Toolbox theory of storytelling

In the last several years of my becoming more of a serious writer, I’ve developed a particular system to think about it. I’ve found that whenever approaching a craft, it helps my brain a lot to think of it in terms of a series of concepts with specific definitions associated with certain purposes. I believe that crucial to understanding how something is done well is simply to be able to identify all the inherent parts and what they’re doing in whatever piece you’re examining. And knowing how to put those concepts into practice effectively enables a person to perform the art well.

For instance, I’ve always believed the reason why the French approach to cooking became so pervasive is because they did so much to define the concepts in an identifiable way and systematized their functions. This enabled a commonly understood language, which allowed for discussion between practitioners to relate to each other, instructors to communicate ideas to students, and culinarians to analyze what they observed in practice. I find this defining of the various concepts and giving them corresponding names to be really useful in identifying and quantifying the practice of an art, so this is the approach I take in my work with writing– in analyzing it, in making it, and in teaching it.

Others may disagree, but I think when developing a piece of narrative art, the first thing to do is build the substance of it. This may be the result of my particular biases– I freely admit this is influenced by my personal conviction that storytelling is a highly-considered design process, and coming from a drama background the necessity of STRUCTURING a story always seems paramount –but I tend to believe you need to know what your story is going to be about and what’s going to happen in it before you should be worrying about how you’re going to depict it. In other words, I usually suggest with any writing, figure out the substance of WHAT you want to say before you figure out HOW you want to say it.

So to do this, I like to think of the elements of storytelling as a toolbox full of tools that have closely defined functions that can perform particular jobs. In understanding what those tools are, you can understand what you can use them for, and therefore have the best possible control over the resulting effect their utilization has on your story. Knowing what the province of that tool is allows you to ask the right questions that will lead you to the appropriate design choice.

Let’s take point of view as an example. Point of view can be divided, of course, into first person, second person, and third person point of view; we’re all familiar with those. “I am experiencing story,” versus “You are experiencing this story” versus “They are experiencing this story.” But how do we describe all the things point of view encompasses? To get really precise, I like to break it down into Position, Bias, and Filter, each with a definition that enables you to focus on a small aspects of the storytelling that POV can affect.

Position deals with the nature of the narrator’s identity, and all attendant features of what information they are physically able to take in. What is possible for them to know? What is possible for them to experience? The guy in the mailroom can’t know what happened in the company’s executive boardroom. The girl who doesn’t speak Spanish can’t tell you what the Spanish-speaking people around her are saying. A human being can’t know everything that ever happened in the whole world. So these people can’t tell us even if they wanted to. But the CEO, a native Spaniard, and an omnisicient narrator could. So the point of observation of that storyteller matters in what information is even possible for the reader to get.

Bias is what I use to describe how the narrator naturally interprets the information they take in. These are not their conscious views on the info, but the stuff that occurs to them automatically because of the assumptions that come from the way their experiences shaped them. A native earthling may compare the strange aliens to birds because that’s the closest frame of reference they have. An abuse victim may view any conflict at all as a potential danger. A novice horseman may interpret a horse’s violent reaction as a sign of aggression rather than fear. This colors their narration without their realizing it.

Filter, then, is what that narrator consciously chooses to mention or not mention. A person who suffered a trauma in the past may remember every moment but declare they don’t want to talk about it. A morally questionable person may leave out details of their actions so that their behavior doesn’t seem as repugnant. This shapes their narration because of their choices of what to say and what to leave out.

So, when you think about point of view being made up of what is possible to know, what is slanted about that knowledge, and what of that knowledge is presented or withheld, now you have more refined axes to consider how point of view is used in a given piece, and how you can make use of point of view in your own writing. Again, this level of precision prompts questions– what information do I need possible? In that case, what sort of narrator is in a position to provide it? That sort of thing.

I put this to the test recently, when I assigned a midterm in my literature class. I asked my students to choose one of three possible premises for a story, and then make a series of design choices as to how that story might play out in utilization of the various narrative tools we’d studied in the class. I found that a lot of them had much better ability to decide on meaningful storytelling choices because they knew what each tool’s function was. They could choose strong conflicts because they knew that conflict was supposed to provide a struggle for that character that was specifically challenging to the ways in which that character was currently deficient, and would have to grow and change in order to manage. They could choose effective settings because they knew setting provided context for the events based on time, location, and continuity of the universe. A lot of them who never thought they had the capacity to tell a story were better able to because the tool’s definitions let them ask the right questions– what would be the toughest thing for this character in particular? What did they need to develop in order to manage this challenge? Where were they going to end up once they’d grown that new strength? I took that as vindication that this approach works, not just as a working style and analytical process as it’s been for me, but also as an effective way to teach writing and literary analysis to people who don’t know how to do it.

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