Ecology of Story: The Difference Between Anecdotes and Stories—How to Tell a Good Story

tree trunks coolIn her article in Quartz Magazine, Lila MacLellan suggests that “we’ve become masters of telling anecdotes, and terrible at telling our friends real stories.” Sometimes people think they are telling a story, but they are really just telling anecdotes, MacLellan reports after interviewing Maggie Cino, senior story producer for Moth storytelling series. While “anecdotes just relate facts,” Cino explains, stories are “about letting us know that things started one way and ended a different way.” Stories create space for movement.

Merriam-Webster defines an anecdote as a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” Anecdotes serve to incite interest and to illustrate a point. They are often amusing, odd, sad or even tragic; if they are biographical, they often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude or philosophy. While anecdotes often provide a contextual jumping board to make a point—drawing you in with relevance—they lack the structure of stories. An anecdote is something that happens; a story has a structure that makes it memorable and provides a depth of meaning.

Stories move with direction; they have a beginning, middle and end. Stories evoke emotional truths. They compel with intrigue then fulfil us with awareness and, sometimes, understanding. The best stories are told through metaphor, those universal truths we all live by. And all good stories weave a premise, theme, plot, character and setting into a tapestry with meaning.

I teach new writers at the University of Toronto and George Brown College how to tell stories. I teach how stories can tell us who we are. Where we’ve been. And sometimes, where we are  going. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, where the personal meets the universal, through symbols or archetypes and metaphor.

Depth psychologist Carl Jung described these shared symbols, metaphors and archetypes as pre-existing forms of the psyche. He drew parallels between synchronicity, relativity theory and quantum mechanics to describe life as an expression of a deeper order. He believed that we are both embedded in a framework of a whole and are the focus of that whole. Jung was describing a fractal whole, which reflects quantum scientist David Bohm’s quantum vision of holomovement.

Jung’s concept of embedded whole and a universal collective unconscious was embraced by Hero’s Journey author and scholar Joseph Campbell, who suggested that these mythic images lie at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind and memory of humankind—where we are all the same, in Unity. Carl Jung’s thesis of the “collective unconscious” in fact linked with what Freud called archaic remnants: mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem aboriginal, innate, and the inherited shapes of the human mind. Marie-Louise von Franz, in 1985, identified Jung’s hypothesis of the collective unconscious with the ancient idea of an all- extensive world-soul. Writer Sherry Healy suggested that Jung viewed the human mind as linked to “a body of unconscious energy that lives forever.”

What Makes a Good Story?

soft flowers copyA good story is about something important; attracted by gravity, it has purpose and seeks a destination. A good story goes somewhere; it flows like a river from one place to another. A good story has meaning; its undercurrents run deep across hidden substrates with intrigue. A good story resonates with place; it finds its way home. We’ve just touched upon the five main components of good story: premise, character on a journey & plot, theme and—what is ultimately at the heart of a story—setting or place.

Story Components

The premise of a story is like the anecdote, a starting point of interest. It is an idea that will be dramatized through plot, character and setting. In idea-driven stories, it can often be identified by asking the question: “What if?” For instance, what if time travel was possible?

A character on a journey propels the story through meaningful change. Characters provide dramatized meaning to premise through personal representation of global themes. A character takes an issue and through their actions and circumstance in story provide a fractal connection to a larger issue. Characters need to move. They need to “go somewhere.” Archetypes—ancient patterns of personality (symbols) shared by humanity and connected by our collective unconscious—are metaphoric characters (which includes place) in the universal language of storytelling that help carry the story forward.

The theme of a story takes the premise and gives it personal and metaphoric meaning by dramatizing through a character journey. It is often identified by asking the question: “What’s at stake?” In taking the time travel premise, a theme of forgiveness may be applied by choosing a character wishing to return to the past to right a wrong, when what they just need to do is forgive others and themselves, not travel to the past at all, and get on with their lives.

