How to write a story?

There are very few who do not love a good story. I have often wondered what it is that makes a story so fascinating. Then there are good stories and bad ones. Exploring what makes a story fascinating probably can give clues on what are the characteristics of a good story. Extending this further I was wondering if one can develop a framework to evaluate stories as well as serve as a guideline to write good stories.

To define what a story is, I would go right down to what distinguishes humans from other beings. As per me the most distinguishing features of humans are intellect and emotions, the head and the heart. So I would classify stories into two kinds – those that appeal to the head and those that appeal to the heart. Of course a hallmark of good stories is a combination of both. But I would keep these two aspects separate for simplicity of analysis.

Let us start from the top, the head. What is called intelligence is essentially an ability to solve problems. Evolution favored development of intelligence as it enabled man to solve diverse problems thrown up by nature. The brain tries to quickly gather all information available, sifts through, identifies all that is relevant and tries to come up with the most optimal solution based on the available information. As more information becomes available the solution keeps getting more refined. Copulation and eating are pleasant experiences by themselves, even when not done to serve their evolutionary purposes of procreation and providing nutrition respectively. Same is the case with problem solving. It is a pleasant experience in itself even if it has no practical purpose. This is one of the things a good story tries to exploit. It initiates the reader into a problem and slowly releases more and more information that enables him to proceed towards the solution.

A good story of the above kind is like a giant jigsaw puzzle whose size and number of pieces the reader does not know. One of the abilities of the brain is to duck bouncers. So right in the beginning, if one were to recognize that a problem is too complex, the mind decides that it would be prudent to avoid taking on the problem. In many practical cases flight makes a better strategy then fight. So it is the writer’s skill is to trick the reader’s mind into believing that the solution is just at hand. Else he will lose the reader right away. So in the very beginning the writer has to get the reader curious, which is the step of getting the reader to recognize the problem and take it on. To encourage the reader to hang on, there can be a big problem consisting of a series of smaller problems. Solving the smaller problems earlier on in the book can give the reader encouragement to keep going at the big problem. The master story teller has to release one clue after another and the readers must be left gaping for the next hoping that will solve the problem only to realize he has to wait for one more. It is a final balance. If anything is released too early, the problem is solved and reader looses interest. If too much is held back to the last, the reader may decide it is too tough mid way and give up. And finally, it should seem that the reader has arrived at the solution rather than some random solution popping up like a rabbit out of a hat at the end. Else the reader does not get the satisfaction of solving a problem.

Moving on to the heart, we seldom have control over our emotions. The world just plays with our emotions and we just have to stand by and experience them. Stories are one of the means of deliberately creating emotions and experiencing them. Stories describe situations that create a particular emotion. The mind has already associated certain emotions with certain kind of situations and so description of the situation triggers the corresponding emotion. The trick here is to make the mind believe that the reader is actually undergoing the experience that is being described. That is where the skill of the writer comes in. The descriptions have to be vivid and consistent for the reader to believe it is real. This concept is well illustrated in the movie ‘Inception’. The moment mind sees the boundaries of the world the book creates or inconsistencies, it stops believing and the story looses the ability to trigger emotions. That is why the writer has to make every effort to make the descriptions as complex and consistent as possible.

Many writers recognize the importance of keeping the settings sufficiently complex and consistent. But that is by no means sufficient in itself. From a writer’s point of view this exercise is a problem to be solved and weaving an imaginary situation that is sufficiently complex and consistent can be pleasurable. But then that is not sufficient from the reader’s point of view. The reader is looking to experience emotions. He wants to experience intense fear without exposing himself to danger. He wants to feel anger and wreck destruction and seek revenge without really hurting anyone or falling foul of law. He wants to experience the amazement of visiting a distant country or and inaccessible wonder of nature without incurring the expenses and the ardors of the journey. He wants to be part of great deeds of valor and nobility that he may not have opportunity to be part of in the real world. He wants to commit the vilest of crimes and experience sadistic pleasure without the repercussions. He wants to feel intense love and the pangs of loss for an hour and then close the book and get on with life. I can go on and on. But I guess I have made my point. Many stories, in spite of their complexity and consistency, fail to invoke these intense emotions and end up hovering at the emotional neutrality of just another day of the reader’s life. No wonder they fail in spite of the sincerest efforts from the writer.

Now it might seem I am suggesting a story to be either a problem or description of a situation that invokes a particular emotion. But most good stories are a combination of a problem and a myriad of emotions. There is no science around getting the right blend though. That is where writing becomes an art. The writer like any other artist has to rely on his feelings to judge if the blend is right. The final story has to seem real, have a problem that is neither too simple nor too complex and a set of emotions that gives the reader an overall interesting experience. There is no formula or technique for this. But this kind of analytical framework can help a writer avoid basic blunders before this stage.


Stan Szczesny said...

1. Your stuff on emotion reminds me of the Indian concept of 'rasa.'
2. Across cultures, we find differing religions, differing morals, differing laws, differing values. Almost every variant has been seen in one culture or another. But every culture I've encountered tells stories. We eat, sleep, drink, reproduce, and we tell stories. It's in our nature, perhaps, as you said, a fundamental part of our rational and emotive faculties.
3. I love a good short story. Ernest Hemingway is probably my favorite short story writer. I like Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle," Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," just to name a few.

Moonbeam said...

This is by far the best essay I've read on the 'logical' aspect of the art of story writing.

A relatively new trend (at least in Britain) is the advent of Masters degree in Creative Writing. One is taught the nuances of writing a novel, poems, drama, screenplay etc. An article in the Guardian discussed this trend. The article said one of the reasons for the popularity of this course could be the celebrity culture attached to a 'bestselling' author these days - the famed advances from the publishing houses, the rock-star type fan base etc.

