Thursday, August 17, 2017

More on how to make a story from a series of events

I recently posted about why I was saying no to some requested fulls. One point I made was about the difference between a series of events and a story.

Blog reader Adele made this comment:

I once worked as a clerk at a police station. One of my duties was to type the statements people made to the police. They weren't recalling serious crimes, it was things like car accidents or witnessing a crime. It wasn't like on TV - there was no formal recorded interview; the people would just be given a statement form, extra pages, and a pen and asked to write down what happened.

At least 75% of the people would go back as far as the last time they could think of when their life was not tinged by what happened. If they were in a car accident at 1 pm, they would start with when they were eating toast for breakfast and how they finished up and put away the dishes and got their purse and got into the car and set out to drive somewhere. Often we would get 10 pages or more, and the last 2 or 3 would be what was wanted or needed - the rest was just setup. My point - that's the natural way people tell stories; it takes training to learn to throw away all that good stuff about the toast. 



This is a brilliant insight.
I intend to use it forever more, and most likely will forget to attribute it to Adele cause I'm addlepated.

This is one of the many reasons I love this blog and the community here.
You guyz are really smart, and really good writers.

43 comments:

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love Adele's example. I recently had an editor tell me she wanted my story to start sooner. I tend to start with big action and then fill in the stuff that came before in little bits and pieces. I am not sure if this works for the epic kind of fantasy I write. Good thing I am headed to a writing conference with a fantasy forum so I can discuss this.

Yep, I am headed to New York this morning. Going to do a little shark hunting at the bar. I suppose I should pack. Flight leaves in a couple of hours. :/

MA Hudson said...

This is an awesome anecdote, very illustrative and funny.
I've started to notice backstory in personal conversations now. As the other person talks I have a voice in my head saying, 'backstory, backstory, backstory, bingo... now we have the real story!'
Of course, I'm equally guilty. It is so hard to be succinct. I won't go on. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

It was a sunny October day in Connecticut, last century, late forties. Summer's heat was finally gone and the promise of an autume fulfilling dreams for a discovered future was born, and so was I.

Maybe that's how I should start my next memoir.
It ain't, "Call me Ishmael," but it's a start :)

Great post. Where to begin is always the question.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

What's an autume? This sleeping an extra half hour is really screwing me up.

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

I, too, thought Adele's example was great. Quite deserving of it's own blog post. :)

Elise: Wish I was going to be there too! Safe travels. I know you'll have a blast. And when you see Janet, say "Sorry!" from me. Well, you don't say "Hi!" to a shark, now, do you...? ;)

2Ns: How about "Call me Two-Ens..."? :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Dad was a storyteller and at family gatherings, he had learned to keep it brief and succinct to retain his listeners and get a laugh. As a child, my son took sooooo long to get to a point, if there was a point. As an adult and an RPG game master, he's learned to not lose his audience.

But I wonder about cultural differences. I've listened to African American and Native American storytellers. And I've learned to be patient as they weave their story together.

For the craft of writing stories, we talk about hook, inciting incident, mirror moment, climax, resolution. Is that true across the board, regardless of culture? Or maybe it's just how soon or how late they occur in the story that changes?

I could study books written by people of color but they will be books that conform to a publisher's or market's expectations, will they not?

Hm...time for some more tea.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

colin, hahahaha !

InkStainedWench said...

Adele, your comment is so insightful and useful. And it reminds me of advice I once read: The author should know every character's situation and back story, whether it makes it into the narrative or not.

Thus, your story may begin with the car accident, but you know all about the toast.

Amy Johnson said...

"I intend to use it forever more, and most likely will forget to attribute it to Adele cause I'm addlepated."

Janet, I saw what you did there. Love it! Adele and addlepated. I had to look up the word. What a good one! The definition, the sound. I have a new friend.

Adele: What a great way to put it. Thanks!

Susan Bonifant said...

I just love, LOVE this. Thank you, Adele.

Colin Smith said...

InkStainedWench: I wonder how many writers who know their characters that well also plot their novels, vs. those who discover the plot and the characters as they write? Two very different approaches, and neither are wrong... as long as the end result is a good story. :)

Karen McCoy said...

Adele: Brilliant. So insightful.

I have a new position where I will be teaching emerging college freshmen how to write a narrative (similar issues ensue--which is why in the syllabus we ask them to limit to *one* event). But I may be referring to Adele and this blog for purposes of university instruction...

