Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The $1.98 Storytelling Lecture - Part 1

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 1 (From the transcript of a 1994 seminar)


Story is probably the most fundamental and important element of entertainment in the world. It's a basic building block. It comes into play in virtually every creative medium. Storytelling is the oldest profession. Don't believe what you've heard. People were telling lies long before any other business was invented.


We're in the same business as Homer was. This business has been around for a long time. I think it's going to be around for a long time. It's going to be here forever because it's something that's built into us and it’s something that we really like.


Okay, so what is a story? Well, in the simplest possible terms what a story is:


What it was, what changed it, how'd it come out.


Now a lot of people have probably been to seminars and read books that say, well there's Act I, Act II, Act III. You may have heard a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, no kidding! What does that mean? How does that give you any tool by which to judge whether or not you've done it right? So forget those people. It's what it was, what happened, how'd it come out. Is that a formula? No. It's a definition. If it isn't that, it's not a story.


Sentences have definitions. A sentence is a complete thought. Shakespeare used sentences, so did the writers of Laverne and Shirley. Didn't limit either of them. It's just a tool. It's just a building block. You've got to know what it is, then you can manipulate it, then you can play with it.


Think of it as a unit of language. The smallest unit of our language is a letter. The next unit up is called a morpheme. That's the smallest group of letters that adds meaning, that holds meaning. For instance the `s' on the end of a word that makes it plural, that's a word, or `ing', that's a morpheme. Then of course there's words, clauses, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and you build from there. Story is just a bigger unit. Just understand what we're talking about here is just a piece of language. That's the story. It should not limit you. It is simply a building block. Why is that a story? Not because somebody woke up one day and said, "That will be what a story is. We're going to write this in Webster's." No. That's a story because it's built into our language. You cannot avoid what a story is. If someone tells you a story and it doesn't have one of the pieces, you may not know the stuff I'm telling you, but you know it's not right.


Let’s all go out and have a root beer someplace. We'll go into a bar, all of us, and there'll be a big guy sitting at the end of the bar, a big, huge guy and you just know the guy played football. So we'll walk up to him and we'll say, "Bronco, tell us about your biggest game." He'll say, "Well, it was the state championship, it's late in the fourth quarter and we're down by six points and we're marching down the field. I'm the running back and we're doing great. I've got this great quarterback handing off to me. On the other side there's the biggest linebacker in the world, but we're getting around him, we're marching down the field, and then all of a sudden I fumble and they got the ball. So here we are we're going to win and if we win, the head cheerleader promised me she'd go out with me. So I fumble. The coach takes me out and he's yelling at me and stuff. The time's running out and our team intercepts a pass on our own six yard line, and there's a few seconds left. I say, 'Coach put me in. I got to get in there.'"


So Coach Rolinski puts him in and then they hand Bronco the ball and he breaks through the lines, through the secondary, he's running toward the goal line, and then the BIGGEST LINEBACKER IN THE UNIVERSE is standing at the goal line. Time has expired on the clock. He dives for the goal line, and the linebacker dives at him and...


We're all wondering whether or not he scored...and whether or not he scored. You can't help yourselves. It's built into the language. Another thing you can't help is if you ask Bronco to tell you a story he will tell you the situation, what happened to disrupt it, what happened, and then he'll tell you how it came out. If he doesn't you'll be really upset. It's built into the language. You will automatically tell a story in the correct order if you just let yourself. Keep that in mind. When you tell a story you're telling what the situation was, what happened to change that situation, and how it came out.

(continued)

18 comments:

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

It's interesting that some people who can "automatically tell a story in the correct order" without trying - e.g., recapping the big game they saw on TV last night - switch into a different mode when they try to write fiction. They think that the mere presence of their favorite characters or props is sufficient to carry the story. But a story is much more than stimuli - eye candy like costumes and weapons. It's about changing situations. When people retell what they just saw, they don't have to invent situations. They're just reporting. However, when writing a story, they have to create a situation, and they might not get further than "X vs. Y." A generic fight. They don't ask themselves, why are X and Y fighting? What are the stakes?

