Flowers growing out of an old book.

Old Book With Flowers by cocoparisienne (license)

Not long ago, I had an editing client who had meticulously plotted his story according to the most reputable advice he found. He’d read dozens of books, spent thousands of dollars on seminars and workshops, and worked one-on-one with a mentor and two other editors – one of them prestigious. For each chapter, he’d thought through his inciting incident, climax, resolution, and more. But despite all of that work, he still didn’t have the knowledge he needed to plot his novel. Every time an editor looked at it, it needed another overhaul.

And his experience isn’t unique. I’ve talked to writers who received rejection after rejection without knowing what they were doing wrong. I’ve heard from people who felt that trying to write a good story was akin to rolling the dice.

We’ve been taught that this is just how things are, but that’s not true. It’s happening because no one is teaching the most essential lesson in storytelling.

Instruction Is Failing Us

Generally, it’s expected that when teachers give assignments, they will teach students how to complete the assignment. If the student masters every lesson the teacher delivers, they should have the skills necessary to get a good grade. In almost all classes, this is taken for granted. That’s just how teaching works.

But as soon as creative writing is the subject matter, no one believes that anymore. Many teachers just tell students to write a story and then mark points off when it isn’t engaging, without offering any instruction on how to make it so. It’s as if they expect students to walk in the door already knowing what the class is supposed to teach.

Once they leave school, people can demand more value in exchange for their money, but they are left to piece together an education on their own. With schools setting such a low bar, aspiring authors might not even realize they have something to learn, much less what. They aren’t in a position to scold editors for being vague or distinguish good advice from bad. Learners are easy to take advantage of, and even instructors with the best intentions may not be helpful.

Why aren’t we getting a better storytelling education? Because most instructors don’t know what they know.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Perhaps you can also remember a time when you couldn’t articulate why you made a specific judgment about something or someone. This happens because much of our knowledge is subconscious. Our brain is recognizing patterns on its own, without our awareness.

Now imagine that you know it when you see it, but you have a student who doesn’t know it when they see it. Your student needs to replicate what they can’t see. How would you instruct them?

If you’re trying to teach storytelling, you might tell them:

  • Read lots of books.
  • Get lots of practice by writing every day.
  • Change methods. Finish every story, or alternately, let go of your current story and write a different one. Outline. Don’t outline.
  • Ask yourself lots of contemplative, open-ended questions about your writing.
  • Sorry, but you just have to be born knowing it when you see it. Only the chosen are worthy!

In a best-case scenario, an instructor in this position will ask students to write a story without direction and then use their gut to describe what each story needs in imprecise terms. Then it’s up to the students to make sense of this and come up with a strategy for doing better.

Unsurprisingly, these teaching techniques usually fail, and when they do, the student will be blamed. But the failure is the instructor’s; they neglected to make their conscious mind discover what their subconscious knows. We cannot teach what we do not understand.

So, what is it that instructors see but can’t articulate? Lots of things, but one thing in particular.

What Is a Story?

No really, what does that word actually mean? What is the thing it represents?

A layperson or learner often thinks that a story is any recounting of events; the storyteller chooses whatever events they feel like. Let’s test this, shall we?

A pebble fell. Mia walked to class in her red sweater. The price of Microsoft stock went up by a dollar.

Is that a story you would tell to someone? Why not? It has a sequence of events.

Mia is only in the middle sentence. Maybe this isn’t a story because it lacks a main character that features throughout. Let’s try that and see if it’s still lousy.

Mia dropped a pebble. Mia walked to class in her red sweater. Mia sold Microsoft stock after the price went up.

You might consider this an improvement, but Mia clearly hasn’t turned this situation around. No one would tell this as a story, so a sequence of events featuring a person does not, in itself, create one.

You might be screaming that it needs a plot. But what is a plot, exactly? We can’t say three acts; there are already three acts right there. They aren’t good acts, but that’s my point. It’s not having three acts in itself that matters, and by the same token, simply having a beginning, middle, and end won’t do it.

Maybe it needs rising action, a climax, and falling action. You know, the one thing your grade school actually taught you about stories. But did your grade school break down exactly what “rising action” was? Since the answer is probably “no,” let’s go with the simplest layman’s definition. It means getting in bigger fights as the story continues. I’ll add another sentence so the rising action is longer than the falling action. Also, I’ll be generous and say Mia is still a main character, in case that helps.

