For a story to work well, it needs to have five basic elements: a Situation (location, setting), a lead character (hero, protagonist), an objective for that lead character…Read More
So, why is it that we are ‘natural storytellers’? Recent scientific evidence backs up what we, as writers, know in our guts. Telling stories is not a luxury for human beings, it is vital to our survival and flourishing. If the wild animal has senses, bodily sensation, emotion, action and most probably some powers of imagining and ‘thinking’, to keep it alive, we have all this plus a more developed rational mind, and the ability to tell stories.
There are stories everywhere around us, in films, on TV, and in books. Adverts tell us stories to persuade us to buy their products. Televised sports are also stories. Our heroes face the opponents, with a clear aim, and battle it out to the bitter end. Stories rescue human beings when life is too harsh, too fast, too heavy. We default into daydreaming whenever we are not involved in an immediate, absorbing task. Stories provide rest and relief. They calm our body and mind.
I see the extreme of storytelling as a life-saving strategy in my work as a psychotherapist. Many people who experience traumatic or abusive situations, use storytelling to survive emotionally, when contact with ‘reality’ would be overwhelming for body and mind. Indeed, the state of ‘dissociation’, of feeling detached from a situation that would otherwise be unbearable, often involves elements of storytelling. Below is the account of an abuse survivor.
I could see the window from where I lay. When it was happening, I would look out of the window at the birds flying. I would imagine I too was flying, and that I could go anywhere, do anything. I would visit beautiful places and talk to kind people who reassured me that I would survive. I believe this is what stopped me from going crazy, or from killing myself.
In recent studies of dreams it has been found that 80 percent are about ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. So, it may be that the primary evolutionary role of stories is as, psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley puts it, to be...
…the flight simulators of human social life.
Writing, telling, reading, or listening to stories, activates the same biological process as living out the actions would do. The same neurons fire, and neural pathways are strengthened when we think about performing an action, as when we perform it for real. That’s the reason that professional sports people use visualisation as a key part of their training. Stories allow us to encounter various life obstacles in symbolic guise and to practice ways of solving them, without endangering ourselves. Stories train us for life.
Certainly, stories also play other crucial roles in our lives: They allow us to process emotions. They allow us to feel in control of, and gain perspective on our lives. They can lead to public recognition and (sometimes) money. Autobiographical work can pass information on to future generations, and provide closure to our lives. Stories entertain. They inspire and they motivate.
As I wrote as part of the content for a University of Exeter creative writing course,
When we tell our stories details unfold like flowers, clues become moments of epiphany, feelings are processed, and stuck energy is discharged. We begin to notice the patterns that repeat through our lives, called ‘Repetition Compulsion’ by Sigmund Freud. We see which of those serve us, and which don’t. We can bring closure to the unfinished aspects of our lives. We can grieve and move on. We can find or create our self in the writing.
Storytelling, on the very physical level of our nervous systems, discharges energy. This energy, if it remains trapped, can disable our effective functioning in the world, as well as lead to ill health.
Above all, writing is a fabulous thing to do, because, as poet John Keats so clearly elucidated, the great beauty of the art and craft of it is that ‘it makes everything interesting’.
What I’d like you to take away this month, is the following:
Your job- that of being a wordsmith- is sacred, because without it, the human species cannot survive.
What we need to do as storytellers is to rest in the knowledge that not everything has to come from the rational mind. If we can trust our innate ability to tell stories, to allow our organic movement towards health, then we have truly set out on the trail to re-finding our wild words. So, as the unanswered emails pile up, and as your partner, parents, and children tug relentlessly on your sleeve, remember this: you’re doing war-work. Writing saves lives.
Now how are your mind and body feeling? Would you know how to put the strength of your embodied experience into words?
Onward and upward!