Which means, yes, fellow Reiders, my contract was just renewed (until September 8, anyway! :))

Colin Smith said...

... neither is wrong... speaking of each option in turn, not both options together... grammar... *sigh*...

Amanda Capper said...

And helpful as all get out.

RachelErin said...

I loved Adele's example yesterday, and now I get the added bonus of feeling clever.

This point is remarkably salient for non-fiction/article writing, too, if you ever do a feature with an anecdotal lede. The person/people you are interviewing will almost never start the story at the right place.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I made it to the airport all by myself. Now I must pick out the correct plane to get on to get to New York. Isn't this a suspenseful series of events. Will I get to New York? Will I bow before my queen and still retain all my limbs? Will Jeff Somers wear pants?

Oh, I can hardly wait to see how it all turns out. I wonder if Colin will show up and simply not be noticed as Janet's recent blog indicated.

On this page, our hero will drink coffee while glowering at passengers headed to Ohio. Not sure why our hero is disturbed by people going to Ohio. I will work it out in revision.

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Don't worry, Janet will undoubtedly be at Jeff's presentation. What's more, she'll have a spare pair of pants with her, just in case. After all, that's what agents do... :)

Craig F said...

Yes. Adele's example should be the definition of applying critical reading.

Also remember not to keep it too simple. Even in the same story there are different places where the story starts.

In an accident scenario, it does not always start with the stop sign one driver ran. The next door neighbor, who knows the driver loves the Seahawks, also saw the driver in a rush that morning. Before the wreck the driver laid down a patch of rubber while juggling six things in a general distraction. No brake lights were even seen at the stop sign.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin That is just the problem, where we build suspense. Janet is presenting her famous query workshop at exactly the same time as Jeff is sitting on his panel. He will be totally unsupervised.

Another suspenseful note. I forgot to pick up my laptop going through security. It turned out ok. I noticed, was able to sneak past TSA and reclaim it while simultaneously dispersing the Ohio bound passengers to Carkoon. I mean Ohio. Could be the same thing, honestly. Is there kale in Ohio? Or is it all Buckeyes?

Claire Bobrow said...

Adele's insight is spot on. Less backstory shall be my mantra.

It's 7:00 am here. I was just biting into a piece of toast, when an alien spaceship landed in the garden. Little green men came pouring out. Did I mention it was cinnamon toast?

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Janet is presenting her famous query workshop at exactly the same time as Jeff is sitting on his panel. That could be disastrous... except for the fact that, as you say, Jeff is sitting on his panel. At least there, he can stay seated until Janet is finished and can fix any potential wardrobe issues.

I think the bigger dilemma is... which do you attend? I don't envy you. Both are destined to be highly entertaining. :)

Claire Bobrow said...

Elise: enjoy the conference!

kathy joyce said...

I miss the good ole days: Once upon a time, there was a boy/girl/dog/etc named (X).

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Claire Enjoy your little green men in the garden:).

Colin Janet has me at Jeff's seminar. Even though I stink at writing queries. But I write fantasy and Jeff is doing a world building panel. I like building worlds and I feel certain some of the Reefers can help me out with the query when the time comes. Right? ......anyone?

Theresa said...

Adele's example stuck with me after I read it because I've been obsessed all summer with the question of where a story really begins.

BJ Muntain said...

When I first read Adele's comment, I wondered if witnesses write so much because they're told to 'give the events leading up to the incident'. (Or maybe that's just TV.) That doesn't give a non-writer much guidance as to where to begin.

But I'm sure sometimes there's gold in backstory. Someone claims their ring was stolen. Their report starts with breakfast, dishwashing, gardening, then buying fertilizer. The store employee shakes their hand. They go home, finish gardening, take a shower - and their ring's gone. The story employee must have stolen it!

The cops read through that and ask if they've checked the drain or the garden for her ring.

BJ Muntain said...

Lisa: Hook, etc., aren't used in most cultures - for cultural stories. It's not a cultural difference, as much as a difference in medium. Movies start with action because they've only got a couple hours to tell a whole story. With books, it depends more on the reader's subculture than the writer's. Some subcultures may be willing to wait a bit for the action, while it seems many North Americans like to see the action front and centre. But that, too, is only a recent development.

