Peggy Bechko: Storytelling 101


by Peggy Bechko

What Do You Know About Stories?

Aside from the fact that maybe you want to write them?

Hey, I’m feeling kind of mellow, so I don’t want to write about anything to technical or complicated so I thought I’d give some time to the general idea of writing stories.

Now here’s the thing. People have been telling stories for thousands of year. Realistically, it’s the same story over and over; in books and movies, around campfires, before the hearth, wherever. People, events and locations will change, but stories basically remain the same. They’re based on fear, anger, love and hate. What motivates us humans, kindness, envy, greed, ambition, power and lust, will always provide the writer with the fuel needed to hold a mirror up that human condition and create even more variations on stories that have been told many times over.

So, to manipulate all that information you, the writer, need to have a plan.

Even a simple plan.

As the writer the setting and background needs to be plain in your own mind. You need to think of things like how the weather might affect your story (“It was a dark and stormy night”). Does the story cover some territory, careening hither and yon, or is it set entirely inside an old mansion? Have you decided on a particular genre? Horror? Sci/Fi? Fantasy? Western? Mystery? Some kind of cross-over?

This all goes back to the planning. Some writers plan out every detail of every nuance in the story, some just go ahead with a minimal outline and fill in the meat at they go. Plainly, no matter the amount of planning characters will not always do what they’re supposed to, action will change and locations will be adjusted to fit the evolving tale, BUT some preparation is necessary and some authors don’t take the time to accomplish that step. Rebellion against simple planning can lead to characters wandering aimlessly, a story that is disorganized and uninteresting, characters blinking in and out of existence, and a number of other ailments.

For myself the best approach has proved to be having a structure – an organization of events I plan to have take place that lead in a path from beginning to end. Not detailed, not even definitive, but a writer’s guideline.
One problem solved from the get-go. Many writers never finish the story they begin telling because it all seems so good in the beginning, they can’t wait to start writing, but they don’t map out their destination.

It’s good to have a horizon line in view – that destination. Of course a horizon is pretty much a moving thing so the writer has to keep tabs on what’s happening and keep the horizon evolving. That’s where the aforementioned destination comes in handy. You have a goal to reach, but much can, and usually does, change between here and there. Writing, I’ve found is pretty fluid. No doubt you, the writer, will change a lot as you move along your path, but without that path it’s difficult to decide what needs changing.

Part of the trick in storytelling is to begin the story as far in as possible. Don’t feel you have to lead your reader through everything, just as a movie pretty much dumps the viewer into the story (and thus the screenwriter begins the tale somewhere forward from the ‘beginning’). Reader (of books or scripts) will be delighted to jump right in there with you. Readers are always ready to suspend their disbelief and real knowledge of the world, but the skilled writer gives them a reason to read. A hook to get started and a great tale to keep them going.

To accomplish that again, we go back to planning. If you as the writer know where you’re going the reader will follow along. If you’re rambling and your characters seem to have no purpose you’re going to lose them.

So know where you’re going, give your hero lots of obstacles to overcome and complications to deal with. Give him dead ends and frustrations, times he has to double-back but always keep your end in sight and you’re going to find no matter how complicated you’ve made it, no matter how many twists in your story, your hero will find a way forward to a satisfying end.