So will every student graduating with this masters degree write a bestseller? I don't think so.

This is what I believe - one can have all the clever technique, the wonderful vocabulary, the complex plot - but the story will be drab, lifeless, soul-less, tasteless if it is not written from the heart. It sounds terribly silly, but that is what I truly believe. That is what differentiates 100 bestsellers from that 1 classic. In the true classic, the author's heart lies bare. You can see the struggle that has gone behind writing every word, shaping every character, painting every situation.

Just as some of the greatest actors and painters are born with the talent, I believe great writers too cannot be manufactured with degrees. it is an innate talent.

T F Carthick said...

Agree with you, Stan. Guess stories are an important aspect of being human. Even i was thinking of the rasas when I was writing this but purposely avoided explicit mention. Haven't read any of the short stories you mention. Must give it a try.

T F Carthick said...

Thanks, Sumana.Interestingly I feel like doing one of these courses. But I guess that is just me. I am a bit academically oriented though lectures and exams do not agree with me much. I am a bit sceptical if it is just enough for author to write from his heart. I feel the writer should think on the effect the writing will have on the typical reader. Else success of a story is left to sheer chance.

Moonbeam said...

I am sure the courses will be fantastic, especially the one offered by Oxford. Not only will you get to meet different people working on different genres, you will also get to meet authors, agents and publishers. Undoubtedly, this will be a huge boost for any new author.

As far as thinking about the effect on a reader - I dont know. As an author, I write stories... incidents that move me and entertain me. I (hopefully) design characters whom I believe in, and the reader can identify with. The only effect I hope my book will have on a reader is that it has entertained him/her, and he/she will buy my next book. Every reader will react to a book differently - so it is impossible to write a book keeping a reader in mind. in that case an author will lose his/her voice.

Karthik said...

Excellent article.
Somehow I've never thought about these things while writing.

I totally agree with the technical aspects of a story as explained by you. However, as Sumana said, one can't think about the reader while writing. The writer loses his focus completely, should he think of his readers. For every reader comes from a different background - cultural, social, etc. - and every reader carries with him his own emotional baggage, it's hard to satisfy everybody.
So one just has to write what one believes in. As the protagonist's teacher says in 'The curious incident of the dog in the night time' by Mark Haddon, "You should write something that you want to read again and again."

And yeah, rightly said. Like any other art, writing is an art too. It cannot be taught. Else every lit. graduates would be novelists.
Talking about technique, totally agree with you. There is no technique. Even if there was, I wouldn't follow it.

Shaolin Abbot: What is the highest technique you hope to achieve?
Lee: To have no technique.
- Enter the Dragon

T F Carthick said...

Thanks for reading and sharing your comments, Karthik. I get the point you and Sumana are making. If you get too consicous of the results, you may loose focus. I still do not have fixed views on what makes a good story and how one should write one. I have been reading them for 25 years and writing them for the past 1 year now. Probably I would like to explore further. I would like to constinue exploring what I liked in the stories I liked and try to consciosuly bring that to those that I write. It is with this purpose that i started my review series.

Unknown said...

lovely insights on how to write a story.

Unknown said...

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shail said...

Good write up TF.
What I wanted to say has been excellently put by Karthik and also Sumana. I heard Priyadarshan the director, who makes comedy movies in Malayalam, say in an interview that he made movies that he himself loved to watch. That is the way it happens when I write too. I don't think of the readers. They don't exist for me. I (I emphasize that I) want to write and write in a way that pleases me. As you all already know, I am not familiar with techniques and am not even a literature student. Like Sumana says, I believe it has to come from one's heart. If not something seems missing.
Having said that, will techniques polish the inherent desire/talent? Or diminish it? I do wonder about that.
I loved that bit from Enter the Dragon. It is gospel for me :) I go with Karthik, even if there is a technique, I certainly would not follow it :)

T F Carthick said...

Thanks, Jingle Poetry. I will participate if I can think of a poem in time.

T F Carthick said...

Thanks for reading an commenting, Shail. But I wonder why is story writing so different from music and dance? Are there any music or dance exponents who have never undergone any training ever? And even in the 'Enter the Dragon' example, isn't the idea that you master every technique and then transcend every technique rather start free style without any technique?

shail said...

You are right about that TF. That's why I wonder whether the techniques will not help by polishing what is inherent. Your example of dance and music ... also painting is quite right.
In the Enter the Dragon example, it is asked, 'what is the highest technique you hope to achieve?' which rather implies that techniques are being learnt with the ultimate goal being to transcend those. So that answers the question methinks.
I have noticed quite a few Literature graduates and post graduates write (in blogs) I find they have good vocabulary, excellent language skills, knowledge of classics and also very good story-line. But the way they present it is a failure. You almost feel sad that such a good thing is going to waste. That has had me wondering why it is so. Then I know certain others, excellent presentation of story lines, but their language is poor. I know one such blogger from sulekha. His short stories had been a delight to read. But he messed up with the language and used the wrong words sometimes, though instinctively one understood what exactly he meant to use. I wanted to offer to correct it for him, really! :)

T F Carthick said...

Yeah. You got my point, Shail. I write from my heart as you guys say and still my writings clearly do not have the desired impact. So I am trying to understand what is lacking in my writing and get that into my writing. For that I need to understand what exactly is good writing and then only can I measure the gaps between that and my writing. Hence this exploration.

shail said...

Hmm... I have to agree learning has its place in evolving as a writer (may be not for a lucky few) so long as you do not let techniques bind you when you express. They should act like the cuts made on a diamond I guess, make it sparkle even better.

Bluebell Books Twitter Club said...

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T F Carthick said...

Thanks Bluebell books. Will check out the prompt.

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