Monday, January 16, 2006
part one: the story circle project
everyone has a story to tell
The world is full of voices, full of people with something to say. The world is full of people who deserve to be listened to. The world is – among other things – an endless conversation. That conversation – carried down through generations and across languages and cultures – is the common heritage of humanity. That conversation is the vehicle of countless stories of all kinds through which we humans learn who we are and through which we also decide who and how to be.
‘Humanity’s great ongoing conversation’ sounds like a wonderful idea – and so it is – but it’s an idea with a few problems in practice. Humanity’s conversation has never been one between equal partners. This book and the project it introduces are based on some simple principles. These are that:
- everyone has a story to tell
- everyone can learn how to tell his or her own stories
- English today is the world language, so if you can tell your story in that medium, then it has a potentially huge audience.
This book and the project it introduces are based on a simple ethical principle: humanity’s conversation is one in which all humans should be entitled to play a part, both as listeners to and as tellers of stories. We’ll be more fully human if we really hear others’ stories; we’ll better realise our own human potential if our own stories are listened to.
the principle of fiction
Why write stories? Why make up stories (in the fictional sense) when there’s no much truth in the world, hidden and waiting to be told? And why would a story be the way to get going a conversation of the kind discussed in the chapter you’ve just read?
The basic reason for making stories has to do with the fundamental principle of fiction. That principle can be summed up in two words: What if…? What if… the world were different somehow? What if one single but vital thing changed? How would the world be different then? Or what if the change were in you rather than ‘out there’? What if you looked at things from a different angle? What if you stood in someone else’s shoes, saw with someone else’s eyes? The what if…principle brings us to the question of truth in fiction, or of truth in art more generally. The point is that stories in the fictional sense show us truths of a different kind from those we meet in the newspaper.
We can fit what if …questions into a few basic categories. Listing them reveals that the fundamental choices for the writer of fiction are
- to create a world different in some way from the here and now in which s/he writes, a kind of parallel universe
- to create a future from what s/he already knows of present and past
- to create a different past from the one s/he (and everyone else) knows
- to show the reader how the world looks through her eyes (and so to make the reader see differently)
- to show the reader another point of view (or other points of view) again, e.g. to show a man how a woman sees and feels, to show the citizen the migrant’s point of view, to give the fish a bird’s eye view
The first two options on the list above you’ll recognise as characteristic of science fiction, e.g. the journey to another planet uncannily like and unlike our own. The other options though also involve ‘going somewhere’ the reader wouldn’t have gone by herself. They make the reader a traveller and they make the writer a kind of tour guide, someone showing an unfamiliar place to an interested party, or perhaps showing the familiar place in a new light. In every case the what if… principle reveals that the process of making stories is the process of imagining a world other than the world as known. The what if… principle of fiction is closely related to a fundamental characteristic of every successful story. A story that works gives its reader new information: a story must surprise its reader. Or look at it another way: in a story something has to happen. Without the element of surprise there’s nothing to read for. If everything in a story is already known or too easy to predict (too obvious) there will be no point in reading. So if there’s a recipe for making a successful story, we now have the most essential ingredient.
Why surprise the reader? Why take her where she hasn’t been? The answers are as simple as the questions. They do require some faith however. Wishing to show the reader a world different from the one already known implies that either the world needs changing or that it needs to be looked at differently.
Story making, seen in these terms, is an important kind of political action. To change the world you have to first see how it could be different: you have to see a different world and/or see the world differently. So showing a world of change or a world that needs changing could be the first step towards making things better. But story writing isn’t just political action, it’s also at the same time, a kind of therapy, both for the writer and for the world around her. We could call it world therapy. Stories are a way the world can ‘get things off its chest’. Perhaps now you can see why there are – why there need to be – so many stories in the world. The world has a big collective chest and a lot of worries to work through.
The cathartic or therapeutic function of stories is closely connected with the fundamental structure of the story – the basic plot structure – that will be outlined in the second part of this manual. That function is especially connected with endings because the final stage of the sequential structure of a story is resolution. Resolution is what is very often lacking in life. That lack leaves a lot of us frustrated and/or angry a lot of the time. The best thing about the story is that it provides the kind of resolution often tragically lacking in life: the resolution of conflict. Conflict is one of the most important ingredients in the very general plot we’re beginning to brew. We’ll get to the details of this shortly, for now let’s just note that there can’t be any resolution in a story unless there’s something to resolve. To join up the circle: that something to resolve is usually in the form of conflict.
