Thursday, April 14, 2011

The $1.98 Storytelling Lecture - Part 3

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 3 (From the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

Today I'm going to show you how to make the Little Miss Muffet example from yesterday better and then next week I'll discuss some of the craft of being a writer.

How can we make it better? We could add some character. Wouldn't it be interesting to get to know this little girl? All right let's do that. Let's say Little Miss Muffet is a very lonely girl. She's eating lunch alone every day. So she's all alone, she's sitting on her tuffet, she's miserable and she's a very lonely girl. We can infer from the story that she's probably afraid of spiders. So all of a sudden Little Miss Muffet starts coming alive to us--she's a lonely little girl who's scared of spiders. So she's having another lonely lunch, and then along came the spider. Now the spider happens to be a lonely guy too. The guy is ugly. He's a spider. He can't get a date. So he sees Little Miss Muffet and he approaches her. Now every instinct in the spider's body is saying take a chunk out of this babe's leg, and yet he's lonely. He'd like to have a friend. On the other hand this is a high-risk operation, what if she steps on him? Little Miss Muffet is like, "Gee, he's ugly. Gee, I'm really lonely and he seems nice." She waffles around about it for a while and then finally she screams and runs away, proving that Little Miss Muffet is more afraid of spiders than she is afraid of being lonely. It's a better story. You learn something about her, you learn something about the spider. It's already better.

Well there's more you can do to a story. You can add jokes, and bits of business, interesting little events that happen. You can build more suspense. You could actually have the spider creeping a little closer to her on her tuffet. You could do a lot of things. You could add a car chase. So you could take that basic building block and that's where you start being creative. Throw your creativity at this and come up with something really cool. Better still, you could make it relate to me, the reader. Let's face it, that's the kind of stories we like to read when you can say, "Yeah, I felt that way." You could try to figure out something that means something to whomever is reading it. Try to get that across.
  


(continued)

7 comments:

David Walton said...

"Proving that Little Miss Muffet is more afraid of spiders than of being lonely."

I love it! That's what it all comes down to. Is Hamlet more afraid of failing to avenge his father or eternal damnation? Is Spock more afraid of being too human or not human enough? Is Peter Parker more afraid of alienating his loved ones or letting people die?

That's the stuff we all plug into.

uncannyderek.com said...

You should see how my jaw dropped when reading these past two posts.

It's like a smack across the head. Of course! It all makes sense!

Thank you for the brilliant advice. You're so unbelievably inspriational.

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

I like how your suggestions for expansion logically derive from the basic situation, maintaining coherence while increasing complexity. Too often I've seen writers paste on elements that contradict what was already established. The resulting clash reminds the audience that they're just reading fiction and implies more illogic ahead. Who wants to sit through that? If I see paste-on characterization, I fear a paste-on resolution, better known as a deus ex machina ending. Then I bail out.

The resolution in your "Little Miss Muffet 2.0" doesn't involve gods popping out of the heavens to wave their hands and suddenly make everything OK again. It involves a decision made by a mortal being, somebody already in the story. Muffet can't get over her fear. She chooses solitude over companionship. Her loss. Those of us who've made bad choices can relate to her.

Maybe the spider gives a speech in an epilogue. Something trite about prejudice, or something fresher depending on the skill of the writer. Either way, whatever he says has to fit all the preceding facts. The resolution can't betray the foundation. Don't detonate the ground floor to erect a spire.

A story is like a sentence. A sentence can be two words or twenty. But added words need to interlock with the core words. One shouldn't insert words at random: e.g., place adverbs before nouns or force singular subjects upon plural verbs. Each word one uses constrains the other words one can choose. One could go for the obvious new word, or better yet, something no one thought of before, as long as it's grammatically appropriate.

Narrative has its own grammar, just on a larger scale. Adhering to those rules is part of a writer's job. But not the whole job. Finding what David Walton called "the stuff we all plug into" is another part. Expressing those universals in a individual way.

I ask myself, "What do I want to say, and how I can say it my way?" I still don't have the answer yet. But maybe if I keep studying your lectures ... and apply your lessons ...

Piperson said...

I think intention is one of the most important part of creating. Many people have this misconception that 'being creative" means letting go of logic and just getting into the flow and seeing what comes out. Well I don't see it that way, for me "being creative" is putting order to a certain chaos. If you have a piece of wood, you can hack at it indiscriminately, or you can decide that this piece of wood would make a good chair. A good writer has an idea or intention that he is focusing on (to make an action story, a romance, a melodrama, or a mix of all of these), he is creating order from chaos, he is instilling meaning into the meaningless, AND the deeper you go into your intended subject, the greater the work of art.
A very well know example of this is Alan Moore's Watchmen. Not only did he do a super-hero story, he psychologically dissected the standard types of heroes. Mark Millar's intention is different than Moore's to do great action, so while they are both the same genera, they have a completely different intention.

paulpogue said...

I would totally pay cash money for a take on Little Miss Muffet that involved a car chase.

Gorillamydreamz said...

As Muffet flees the hurt spider grows angry. Doesn't she know how hard was for him to drop so close? How could she be so cruel. The spider chases her, his rage growing.

Muffet jumps into her 1971 Ford Mustang Boss 351, lost in the agony of knowing the one other creature who understands her loneliness is to ugly and frightening to be with. Perhaps it's time to end it. She drives toward the deadly, snaking mountain road determined to end it all. Suddenly the spider leaps down onto the windshield as she passes. His anger driving to confront her and force her to understand him.

Muffet careens down the winding road, trying to shake the spider lose and crush him beneath the windshield wipers. He leaps onto the wipers and hangs on, swinging back and forth in and out of her site.

Just as the car sails off the cliff, their eyes meet. A thousand frightened Miss Muffet reflections stare back at her from his compound eyes, accusing.

As they freefall, briefly cut loose from the bonds of gravity, spider and girl feel free at last of their fear. At last they've found another creature who truly knows what has been locked so deeply inside of them. The desire to come out of their shells and connec --

CRASH! They hit bottom and burn up in a fireball. Too late to find lasting peace in life but perhaps they can find it in death.

paulpogue: I take Paypal or cheque. :)

Gorillamydreamz said...

A few typos and lost words. Sorry all! :)