In your example story, the stakes are clear: "if we win, the head cheerleader promised me she'd go out with me." And the odds are against Bronco. Sure, he's "a big, huge guy," but "time's running out" and he's facing "the BIGGEST LINEBACKER IN THE UNIVERSE." The basics are all there in a couple of paragraphs.

I've read whole comics - whole crossovers that lack the basics. The narrative equivalent of a sentence lacking a verb. Static parts without a dynamic core holding them together. A list of nouns is not a sentence. A list of superheroes and supervillains is not a story. Verbs signify disruption. A became B. "Became" is the disruptor. But a three-word sentence, though functional, is boring. There should be more: e.g., why did A become B, and what stood in the way of A becoming B? The answers are the narrative equivalents of added modifiers and clauses. A story is a super-sentence.

BTW, as a professional linguist and former professor of linguistics with a PhD, I'm happy to see you popularize the term "morpheme."

Will said...

Well... you are correct. Its impossible to argue otherwise.
But Storytelling is one of those things that is deceptive and seemingly simple yet quite hard to execute properly.

I think we have all been subjected to the un-funny person telling a funny joke and ruining it. Either due to pacing, event order, delivery etc.; an otherwise funny Joke dies a painful and slow death. And then conversely we've seen someone spin a yarn around a cliche' of joke; and its a riot because they told it well, embellished/updated the details to make it pertinit/relevant to the audience and the teller made it seem fresh and new..

A poor storyteller can ruin the best concieved story.
Maybe I'm an older more jaded audience member/reader thats lived some live and has some milage on them. But these days I need a hook to care about Bronco. Something to tie him to being the hometown team, or he was involved in a points shaving scandal that affected a rules change and THAT action benfits my favorite team by doing "x".. I need a hook to bring me into the story and make me care. And of course everybody has a different hook

In comic terms... How many times CAN Galatus get the munchies and return to Earth? He wants a steak and settles for a Frito chip in a new herald?... We've seen that movie. Take me on a journey. Show me something new or at the very least put a spin on it that I hadnt considered.

Thats the stuff of magic for me.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

One more thing: any string of words, whether it be a phrase or a story, automatically has a beginning, middle, and an end, regardless of whether it makes any sense. Anyone can plant signposts saying "Act This" or "Act That" into a narrative mess. Form is easy; content is not. Some like advice that affirms what they're already doing. "Beginning? Check. Middle? Check. End? Check. Got 'em all. I'm done." Really? Your course should make such people think again.

Some of those people would rightfully reject ungrammatical sentences. Yet they may write "ungrammatical" quasi-stories, ignoring construction in favor of "creativity." But the principles of structure apply at all levels, and I look forward to learning more about them from you.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Will,

I'd like to translate your joke analogy into comics terms. I think we have all seen well-written comics with ugly, incomprehensible art. Or the nth rematch between a hero and his archenemy whose art makes us see the same old powers in a new light.

I feel pretty jaded too. At this point I don't have $3.99 to spend on bad writing/good art combos or vice versa. I want that hook about Bronco. That new spin. The magic.

However, I think Jim's lecture is meant for people taking their first steps. Guys who thought they knew what they were doing but really didn't. Who confused stimuli with structure. Nouns with sentences. How many fans do you know who come up with Whateverman vs. the Ba'ad Guise and think they've told a story? They're so wrapped up in the coolness of Whateverman that they can't stand back and see what's missing.

Back in the old days, new writers at DC (e.g., J.M. DeMatteis) would cut their teeth on short stories. When some fan is telling me about his Cosmic Corps with a hundred members, I wonder if he'd be able to tell a five-page story. Or even one day's installment of a comic strip. It's easy to make excuses for a bloated, meandering "epic": e.g., "I'm saving the best for last." How many novels have you slogged through, hoping for a payoff that never came? But incompetence is instantly obvious in a short story. "Hey, nothing happened!" I'd be happy if I can just get meat and potatoes from beginners. I expect magic from pros.