Mia dropped a pebble. Mia wrestled another student in her red sweater. Mia fought pirates out on the ocean. Mia sold Microsoft stock after the price went up by a dollar.

Ta-da! It’s the story you were taught to write in grade school. Except it’s not a story. If you tilt your head and squint, maybe it looks a bit like a baby book, but only because I haven’t bothered to vary the sentence structure much.

Well, folks, we are a big failure as writers. Clearly we were not chosen. But like any aspiring storyteller who makes it anywhere, let’s keep trying.

Our biggest problem is that the events in our wannabe story don’t feel related. But how do they need to be related? Let’s go back 2,300 years and use Aristotle’s advice in Poetics. It’s hard to understand him, but he essentially means each event in the plot should cause the next one to occur. He specifically stated that featuring one character throughout isn’t necessary.

A pebble fell. Mia heard it hit the ground and paused to look for it. She spotted some litter instead and threw it away.

You’ve failed us, Aristotle. This follows the three Neoclassical Unities and everything, and it still isn’t a story. However, it does feel like it could be part of a story, so we’re probably getting closer.

Let’s add in another definition I find occasionally, which is probably from theater. A story features a character pursuing a goal. Let’s give Mia a goal to pursue throughout. To speed things up, I’ll not only keep adhering to Aristotle’s rule of causality, but I’ll also end with Mia achieving her goal, even though an ending isn’t usually specified in this definition.

Mia wanted a shiny pebble. She walked outside where there were pebbles. She grabbed a shiny pebble and put it in her pocket.

That’s a little better. The events are not only related, but it also feels like there’s a reason why it starts where it does and ends where it does. Even so, it’s definitely missing something, because the whole thing feels too unremarkable to tell to someone.

Let’s give it that thing writers are always talking about: conflict. What is that? I’ll give you the definition for free: it is a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal. That means getting the pebble needs to be difficult for Mia.

Mia wanted a shiny pebble. She walked outside where there were pebbles. Unfortunately, it was dark, and try though she might, she couldn’t see which pebbles were shiny. Finally, she took out her phone and used the flashlight app. Mia found a shiny pebble and put it in her pocket.

We’re getting warmer; this is starting to look like a story. But the shiny pebble still feels so trivial. Who cares?

To make people care, storytellers do what’s called “raising the stakes.” This means making it so bad things will happen if Mia doesn’t get that shiny pebble and good things will happen if she does. Let’s add some stakes – though we have to let go of our dear friend, the pebble.

Through the window, Mia saw a gold coin shining in the grass. With that coin, she could pay for the medication she needed. She went outside to find the coin. Unfortunately, it was getting dark, and try though she might, she couldn’t see it shining anymore. Finally, she took out her phone and used the flashlight app. Mia spotted the gold coin and put it in her pocket.

I think we have a story! It’s not a perfect one, something about her finding the coin with her flashlight app doesn’t feel right. But at this point, I don’t think many people would claim it isn’t a story.

We got here by:

  • Making each event cause the event after it.
  • Writing about a character pursuing a goal.
  • Giving the character a conflict over their goal.
  • Ending with the character achieving their goal.
  • Giving the goal significant stakes.

Well, I guess that’s it. We’re done. Or are we? For these criteria to be a good definition of what a story is, not only must they force us to create a story, but they shouldn’t rule out any stories.

So let’s reverse. Instead of writing the worst thing I can that follows the rules, I’ll try to write something that’s indisputably a story yet breaks them.

An alien ship landed just outside of town, emitting cosmic rays that made everyone nearby sick. Most of the townsfolk fled, but not Mia. She was going to make those aliens pay for hurting people. Mia grabbed a rocket launcher and raced toward the unwelcome ship. As she aimed her rocket launcher, she realized the ship was smoking and the aliens huddled about it looked sick, too. She put down the rocket launcher and instead gathered together tools and materials to send to the aliens. Using the gifts, the aliens repaired their ship and flew away. Once they did, the town recovered.

This story doesn’t begin with Mia or her goal, and then after Mia appears, her goal changes. While the story as a whole certainly has stakes, it’s arguable whether or not Mia’s initial goal does, or whether what’s in here qualifies as conflict. But hey, look: Aristotle’s rule is intact. How does it feel knowing that we’ve had this essential piece of advice for 2,300 years and your school still didn’t teach it?

