Tag Archives: storytelling

Truth Can Only Be Written by Including All of It

“This man, I think, wanted to enchant the reader, to set in words certain amorphous and important sensations he had experienced….

“He wanted to transcribe his own inchoate experience. He wanted it to become art. He felt, as many of us do, that he had a right to that. Perhaps he wanted to feel his suffering had been worthwhile, was dignified, for he did write about suffering; perhaps he wanted to feel less alone, to feel his life had been redeemed, and its true worth, the value so absent from his daily experience yet so necessary to his heart, was now realized on paper, the dross burnt off and the gold revealed.

“No delight in language motivated his pen. The world’s physical details were so much debris. His few scenes puddled toward ellipses, seemed uninterested in achieving “moment”–they gestured hastily toward something never glimpsed on the page, although each chapter concluded with triumphant relief, as if to say, “So there. Now that’s established.” It made you want to flip the page over to see if there was something you were missing. Yet he meant to write fiction; fiction was what he attempted every night. This man seemed to want the transcendent transformation that novels can achieve. He didn’t know how to achieve it, though, and he wanted a shortcut. Like all of us, he was in a hurry….

“You may convey terror or longing or regret or exhilaration only by giving us the color of somebody’s hair and exactly what she ate for lunch, and red high heels, and an attache case’s handle stained darker by the oils of a human hand, and a skinny buck-toothed girl singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” on a black-and-white TV, and olives, and three o’clock, and the Scotch-taped hem of a Bergdorf Goodman dress, and venetian blinds, and a woman’s eyes fixed for many minutes on a scarred tabletop, and a tin spoon ringing against the side of a mug. There are no shortcuts….

“When the conditions are right, live things creep up. The author does not need to airlift them in. No need to insert your own opinion here, something symbolic over there. The most potent meaning arises indigenously. It looks like earth, like mud, like a log. The more your eyes discern the particulars of the physical world and its inhabitants, the more meaningful your work becomes. This is the meaning that, when it’s laid dormant in the mind long enough, strikes with devouring force.”

  • adapted from Writing Past Dark, by Bonnie Friedman

Why Writing Well Is All About Intensity

“…I began to find life unsatisfactory as an explanation of itself and was forced to adopt the method of the artist of not explaining but putting the blocks together in some other way that seems more significant to him. Which is a fancy way of saying I started writing.”


I taught fiction at Mt. Hermon last week. The most important point I shared about making a story work was that a reader needs to feel the character’s plight throughout.

I love that word, plight. It’s such a perfect descriptor of what makes people read. You might think people want to feel good, be entertained, or are attracted to what’s beautiful or exciting. And that’s true. But nothing holds attention like a character we identify with whose plight is understandable and relatable.

It’s not a difficult concept to get. Most of us sense it’s true intuitively. And the plight can change, shift, or even reverse! Very exciting. But you’ve got to make your reader understand what the struggle is about and how intense it is, no matter what kind of story.

And most important about the plight, it’s got to be intense.

Now this idea of intensity is deceptive because you often can’t increase the plight by describing it directly, just like you can’t tell us what’s happening in the story and have to show us instead. To convey strong intensity, you need a few tricks, some tools and, of course, some all-important practice to develop some skill with them. There are several important ones, but the biggest of all is a little trick I call “following the tears.”

Follow the tears. I’ve said this for years, but it never gets any easier. This is what your readers care about most because it’s what you care about most. The things that make you the most emotional are the richest material for your work. And even if your craft is still fairly crap, your content can capture people if it’s intense and conveys a character’s plight we can feel powerfully.

Like the quote above indicates, writing is a way to fashion life into something more interesting than the usual bland, expected pattern. To make it more interesting and dramatic. What’s more dramatic than someone’s plight? I may not want what your character wants, but if she wants it badly enough, I’ll bet your story can make me want to know if she gets it.

If this isn’t rule number one of your writing, it should be.

Now, no one wants manufactured intensity, so you’ve got to develop some sophistication and maturity with this tool because the skill is in not making the plight melodramatic or over-the-top. It’s got to be deeper than surface desire, expressed as a yearning that may even make your character confused or misunderstood. They might have to come to terms with the true source of their deeper desire over the course of the book, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast who starts out wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” and ends up realizing her deeper desire was to know the sacrificial love she’d read about wasn’t just a fairy tale. There’s a learning process in every character you want to capture by showing the growth of their own understanding of their deeper desire.

