Good storytelling can be like medicine. Especially when the structure, or ‘bones’ of a story are well aligned. When done properly, the structure elements remain invisible, but you can feel them as you experience the story, both as a reader and writer. It’s like getting a neural chiropractic adjustment—it helps snap things into their rightful place.
Storytelling is a very old art. It dates back to pre-written history. Back in those times, people passed their life lessons to their young by telling stories. As time passed, the stories became myths. Contrary to popular belief, myths were not ‘fictions.’ They served the important role of vehicles carrying moral codes, empowering younger generations against repeating the mistakes of their forebears.
Exposure to new information builds new neuropathways in our brains. Each time we experience something we haven’t done before, and that includes a new story, new connections form in our brain. It gets especially potent when the story evokes a strong emotional response.
It appears that emotionally charged situations can lead us to create longer lasting memories of the event. When we are led to experience feelings of delight, anger or other states of mind, vivid recollections are often more possible than during everyday situations in which we feel little or no emotional attachment to an event.
― Adam Waude, Psychologist World
Reading, or even more so, writing a story is like embarking on a journey of transformation. Most of us want some form of a change. But change is difficult and draining because it requires the conscious mind to become aware of unconscious patterns and then repeated work day after day for at least two months to make the shift permanent. It’s David against Goliath—the conscious mind, which drives approximately 5% of our actions, going against the hard-wired patterns of the subconscious 95%.
When we immerse ourselves in a story, in which the hero goes through a transformation, we get to hitch a ride and experience some of that change ourselves. It gives us a taste of something bigger than us; something that can take a lifetime to go through. With a story, we get to complete an entire cycle of transformation in the matter of days or hours. That’s why good stories can feel so satisfying.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
― Joseph Campbell
Over the last seven years of working on my writing, I’ve been noticing that when I conquer something on the page, I feel like I’ve conquered a part of myself. When my character begins to come to life, it is as if a part of me that was previously hidden or unknown, rises to the surface, ripe for integration.
While an extremely difficult form of art, writing can be healing and empowering to the soul. I’ve heard many brilliant people discount this idea by saying that when you write for an audience, you have to move past the need of having a personal catharsis. And I agree! No one really cares about our daily struggles. That’s what journals and morning pages are for. To gather an audience, we have to elevate our writing to another level. Learning about structure can help with that.
But playing on this more advanced stage can also help with our personal development. Journaling and advanced writing both have a function. While the first is to purge, the latter is much more refined and can take thousands of hours to hone. It is the path towards self-actualization.
Moving the character organically through the plot, where new energy disrupts the old world, forcing the character to struggle inside and out to attain a new equilibrium mirrors what happens in life. As Joseph Campbell explained, the hero’s journey is the psyche’s way of unfolding from its seed to full realization of its potential. If we can capture that on the page, we have something that has a universal appeal and speaks not only to our minds and hearts, but also to our Spirit.
Masters of the Craft
Almost all successful stories involve external conflict for their heroes – obstacles created by other characters or forces of nature. But in stories that explore the deeper levels of character, the greatest obstacle the hero faces comes from within. This is the character’s inner conflict.
― Michael Hauge
When we follow the adventures and setbacks—comprising the character arch—of Jake Sully of ‘Avatar’ or Elizabeth Bennet of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ something fascinating takes place in the subtle levels of our mind. Our brain experiences evolution in action.
It is a little different when you watch a movie versus read a book. Reading is more straining and it engages you deeper because you have to work to both comprehend the writing and imagine the story. It’s a sensual act of co-creation. This is why your reading experience will be a little different from that of your friend.
When watching a film, the imagining is already done for you. All you need to do is sit back and relax. Your brain enters an alpha state in which it is highly hypnotizable. In both cases, the experience the authors (and directors) have architected for you are engraving new patterns over your brain’s canvass. If the story is highly relatable, the new neuro connections will entangle with the old. His is why, IMO, scenes and characters from our favourite books and movies tend to stick with us forever.
With his six stage plot structure, Michael Hauge of Story Mastery devised a very helpful formula for writers, and especially screenwriters. Same with John Truby and his seven essential steps. Both men advise that the writer moves away from the three-act structure (it’s just not enough, Aristotle!) to include a wider choice of elements.
Notice how these steps and stages mirror human growth towards self-actualization. I highly recommend you look into the work of these brilliant teachers, if you haven’t done so yet!
The story world isn't a copy of life as it is. It's life as human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.
― John Truby, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller
Fictional stories are not real. They are what I call the idealized version of reality. No one cares about seeing a day to day routine of the average earthling. We get too much of that. A good story serves the purpose of an escape into another world. Even better, it is a model from which we can draw lessons to use in our daily life.