The therapy function of the story is important for the reader, naturally, and in several different ways. Get home from work and turn on the television: there you see other people and their troubles. For a change, you’re not the one who has to worry. If the story’s good though, you will worry. You’ll worry for the characters you identify with because you feel empathy for them. Their pain is your pain. But only temporarily, only while you’re inside the story’s frame, under its spell. When the story’s over, finished, resolved, you turn off the television and sleep like a baby, safe with the comforting thought that you haven’t had to go through what those characters on the screen just went through. Because of the resolution of the story you generally also have the feeling that it’s all over – for better or worse – for the characters you were watching as well. There’s a lesson too in the story you’ve seen. There but for the grace of God… Stories help us to know how to live, how to avoid mistakes. They help us because they show us how things might otherwise be, for instance if we’re not careful, if we go too far, if... Stories show us the what ifs in life that separate fantasy from reality. That might be the most important boundary in human affairs. Certainly stories are a vital part of the collective fantasy life of every community, every people.
Stories are everywhere. We see them, read them, hear them, every day. When we go to sleep at night something very like a story comes to us in the shape of a dream. Perhaps it’s from dreaming humans first got the idea of making up and telling and hearing stories in their waking hours? Dreams are core of the individual’s fantasy life, and they tell themselves, they don’t need any planning or polishing.
As with dreams, all stories worth reading teach the reader something she or he didn’t know. A good story instructs its reader but it rarely teaches directly in the sense of telling someone what to do or how to be. A good story teaches by example: it shows you, it doesn’t tell you. The good story shows you something that moves you, it shows something that gives you a deep emotion – in touch or in tune with the truth of the story. The story that works for you as a reader is the one that puts you in touch with some important truth in your own life, a truth you hadn’t known before, something unexpected. Nagging and preaching never moved anyone to do anything except adopt a strategy to avoid being nagged or preached at later on.
Let’s recap. To see things anew can have a world changing effect. Stories can change the world because they show you how the world might or should otherwise be, stories teach you to see a world different from the one you knew (or thought you knew). They teach by example, by showing.
To write your own stories or only to read, only to watch what the TV and the bookshop gives you? The conviction behind this book is that the world needs changing and it needs to be better understood. By making our own and listening to each other’s stories we can better understand our world and its potentials and we can play a vital role in imagining and so deciding how our world can be.
Democracy as we know it today is mainly a spectator sport. Voting can be a little like choosing between pepsi and coke. Sport too is, for many people, a matter of enthusiastically watching to see which of two teams will win. Sometimes it’s like that inside a story. But from the outside and from the outset – from where the writer begins to make a story – the possibilities are infinite. In writing a story – making a world which isn’t – you learn to exercise the maximum of human freedom. You can have your characters do anything. When you write a story you’re making a universe, you’re making the rules for the place you’ve imagined.
The world – the real one we live in – belongs to everyone in it. The playing field mightn’t be terribly level but getting to tell your own story will help to make the world fairer. This book depends on a straightforward premise: that making stories is simple and it’s something everyone can do. It follows from this proposition that everyone has a story or stories worth listening to, that the world will be a better place if we listen to each other’s stories, if we encourage each other to make them. The world will be better if we all participate in the process of imagining other worlds and worlds otherwise, if we all engage with the what if …? principle of fiction.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Who would you like to invite into your story circle? Make practical and impractical lists of people whose stories you would like to hear and with whom you would like to share your stories.
- What’s the story? What’s important to you? What matters and what doesn’t? Make lists of answers for each of these questions and share them around the story circle. What can you agree together is worth talking about, making a story about.