The quote above is from a short story by Tennessee Williams, written in 1951 called “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In it, he shares the idea that childhood is full of “the intensities that one cannot live with, that he has to outgrow if he wants to survive.” It’s a plight unrecognized by the main character except in hindsight. And it’s very effective. “But who can help grieving for them?” he asks. “If the blood vessels could hold them, how much better to keep those early loves with us? But if we did, the veins would break and the passion explode into darkness long before the necessary time for it.”

I think learning to write a book is a lot like growing up. When you start, you know nothing and have to figure it all out. And that’s the hardest it will ever be. Eventually you learn some things through practice and it gets a little easier. But it’s still very hard, and you want to quit because you feel confused and you have no help with figuring out how to manage all you’re learning and whether you’re paying attention to what you should. And who can help you know if you’re also losing some things in your innocence you’ll never recover, even as you progress? More than likely, you are. But there’s nothing you can do.

Yet if you continue, you’ll learn more, a little at a time, and you’ll know how to develop ideas and hold multiple concepts and bring them across in dialogue and through symbols. And eventually you figure out tricks for making it all easier and simpler to begin with. It only takes time and practice with the tools. But you first have to find all the tools yourself. And this is like being a child when you’re without any skills, vulnerable to all kinds of things beyond your control. You don’t even have awareness of the skills you’ll need. But through hard experience, you learn, and it gets better, easier.

The successful writers have learned to control their words and attention, and get the most out of their time. And you too can move forward in achievable increments toward where you want to be. If you’re a “live-in-the-moment” kind of person, your method will be learning discipline. If you’re a Type-A, your big need will be relaxing into your better self. Both require balance and it looks a bit different for everyone.

But it’s worth the effort. For it’s in becoming your best self, your true, honest, vulnerable, brave, and imperfect-yet-incredible self, that what you write will finally become more significant.

The intensity of your own plight is waiting there to be felt in following what makes you cry. And if you dig for that until you understand it better, that’s where relatable stories come from.

You can trust that. It’s as simple (and as hard) as that.

For the higher purpose,


The #1 Most Powerful Story Tool: Convey Fear

High stakes yield high success.  

Donald Maass

If you’re working to write or edit a book, you naturally want to know how you can improve the read. In all the books I edit, I try to serve as a careful reader and one of my primary considerations is always whether the story has enough of a sense of danger to grab my interest.

knobby treeIn fact, realistically and convincingly conveying what’s threatening the main character and what they stand to lose is the #1 determining factor in whether the book is engaging or boring.

Mercifully, I’ve never come across a manuscript where the author introduced a scene and then said, “It was very dangerous.” Though some have come close. However, some are even worse by not giving their story any scenes with danger in them. And in every edit, there are almost always many ways in which the author has left off what the reader needs to know and experience.

It isn’t enough just to tell us there’s danger or even what’s making it dangerous. You have to feel it, sense it yourself, then share it through those words that convey that feeling, through visceral senses.

And this is part of a larger rule I hope you internalize about specifically creating the emotions and events of your book. You must think about designing the experience and how to raise the stakes for the main character, increase the sense of danger, passion and personal urgency.

DSC_0018Most people realize that any story needs this strong sense of the dangerous context in order to feel real and compelling. But it’s easy to forget or believe it’s already understood, that you don’t need to specifically work on strengthening and deepening the fear for readers. And most authors haven’t thought through how to make readers feel afraid for their character by revealing specific threats and thereby increasing tension.

This is where the art of creating context is so important.

So often, the work of writing is to provide readers with the proper amount of context. And the most important part about doing that is thinking through how you’re getting readers to share your character’s plight.

Plight is a great word. It captures so much. First, that a character should have one, second, that we need to understand it, and third, that it isn’t just a grievance, an annoyance, or a struggle, challenge, conflict, “issue,” or personal preference. No, if you want readers to care about your story, you’ve got to reveal proof that your main character has a plight.

