The way to tell a story

Paul Guyot links to fellow scribe James Lincoln Warren’s fabulous post on the choices writers have to make in telling a story — and how critical those choices must be:

[…]good story-telling is not merely dependent on the story itself, but

also on the techniques used to tell it. All right, this is obvious, but

I wonder how often inexperienced writers consider how much the success

of their efforts depends on the choices they make in telling the story.

When should something be implied, and when should it be spelled out?

When does a brilliantly crafted sentence lift the story above the

banal, and when does it drag the pace into the mud? What action be off

stage, and what should be explicitly depicted?

There is a big

difference between the things that neophytes discuss and the things

that old hands discuss. When I was in the Navy, when young officers

discussed seamanship, they did it in terms of shiphandling and conning

orders. The senior guys always talked about weather.  Implicit in their choice was the assumption that an intimate knowledge of shiphandling and conning was a given.


I find that experienced writers talk about technical things. I’ve never

had another writer ask me where I got my ideas. The other writer wants

to know how I thought of structuring a scene in a particular way, or

what techniques are appropriate for a short piece but not for a novel,

or whether using multiple POVs will make a story more interesting or

not. In many ways, they are more interested in the choices we all make

in telling the story than the story itself. They care less about what

we write than how we write it.

What’s implicit in Warren’s comments is why writers keep saying (or mock bitching and moaning) that writing is hard, why it doesn’t get easier with each book, story, etc. Because the longer you go on, the more you learn, the more choices you have — and the more you strive to master a particular structural element and then learn a new one, or try a combination of such.

I can’t remember who said that the key to writing is to start a scene late and end it early — I’ve heard it attributed to several sources — but that’s become a critical mantra for me of late. Because writing a story is one thing; writing a good story is yet another; knowing where to start, what to include and to leave out, is what elevates those who aspire to those who practice.