When a writer puts in the hard work to capture in the bones of their story the workings of the human psyche going through a transformation, he or she will forge a connection with an audience that transcends everything that seems to separate us.
A good story structure is organic. It encodes with it the very process of life’s unfolding. It resonates with a deeper part of our self and we find our own story within it.
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.
Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
Carl McCoy, the leader of the band Fields of the Nephilim—whose music was a big inspiration behind Moonchild—once said that what stirs his creativity, eventually leading him to composing an album, are paintings. He likes to visit museums and lose himself in the visual arts. In them, he hears the echo of his songs.
The author Henry James was also known for his affinity for paintings, which found reflection in his prose. Dancer and choreographer, Akram Khan, finds his inspiration in observing people and absorbing the frenzy of city streets. Georgia O’ Keeffe found it in landscapes. Picasso found it in the shape of a spider web. Paul Cezanne drew from the symphony of his emotions. Henry David Thoreau filled his creative well with what to some of us may pass as mundane workings of nature.
Art has a movement. Its expression springs from deep within. But it usually has an impetus, a catalyst outside the artist. Our senses draw us towards things that resonate with us at a core level. We connect with them, often without giving the process another thought. The thing that may just inspire a great piece of art could be triggered by a smell of something that brings us back to our childhood.
“In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can imagine.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is hardly a writer interview without this question being asked: where do you get your ideas from? It is such a tough question to answer. That’s because the process and especially the moment when an idea emerges or enters an artist’s mind is very personal and ephemeral.
Each day of our lives we accumulate experiences that find their reflection in patters of thought. When stimulated in a new way, those patterns can spontaneously reconfigure allowing us to momentarily see things in a new light. We call such moments insights or inspirations.
For me, the majority of my inspirations seems to come from two primary places. The first is time.
Since I was about nine, my mind’s been attracted to pondering the mystery of our origins. Where did we come from? Where are we going? Since at least until we fashion a time machine, the answer to such questions will have to remain in the field of speculation, I’ve found great relief in imagination. So I let my mind wander, reconstructing ancient cities of Egypt and Sumer and letting characters roam the streets. What are they thinking about? What do they want? I wonder. And it sets my mind on fire.
On the flip side of my fascination with the ancient past is the automatic query—where are we all headed? The breakneck momentum of our existence, when traced to the 1900s and slingshot forward, can astound with richness of ideas. If we have gone from horses and buggies to landing on the Moon in less than a hundred years, what else could be in store for us in the coming decades? Actually living on Mars? Taking weekend trips to Jupiter?
The second source of inspiration for me has always been music. At fourteen, I remember sitting on the floor of my room with my friend and describing to him the visuals coming to me as we were listening to Moonchild by Fields of the Nephilim. I spent the rest of that evening in a kind of a drunken haze, intoxicated by the thought—I know what I want to do in my life. I want to make pictures for music!
Well, it didn’t turn out exactly that way. I didn’t become a video director. But in that moment, my brain made an important connection—a bridge connecting two forms of art.
We all borrow from each other. The world is teeming with ideas left behind by creative minds. We are living in an increasingly interconnected reality where we come in contact with many forms of art every single day. What a fascinating existence this gives rise to!
“To be an artist is to believe in life.”
More than ever now, our planet needs solutions in order to set a course of our future. I’m curious, what kinds of things inspire you? What drives you to wake up every single day and create? Do you know where that impetus comes from?
I’d love this little corner to become a place where we exchange ideas and thoughts. I’d like to know from you, how you see the world and what gets you going? Where do you find meaning? Please share in the comments below. If you feel inspired.
Writing is tough. Good writing is even tougher. It takes time to polish your craft. But if you are at all serious about growing in this area, there is no better time to start than today. You can go small or all out. It almost doesn’t matter. We are all in different places on our journeys and the key is to know where you are and what it is you want to accomplish and go for it.
Below are seven fun hacks you can incorporate into your writing practice that will make you a better writer. You can tackle just one or all eight at once. Try it, and let me know which one worked the best for you. Happy writing!
1. Journal. This one is critical. The best part about journaling is that it is structure-less. You can write about anything! One thing I found over time is focusing on a particular event and going deep with descriptions to really dig into and convey the meaning of that event is a great exercise. Describing your dreams is cool, especially if you like to write fantasy. For example, how do you reconcile a setting for action that is two places at once? You get the idea. It is challenging and really good at making you defter.
