Why writers have more to learn than ever

We live in exciting times for writers. There are more ways then ever to tell stories, and huge audiences hungry to consume them. It may sound strange if you’re not used to the idea, but the story is a kind of technology. Like the sword, or the motorcar, or the computer, the story has evolved over time. And today the technology of stories is more powerful than ever.

What is the rhetoric of story?

Whether you are making a Hollywood superhero movie, writing a literary novel, penning a monthly comic book, writing a presidential speech, scripting a 30 second advertisement, scribbling last minute copy, or woking on a $200 million AAA video game. Whichever aspect of storytelling today you are expert in, the basic elements of storytelling – the rhetoric of story – is exactly the same.

“Creativity needs structure like your muscles need your skeleton.”

Teaching writing at universities, critiquing and editing the work of thousands of writers, and in my own writing practice, I see writers struggling with the same problem again and again. As a critic for The Guardian I strip-down novels to their bare bones to see how they work, or in many cases, don’t. The problem is a failure of story, without which all a book’s other strengths are for nothing.

We’re all taught to be wary of rules, formulas and how-to approaches to creativity. What makes us like one story over another is subjective, so they say. But that’s also true of other arts like music, yet almost every pop song has a verse, chorus and a bridge, and almost every symphony has four movements in the styles of adagio, scherzo, sonata, minuet and rondo. Creativity needs structure like your muscles need your skeleton.

The structures we use as storytellers, the rhetoric of story, weren’t just made up at random. As psychology and neuroscience have taught us more about the human mind, we’ve learned that our brains are storytelling machines. We make sense of the world by telling stories. And the structures we build those stories around, are the structures that the rhetoric of story has evolved to mirror. So when we as writers do our jobs well, the story the audience are immersed in feels absolutely real.

Today writers are creating some of the greatest stories ever told. I’m an expert on the history and evolution of storytelling, and I love epic tales like Homer’s Iliad. But truth be told, the technical storytelling excellence of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies far outstrip the ancient epics that inspired them. Just as engineers, doctors and other professionals today are hundreds of times more skilled than centuries ago, writers also need to be far more skilled today than even a few decades before.

Want to script video games as moving as Jenova Chen’s Journey? Want to craft novels with the invention and power of Emma Donoghue’s Room? What to tell true life tales with the brilliance of Ira Glass? You can. We live in a golden age of story, and anybody can join in. It just takes the the passion and desire to learn the skills to match the creators you admire.

As writers we never stop learning. Today, right now, you can tap into the mastery of great teachers like Robert McKee. You can read invaluable guides including Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. Watch creators like Toy Story’s Andrew Stanton give TED talks about their insights into story. The richness of today’s storytelling technologies is there for anybody to learn.

The pre-sale offer for The Rhetoric of Story ends on Sunday 12th June. Join today & follow at your own pace.

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