need to read, view, see, hear, and experience stories to truly understand the DNA of story. #amwriting @TheIWSG

We need to study stories to discover the detailed nuances of our craft.                         
#amwriting @TheIWSG

If you are stuck in a story rut, take a moment to enjoy storytelling from the other side. Be an audience. Read. Watch. Listen. Learn. And, Enjoy!

How have you found stories (in all forms) to be inspirational and helpful to your writing?


Pat Hatt said...

Yeah, inspiration sure can come from all forms indeed. Sure a story to go out in ten inches of snow, one you can keep haha

Christine Rains said...

Most definitely! I often watch or listen to something, and if I really enjoyed it, I'll take some time to analyze why it grabbed me like that. Reading is a little easier to analyze, and that's why I try to pay attention to the stories of every kind of form.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

You read enough really good stories and the average to poor ones really stand out.

I love how neat your bookshelf is.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi Tyrean,

Fascinating post. Wow, you really put a lot of time and effort into learning this genre. It must have been quite FUN at times!

Reading is definitely gives writers inspiration! I was inspired by all the fantasy books I read and reread. The details, atmosphere, characters, missions, etc, totally influenced my writing. Although I only wrote one fantasy novel, my attention to staging scenes for each of my character's settings is something I have in all my writing genres....

Tyrean Martinson said...

Pat - yes, it can! And, this winter was just the first one in a long while where I had an occasion to drive in the snow without going to a ski/snow area.

Christine - I know what you mean. Reading takes a bit longer to analyze because some things just grab me and I'm not really sure why.

Diane - True. And, thanks! My "back" bookshelves of non-fiction in the back hallway are currently a mess and making me cringe. The rest of the house can have messes I walk by, but the book shelves are more important! :)

Michael - I may have spent a little extra time researching because I was enjoying it so much!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I do think we can never learn enough about the craft. And movies are one of my favorite ways to study dialogue and the story arc. I think I get too lost in a book to truly study it, whereas a movie, I can remain a bit more objective.

Mirka Breen said...

I find that I am reading differently since I began writing in earnest. Akin to the way a professional musician listens to music.

Cynthia said...

Kudos to you for driving your parents in 10 inches of snow. Maybe you can work that into your superhero novel.

cleemckenzie said...

A great list of resources for writers who want to get into the details of what makes a story work. Thanks, Tyrean

Tyrean said...

Elizabeth - I know how you feel. Movies (especially on repeat) are easier to study for story pace and dialogue.

Mirka - Yes, it's a different way to seeing/hearing the same notes.

Cynthia - maybe. :)

C. Lee - Thanks!

Fundy Blue said...

How great of you to take your parents out and about in a snowstorm, Tyrean! I read voraciously, and I learn from every book, good or bad. I'm currently reading "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari's writing is superb: clear, succinct, strong! I'm going to be analyzing this book from beginning to end to see how he does it. It's fact, not fiction, but what a story! Thanks for an informative and helpful post.

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent advice. I tend to be an osmosis learner and need to really work to focus my brain on the details. I haven't done the note-taking thing before but I think I'll give that a try!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Fundy - Harari's book sounds interesting. I think when someone has a strong narrative, it's good to see how they did it, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. And, for my parents, well, it was for me, too. We were all going a bit stir-crazy during the snow.

Jemi - It is interesting to note how certain scenes come together. Every single scene in Avengers (the first one) leads into the next scene with a visual, dialogue, or auditory clue/hook. I hadn't really noticed that until I started to take notes.

dolorah said...

I've watched/read many stories that I thought so well written I had to stop and make notes on what I thought worked so well. Plot layout, dialogue, relevant back story. Reading craft books helps realign my lagging thoughts, but sometimes seeing something brilliant in action is the best writing class.

Gina Gao said...

This is a great post, thank you for sharing!

Anstice Brown said...

I strongly believe that writers should read as much as they can, across all genres. Watching films also helps me to develop my knowledge of story writing. I hadn't thought about music, dance and art. But now you mention it, they do tell stories and we can learn from them.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Joylene - that's a great way of re-reading. The books are still memorable, but fresh enough to glean for story details.

Dolorah - I agree. Seeing something brilliant in action - on the page or on film - is a great way of studying the craft.

Gina - Thank you!

Anstince - I'm thankful to have a friend who choreographs dance for her dance studio and I have friends who love to tell stories in music and art, so they've gifted me with the a different way of looking for stories in every type of artistic expression.