When wild words are present...The elements of the story are familiar enough to reassure the reader or audience. The plot speaks to their condition, more so for its simplicity and clarity. They are grounded and oriented by the clear setting, and can visualise it in their mind’s eye. They are engaged with the journey of the hero. They are on the edge of their seats because know what the hero has to lose if they doesn’t complete their quest. They recognise the terrifying threat that the opponent represents, and they fear it no less than the hero. They cheer and cry as successive rounds are won and lost by the hero. They are consumed and enchanted by the story, absorbed until the last word.
Tracking The Wild Words
When you’ve come up with your story idea largely from an instinctual place, the next thing is to ensure it has all the elements it needs to make it canter, roar, and, all in all, leap off the page.
There can be a myth amongst storytellers, especially novel writers, that if you are a storyteller worth your salt, you will be able to sit down and just write the next War and Peace. This, in my experience is very rarely, if ever true. Almost all the greatest storytellers honed the tools of their craft over many years. And those that didn’t were usually doing something that would later help their writing- for example, spending time observing nature or human nature in another context. It may appear that someone becomes an overnight success. It only appears so when we aren’t aware of the six unpublished novels they’ve written before, and the thousands of solitary hours they spent locked in their office.
Storytellers and would-be storytellers who come to my courses attracted by the notion that we are natural or instinctual storytellers sometimes balk at the idea of working consciously with structure. However, instinct doesn’t come from no-where, it has to be trained. It may look like a small child learns to speak easily, but analyse that process and observe the many thousands of times they practice making each sound. It may look like the bird catches prey in flight effortlessly, but observe the young sea gull drop a stick and swoop to catch it time and time again.
Writers sometimes fear that putting in place a structure for a story before writing it results in a story that is dry, and unoriginal. This is a confusion of the stages of the writing process. Considering basic structure is only the very first stage. It’s like the skeleton of the animal, before the flesh, blood, muscles, and individual character goes on. It’s like the framework of the house before you add wallpaper, furniture etc. The best structural work doesn’t limit you, quite the opposite. Held lightly, it provides you with the safety to follow your instinctual urges, and to let go into the creative flow.
The film writer and director David Mamet uses the analogy of building a house when he talks about the process of storytelling (in this case screenwriting):
I live in a house that’s two hundred years old. Barring some sort of man-made catastrophe, it will be standing in another two hundred years…it’s very difficult to shore up something that has been done badly. You’d better do your planning up front’.
-David Mamet, On Directing Film
Ignore the confidence that structural guidelines can provide you with at your peril. And if that hasn’t convinced you, perhaps this will: Structure is beautiful. It’s the pattern we hold in our bodies and minds that always orients us towards health, the repeated activation and discharge of the nervous system of the hero, as experienced by the writer and therefore the listener/reader. In storytelling terms it’s like the mathematic laws of the universe. Perfect. Profound. A joy to explore and work with.
Fear On The Page
Wild words that have no appropriately supporting structure live in a cage. They sit terrified in the back of the restrictive space, not feeling safe enough to come out. Our page remains blank. Or, conversely, with nothing to contain them, they rampage across the page destroying the beauty of the form of the story or poem. The storyteller finds they have written 200,000 words instead of the 50,000 they intended- and they’re still only setting the scene! They’ve already used up all their energy and more, so they stop writing, exhausted. They are accompanied by ongoing distress because they haven’t told the story they needed to tell. The book never gets finished.
Becoming The Wild Writer
So now, to give you the safety net and confidence you’ll need to dive into the first draft, we’re going to use structural elements to ensure that your story foundations are rock solid. Remember the Five Elements? Here they are, fleshed out a little more.
The Five Elements
Situation: A specific place and date for your story. Decide this in advance. Even the difference of a few months can change the political and social environment immensely.
Character: This refers to your lead character, your hero or heroine. The best way to tell any story is to use this character’s journey as the backbone of your story. Follow them on their adventure. Set up the audience/reader’s identification with the hero. Once you’ve hooked them you’ll keep them for the rest of the story. The reader doesn’t have to like the hero, but they have to understand what motivates her/him and care about what happens to them.
