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.

 

 

Importance of Setting in a Novel

lamp-nature I travel, always arriving in the same place—Dejan Stojanovic, The Shape

Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting serves multipurpose roles in story. It helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Setting, like the force in Star Wars, provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning.

Place Your Story

According to acclaimed novelist Richard Russo, if you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place, you’re missing the opportunity to add depth and character to your writing. We are creatures of our environment, adds Robert Louis Stevenson. Our outlook on life is colored by the setting in which we find ourselves. Editors have told me that they have little faith in the vision of writers who don’t clearly depict the world their characters inhabit. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s characters without Egdon Heath or Scarlet O’Hara without her beloved Tara or Dorothy without the Land of Oz.

Setting includes time, place and circumstance. These three form a kind of critical mass that creates the particular setting best suited to your story. If you change any of these it will affect the quality of the others.

house in fogSetting as Character

Settings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. The setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the protagonist. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo is very much an extension of his beloved Shire.

D.H. Lawrence suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character in Thomas Hardy’s book Return of the Native:

Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.–D.H. Lawrence on Return of the Native

 

Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting personified. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

Setting as Metaphor

When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer, about a train careering the world with the remains of humanity, place and destiny are welded together in tight metaphor. The train “is the world”. This dark surrealistic allegory examines all iterations of place in a class struggle between the front and tail ends of the train. In an early scene, one of the the ruling class evokes her own metaphors to remind the lower class of their place:

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station…Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat snowpiercer-mason-shoebelongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.

In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is.

Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.

When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”–Minister Mason in Snowpiercer

 

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism, which comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms).

Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into lots of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “John took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country” (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate” (seventeen words).

Setting & Emotion

The setting may amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. And the kind of story you’re telling. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony. The writer should think of the less obvious, of contrast, and how you can increase tension and emphasize the character’s situation.

Setting as Weather

louisville-icestorm-jan09-16Weather conveys the mood and tone of both story and character. Weather is not just part of the scenery. To a writer, weather is a device used in plot and theme. A good example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and how he used the desert setting and the hot winds to evoke mood, character, tension, theme and ultimately story:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East”–Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In summary, here are some suggestions that will help you create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

  • Don’t “tack” setting in; make it an integral part of the story; give it purpose
  • Describe selectively and with purpose—through integration in “scene” rather than exposition
  • Be specific (e.g., soft pink rose, not flower; beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house)
  • Use similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting
  • Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel
  • Don’t tell, show (e.g., don’t say the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Don’t tell the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
  • Compare and contrast settings and relate them to the point of view characters
  • Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter H of The Fiction Writer: Get Pubished, Write Now!

 

Nina 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.