2. Morning pages. This is a practice I got from Julia Cameron and it changed my life. It is really straight forward. Grab paper and pen (it doesn’t work on the computer, you need the hand brain connection), and write three pages of longhand scribbles in one sitting first thing in the morning. This is James Joyce stream of consciousness style. Try it for a month, at least. You might be surprised at the patters you will discover in your writing. Not only does this practice do a beautiful job at purging thoughts from our busy heads, much like writing meditation, but it also serves as an insight generator. After a while of doing this, when you look at the stack of paper filled with your words, you will see what it takes to write a whole book. It’s really not that long when we are consistent.
3. Read. Everywhere! Especially the good stuff. Focus on the writers you admire and the writing style that appeals to you. And then, change course and try something new, new style, new genre. Making time to read is an investment. Reading exercises our brain in a way that makes it more agile and faster at absorbing new information. Having smartphones makes is super easy to read, but I still prefer to have some paper copy book with me when I leave the house. Waiting in a line, walking around a park, going to a café, all those places are ripe opportunities to indulge in literature. And it all adds up.
4. Write on purpose. This is different than the points above because here you are actually entering a space with the aim to create something specific. If you are still shy about writing a whole story, try flash fiction or fan fiction. Flash fiction are super short stories, almost like poems. We even have Twitter fiction these days. Try writing a story in 144 characters! That will certainly trach you to be concise, a very good skill to have as a writer. Regarding fan fiction, some of our most successful writers of today began by taking their favorite works of art and expanding upon them. The added benefit is that there are fans of those works out there who are more than willing to check out your creation.
5. Create space. I am not talking about Amazon’s self-publishing platform here but it certainly is something to be aware of. I used it to publish my first novel Moonchild. What I mean here is creating a space for your writing. Clearing your desk or a corner of your house to make a special writing for your corner might be exactly what your soul craves. Creating space is also about time. I find it especially potent to write in the early morning when much of the world is still resting in the arms of slumber and my mind is fresh. The stillness is the perfect ground for my creativity to start blooming. But I didn’t start that way. Coffee lunches between work used to be the time when I would edit and not get down to writing until the evening. Depending on how demanding your schedule is, see what works for you.
6. Start a blog. Nothing brings us closer to how we feel about our writing than hitting that ‘publish’ button. It is surely a thrill. It can be a bit scary even. But what’s wonderful about getting out there, even before you may feel you are ready, is the connection you forge with the community. If you’ve been thinking about it, try it and watch your writing take off.
7. Get feedback. This one is tricky because negative feedback can cut us off from creative flow. As writers, or artists in general, we do what we do because we are extremely sensitive. Therefore, any negative advice can quickly shut us down. So it’s best to wait with constructive criticism until you are ready and when you finally do seek it, make sure it is from another writer with whom you deeply resonate and respect. Writing workshops or meetup groups are great places to share your art because again, they tend to be filled with like-minded individuals. And in the even you do get negative feedback, use what works to your advantage and discard the rest. After all, it’s only an opinion. And only yours is the one that truly counts. Another place to share your work and get feedback is an online writing community called Figment.
For more tips on writing, check out my earlier post On Good Writing.
Why is most writing so bad? All you need to do is pick up any legal contract, academic article, or instructions for operating technical device to see an example of bad writing. It’s literally everywhere!
A few days ago I tuned into a discussion between Steven Pinker and Ian McEwan, two phenomenal thinkers and scholars. I include a short note about each below. The discussion was so captivating and filled with morsels, I listened to it again, this time with the aim to capture the high points and share with you.
Pinker opened with the question I posit above and came up with three hypotheses:
•Bad writing is a deliberate choice to confuse the reader, or to cover up lack of substance. But there are people who have great things to say but still their writing sucks, so maybe there is another reason?
•Perhaps we should blame digital media that’s forcing us to communicate in 140 characters and speak in abbreviations? But then, we don’t have enough evidence to substantiate that point.
•Final conclusion: Bad writing has nothing to do with an era, it’s always been with us, since the invention of the printing press.
So how could we remedy this malady? What are some of the techniques we can incorporate in our writing to make it better? Below are the few things I learned from the lecture, adding some of my own commentary and interpretation.
Pinker spoke partly tongue-in-cheek about the use of commas to split infinities, adjuncts, dangling modifiers and nuanced usage of words, which changes all the time, by the way. For those with insatiable appetite for such fine distinctions and controversies, I include a link to the live presentation HERE, which is quite phenomenal and entertaining.
Enjoy, and let me know whether this post was helpful to you!
A quick note on the presenters: Steven Pinker is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author of sixteen books, including the acclaimed and heavily researched tome “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011). Ian McEwan is an English novelist and screenwriter. In 2008, The Times featured him on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” He is the author of the highly awarded “Atonement” (2002).