I watched a terrible movie today, and it made me want to talk about Storytelling (the movie was I, Frankenstein, btw. I also watched the Hobbit 2, which asked me to suspend my belief a bit more than I was willing to do, though I thought the latter was okay.)
Storytelling is an underestimated part of writing, and it’s one that a lot of people do from their gut feeling. Though there are a few tricks and rules to telling a good story, and it can make all the difference. Storytelling is important in all sorts of forms of entertainment, but right now I would like to focus on both books and movies / tv-shows.
Have you ever read a book, or saw a movie, where you liked the idea behind it, but the story just didn’t work for you? It’s probably because the story was riddled in plot holes or the writers just made some crucial mistakes (not hiding the gun or bad research are also key elements). You often put down the book, or turn off the movie, with that unsatisfied feeling in your gut.
One of the things I pride myself on as a writer, is that I have the ability to surprise readers now and again. I’m sure I don’t surprise all readers all the time, but I’ve heard enough people say “I did not see that coming” to know that it has an effect on people. But there is a trick to that, because you can’t just create a random ending to surprise people… your readers will feel tricked. It’s like watching a ‘who dun it’ movie, and the killer ends up being a whole new person that you never heard before. If your audience doesn’t get a chance to figure it out, they will feel cheated. And so what if there are people who will guess your plot? If you write it well, they will still like it, and there will always be people who didn’t poke through your hints.
Chuck Palahniuk (hence forth known as Chuck P, because like hell am I spelling that again) calls it ‘hiding the gun.’ You need to show tiny little glimpses of what you plan to do throughout your plot. This is quite difficult, because you don’t want to be blunt about it, and have a bunch of illuminated arrows point at it saying ‘here we are… this is what is going to happen.’ Finding the balance is hard (I know, I struggle with it)
But you need to subliminally prepare your readers (or watchers if you write movies). There is nothing more annoying than being invested in a story that turns out to be something completely different, without giving any hints. If I think I’m watching a film about vampires who are going after a werewolf, and suddenly aliens blow up the world, I will be surprised… and I will hate the freaking film. If however I’m starting to suspect that there might be more at work than vampires and that there could possibly be aliens who want to blow up the world, I’ll be more susceptible for a plot change. If you want to –for example- write a story where it turns out it was all a dream (I wouldn’t recommend it, because that tends to piss people off) make sure you hint from the beginning that there might be dreaming involved. It’s better to get people to shout “I knew it”, than have them say “What is this bullshit?”
So, hiding the gun: SUPER important.
What else is important with storytelling? Oh right… consistency. Know your characters. It’s okay for a character to act… ehm… out of character, but then they need a reason to. If your character has been loyal throughout the book and betrays everyone in the end… have a good reason (and also.. hide the gun, so that the reader could have been suspicious). I have read a lot of books where the author doesn’t seem to have a good grip on the characters, and as a reader you lose faith in them, and may even get annoyed. The characters can distract a reader from your plot, and you want the reader to experience the plot alongside your characters.
Consistency is also important in your setting. It’s okay to ask readers to suspend belief, but you need to be consistent about it. If characters can fly, but need capes to do so, don’t forget the capes in further scenes. It’s a silly example, but I’ve read a lot of books where I stumbled over the inconsistency of the setting. Again you will lose your credibility.
Suspension of belief also goes so far. A good example for me was today when I was watching the second Hobbit movie. I was perfectly fine with a world of Hobbits, Dwarfs, Elves and Dragons… but when the dwarf sat on a metal boat on top of hot molten gold I rolled my eyes, and harrumphed. “He’d burn alive” I muttered. Actually most of the fire scenes annoyed the crap out of me. The makers hadn’t researched fire.
You can’t mess with things that are real… UNLESS you give them a reason to be an exception. Do your research. If you work with fire, look up how fire works, ask people who might know. You don’t have to have the exact science wrong, but know enough not to be utterly wrong. And if you don’t know A) don’t use it or B) use it but explain why it works different in your story. You are allowed to do that (again… be consistent, if your –for example- fire works different, have it be different in the whole story).
Recently I read a book that actually lost me on the first page because the writer didn’t do the research and put something that was utterly stupid in the book. It wasn’t that well written, but I do think that I would have been slightly less critical if the author hadn’t started off with such a dumb mistake.
Now we all do stuff wrong, so it’s not the end of the world if you mess up on the details for something (I’m sure I do it too) And sometimes you *do* the research, but you got it from the wrong source. That sucks, but it happens. But if you do research, it won’t happen all the time, and you can probably still get away with it *grin*.
Don’t forget your dramatic structure in storytelling. Though readers want to be surprised, it’s nice to have stories be relatable in some way. As a writer you get a lot of freedom within boundaries to be play with, but step outside of those boundaries, and your readers will struggle.
None of this is easy, but that’s because writing isn’t easy. There are a lot of little rules that can be twisted and bent, but if you really break them, your story can fall flat.
By giving your story love and thought, you can only make it better. That doesn’t mean all readers will like your work –that’s impossible- but at least you know you’ll have a bigger audience that will.
Good luck, and remember: Stories matter!