- Together make a list of what if questions (about the past, the present and the future, about yourself, about others). Each of these questions should lead to the imagination of a world different in some significant way from the one we already know. Could any of these (or any combination of them) be the basis for a story?
neither speaking for nor over
Imagining a different world, seeing yourself and others differently: these are the what if… skills you need to make stories. Reading and hearing the stories of others is the best way to get these skills. Reading and hearing stories from other cultures is the best way to get your own culture into perspective. That shift in point of view helps you to look from a distance at yourself and your own ideas and beliefs. With that distance you have the opportunity to reconsider the question of what you believe in, and what you want to prove to the world.
The problem with the universal culture Hollywood and Disney present the world today is that it drowns out other voices: the voices of difference and the voices of dissent. The problem with universalising culture is that has genocidal effects. The number of languages and culture on the earth is steadily declining just as is the number of animal species. In culture, as in nature, the effect is devastating. All humans are made less when the world is lessened in this way.
How does universalising culture work? The story made and marketed so as to sell everywhere succeeds only as far as it manages to speak for everyone. The blockbuster movie is the one that calls to all of us everywhere, as if by name. Our interests may not be the same as those of the protagonist in the story or the maker of the movie. Our language, our culture, our deepest beliefs may all be different, and yet we feel as if this story is ours. Everyone can understand and identify with what’s happening in the shoot-em-up cops and robbers formula film with car chases and deadly encounters, everyone can feel scared and feel relieved at the appropriate moments. One of the effects of this kind of culture is to make violence normal and acceptable. As viewers, we’re glad it’s not happening to us but we accept it as part of the way the world is, as something about which nothing can be done. And so our culture and the deep sense of who we are and could be are altered without our permission.
In the new millennium, Hollywood and Disney make culture monolithic; they make it seem as if all cultures were one and all people could be expected to think in the same way. That kind of thinking leads to disappointment for everyone. When the stories we’re told or the real world fails to turn out as in the fairytale we think that the characters or the plot or both are abnormal. In fact the problem was that our expectation was unfair. We unreasonably expected others to be like us, we didn’t allow other people to be who they really are. When they turned out to be themselves, we felt worried and upset. Worse than that though, they felt worried and upset because they failed to recognise themselves in the universal mirror. All of this happened because somebody who had the power spoke over somebody else, because somebody spoke for somebody else. Such a privilege was never given, it was assumed. It’s important to remember that these things were done by rich and powerful people and in order to make more money.
How to get around the problem of culture being served up as universal medicine, designed to cure or to dull all pains equally? D-I-Y! Culture is something we can make ourselves. And if we want to make our own stories, if we want others to listen to them, then we have a duty to listen to theirs. Hearing others may not be as simple as it sounds. If their voices are truly different from our own, then we may need some training before we can understand them. We need to already be in the conversation in order to understand the story. We need to understand the story in order to join the conversation. How do we get into this loop? How do we genuinely meet those different from us?
Let’s return to the principle of fiction. Through the what if… principle we can picture difference and hopefully get out of our own skins for long enough to imagine how the world is for others. One of the most straightforward differences to imagine is role reversal. In conversation this means putting yourself in each other’s shoes. You work in a café serving travellers? Imagine you’re the traveller instead. Where would you go next, what would you do? What will your story be? You’re the traveller? Imagine instead that you work in the café, that you’re staying – that you’re from the place – where the real you was just passing through. What will you do here if you stay? What will the story be?
Asking questions/taking action:
- By what means can you show others that you really do want to hear their story? How can you encourage them to tell it?
- Local character: What aspects or features of the place you’re in could you include in a story in order to make it distinctively of this place?
- Can you think of a story that could only happen where you are now? Can you think of a story that could only happen now?
- Imagine swapping the contents of your pocket with the next person you meet. How would the story continue from there?
- Think of more examples of role reversal and then try to imagine their consequences.
- Imagine you fall in love with and marry the next person you meet. What would be the story of your life together? What if you married that next person you met without falling in love? What if you fell in love but never married?
the story circle project – conception and connection
Story is a word with many meanings. At least three have been used so far in this manual. Because these meanings overlap in various ways it may be useful to make a quick comparison. Story in the fictional sense (the made-up story) contrasts with story in the journalistic sense (the best available account of events or explanation of what really happened). Story in the personal sense of ‘everybody has a story to tell’ in some ways falls between the two. What’s highlighted in this third kind of story is point-of-view and the personal nature of truth: this is the story which is about and belongs to someone. Is that kind of story fictional or factual? The question is difficult to answer but it draws our attention to the fact that the human capacity to imagine stands somewhere between the factual and the fictional: based on what is known the mind makes its way into an unknown future.
