There’s a lot of talk about getting published. Go to a conference, or hell, hang out on-line, and most of the writerly conversations are around that, or around marketing, branding, The Business. But, as has been pointed out a few times by folks like Chuck Wendig, nobody’s asking how to become a better story-teller.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. People are asking, and they are wondering. Just not the droves that are asking about getting an agent, or about self-publishing.
Case in point, someone asked me on Twitter the other week for tips on writing noir. And I sat there and stared at the question for a while and finally came back with, “Read a lot of it?” and then offered some authors who do it particularly well.
And that illustrates the problem. It isn’t necessarily that people aren’t curious, that they don’t want to know how to become better story-tellers, it’s that a good story is really fucking hard to quantify.
There’s a lot of nuts and bolts advice floating around and some of it’s really good. The aforementioned Mr. Wendig, for example. It’s in the trenches stuff. Real practical value on structure and plot and honing your craft.
But how do you quantify sub-text? How do you measure metaphor?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t. You experience it, examine it, have your “I see what you did there” moment when it clicks. You want to know about sub-text you read Raymond Carver. You want to know about metaphor you read Tim O’Brien. There are no Metaphor Units, though I propose the Kil-O-Brien as a start. It’s based on a count of all the things they carried.
But then how do you translate that into useful advice? “Read a lot,” is of course the stock answer, but that’s, I don’t know, kind of a cop out. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like “Write what you know,” an empty, overly simplisitic platitude that doesn’t give you anything meaningful.
And maybe my advice will be, too. Because, you know, I have Opinions. But I hope it won’t be. Here it is.
Learn to tell a joke.
And even that suffers from the same problem, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you break that down beyond, “Go listen to a lot of them”?
But here’s the thing about a joke. It’s a story. Beginning, middle, end. Three acts, right there. It’s short, easy to remember and built in such a way that you can see its guts working the whole time. Like magic, it’s all based on mis-direction and subverting expectations. Only you get to the punchline you get to see how the trick gets done.
They’re like that “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” thing. Only substitute feet for shoes and it’s funny. And kinda gross.
Two guys walk into a bar. You think they’d have seen it.
“Would you hit a man with glasses?” “No, but I’ll hit him with a brick.”
Two guys are out hunting and get separated from their friends and pretty soon they’re lost. So they start shooting into the air hoping to get somebody’s attention and let them know where they are. They keep trying. Nothing happens. It’s getting dark. They’re getting worried. Finally one of them says, ‘Let’s try one more shot,” and the other says, ‘You sure? This is my last arrow.’
Are these good jokes? No. But they’re stories.
One of the things that I see in a lot of flash fiction is that there’s no actual story there. They’re just scenes. There’s no lead in. There’s no resolution. They don’t leave the reader asking a question. Why do you want to hit the guy with glasses? Why are you selling baby feet and can I use them as ear-warmers? That sort of thing.
These stories end being half-baked and another couple hundred words might have solved that problem.
The thing with a joke is you know right away if it worked. If you don’t have a punchline, or a decent lead-in it falls flat on its ass. And you can translate that understanding into longer pieces.
Guy goes to prison and he keeps hearing people yelling out random numbers in the middle of the night. ’27!’ ’33!’ ’92!’ And every time, people are laughing. He has no idea what’s going on. Asks a guy the next day who tells him, ‘Oh, they’re jokes. We’re not allowed to talk between cells but they can’t catch us if we’re quick. So we’ve all memorized these things and assigned them numbers,’ and then he gives the guy the list.
So that night he decides to give it a shot. Yells out ’87!’ Nothing. ’29!’ Crickets. ’102!’ Not even a polite cough. So the next day he finds his buddy and says, ‘Those were funny jokes, what the hell happened?’
‘Dude, your delivery sucks.’
And that’s a whole other problem.
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