DSC_0026So now we’ve taken an unusual amount of time setting up the need and the next question is how. How do you introduce and escalate high stakes?

In Writing the Breakout Novel, famed New York agent, Donald Maass (“moss”) describes 3 kinds of stakes—the first 2 are public and personal. Another way to look at them is internal and external. Often, the stakes come down to failure and death, but obviously, the specific details and how you share them matter. Maass shares examples from two bestselling novels, quoting scenes and revealing how the stakes are conveyed through the dialogue and setting. Find a copy and read the chapter, though the whole book is of value.

What you are trying to convey must reveal a conflict or tension for drama, and all of it must work together so it isn’t distracting. Include that wonderful sensory detail about our surroundings, the place and time, so readers have the full context of what’s at stake and why it’s terrifying.

If you want to make readers care, you have to feel the fear and then work to evoke it. That’s how they’ll know the story is a big deal. Consider imagery and sensory detail—sights, sounds, smells, feelings. What words give the right sense of danger? Don’t tell us what’s making it dangerous, evoke that feeling with your words, your sentences, and the rhythm of them. Does it make sense, flow logically, is it quick and punching or slow and methodical? And remember, deep interest comes not from what you write but what you don’t. The magic is in leaving off the implicit suggestion and trusting that idea or image will be created in a reader’s mind.

DSC_0030Maass’ third type of stakes is your own. Knowing why this story matters to you and what makes you care so much is the most important fuel you could capture. It’s why I’ve written these Monday Motivations for years, and it fuels my own passion for writing and crafting powerful stories. Your why is what convinces you to keep going when you’re fatigued and what can banish the questions, “So what?” and “Who cares?” You care. And establishing exactly why takes time, but it’s so worth the effort.

You can find my tool for capturing that passion in the top menu (“Write Your Proposal”)—pay attention especially to questions #1 and #10. Your answer will grow as you develop your story and more is revealed to you, so capture that fuller description with more specifics, even as you learn more of the specific elements that reveal and raise the stakes for your reader.

If you’d like to share a sentence or two of your “why,” please do! Writing a book is an incredibly exciting journey! And if you follow this advice, I promise your readers can’t wait to read what you come up with.

For the higher purpose,


The Second Golden Rule of Writing

“I had been forever altered by our brush with catastrophe….My instrument had changed. And I now understood that it would continue to change. That there would be more befores and afters ahead. Fighting it was futile, impossible. Accepting, even embracing this, was the true work, not only of being a writer, but of being alive.” – Dani Shapiro, Still Writing


Last week, I wrote about the first golden rule: Treat readers to the mystery and romance and wonder you’d like to be treated with, and respect their intelligence by leaving out what they can infer and discover themselves. They will bless you for it.


This week I want to talk about the possibly lesser known, but just as critical for storytellers, Second Golden Rule.

When I edit, I always try to remember what readers need. To treat them as I want to be treated, it’s critical to ensure each chapter, each paragraph, even each sentence does 2 of these 3 things: 1) reveal character, 2) advance plot, and/or 3) describe setting or context. I’ve called this the “2-of-3-things” rule, but I’m hereby changing that and declaring it the Second Golden Rule of Writing a Story (which conveys its importance better, but you can keep calling it the “2 of 3 things” rule to help you remember it if you want).

Whether they realize it or not, readers want to have 2 of those 3 happening at any given spot. Three examples: Instead of “He was sad,” say “The sight of her crushed him, reflecting his absent contentment and replacing it with a cold inner rain.” Maybe a bit over-the-top, but you’ve got a couple characters there and some evocative setting detail–it also feels sad without saying it. Or you could say, “As she turned toward him, her face reflected his own despondency, reminding him of the day he’d spent waiting, alone in his empty apartment, rearranging his books.” There you’ve got character, some setting, and even a little backstory plot. Or you could describe his feelings through a description of the current scene: “The stone fountain reflected the gray clouds saturating the sunless sky.” 

IMG_6709There are myriad other ways. If you wanted to get some plot in there, you could mention how he wonders if she got his letter or whether it’s the right time to tell her X. But practice with the Second Golden Rule and you’ll start to discover how fun story-writing can be.

The way to make stories interesting is to get inside the characters.

That’s the how of writing excellent stories.

