Facts about Fiction

Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement, Part 1b: Participatory Engagement

Now we're getting into the good stuff. It's fine to watch somebody interesting do something interesting. That's a big part of what stories are for. But the sidelines only go so far. We want in on the action. We want to take part.

What do you do when you start a new school? You orient. You look around. What's different from your old school? What's the same? What should you be aware of? Where's your desk. Where's the exit? Where's the loo? Who are the nice kids? Who are the bullies? What does your teacher expect? What are the rules?

Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement, Part 1a: Personal Engagement

Personal engagement is all about how each audience member feels about each person in the story. If they empathize, they see themselves in the character's shoes, they feel for the character as another human being, even if the character is very different from them--even if the character is not presented as a human being. If we notice someone in a situation, we tend to imagine ourselves in their place and project our feelings about the situation onto that person.

Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement, Part 1: Principles

People are funny when it comes to the mechanics of things they do without thinking. Take language. How many times as a missionary in Haiti or English teacher in Taiwan have I heard that some language I'm struggling to master has no grammar? Too many! Of course Haitian Creole and Mandarin Chinese have grammars. They wouldn't be languages without them--and they wouldn't be so hard (or interesting) to learn if we could just slap their vocabulary onto our native languages' morphology and syntax.

Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement

One of the biggest headaches in narrative is what to reveal when and how to reveal it. Nowhere is this headache more intense than at the beginning of a narrative, the Setup, where we describe the Initial State of our change elements and create anticipation for the conflict the narrative exists to relate. Reveal too much, and you spoil the punch line. Reveal too little, and things don't make sense.

Qualities of a Good Narrative 2: Self-referencing

I like to say that a narrative is a sphere in the shape of a line. One reason I say this is self-referencing: the various ways a good narrative refers to itself. At the moment, I can think of three kinds of narrative self-reference.

Intertemporal references occur between earlier and later sections of the piece. The narrator or the characters mention planned or possible future events and observed or experienced past events. This has the effect of connecting past and future in the text the way they are connected in our brains through memory and imagination.

Put Your Milestones Where Your Mouth Is

One of the trickiest skills in storytelling is positioning milestones to reflect plot hierarchy. It's tricky because plot hierarchy can be difficult to identify. When a story springs full-formed in our fevered brain or eeks drip by drop from our curious pen, we tend to see it as an inviolable whole--and our veneration for the Muse makes us balk at the thought of reshaping it. The consumer, however, doesn't give a fig for our Muse. She wants a good story well told. Assuming we've provided the good story, the next step is to tell it well. That requires unity and coherence.

It's a story about...connection.

A year or so ago, I set out on a quest to get a grip on storytelling. I read some good books on the subject, did some primary research on narratives I admired, and pondered deeply. This morning, it clicked. Connection. Yeah, there's a bunch of technical stuff to discuss in other posts, but the factor that separates the well-told tale from the perennial classic (the thing I want to write) is connection. The results of connection can be happy or sad. The effort to connect can succeed or fail. But the stories that stay have this in common: the protagonist connects. He connects the dots.