First and foremost, novelists tell stories. Story is the “art and soul” of good fiction. This blog is all about storytelling. Jump in! We’re a friendly bunch.
By Ron Benrey
“Tell me a story” have to be four of the most oft-spoken words in the English language — and one of the most popular requests in any language. Human beings have loved stories “forever.” And, over the centuries, humanity has been told countless stories: Stories that captured history in the days before writing and reading… scriptural parables that convey truth and moral values… and, probably most beloved of all, stories that entertain.
People not only enjoy stories, we find good ones especially memorable. We remember a well-told story long after we forget other kinds of discourse (such as exposition and argumentation).
Story is also called narrative — a technical term for an intentionally arranged sequence of events (which can be fictional or non-fictional). One of the chief skills of storytelling is the ability to arrange the sequence of events in a way that helps to make the story “work”… which raises an obvious question:
What makes a story work?
We’ll look at many different answers in upcoming posts on this blog. They’ll be written by accomplished storytellers — all are novelists, some are also screenwriters and playwrights — who will provide unique perspectives about storytelling on paper (and these days, on eReader screens).
It’s my honor to jump in with the first response. I offer a well-known observation that’s been guiding storytellers for nearly 2,500 years: As Aristotle wrote circa 335 BC, good stories are built out of “reversals of circumstances” (peripeteia in Greek) that often accompany the sudden recognition of a previously unknown fact (anagnorisis).
Today, novelists and screenwriters call this dynamic duo a “plot point,” but not much else has changed since Aristotle’s time. The mix of new knowledge and changed circumstances forces the protagonist off his or her intended path through the story. He or she must move ahead in a dramatically (literally!) different direction.
Aristole was undoubtedly thinking of “Oedipus Rex,” the tragic play written by Sophocles and first performed around 429 BC, as an example. When Oedipus recognizes that he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, his reversal spins him from haughty king to disgraced sinner.
A more recent, frequently cited, illustration of storytelling recognition/reversal happens when Jake Gittes (the slightly sleazy private eye in the movie “Chinatown”) discovers that his assignment to follow Mr. Mulwray did not come from the actual Mrs. Mulwray. The resulting brouhaha drives him to investigate the man’s suspicious death.
And, of course, every “Star Wars” fan knows that Luke Starwalker’s life is turned upside down when he learns that Imperial Stormtroopers killed his aunt and uncle. Instead of signing up for pilot training at the Imperial Academy, he goes off on an anti-Empire quest with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Movies make excellent examples of storytelling technique, because the first major recognition/reversal often occurs, with clocklike precision, at 25 percent (typically 30-minutes) into the screenplay. This is why films are often “taught” at writers’ conferences.
Aristotle also pointed out that recognition/reversal arouse “pity and fear.” Translated into our idiom: viewers or readers become interested in the lead character and feel compelled to see how the story ends. In short, recognition/reversal is the stuff of page-turning fiction, edge-of-the-seat movies, and plays that remain popular for two-and-a-half millennia.
Please tell us what you think, feel, and what to read about storytelling. We look forward to your comments.