Between two kinds of truth – the fictional and the factual – humans understand and shape their world. We don’t do this understanding or this shaping in a completely free way or as if starting from the beginning without any rules. Truth is about the world we are given, but equally it is from and about ourselves, about who we are and who we can be. It’s by being true to ourselves and understanding the truths of others we humans can do more than merely imagine a future; we can negotiate one together.
In conversation and in story, in talk with a practical purpose and in talk with art in mind, the truth of what is and the world as-is weigh in against the deeper truth of what may be, of what could be: the truth of our what if…s
Stories are everywhere? Once you begin to see the making of stories as something you can participate in yourself, you realise that not only are stories there in the sense of being ready made to read, to hear; stories are also ready to be created. The raw materials for fiction are everywhere around us. The conditions always exist for the making of stories because there is in every situation something new and surprising, something unobserved which can be brought to light; and there is every situation an infinite number of what if…s which could apply, depending on point of view, and limited only by past and present conditions and by the imagination of an author.
The aim of this manual is to encourage the process of story making, to encourage the kind of dialogue that allows people to tell their own story to others and so find and deliver their own truth. The principle at play here is simply this: you have heard out your partner in a conversation when you’ve let him or her get to the end of the story. This often requires patience and it often requires encouragement. No conversation is on a perfectly even footing; it’s usually easier for one party to dominate and for the other to be more of a listener. We’d probably all go mad if we seriously attempted to make every conversation and every relationship in our lives perfectly equal. But that doesn’t mean our conversations and relationships couldn’t be improved by being more equal. The aim of this project is a free exchange leading to a more equal sharing of stories, the result of which will hopefully be that people will come to treat each other more fairly.
The story project is an initiative of Planetdevotion (Green Arts World Alliance). Planetdevotion is a group of artists and writers dedicated to fostering the creative spirit, to the healing power of imaginative expression and to the critical vocation of thought and of art. (Read more about Planetdevotion in the advertisement at the back of this book.) The story circle project is a group of people spread all over the world communicating their stories and their conversation through a weblog. (Perhaps over time a network of blogs and sites may develop.) This manual is the starting point. If you’re reading the manual on-line then you may have already found the blog. If not, or if you’re reading this book in print, you can find the blog at
You can find a soft copy of the manual at any of the following locations and you can
also download it from there as a free e-book for your PDA. (The blog also provides you with links to other sites from which you can download thousands of free e-books, representing much of the world’s most famous literature.)
In the dissemination of this manual and materials for the story circle project, the copyleft principle is invoked. That means you should feel free to copy and disseminate this work freely – for use with friends, for use with a class or other small group. You cannot claim the copyright on the work and you cannot sell it or re-sell it. The manual and blog materials are available for your benefit and to provide you with useful examples from which to work. Copyright and moral right remain with the author who waives these so that the manual can freely spread without any financial impediment to the reader.
If you do wish to contribute to the project, financially or otherwise, there are plenty of ways you can do so. Various possibilities will be mentioned throughout the manual but the most obvious way you could help would be with building the blog and expanding website and/or working with the manual to create your own stories and to help others create stories and get them up on-line. Story circles are a great way for beginning writers to encourage each other and a story circle could easily get itself started by working through the exercises at the end of each chapter in the manual. Essentially a story circle is a group of people who come together for the purpose of making stories, together and/or alone. A story circle is a kind of story writing support group. It’s a response to the fact that writing is mainly a solitary activity. The main function of the story circle is to encourage creative work through constructive suggestion and criticism. The story circle is most interesting and useful when it works across cultures and when talking across cultures it’s especially important to be sensitive to, attentive to and respectful of, difference. Story circles can function all over the world – in the flesh as well as virtually – and they can be connected with each other by means of the world wide web.
The internet is a wonderful tool with which to build a people’s literature; that’s to say, not a literature of the rich and powerful or of the already famous, but instead a literature written by anybody and by everybody. The idea here is to build a community of readers by first creating a community of writers. You might think of this as the opposite of the expected order of events, but the kind of community the story circle project builds depends on dialogue and give and take: if you want your peer to listen to you then you have to listen to them. In this way you learn from each other’s efforts.
