Schizophrenic Advice To Storytellers

So many voices in my head.

Telling me what to do. Or how to do it.

Or how to think about storytelling.

The difference between what to think and how to think

It’s always been that way.

There’s always a battle between the rules and principles.

For example, once upon a time there two titans of communications.

David was a rule maker

He had been a researcher. So he converted everything he learned into rules.

For example, he said,

A headline should never be more than 11 words.”

Bill was a principle definer

He believed that it was important to understand the basic principles behind things. Much more important than making rules about them.

He believed that the principle behind a headline is attention. That is, the purpose of a headline is to get someone’s attention.

How you gain attention changes with the times and the situation. In fact, there may be times when using a headline is the worse thing you can do to get attention.

For example, he said,

However much we would like (communications) to be a science — because life would be simpler that way — the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation. Where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.

So, which one was right?

Well, they both did pretty well.

David went on to become rich and famous.He wrote some great books on advertising. And they’re still best sellers today

His agency, Ogilvy & Mather, became very successful.

Bill went on to change the face of advertising. He fathered a new age of creativity.

His agency, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach changed the way creative people work forever.

The storyteller’s conundrum

Storytellers who are trying to learn more about their craft face dueling advice. As well as choices to make.

Follow the rules of people you respect.

Or understand the principles and make your own rules.

In other words, be an artist

The world of art is not a world of rules or best practices.

It’s a world of understanding principles and breaking the rules.

The minute someone gives you a map or a checklist, is the minute it’s not art anymore.

The art of storytelling

Art is an original gift.

It is a connection that changes the recipient.

And as such, it is the human ability to make a difference.

Art is the opposite of trigonometry

Art doesn’t follow instructions or a manual or a boss’s orders.

Instead, art is the human act of creating the uncreated. It’s the act of connecting with another person at a human level.

It’s finding your own, unique voice.

John Steinbeck’s disturbing dual personality

Late in his writing career, Steinbeck was a rule maker.

He came up with six that he thought storytellers should follow:

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm, which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Paradoxically yet poetically

Twelve years before his rule making Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The committee cited him for his “realistic and imaginative writings. Combining sympathetic humor and keen social perception”

That’s when John Steinbeck was a principle definer

That’s when he issued a thoughtful disclaimer to his own rules:

I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.

The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it.

You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

You decide

Whether you choose to follow the rule makers or the principle definers, find the magic.

It’s in the aching urge to convey something you feel is important. Let it drive you. Give us new things to see and feel.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s your take?