Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Commentary on Storytelling

So, yes, it's 2013. Been a couple months. I'd like to say I've been waist-deep in new works of writing for myself, but that'd be a bit of an exaggeration. If I'm using double-space, I'd say I was just past ankle-level. My NaNo story has largely ground to a halt as I'm suddenly finding myself worried about the quality of what I write without a looming deadline bearing down on me like an angry Meteor about to blow up the planet. I've gotten a few flash pieces done, and am halfway through the third installment of my Walking series, having discovered an interesting new way of writing at the behest of my professor.

But I'll share all that later. For now, I wanna pretend I know what I'm talking about when it comes to writing and stuff.

Stories have existed as long as humanity. There's a lot of ways to tell them. Part of why I like video games and other media that lets me use multiple methods of telling stories is the different ways I can tell stories. I need more than just words; I need to tell the story of a room, a building, a town, an entire planet, through pictures and sounds. You come to a village; you step into a room; you look at a man; just from observing the things around you, you can tell a lot: what kind of person lives in this room, the history of the village, the kind of man he is. I'm pretty sure I picked up the core of this idea from reading Sherlock Holmes when I was younger. The way he could deduce the full story of a person or object simply through observation, that definitely stuck with me.

Even with just words, you can tell all kinds of stories without even directly revealing them. Letting the reader figure things out on their own (and figuring out how to write that) can make for a satisfying experience. You can reveal a history of a character without directly saying it. They call this "showing, not telling" I think.

Ok, let me do some examples and show you, not just tell you (See what I did there?).

I'm gonna run with an exercise I learned from the great Frank Boring (who is anything but) in a previous class. Here's the barebones plot of what happens:

A man walks out of a house. He gets into a car and drives off.

We've got a rudimentary (and not overly exciting) scene here. It can be part of a larger story (indeed, the original exercise involves the man driving to a destination and meeting a woman), but we'll focus on just this little bit. Really, this is all we need to tell a story.

How? We just need to answer some questions. What does the house look like? What is it made out of? What kinds of doors and windows does it have? Are there any objects in the yard? What does the yard look like? Where is the house? Is the house even his?

What does the man look like? Is he old, young, short, tall, good-looking, ugly? What is he wearing? How does he walk? How does he carry himself?

What kind of car is he getting into? What condition is it in? Are there any bumper stickers or decals on it?

Just answering these can tell an entire story. Let me do some quick examples, keeping each to about 100-150 words.

A man walks out of a house. His black business suit still faintly smells of starch from the cleaners, mixed with his cologne. The man’s brown hair glistens in the morning sun from the gel in it, and his teeth flash as he talks into his cell phone. 

Behind him, his wife stands in the doorway, in a blue dress and apron, framed by the white walls of the two-story house. The man gets into his black BMW, still on his cell-phone with his secretary. 

The door closes, and he asks her what she’s doing tonight. The wife waves as the car pulls out, but she is ignored. She stares after it, sniffles once, and goes back inside.

So, we've got a man that appears to be some kind of business executive, living in a two-story house and driving a BMW. He's focused on his job, probably to the exclusion of his family, and might be sleeping with his secretary. His wife has tried to remain loyal, but we can see cracks are forming. All told, a little cliche, but we have something resembling a story. Here's another.

A man walks out of a house. The only sounds around him are the cries of woodland animals. His clothes, jeans and a plain t-shirt, are greasy and unkempt, just like his hair and mustache. His left boot scrapes the ground as he walks. 

The house behind him is a one-story cottage, its gray paint peeling and roof starting to sag. Some of the darkened window panes are smashed in. The man gets into his equally battered pick-up, the red paint and rust nearly indistinguishable. 

From within the house a faint, rapid pounding can be heard, accompanied by the desperate cries of a female voice. The sounds are drowned out by the engine of the truck as the man drives away.

Much different tone this time. A run-down cottage in the woods, a dirty-looking man with a battered pick-up, and what's probably a kidnapped victim inside. It's likely the house is abandoned, and just being used by the man for whatever he has planned. And here's one more.

 A man walks out of a house. He is nearly invisible in the night, his leather jacket and black pants obscuring his form. He stumbles on a loose brick of the sidewalk and nearly falls over, but rights himself, though he still staggers. His breath reeks of vodka, and the constant thumping of deep bass notes can be heard coming from behind the one-story suburban house, the soft wood walls doing nothing to absorb the sound. 

He fumbles for the key to his black Trans-Am, gets in, and starts the car. Suddenly he notices her on the side of the house, away from the crowd. Her arms and lips are wrapped around another man. His foot slips, slamming the accelerator, and his car flies backwards, smashing into a parked family van on the other side of the street.

Guy's at a party, clearly drunk. He's probably going on a booze run, maybe going home, but then sees his girlfriend (or just the girl he was chasing after at the party) making out with another guy, which causes him to crash his car. Not the smoothest of reactions.

In any case, we've got the cores of three distinct stories here, each telling us something different, but each based on the simple premise of a man walking out of a house, getting in his car, and driving off. It's pretty straightforward, really. All you have to do is answer some questions for yourself. What can you come up with?

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