Asking questions/taking action:
- It’s often difficult in conversation or other turn-taking activities (like for instance story telling) to say whether the turns are fair. Fortunately watches and clocks are available to make up for our poor judgment. Take turns telling stories (or talking about a topic) giving each other equal time (for instance five minutes each). Don’t allow any interruptions. (The point of this exercise is not to insist that all stories should be the same length; stories should – case by case – be as long as they need to be. The point is for partners in dialogue to get a feeling for what an equal exchange would actually be.)
- How can you build a story circle where you are right now? Who could be interested? Who could you get involved? When and where and how often could you meet? Make a list of common themes or topics which might interest people in a local story circle. How could you advertise the circle to get people involved? Are there any dangers or pitfalls you need to watch out for?
making your difference to and in the world
So you want to make stories and tell them and have others listen to them? What exactly do you want to share with the world? Why does your story need to be told? Think back to our most essential story ingredient, and ask: what kind of surprise do you want to give to your reader/listener?
If surprise is the most essential thing in a story, then there needs to be something behind it, something driving it. There needs to be a reason for the writer to surprise the reader. If there’s no reason then the surprise is a gimmick, the difference the story makes is gratuitous, it’s merely surprise for its own sake. The need for something to drive the surprise in the story brings us to a fundamental feature of every story worth reading, it brings us to a fact which many readers (and some writers) find difficult to accept. The simple fact is that a story proves something. It doesn’t prove something in the way that a long detailed argument or a theorem in geometry might, it doesn’t prove something by hammering it into a reader’s head. A story proves what it proves in the way that it teaches: by practical demonstration, by example, by showing, not by telling. Consider a very simple example. In Aesop’s fable ‘The Boy who cried Wolf’, we’re shown the trouble the boy gets into through repeating his practical joke. He cries ‘wolf’ to get the attention of the villagers. They’re angry with him but he enjoys the joke so much he has to play it again. When the wolf finally does come and the boy really needs help, his cries are ignored, thus proving that: ‘Even when liars tell the truth, they are not believed’. Each of Aesop’s fables ends with a moral coda of this kind, clearly stating the story’s conviction. In Aesop’s fables – as with many stories for children – we’re shown the consequences of particular actions and then we’re told explicitly what those consequences are. In stories for adults that kind of telling tends to feel too explicit, too preachy.
Show me, don’t tell me. That should be the fiction writer’s most important motto. And even though this manual is not a work of fiction, the motto shall now be put into practice by showing you an example that demonstrates how conviction works without being made explicit. The example is the story in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth is the story of a man who – once the idea has been planted in him – will stop at nothing to achieve and retain absolute power. In case you’re not familiar with the play, or you’ve forgotten the plot, here’s the story in outline.
Somewhere in the distant past, two Scottish lords, Macbeth and Banquo, are returning from a victorious battle against a rebel army. Macbeth was very brutal in the battle, he sliced an enemy in two and put his severed head on the battlements of the castle where the battle took place. On their way Macbeth and Banquo meet three witches in a lonely place. The witches recognise them and tell the future for them. They address Macbeth, in turn as Thane (Lord) of Glamis (his present title), then as Thane of Cawdor, then as ‘king that shalt be.’ They then tell Banquo that he shall be lesser than Macbeth and greater, not as happy but happier, not king but the father of kings.
While the two are still wondering about this strange encounter a messenger comes from the king to confer upon Macbeth – for his services in battle – the title of Thane of Cawdor. This amazing and immediate ‘proof’ of the witches’ prophecy takes hold in Macbeth’s mind.
Macbeth gets home and tells the witches’ prophecy to his wife who is a very bad influence on him and encourages him to take whatever steps are necessary to make the rest of the witches’ predictions come true. The opportunity to realise Macbeth’s ambition for absolute power comes when the kind and gentle King Duncan arrives with his sons to visit Macbeth in order to honour him for his victory and his new title.
That night, Duncan, tired from his journey, goes to bed early. Macbeth and his wife get the king’s bodyguards drunk and drugged so that they’ll sleep soundly and then Macbeth stabs Duncan to death.