Will said...

Hi Marc Miyake
I hear ya.
Yer polly right that we wouldn't be the primary target audience for that message, but it was put out there for public consumption and I can only comment from my perspective.

Some unfunny people think they can tell a funny joke. Maybe occasionally they can...

My larger point was to underscore HOW difficult it can be to create a well crafted story that would resonate to a guy that somewhat resembles me. I know they are out there..

I'm a finicky sort.

jimshooter said...

Dear Marc,
Very sharp!

Dear Wil (re: Stuff of magic),
Yes, yes, yes! Of course! That's the point. And, of course when Bronco leaves something out or tells something in the wrong order, you, me, most people around him will point out the omission, question the narrative, ask for more insight, etc. As Kirby might punctuate, !!!!!!!!!!!!

JayJayJackson said...

These excerpts are taken from a lecture series for students and it does deal with basic elements, but from what I read in comics, a lot of seasoned pros could do with a reminder of these concepts. And it could help a lot of the newer creators.

David Walton said...

Great advice, Mr. Shooter. One reason why beginners and pros alike constantly need to return to the basics is very simple: storytellers aren't objective. It's like trying to tell a story about your family. You already love the characters and feel invested in the story; but you still have to win the audience over.

When I was in first grade we had the most deceptively simple assignment in the world: we had to describe how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And we all ended up missing critical steps, not because we didn't know how to make a P & J sandwich, but because we knew all too well.

That's especially true of serial comics. There's almost an implicit assumption that everyone knows who Spider-Man is and what he wants--I mean, he's Spider-Man, right?

But whether you're dealing with P&J or Peter Parker, you always have to assume your audience only knows what you show them.

Will said...

.... and my teachers thought I wasn't paying attention when I would close my eyes and "meditate" in class ;-)

TheWriteJerry said...

What David says above about assumption is dead on. Too many comic book writers forget to set the scene properly. When I write, I try to remember that any one particular issue or story is (possibly/hopefully) somebody's first exposure to that series, and it's my job to make sure it's not their last. Set the scene quickly and interestingly: who's involved, what's going on, why is it happening? The elder statesmen of comic book writing were great at this - Jim, Marv Wolfman, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Stan. And some of the middle generation writers do it well also - Dan Jurgens, Mark Waid, the late Mark Gruenwald. But the newer writers just jump into a story, assuming the reader is the same walking-continuity-encyclopedia that they are. Every issue makes big assumptions about the readers' knowledge. This is very apparent when you look at trade paperbacks. It's ostensibly a "self-contained" story, but if you read the first few pages of some of them, you'll see that pretty much no time is spent setting the scene. Good writing shouldn't assume. I'm not saying the reader needs to be spoon fed; no need to insult their intelligence. But give them a hand, especially if you're in the middle of a long story. Sometimes all it takes is a small narrative box, or it can be done in the dialogue if you avoid being clunky. Make sure the first time reader is prepped, the longtime reader is refreshed and that no reader becomes a former reader.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

Your praise really made my day. Thanks so much!

Dear David,

Yesterday I was struggling to describe why I get so frustrated when fans rave about their creation Whateverman. I wrote,

"They're so wrapped up in the coolness of Whateverman that they can't stand back and see what's missing."

You expressed the problem more directly. Lack of objectivity. The fan's POV is, I created Whateverman and I'm invested in him, 'cause he's like my son. Being invested in your creation is good, but getting others to invest in him is even better.

Objectivity is the key. Mr. Shooter might have reinforced it through editing. Reading isn't the same thing. In Monday's entry, he wrote about how the "main qualification" of some editors was "having read 10,000 comics." Reading that many comics could even be a liability. If one knows the DC and Marvel Universes backwards and forwards, one may take so much for granted. Then one ends up with the problem that TheWriteJerry just described.