So if a character pursuing a goal can be a story but isn’t always, what do events actually need to be a story? This time we have to skip to the end, because you and I don’t have all day.

It’s not the specifics of an event that matters; it’s what feeling it evokes. A story opens with something, anything, that evokes tension. Tension essentially means readers are concerned about an uncertain outcome. While there is no perfect word in English for this, I think “problem” is the closest fit. When Mia was hunting for that gold coin, the problem was that she couldn’t pay for her medication. In the alien story, it’s that the townspeople are in danger. Then the story ends when the uncertainty is gone. Mia has the money she needs; the town is saved.

Looking at how difficult the simplest story was to define, you might understand why instructors are having trouble teaching the basics. And this is only the tiniest tip of the storytelling iceberg. What happens when the story is the size of a novel? Don’t stories still need rising action and a climax? How important is the main character? If you’re looking for these answers, I recommend starting with the articles under our Story Plotting 101 tag.

Difficult or not, storytelling can be taught, and simply telling students to go write a story without proper instruction isn’t fair to them. But this problem doesn’t just affect people who are learning storytelling for the first time. If your foundation is cracked, how sturdy will your house be?

How Missing Knowledge Affects Our Practices

While many storytellers pick up a gut feeling for storytelling through practice, vague feedback, and osmosis, it will never serve them as well as if they actually understood what they’re doing. The gut can only tell us whether something in a story works, not why. So when a storyteller tries a new type of story or removes something they didn’t know was important, they can find themself with a broken story they don’t know how to fix.

Not only that, but many common storytelling practices disregard the most basic lesson of our workshop: that events must be related.

We Waste Time With Popular Structures

Our ignorance has led to the proliferation of story structures like The Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, or even just three acts. These are akin to the classic grade-school graph of rising action, climax, and falling action, except they are expressed in a series of stages. For instance, The Hero’s Journey is a sequence that starts with The Ordinary World, The Call to Adventure, and The Passing of the Threshold.

When a person who has a strong gut understanding of storytelling looks at these stages, they subconsciously fill in all the things we went over in our workshop, such as tension and causality. Then if they plot a great story using the structure, they assume the structure is responsible. But the structure didn’t do that; they did. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t include anything about making events feel related.

Because of this, many of the formulas that are supposed to help writers plot their stories are just snake oil. For more, see my full article breaking down why popular structures don’t work.

We Fracture Stories Into Disconnected Pieces

If you view stories as a series of miscellaneous events instead of a cohesive unit, that will change your storytelling choices. Even if you subconsciously know events should be related, you also won’t understand the harm of abandoning that when it’s convenient. This explains why techniques that interrupt story flow are so overused.

  • Interludes: These are like book intermissions, and they appear to exist solely because storytellers can’t resist the temptation to insert extra content no one is interested in. However, an interlude never comes with a guarantee that it won’t contain anything that’s important to the rest of the story, so many readers will feel compelled to read it even if they don’t want to.
  • Multiple points of view: While a great tool in the right situation, writers often use them to take several completely different stories, mix them in the blender, and then stuff them into one book.
  • Disconnected prologues: When writers have trouble creating a compelling opening – or just don’t want to bother – they instead take the opening of a different story and paste it up front. But the interest and excitement of a prologue isn’t likely to spill over into an unrelated chapter one.

Interrupting the story at hand to jump to unrelated events has significant repercussions for audience engagement. Writers should consider this carefully before doing it.

We Can’t Build Off of What We Don’t Know

Without an understanding of the most basic question in storytelling, how can a storyteller hope to master the more advanced ones? We were just looking at a summarized story the length of a paragraph. A novel could easily be 100,000 words long. Once you understand how stories work, what you need to do with all those words is pretty clear. Before then, you might find yourself inserting random events to take up space.

But the average instructor can’t explain that to you, just as they probably can’t explain exactly how to pace your story or what movement is. They’re likely to give a descriptive but not particularly insightful answer on how to plot a novel series. They almost certainly can’t tell you precisely what it takes to make a climax and end feel satisfying. All of this requires understanding stories as a basic unit, and then using that brick to build a house. No brick means no house.

Several months after instructing my hard-working but struggling client, he contacted me to let me know what a huge difference my foundation-level lessons had made to him. After learning from me and revising his story, the next professional finally told him “this is a book.” His novel still needed smaller-scale work, but it no longer needed to be rewritten.

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