In such a story, the plot would provide means and obstacles for the character in their journey toward enlightenment. Plot works together with theme to challenge and push a character toward their epiphany and meaningful change. Plot provides obstacles. Challenges. Emotional turning points. Opportunities for learning and change.

The role of setting or place is often not as clear to writers. Because of this, place and setting may often be neglected and haphazardly tacked on without addressing its role in story; in such a case the story will not resonate with what is often at the heart of the story: a sense of place. In stories where the setting changes (either itself changing such as in a story about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius impacting Pompeii’s community; or by the character’s own movements from place to place) it appears easier to include how setting affects characters. However, the effect of place on character when the setting does not change can be equally compelling even if more subtle; the change is still there but lies in the POV character’s altered relationship to that place—a reflection of change within them.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

Revisiting the Short Story and Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

george brown college

The seventh class of my 12-week Creating Science Fiction course at George Brown College is all about short story writing. I’m by nature a progressive—and an itinerant explorer; so, I am updating materials for my students and sharing them with you.

PlayingTheShortGame-DougSmithOne resource I’m eager to introduce to my students is Canadian SF short story writer Douglas Smith’s recent guidebook, Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. Smith’s guidebook is a Tardis-style smallish yet comprehensive guide on what it takes to be a successful short story writer from starting & finishing to marketing & publishing to leveraging & promotion.

Smith is an accomplished short story writer and marketer, who has always openly shared his treasures of acquired wisdom with others.  His stories have appeared in thirty countries and 25 languages. He’s won three awards and has three acclaimed collections—so far. For years, his Foreign Market List has helped writers—including me—sell their work all over the world. To date, I have sold short stories (mostly translated reprints) to markets in Greece, Poland, Romania, Israel, and Italy—thanks to his list.

Why Write Short?

coffee-doubleespressoI’m a petite five foot-three height and purposely wear flat shoes. I love short. I prefer my espresso pulled in short shots—or  ristretto—in my flat white. Described as bolder, fuller, with more body and less bitterness, the ristretto is like a burst of intense flavor with a lingering finish. Short is pretty cool.

Douglas Smith gives seven excellent reasons for writing short fiction, even if you are ultimately a novel writer, like me. Writing short stories:

 

  1. Helps you learn your craft in easy, short-term, bite-sized amounts and over a reasonable time for you to learn, apply, and relearn
  2. Helps you test the waters of literature, to discover what excites you, provokes you and what ultimately you NEED to express
  3. Builds your resume, again more easily and quickly than a novel, toward that ultimate novel; publishers of magazines and publishing houses are more likely to take your work seriously if you have a publishing history
  4. Helps you explore ideas for your novel, by “pinging” certain premises you may wish to explore in further detail or take elsewhere in a novel
  5. Helps you build a backlist of published stories, which you own, once rights have reverted back to you
  6. Helps you build a network in your writing community of publishing houses, editors, other writers and so forth as you submit and exchange through your works and letters (including all those rejections!). Eventually, a pleased editor/publisher may invite you to submit to a “Best of” anthology or provide a collection. This has happened to me several times.
  7. Helps you learn the publishing business (well, sort of, says Smith…). Through exposure to the business side of publishing, you will gain an appreciation of how the publishing world works.

Know What You’re Writing

Nina-computer-KraveA short story only has 7,000 or less words to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.

Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books.

She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.

ElementsOfFiction-SceneStructure-BickhamRenowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham, emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response. Even Alice Munro, who is known for cramming long timeframes into her short stories, frames time through a single event: a meal, family gathering, wedding or funeral, for instance.

Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.