But now we also need to be very clear about the what to write.

As followers of Christ, we come from a strong storytelling tradition. Each of us started out by bearing witness to our experience of the events and details that formed and shaped our hearts for God. We learned to share our stories not just for ourselves but for those around us, to influence and edify, to build up and help others identify. None of that was conscious, likely, and yet as we have shared, we’ve learned to tell the story in ways that confirm our brotherhood and sisterhood with other witnesses, sharing our testimonies and memories as a way to invite others into the experience and to preserve the truth we know.

IMG_6704Witnessing this way is not merely what it means to be a Christian; it’s what it means to be human. We are a storytelling species. The Word has made us that. And each of us has an experience with catastrophe and revelation.

A story captures that journey. From the big books with colorful pictures our parents read to us, to the ones we first saw ourselves in as the heroes, stories have become a part of us, preparing us, however unworthy, but still making us the chosen ones all the same. And each of us is able to feel that unlikeliest sensation of hope and use it to bring help and rescue through the power we’ve been given.

For most writers, once you’ve finally decided to share your truth, the work is how. And you have to Get Your Story Straight and then remember your First and Second Golden Rules. Imagine it from the reader’s perspective and think about your characters, the plot, and the settings. How will you advance the story, reveal the characters and describe their world? Next week we’ll talk about where you choose to start and how you can begin to practice regularly to refine your skill in this most fundamental of human arts: storytelling.

Soon, you’ll be able to do 2 of those 3 things at once. And that will take you into the heart of the storyteller’s art.

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” – Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

For the Higher Purpose,


When Telling Stories Makes You a Liar

I’ve been collecting quotes for my upcoming story course. Some are fairly alarming.


First, from Nabokov:

“Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

“Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.”

!Kung San storyteller, 1947

Next, Doctorow:

“But I have since thought about this incident [of being punished in school for inventing a fictional man to interview for an assignment]. It is, I suppose, a novelist’s story. It can stand as a kind of parable of the novelist’s birth. For the practice has taught me that nothing I write will turn out well unless during the course of the writing I feel the same thrill of transgression I felt as I put together from my young life and times the images I needed for the invention of Karl the Stage Doorman at Carnegie Hall. I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something–propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realized without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game–without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression.”

Whether or not the case is overstated for either of them, it’s not a particularly comforting thought.


What should we make of this conundrum for Christian writers? And even if you’re writing “true stories,” is that any better? How do you know it’s all true? Don’t you have to invent some bits, condense some things, make composites of several people or scenes?

Maybe we can sidestep this concern by claiming it’s perfectly acceptable and expected to change certain details for the benefit of listeners or the innocent (or because we just can’t remember). After all, that’s the storyteller’s job–to ensure we don’t hold too slavishly to truth that it undermines the story.

And I don’t disagree. But where is the line? And how different is that really from writing complete fiction? Neither is 100% true. And how biblical is this notion of changing and inventing facts? I don’t see anywhere this sticky problem is discussed in the Bible, even by our primary example as he told of prodigals and farmers and Samaritans.

Was he never asked if those stories really happened? Was no one outraged that he was fabricating these things out of thin air?

Maybe the truth lies in the motive (heh heh, I just love entendre).


Not to contradict Doctorow, but telling a story with the intent to subvert an existing assumption or expectation is not deceit, categorically. Otherwise, Jesus was a liar. It is, however, artful. And just because we tend to associate “telling tales” with lying, and “artfulness” with trickery, that’s no proof that storytelling is inherently sinful.

Words are symbols. They derive their meaning as much from the way they’re used as by what they appear to say. Stories are built of words and they carry the same indeterminate symbolism that’s dependent upon a reader’s interpretation. What a listener brings to a story is as important, if not more, than what a storyteller actually says. There are two participants in every act of storytelling.

And I would suggest that what these two writers seem to bring to the idea of storytelling is a lack of clarity about the moral intent of the teller. Every story is built on the moral intent of its teller, that’s where the “moral of the story” comes from. There can be moral stories and immoral stories. Some lie and some tell the truth.

But truth and fact are not the same thing, are they? And maybe we need to think more broadly than that if we want to understand the value and virtue of storytelling.

More to come…