A Writer’s Journey of Self-Discovery: Storytelling the wrong way

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You will often hear it as you begin your journey into writing “There is no wrong way to tell a story.” I am here to tell you that there is a wrong way to tell stories. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways to tell a story wrong. In that, I mean tell a story no one wants to hear or loses interest in. I will cover a handful off the top of my head. But, first, ill give you two stories, one bad and one serviceable.

Story A
It was spring break, but the smell of coffee and toast was a calling card for her presence. I hopped out of bed and ran downstairs. Grandma had a cup and extra newspaper waiting for me next to hers. She rarely came to visit, and this time she had come to spend a few days with us, so today’s trip was important. Arthritis and a lousy hip kept her from doing many things but not her favorite, fishing. I was happy to spend the day but didn’t know how much it meant to her or what it would mean to me.

We hit the lake and spent hours under the baking sun. Only for me to catch a few bluegills. She had all but given up and was ready to call it. Then, as the story goes, she said one more cast. We knew she had something when her bobber sank, and the line started running. The back-and-forth wrestling with the fish for thirty minutes came down to the fish running out of steam. She capped off our adventure with a 21-inch, 35-pound carp—the largest I had ever seen and the largest, to that date, ever caught at that lake. She was, at that moment, larger than life. We drove home, listening to oldies, neither of us Thinking about the day’s heat or the fish’s smell.

It is a memory that serves as a reminder to cherish our time together. Looking back on it, I think she knew that would be our last trip together. Yet, despite her physical limitations, she found joy in fishing and spending her precious remaining time with me. I miss my grandma. These days I fish with my kids and one day with my grandkids. I am, hopefully, giving them memories they can hold onto.

Story B
One of my favorite memories of my grandmother was spending the day fishing. We drove home, listening to oldies. She found joy in fishing and spending time together. The day was memorable. The most giant carp ever caught at that lake was our finale. I caught a few bluegills. Arthritis and a bad hip limited her, but not her favorite thing. She said one more cast. The fish ran out of steam. She had something. The bobber sank, and the line ran. Our adventure ended. Our last trip. Precious time spent together. A reminder to cherish and create memories.

Things you have to watch for

Lack of story structure
The lack of structure refers to a story that lacks a cohesive and organized framework. Without a clear structure, the events and elements of the story may feel disjointed or random, making it difficult for the audience to follow and engage with the narrative. A well-structured story typically has a beginning, middle, and end, with a progression of events that build upon each other and lead to a satisfying conclusion.

The story structure is more than being grammatically correct. It is the process of layering a story. Many structures range from the 3-act, 4-act, and 5-act structures to the Hero’s Journey by Campbell, Plot Embryo by Dan Harmon, Save the Cat by Snyder, or Michael Hauge’s six stages. Every one of those is an organization of events or thoughts to create a story that resonates with an audience. Telling a great story in the wrong sequence will reduce your intended impact with the story. You can see that in the example above.

Excessive exposition
Exposition is the information or background details provided to the audience to help them understand the story’s world, characters, or plot. However, excessive exposition refers to an overabundance of information being presented, often in a heavy-handed or clumsy manner.

It doesn’t need to be there if it is unimportant to the scene or the following scene. Of course, you can always tell more about the character’s history at relevant points, but if you feed out long-winded descriptions for the sake of it, you will end up with something no one wants to read.

  • No one wants:
    • He had trained under the legendary wizard monks of the 8th dynasty. Their skill with an axe was legendary. He was pretty good with an axe. Especially this axe cause it was his master’s axe, and it carried the markings of their lineage. That’s what’s engraved on the head. He had piercing blue eyes and raven hair. The battle armor he wore was old and worn but still strong. He swung the axe menacingly, bringing fear to the battlefield. He swung the axe of his linage left and right. He cleaved his way across the battlefield, each blow finding purchase. His enemies dropped their silver-tongued daggers, each worth a king’s ransom. Then they fleed for the nearby alpine mountains, where they had friends waiting. He had won this day.
  • Many want:
    • In the heat of battle, he swung an axe. Its dull blade rending flesh in jagged, still screaming chunks. While the warm coppery taste of life filled the air, the cold gaze he held was as lifeless as the field of corpses behind him.
  • Some want
    • He swung the axe menacingly, bringing fear to the battlefield.

One dimension characters
One-dimensional characters are characters that lack depth and complexity. They are often portrayed with only a single defining trait or characteristic, making them predictable and uninteresting. This is often solved by asking a host of questions you wouldn’t think of. Take your latest antagonist. Why is he the bad guy? What traumatic event in his past set him on that course? What would they order from a coffee house if they are just evil because of being evil? How would they treat the barista? What songs are on their playlist? Ask the questions that give them a personality and help to define some of their actions.

  1. Example 1: A film features a villain who is pure evil with no redeeming qualities or understandable motivations. This character is driven solely by a desire for power or destruction.
  2. Example 2: A side character is introduced solely to serve as a plot device or provide comic relief. This character has no personal goals, desires, or backstory beyond their designated function in the story, making them unmemorable.

Poor pacing
Pacing refers to the rhythm and speed at which events unfold in a story. Poor pacing occurs when the story progresses too quickly or too slowly, disrupting the natural flow of the narrative. When dealing with the pace of the story, it comes down to a simple question is there enough/too much for the audience to absorb? The best stories give you enough to want more, but not so much you are skipping ahead to find where the story continues.

  1. Example 1: A Superhero TV series has a slow first season, with minimal plot development and excessive focus on the mundane daily activities of the characters. The slow build may lead viewers to find excitement elsewhere.
  2. Example 2: A novel starts with a rapid succession of action scenes, simultaneously introducing numerous characters and subplots. The fast-paced narrative may overwhelm readers and make it difficult to grasp the story’s intricacies.

Lack of Emotional Connection
A lack of emotional connection refers to the absence of a strong emotional bond between the audience and the characters or events in the story. When the audience cannot empathize or connect with the characters on an emotional level, it becomes challenging for them to become invested in the story. This may be the single most important part of storytelling. If you can not create an emotional connection with the audience and have them feel something, then your story is meaningless.

  1. Example 1: A movie features heart-wrenching death scenes where the characters pass it off as just another day. They show no care for the events transpiring as they are just devices to create reasons for the characters to be.
  2. Example 2: A short story introduces a tragic event but fails to explore its emotional impact on the characters. The story focuses solely on external events, neglecting to delve into the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately how you tell your stories is up to you. There are no bad stories, only badly told stories. I will try to cover the various story structures and how to create an emotional connection as we go on this journey together. In the meantime, focus on telling things with a simple beginning, middle, and end. Try not to hop around, and when you are finished, ask your self how this makes me feel.