In an amateur creator's mind, his universe is like the DC and Marvel Universe. He feels *as if* he had read 10,000 comics set in his universe. Comics that no one but he had ever read, because they don't exist yet. His family and friends may praise his work, but they lack objectivity. If a stranger loves his work, then he's really won.

I was a stranger to DEFIANT. I stopped buying new comics at the end of 1992 after feeling burned by the "death" of Superman. I had heard about the PLASM lawsuit way back when but otherwise knew nothing about WARRIORS OF PLASM when I picked up the first few issues for a few dollars in 2004. I was so impressed by WARRIORS that I ended up not only collecting the whole series but also buying every DEFIANT issue other than the elusive BIRTH OF THE DEFIANT UNIVERSE. Also bought every Broadway issue other than the elusive MIRACLE ON BROADWAY. I have always loved Mr. Shooter's LEGION from childhood, but seeing him excel on his own convinced me of his greatness.

I think the true test of a creator is being able to succeed without relying on other people's creations. The new writers at DC in the old days - guys like Len Wein and Marv Wolfman - were constantly being tested. They had to keep readers engaged in short horror stories with one-shot characters. One such character really took off. Swamp Thing. Prove yourself first. Then maybe you could get the keys to Superman.

I'm not interested in those keys. I want to learn how to write my own stories. How to get strangers invested in my work. I don't want to be an unfunny person telling an unfunny joke, to use Will's analogy. A joke that only makes sense to me because I know an arcane backstory. How do I reveal that backstory? I love the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE and have even written mock entries for my characters, but I realize that data dumps aren't an option in a story. How much should I reveal? How much do I really know about my characters? Not just *what* they can do, but *who* they are? The big questions.

Not "how do I replicate the success of (fill in big hit here)?" Will wrote,

"Some unfunny people think they can tell a funny joke. Maybe occasionally they can..."

Occasionally they strike gold. Like TEENAGE NINJA MUTANT TURTLES. A one-hit wonder that spawned a short-lived industry of Four-Word Animal Teams™. None lasted. Hmmmm, wonder why. How many of those creators asked themselves the big questions? I myself might not even know about some of those questions, let alone how to answer them. That's why I'm here.

Bosch Fawstin said...

Great stuff, Marc, and I too Really enjoyed Warriors of Plasm, it was unlike anything out there, and it hit home your observation that "...the true test of a creator is being able to succeed without relying on other people's creation."

David Walton said...

Jerry, Marc, I think you're right. And it's really difficult to decide what needs to make its way to the page from the very beginning, and where to tease future revelations.

David Walton said...

Also, re: eight page backups. It's a shame that DC and Marvel don't use backups to groom younger writers these days. Both companies wait for a writer or artist to produce independent work, and pick them up when the mentoring is done. To my mind, it's a little like a hospital telling a med student they can intern AFTER they've performed successful open heart surgery on their own.

Stephen Fox said...

This post RULES...or RULZ if your nineties sensibilities insist. I think the temptation for me is to prove how adept I am at writing. I want to be clever instead of effective.

Great, great post.

Pastrami said...

Jim Dear what, miss?

Pastrami said...

I am learning a lot about this producing my own monthly 6 page comic with my young son. We are having fun, but after the first issue came out, I read it myself and said, "Hey! Nothing happened!" Since, then I've had to rewrite things several times and then you have the problem of keeping track of what you were "planning to write" and what actually made it to print.

Makes me admire Jim and his tremendous continuity even more!

Lee in Limbo said...

Drat. The internet ate my last comment, it seems, and I don't really think i can replicate it; not enough caffeine. So the main point is, I think this part of Jim's lecture transcript is very valid, particularly to young writers who have fallen a little too much in love with the fashionable look and feel of the seemingly contextless comic fiction of the last decade. It's developing a grasp of not only how to structure a story but how to convey information within individual sentences without the dreaded info dump that gets a modern story across. You have to peek behind the curtain to see what the master craftsman is doing without saying to understand how information is being imparted without the classic editor's caption of yesteryear.