Thursday, November 15, 2012

Story is king by Terry Burns

When I make that statement in a workshop, particularly if there is a pastor or two in the group, someone is sure to say "No, it's the message I want to impart that is important."

Maybe that's what is important to them, but if the story doesn't work chances are someone is not going to read far enough to get the message. And the message should never overshadow the story if it's going to work. The story must be king.

I think most of us are storytellers. When my brother and I were young we might begin playing together by setting up a scenario something like this: "What if I was a Sheriff back in the old west?"

"And what if I was an outlaw?"

"And you robbed a bank."

"And you came after me but I was too smart and set an ambush."

"But I saw the ambush and . . ."

We'd go on and on, our imaginations setting scenario after scenario, often the planning for it taking more time than we actually spent playing. Other cousins would often join in.

That where so many stories come from, a character, a place, a thing or an idea and beginning to ask "what if?"

So many of us lose touch with that storyteller instinct. We forget we know how. Then again, being able to tell a story and being able to write it in a manner that it is worthy of publication are two entirely different things. We can learn the latter if we apply ourselves to it, but the ability to come up with and tell good stories, even if we all know how to do it, the ability to do it well can be an elusive gift.

I did a workshop for the school system in the little town of Groom, Texas. Students from the 5th grade through high school were in the session. We did the what if game they immediately jumped into the spirit of it.

I asked one student for a what if and she said, "What if I had a puppy?"

I asked the boy next to her and he said, "And what if that puppy was really a space alien?" Trust a boy to go that way with it. We went on for some time building our story and it was fascinating. The high school kids were a little "too cool" to really get into it, but it reinforced my idea that we all know how to play the game.

Have you ever gone shopping for a story idea and just focused on something, almost anything, and just asked, "What if?"


Timothy Fish said...

I agree that story is king, but there is no way to divorce a story from the message. A story without a message makes for a very boring story. Where we run into a problem is when we try to force a message into a story. A story should allow us to see the many sides of an issue. When we force a message into a story, the story and the message don't match up. So the story is showing multiple sides of another issue while the message we're forcing into the story is unsupported.

Terry Burns said...

No, when the message we'd like the story to have overshadows the story itself, or is 'forced' into the story as you put it, it ends up being very 'preachy.' Thanks for commenting.

Jennifer Major said...

I was doing some research online about New Mexico history and learned about the Long Walk of the Navajo, and was stunned and sickened by what I read. (I'm Canadian and just had never heard of that event)
As I read further, I had a whopper of a "what if" moment, and kaboom, it flowed like rain!

I cannot stand books that are SO obviously buttressed with an ill-fitting, obligatory Gospel message that the story lines diverge and never blend again. A good story has the message woven in, a great story has it woven in like silk thread in wool. The reader is warmed by beauty and never sees where the story ends and the message begins.

Terry Burns said...

Good comment, Jennifer, I don't believe all story-lines will carry the same amount of faith content. Some require a very light touch while others will support a fairly strong message. As you say it does have to be woven in, and cannot overshadow the story itself.

Rick Barry said...

As a boy, I rarely read Christian fiction because the adventure would be getting good and interesting and then--Wham!--the author paused the action to slam you over the head with a Gospel baseball bat. Of course, I wasn't a believer at the time, so I was already less receptive to the message. Still, even as a young person, it occurred to me that such a message would be better sprinkled naturally throughout the story, not piled high in just a few spots.

My current "What if?" game didn't start with me. An editor I used to write short stories for called unexpectedly and wanted a story that was "big." He said it could be science fiction. It could be fantasy. It could be both, or neither. Just so it was "big and different!" I had to start what-iffing big time. He loved and printed my three-part series, but now I'm expanding the whole concept into a YA novel and having a ball with it. Still what-iffing as I go along.

Thanks, Terry.