Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tell Me a Story

Two stories in today’s news were about people who take risks. One was about the eruption of Mt. Ontake in Japan. The sudden (and unexpected) event happened while about 150 people were climbing; an adventure that is very popular in Japan. At the time the news story was written, at least 30 people had succumbed to the violent but natural event, trapped on the mountain in the path of the falling rock and flowing lava following the eruption.

The second story featured a young woman (early 40s) who, in three years, has hiked solo 10-thousand miles. Starting in Siberia, walking, hauling a custom-made trailer and more than 150 pounds of gear, Sarah Marquis survived her journey despite weather, terrain, disease, hunger, thirst and threats to her life by assailants ranging from wild animals to Mongolian horsemen.

Two stories that a writer could have invented, but didn’t need to. I mention that because I’ve often been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” A perfectly natural question from those who don’t write or tell stories, I think. If I were not doing what I do, I wouldn’t know where to look for ideas, I suppose. The truth is, of course, that life, the world around you, the events of the day, provide all the garden a writer needs to grow a story from seed.

Fiction writing is much like gardening or farming, you see. An idea, a word, a passing thought, a scene witnessed or experienced can be the starting point for any storyteller to create a tale worth telling. Writers (at least this one) are explorers of a kind, you see. We find a beginning, an idea or event or act, and from that we look at what led to the act, what the act was, and the consequences. Sometimes it is as simple as retailing the beginning, the middle and the end with the embellishments a writer may add. Story ideas are often buried in someone else’s history or experience that leads the writer to look for creative explanations, motives, even outcomes.

Years ago I added to my library a small, almost pamphlet-sized book outlining 101 basic plots. The author had written the book from the perspective of a screenwriter (for silent films, I should point out). The idea of basic themes or plots (the ancient Greeks recognized only 7) applies to any fiction writing. What changes is the voice or point of view of the teller, the writer. What makes it work, what makes any story work, is either the true-to-life plot, or the skill of the writer in getting the reader to apply what is called “suspension of disbelief.” It is often written as “willing suspension of disbelief,” but willing or unwilling, the reader must participate in such an act. If the storyline is so true to life that the suspension is unnecessary, so much the better.

All of this might seem off the track (trail) I began with hikers climbing a volcano or trekking alone across a vast continent, an ocean and yet another continent. It isn’t, though. What struck me about both stories were two things: the magnitude of tests we can invent for ourselves, and the depth and breadth of strength we can find within ourselves when we need to, or really want to. It is what life is made of, and what makes life at all interesting and challenging.

If you think you have a story to tell, know that it has been told before, has been around for perhaps as long as campfires and wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. That shouldn’t stop you from telling the story in your own way, your own voice. You might not tell it better than anyone else, or you might find a perspective that is new and unusual.

We all have stories to tell.

1 comment:

  1. Each of us has a plethora of stories to share with others or more importantly, with our kids, grandkids, and descendants to come. Snapshots of our daily life described in a sentence or two have been experienced by untold millions of other people and thus b-o-o-o-ring. However when these same stories are placed in the context of time, background, supporting actors, and lifestyle..... the story about a common experience becomes a unique snapshot of the immediate or long ago past. I wish that my parents, grandparents, and earlier ancestors had taken pencil, pen, or quill in hand to give me an insight into their daily lives. Having the talent to write entertaining fiction using many of these same experiences to tell a story is a gift. -- Moi-nonymous.