Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

12 JUNE, 2012

6 Rules for a Great Story from Barnaby Conrad and Snoopy

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“And remember: Always aim for the heart!”

You might recall Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (public library), which gave us Ray Bradbury’s wise words on rejection. To recap: Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, asked 30 famous authors and entertainers to each respond to a favorite Snoopy comic strip with a 500-word essay on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life. The all-star roster includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Ed McBain, and Elizabeth George. Among them is also one by Barnaby Conrad himself, offering the following six tips to writing a great story, in response to this 1997 comic strip:

  1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
  2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
  3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
  4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
  5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
  6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

Hone your opening words, for just as stories aren’t written but rewritten, so should beginnings be written and rewritten. Look at your opening and ask yourself, ‘If I were reading this, would I be intrigued enough to go on?’

And remember: Always aim for the heart!

Conrad is the author of The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction.

For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

And, above all, let’s not forget these famous disclaimers on taking writing advice.

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03 MAY, 2012

The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories

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Where a third of our entire life goes, or what professional wrestling has to do with War and Peace.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted, and Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson recently pointed to the similarity between innovators in art and science, both of whom he called “dreamers and storytellers.” Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal, educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.

Gottschall articulates a familiar mesmerism:

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

Joining these favorite book trailers is a wonderful short black-and-white teaser animation:

One particularly important aspect of storytelling Gottschall touches on is the osmotic balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, something Mortimer Adler argued for decades ago in his eloquent case for marginalia. Gottschall writes:

The writer is not … an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.

In discussing the extent to which we live in stories, Gottschall puts in concrete terms something most of us suspect — fear, perhaps — on an abstract, intuitive level: the astounding amount of time we spend daydreaming.

Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes — vain, aggressive, dirty — come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.

From War and Peace to pro wrestling, from REM sleep to the “fictional screen media” of commercials, from our small serialized personal stories on Facebook and Twitter to the large cultural stories of religious traditions, The Storytelling Animal dives into what science knows — and what it’s still trying to find out — about our propensity for storytelling to reveal not only the science of story but also its seemingly mystical yet palpably present power.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2012

This Is My Home: Inside Anthony’s Parlor of Curiosities

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On letting the light of life shine through the stories of genuine human connection.

Several months ago, a friend and I were strolling down a street in the East Village when we stumbled upon a whimsical place — a kind of curiosities parlor that stretched, narrow and full of unusual objects and private memories, from the street site of the building to the backyard. Inside it was Anthony Pisano, a smiling elderly gentleman who lived there with his cat and his grand piano, squeezed into the back of the parlor amidst vintage jazz records that played on an antique gramophone. Anthony invited us into his sanctuary of stories and we chatted with him for quite a while, enthralled by his tales of trinkets and treasures he had collected over the decades from all over the world. As we were leaving, he reached towards the ceiling above the inner doorway, where a cluster of crystals hung and caught the candlelight. He took a couple off and handed one to each of us, instructing us to let the light of life catch in them.

We, it turns out, we not the only ones mesmerized by Anthony’s curiosities and unusual lens on the world. This Is My Home by filmmakers Kelsey Holtaway and Mark Cersosimo is a beautiful short film, in the vein of This Must Be The Place, that captures Anthony’s singular character through the contents of his home and his heart.

A lot of senior citizen feel that they’ve been discarded. But when people stop in front of my place, they bring life to me… A lot of people pass, they have these earphones on. They’ll see me, but they’ll just go by, they never question — as if people are afraid to talk one-on-one. And that doesn’t give me any satisfaction as far as life is… cause life is, you talk to people, you touch them, in a sense.”

If you ever find yourself in the East Village on a warm spring night, take a stroll down the southern sidewalk of East 7th Street, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A — you might just find Anthony smiling on his stoop, waving you in. Take your headphones off and go in.

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