Sure enough, the morning after everyone can see through the shows of grief Lord and Lady Macbeth put on, even though they’ve tried to make the king’s bodyguards look guilty. The bodyguards are executed before they can give anyone their version of events. Duncan’s sons flee fearing for their lives, leaving the vacant throne to Macbeth. Now all of the witches’ prophecies concerning him have been fulfilled.
Macbeth now turns his attention to the other part of the witches’ prophecy, the part suggesting that Banquo’s sons will be kings. Now king, Macbeth organizes a banquet for the Scottish lords. And he organizes for paid assassins to murder Banquo and his son on their way to the banquet. Macbeth wants to accept only the part of his fate that favours him.
Banquo is killed but his son Fleance manages to flee. The banquet goes on and Banquo comes too – as a ghost. The ghost sits in Macbeth’s seat and even though Macbeth is a very brave man this is simply too much for him. Macbeth is the only one who can see the ghost and so his behaviour seems very strange to the rest of the party. After this Macbeth and especially his wife show signs of madness. They can’t sleep, they have bad dreams. And of course they know that Fleance is still alive and that therefore the prophecy of Banquo’s sons ruling Scotland can still come true.
In desperation Macbeth seeks out the witches. He finds them in a cave cooking up horrible ingredients in order to do their witchcraft, and in this case to foretell the future. The witches conjure up spirits who give Macbeth specific, but again riddling, warnings. They tell him to beware of Macduff, the Thane of Fife. But then they tell him that no one ‘of woman born’ should have power to hurt him. And they tell him that Macbeth shall never be defeated until Birnam Wood (a forest) come to Dunsinane Hill.
Macbeth is somewhat comforted by the improbability of his defeat. How can he be hurt if no one born of woman can hurt him? How can he be vanquished if a forest has to move in order to achieve his defeat? Forests don’t move. Still, the first news he hears after his second meeting with the witches is that Macduff has fled to England and joined an army led by Malcolm, son of the late king Duncan, an army formed to oust Macbeth. Macbeth immediately has all of Macduff’s family killed.
The queen, by this stage having gone completely mad, dies, probably a suicide. Macbeth has some death wishes himself but firms his resolve for the coming battle. As the time of the battle nears a messenger comes to Macbeth and tells him that, unbelievable as it might seem, he has witnessed Birnam Wood moving towards Dunsinane. Macbeth is distraught at this news, which he won’t at first believe. But it turns out that Malcolm has told his soldiers to chop down the trees and carry them so as to conceal the true numbers of his army.
The battle ensues and Macbeth gets into close combat with Macduff who has a serious score to settle with him. Macbeth, you will remember, has killed every member of Macduff’s family. Macbeth haughtily tells his opponent that his is a charmed life and that he’s not afraid because no one of woman born can hurt him. Then Macduff lets Macbeth know that he was born by Caesarian section, that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d’. All prophecies now appear to be resolved and Macbeth’s will snaps. Macduff offers mercy but it is refused. He wins the fight and chops off Macbeth’s head. Malcolm becomes the new king of Scotland.
Ghosts and kings, witches and madness, blood and guts, marching forests: there are many things in the story to surprise the first time reader. But what drives these surprises? What does the story prove? What drives the action of the story from beginning to end? The idea behind the play – the conviction of the story – is startlingly simple. It’s this: blind ambition leads to self-destruction.
Action – or what happens in the story – happens because characters do things, because things happen to them and they respond, or else they are swept along in actions not of their making. Perhaps they’re swept along despite everything they do. In the example we’re considering now, everything that Macbeth, the character, does, everything that happens in the story Macbeth, proves that blind ambition leads to self-destruction. Read the play or go back through the story and test it out against this conviction. Macbeth’s role in the play keeps him on a path that leads inevitably to his own destruction (and that of many others along the way). As a character, he has choices all along, but once he’s set his foot on the evil path he makes decision after decision leading to his own doom. More importantly though, there’s nothing in the play that distracts us from the story’s conviction. There’s no digression.