Objective: Decide what the hero’s goal is, then take her or him step by step on a journey towards that goal. This is the throughline for the story.
There should only be one hero. If there are two people, or more, at the centre of your story, (for example a ‘buddy movie’), then choose one of them to be the hero. Remember, this is for ease of designing the structure. Later in the process you can play with the point of view of the listener or reader and create all sorts of effects. But for now- choose one hero.
A hero works best if they are passionate about what she is trying to get. If this is the case, and the reader/audience are identified with them, then you have a gripping story on your hands! If your story is about a woman who thinks about climbing Everest but doesn’t really mind either way whether she does it, then your audience probably won’t mind much either. If, on the other hand, she’s obsessed with climbing Everest, that’s a much better hook for your audience.
Take the hero step by step towards their goal. At each stage of his journey, we’ll be bearing their overall aim in mind, and asking,
What do they want?
What gets in the way?
Do they succeed or fail?
What gets in the way, at each stage, is the opponent.
Opponent: Also called the antagonist or ‘baddie’. They are what get in the way of what your hero is trying to achieve. It can be a person, a force of nature (such as a tornado), or even a part of the hero themselves (as in stories about mental illness). The important thing is that it is an immovable force. It does not weaken unless or until it is defeated at the end of the story. The hero and the antagonist can be likened to two armies going to war.
Have only ONE opponent. If you split the opponent you weaken the story. The opponent can, however, have servants/minions etc. In Star Wars, for example, Darth Vader is clearly the opponent, although he has many soldiers doing his dirty work for him.
If the opponent is part of the protagonist themselves, this is known as an internal antagonist. An example of this would be a character in a story about mental illness who is doing battle with their internal demons. Internal antagonists are more difficult to write, as they can get easily confused with the protagonist part of themselves. Unless you’re very clear that’s the path for you, stick to an external antagonist.
Disaster: By this I mean ‘what is the disaster for the hero?’ i.e. if they fail to do what they have set out to achieve what do they have to lose? It could be their job, their life, their health or many other things. It needs to be something that is very important to the hero. This is why the listener, reader or audience are invested in them succeeding. They know how much they have to lose if they fail.
These five elements are vital to have in your story idea if you want it to ensnare the reader or audience. These are elements that, as natural storytellers, we know how to insert unconsciously. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that they always appear unbeckoned in our stories. As you know, various things can block the creative flow of our storytelling, resulting in the story hatching half-formed.
When you sit down at the desk, or on your favourite tree stump, ready to start your day’s writing, it’s imperative that you have confidence in your project. For that reason, as well as cultivating our ability to use the key elements instinctually, it’s helpful to look at these elements with the rational mind, and consider whether your story idea has all of them present. This is a safeguard to make sure you never begin the writing stage of a project without total confidence in its tiger-like strength. Over time, and with the practice afforded, you’ll be less and less likely to unconsciously sabotage your natural storyteller. You’ll increasingly notice how these structural checks, are just that, checks. You’ll be working increasingly from instinct.
Here are two beautiful examples of effective use of body sensations on the page. First, a few lines from the poetry of John Keats.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
-Keats. Ode To A Nightingale
Secondly, in Orwell’s 1984 (p164) he describes his character Winston’s fear of the rats that have been brought to torture him.
His bowels seemed to turn to water… Winston could hear the blood singing in his ears’
Wild words put flesh on the bones of the story by using bodily sensations. The wild words are living, breathing, shivering and perspiring creatures themselves.
As with the use of sensory impressions, when we describe movements in the body to the listener or reader, they truly experience them. In the case of body sensations, information from the receptors of the somatosensory system is sent to the brain. You are giving your reader a real, lived experience of the situation described. They walk in the shoes of the character/narrator. If we can hook them in this way, if they can be made to care, then we’ve got them for the rest of the story. As with sensory impressions, using body sensations grounds our storytelling. It makes it vivid, and real. Without it, our account, poem, or story has no anchor, and flies off into abstraction.