Understanding the Short Story Format

Here are seven tips toward writing a compelling and memorable short story:

  1. Open in the middle of something happening (e.g., action/in a “scene”)
  2. Make your opening provocative (raise the stakes as high as you can)
  3. Write scenes and write sparingly (avoid describing the obvious—use description to show something odd, memorable, exotic)
  4. Have characters define themselves and their goals through what they do and observe (e.g., show more than tell)
  5. Define characters with dialogue (a great way to reveal while keeping a high pace)
  6. Withhold vital information for as long as possible
  7. Don’t explain the ending (cut down on the denouement; let the reader make those conclusions—a key in the short story format)

Selling Your Short Story

Smith’s guidebook provides several chapters of excellent advice in logical steps toward a successful career.

Here are just a few gems that I will be sharing with my students.

First of all, remember that you are not selling your story; you’re licensing a particular set of rights for someone to do something with that story. Before you do anything else, do your homework: know the rights you’re selling; and which ones to keep. Smith describes five major types of rights: media; language; geography (less and less relevant); occurrence; and time.

86975836523792599_rgX5MKDy_fMedia rights include print rights, electronic rights and audio rights. Markets include magazines, anthologies and collections for short stories. Language and geography rights are pretty self-explanatory. Occurrence rights relate to whether the publisher is buying first or second and onward rights (otherwise known as reprints). Most publishers prefer to pay for the right to publish your work for the first time in that particular format (e.g., in print and in English, for instance). Having said that, I’ve had a lucrative history of selling reprints to some of my more popular short stories. I’ve furthered gone on to selling other rights, such as foreign language rights and audiobook and e-book rights. I’ve also sold two short story collections, one to an Italian publisher (coming out this year) and shorts in several anthologies. No movies yet… But I did have a serious discussion with a writer/producer on one of my shorts. Recall how many Philip K. Dick short stories have been adapted to movies (e.g., Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Minority Report, and Blade Runner).

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

Smith evokes SF writer Robert J Heinlein’s 5 rules of writing to succeed as a short story writer (as any kind of writer, actually). These are:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put the work on the market
  5. You must keep the work on the market until sold

I know… Number 3 sounds pretty suspicious, or arrogant at the very least. As Robert J. Sawyer concludes on his site in reference to the five rules, number 3 is open to reasonable interpretation. Of course, it must mean AFTER you’ve finished and edited the story with some level of confidence that you’re happy with it—never mind what other people think of it.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webNina’s Bus-Terminal Model

In my writing guide The Fiction Writer, Chapter L (for “Long or Short?”), I talk about how I launched my own successful short story writing career. I’d been writing short stories for a few years without much success (I was getting interesting rejection letters, so I knew I was getting close); then I settled into a kind of model/routine. I call it The Bus Terminal Approach. As Smith attests—several times—it’s a numbers game. That’s how I played it. It starts with one story and relies on you not waiting until you write the next, and the next and the next. Here’s how it works:

  1. You list at least 3 markets that you’ve researched for Story A and send it to the first of the three
  2. You start right away writing Story B, send it to the first of 3 markets you’ve researched and listed for it
  3. When Story A rejection arrives, you do not revise but send it right away to the second market
  4. Same thing for Story B
  5. Write Story C and treat similarly

NaturalSelection-front-webRemember to keep track of what you send where and when and what happens to it. It can become a very confusing bus terminal otherwise, with someone ending up in Seattle when they are headed to Toronto! What happens with this approach is several things: you begin to treat the whole marketing/publishing process as a business (which it is) and because you have so many “buses” out there coming and going, the rejections don’t hurt quite as much and instead become part of the learning process, which they should be. You adopt a more business-like approach, which translates into your relationship with editors and publishers. A win-win situation results. Believe me; this works. Once I fell into this method, my sales increased by over 70%.

 

Several of my stories are currently available in a collection entitled Natural Selection by Pixl Press. You can read one of my short stories right on Amazing Stories: “Virtually Yours”.

My guidebook, The Fiction Writer, can be purchased in various online and onsite bookstores, including Amazon, Kobo, Chapters Online, Barnes & Noble, and several others even I don’t know about.

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent short story is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.