Now that we’ve got an easy and reliable example of conviction, let’s formulate a clear definition with practical application. Conviction (sometimes called premise) is what the story proves. It drives the difference the story makes. Surprise, essential to the story, turns the reader’s world around. There’s not much point turning the world around if you’re not sure which way it should end up facing. There has to be a point in showing your reader the what if of another world. A story worth reading or hearing has that kind of a point. The point of the story is what we call conviction.
Conviction is fundamental to the logic of the story. It’s not a part of the sequential structure (to which we’ll turn shortly) but it makes that kind of structure possible, i.e. conviction is more fundamental than for instance, resolution. Events are ordered in a story so as to prove the story’s conviction.
A quick re-cap: story writing has the potential to be world changing political action. That doesn’t mean the writer hits the reader over the head with heavy moral lessons or with telling her what to do. Rather every story has a conviction which drives the action the reader experiences once in the story.
Let’s get back to logic for a moment. A story proves something, that something is the story’s conviction. The conviction which the story proves can be expressed in a consequential way, as an if… ^ … statement. Usually that if… ^ … statement will be reversible. Let’s make Macbeth our example again. If you are blindly ambitious then you will destroy yourself. Reverse the proposition: If you’re not blindly ambitious then you won’t destroy yourself. Notice how one of these two propositions is much more impressive (or dramatic) than the other. In this case the story is driven by the positive sense of a conviction about blind ambition and its effects. One can’t imagine much drama in a play proving that unambitious people don’t wreck their own lives. Reversing the conviction is however a useful way of testing its logic, making sure that it works.
Please note that the if… ^ … logic of the story’s conviction is not necessarily the logic mathematicians or bankers prize. In some ways the logic of fiction is like the logic of a dream. The inner logic of the story is somewhat independent of the world around it, the ‘real’ world of the reader and writer. But then why should the logic of fiction be the logic of the real world? Don’t we watch movies to unwind, to escape? Hopefully what fiction delivers to the reader is the kind of logic that makes her think again, look again at what had been familiar. It’s the kind of logic that makes unknown what had been familiar before. So the conviction of a story that works, far from re-confirming the moral certainties of its reader, often has the effect of giving her serious doubts. More to the point, it makes the reader work. The story works only to the extent that it succeeds in making the reader work. The reader has to interpret the story in order to understand how it could have meaning for her. That kind of understanding does not apply merely to the world in the story, it’s useful to the reader because it applies in some way to her real world as well. Perhaps the story provides the reader with the logic that allows her to see how illogical the world around her is, at least at times. In the case of Macbeth the reader who grasps the story’s conviction with regard to blind ambition (i.e. that it leads to self-destruction) understands precisely what the protagonist of the story (i.e. Macbeth) does not understand.
Great stories resonate with conviction. They don’t bludgeon their readers with morals or with telling them how to live or what to be. Great stories persuade us how to be and what to do, they persuade us by example. They tell us what we had to know but didn’t know before we read the story. Stories worth reading or hearing persuade us with a knowledge so important it has to be shared. But those examples and that knowledge are only as strong as the conviction behind them. It’s by virtue of conviction that fiction re-makes the world. As an author, your stories must have the strength of such convictions.
Asking questions/taking action:
- Makes some lists under the following headings:
What’s wrong with the world? How could it be better? What do you really believe in? What don’t you believe in at all? What do you want to/need to prove (to specific others, to yourself, to the world)? As a writer, what could you hope to prove? What could you hope to show a reader that s/he doesn’t already know?
- Think through the plots of some stories you love and try to work out the conviction behind them. Make a list of convictions which could be used to drive stories. Here are a few examples to add to:
- Blind ambition leads to self-destruction.
- If you don’t fight, you lose.
- If you dig a hole for someone else, you’ll surely fall into it yourself.
The truth will set you free.
If you’re in a story circle it will be useful to compare your lists of convictions. Which ones can you agree about? Which convictions do you disagree with? Of those you agree with, which are the most and the least important. Compare your priority order for the convictions you’ve agreed on.
As you work through the chapters of the manual, creating hopefully many stories, make sure that each has a conviction. Keep a list of convictions for later comparison and keep all of your story notes in a folder for later use too. It’s often difficult to predict how fresh ideas could be later combined to create stories.