Elise You'll have a great time at your conference! And I'd be happy to look over your query when you're ready. Just e-mail it to bjmuntain (at) sasktel (dot) net.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Adele's input was terrific.

Claire HA!

BJ Loved your "gold in backstory" comment.

Now I must veer off topic to Elise... I'm so excited and happy for you. YAY! Attending the conference. Wish I was with you, and I can't wait for updates. (Plus, I'm cracking up over the comments about Jeff Somers being unsupervised and potentially pant-less).

La Mandarin said...

Me too! And my name is also Elise. :) Must be an Elise thing.

Cynthia Paige Aaron said...

Adele: brilliant analogy. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Years ago, a certain person told me I took forever to tell a story. Advised me, "get to the point" when in conversation. So I decided to experiment. When I would share something with someone, I skipped over all the back story, and just said what happened (example: I was robbed, etc.)and the responses I got where, "But how did it happen? Where were you? Wait—back up! What happened?

It was amusing.

I guess there needs to be a balance. The opening scene of my ms has changed countless times. I have finally decided starting with "crisis" works best for this one. We'll see...

I learn a lot by watching Quentin Tarantino films. LOL.

Joseph Snoe said...


A man walks into a bar.
(Starts too early - Delete)

A man in a bar orders three whiskeys. He drinks them and leaves.
(Dumb beginning – Delete)

A man walks into a bar every week and orders three whiskeys.
(Starts too soon - Delete)

A man in a New York City orders three whiskeys – He tells the bartender one is for him, and the other two are for his two brothers in Ireland. The brothers agreed wherever they may be every Friday they’d drink whiskeys for all three. He drinks all three and leaves.
(Nice event, but it’s backstory - Delete)

A man walks into a bar and orders two whiskeys. The bartender says, “Pardon me for asking, but every Friday you come into my bar and drink three whiskeys, one for yourself and two for your two brothers in Ireland. Did something happen to one of your brothers?”
(Information Dump - Delete)

A man quit drinking but he ordered and drank two whiskeys for his two brothers in Ireland.

(Perfect)

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I really enjoyed that comment by Adele, too! Thanks for re-sharing it.

P.S. I cut the 1st 2 chapters of my novel to find the right starting point.

Beth Carpenter said...

Ah, Cynthia, that's the gold. Once you said, "I was robbed," and they started flinging questions at you, they were hooked. If you'd started with how you'd stopped by the ATM on the way to the mall to buy a birthday present for your cousin's toddler because they're thowing a huge party in spite of the fact that the kid cries everytime he sees a stranger... they would have lost interest and drifted away well before the punch line.

Cynthia Paige Aaron said...

Beth: On finding the "gold"...I used to think all those details were the best part of the story—imagine that!

Now, applying this same rule to my written story makes for higher stakes indeed.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have landed in New York. En route to bar. It has a hotel attached to it. Or so I read somewhere.

Colin Smith said...

Elise: How convenient! A bar with a bed. :) Have a wonderful time. And keep us posted on how things go at the conference. Pictures. Blog articles. You know the score... ;)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin It will be done. Just have to figure out where to start this story ;)

kathy joyce said...

After much angst and a little $$ for an editor, I know which words are backstory, and which are good action to start the tale. That only took a year. Now, I have to decide whose action story I use - protagonist, antagonist, or another character. Need a 3-sided coin.

Have fun, all of you at the conference! So wish I could go. Next year for sure.

PS: I wonder if Janet gets extra in her % for clients who need supervision. Pants are expensive!

Ardenwolfe said...

What Adele said is spot-on. I used to work as a paralegal in the military. You'd be shocked how many times a judge or lawyer would ask a simple question, and the witness would start with back story instead. Yes, people have a natural inclination to do this.

Learning how to cut the fat from your fable makes your writing noteworthy.

Donnaeve said...

I would like to offer up nothing on today's blog post cause who can beat that wisdom? Not me!

Way to go Adele!

I would, however, like to mention my own kick in the pants internal mantra I've been repeating lately:

This too will pass, but meanwhile, write the damn story.

Beth Carpenter said...

Cynthia, yes, exactly. The details are what make it a great story, but when the reader has to wait to get the details they're much more valuable than if they heard them before they knew they were leading up to something important.

Stephen Parrish said...

"This is a brilliant insight." I agree.