Tracking The Wild Words
In order to track the Wild Words, we have to get to know our bodily experience: the tensions, the pains, the numbness, the sensitivity, the beating and the flow. It’s only when we know it, that we can write about the common experience of being in a human body, and find a connection with the listener or reader through that. More than that, we have to learn to trust our visceral experience enough to write from that place, initially without the intervention of the rational mind. After that, it’s also useful to refer to lists of ‘movement words’, as well as to read widely, to expand our vocabulary and fit it to our experience. Then, what comes out of our mouths, or on to the page, will be more powerful and more true to the human experience than our storytelling has ever been before.
Remember the caged writer? They feel unbearably stiff and uncomfortable in their body. Their head feels as if it is about to explode. They pace the room. They return to a childhood habit of biting their nails. They eat junk food to comfort themselves. Their anxiety levels are high and they manage them by drinking alcohol, and smoking. They are tearing their hair out.
Sometimes, we storytellers are no different to a caged tiger, mad with confinement, gnawing at holes in his sleek orange coat. To get into this state, we must have cut-off to a large extent from our physical experience. And then, the thought of having to go back to feeling all that is understandably frightening. We fear being confronted with the impermanent, fragility of being in a human body.
After all, bodies house discomfort, as well as movement. These sensations scare us. Contact with the body can stir up a sense of our fragility and mortality, and reminds us that one day we will die. Contact with the body can arouse sexual desire, which for some, is an uncontainable force, and for others has long been buried, and brings sadness in its wake. Body awareness can also bring to the forefront of our mind the myriad of ways in which we feel we don’t fit with body-type ideals. If we’re not to thin then we’re too fat. If we’re not too pale, then we’re too dark. And so it goes on.
It’s not easy to find and trust the knowledge and experience stored in the body, to drop down into our physical experience. Most of us chose to shut off from our bodily experience a long time ago. Our bodies no longer remember how to act, without the tyranny of the rational mind cracking the whip. And the rational mind fears the loss of control that would occur with any move in that direction. It’s a long road back. Restoring that connection, however, is an important step on the journey to being a better storyteller, a vital part of learning to write from a place of wild.
In some cases the opposite can occur. Some people find it easy to engage with body sensations. Too easy. People who make a living from an experiential knowledge of the body, can sometimes engage with body sensations to such an extent that they get lost in them, and lose perspective. This particularly happens with body-based practitioners, when a simple ‘How are you today?’ might be met with the reply ‘I’m vibrating from my pelvis’. Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a body-based practitioner in both my psychotherapy and writing tutoring roles, and have great respect for my fellow practitioners. However, whenever we become too fluent in any one language or realm of experience, we must take care not to use that as a way of avoiding and distancing from other realms of experience. In the case of bodily sensations overuse of them is sometimes a sign of avoidance of getting in touch with emotion.
Fear On The Page
If we fear experiencing and telling stories that include bodily sensations, it shows in our speech and on the page. We will digress, summarise, and cut away at key points in the action, rather than risk getting too deep into descriptions of body sensations. We will over-focus on other, more comfortable aspects of our story and miss opportunities to go into the detail where it would most impactfully heighten the drama. (Please note: I’m not saying that to digress, summarise and cut away is always wrong. These are useful techniques, but only if applied from a place of creative inspiration rather than fear).
If we shift to the perspective of the listener or reader: they feel the fear also. They cannot identify or sympathise with the voice of narration or lead character in the story. This unnerves and confuses them. Once this gap of identification has opened up, it’s difficult to close. The receiver experiences it as getting wider and wider as the narrative progresses. They feel increasingly far from the action. The story strikes them as abstract, rather than grounded, and connected to human experience. After only a couple of chapters like this, we lose our listeners and readers for good.
Conversely, if we use body sensations to avoid experiencing emotion, we may find body sensations dominate the page. If this is the case, those receiving our stories don’t have any perspective on the action, and feel trapped in the body of the character or narrator. This is equally damaging to our relationship with the listener or reader.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.