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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

Amazing Cover Art, Part 2: Anne Moody and Costi Gurgu

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The cover for Nina’s upcoming writing guide: illustration by Anne Moody; typology & design by Costi Gurgu

In my article “Should You Judge a Book by its Cover”, I wrote about the importance of cover art for book sales and to maintain integrity and satisfaction with the story inside. In the article, I pointed out that, “If you don’t know the author of the book, the nature—and implied promise—of the cover becomes even more important. If the book does not deliver on the promise of the cover, it will fail with many readers despite its intrinsic value. A broken promise is still a broken promise. I say cover—not necessarily the back jacket blurb—because the front cover is our first and most potent introduction to the quality of the story inside. How many of us have picked up a book—intrigued by its alluring front cover—read the blurb that seemed to resonate with the title and image, then upon reading our cherished purchase been disillusioned with the story and decided we disliked it and its author?”

Cover art provides an important aspect of writer and publisher branding. Cover artists understand this and address the finer nuances of the type and genre of the story to resonate with the reader and their expectations of story. This includes the image/illustration, typography, and overall design of the cover. A cover for a work of literary fiction will look quite different from a work of fantasy or romance. Within a genre, subtle qualities provide more clues—all of which the cover artist grasps with acute expertise.

I’ve been fortunate in my history as a professional writer to have had exceptional art work on the books I’ve written or collections and anthologies I’ve participated in (see the mosaic below of many but not all the covers my work has been associated with).

For most of my books, my publisher provided me with a direct link to the cover artist (e.g., Dragon Moon Press, Edge Publishing, eXtasy Books, Liquid Silver Books, Starfire, Pixl Press) and I retained some creative control. I even found and brought in the cover artist for projects I had with Pixl Press.

Anne Moody and Pixl Press

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Anne Moody working on her next painting

I met Anne Moody at the environmental consulting firm where I worked after leaving the University of Victoria. I’d taught limnology (the study of freshwater) for several years at UVic, then I joined the Vancouver firm as an aquatic ecologist and environmental consultant. That’s where I met fellow ecologist, Anne. Anne is a plant ecologist who has worked with federal and provincial governments on reclamation and restoration projects. She’s designed and planted marshes throughout the world and has taught at university in her field of expertise.

Anne wasn’t painting then. She started long after we parted our ways—she to a government job and I to a teaching job at The University of Toronto. However, as she mentions in her short bio, Anne has been drawing and painting since childhood—just like me. The difference is that she has come back to the fine arts with an eye for compelling imagery. Using her science knowledge and discipline to work with light, texture and form, Anne creates works of stunning originality that resonate with rugged landscape and with those who belong to it. Her work is, needless to say, fetching for a book cover!

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyWhen Pixl Press started looking for suitable cover artists to rebrand my writing craft series, I showed some of Anne’s work to the director Anne Voute. Pixl Press had already worked with Costi Gurgu and we liked his work. The result of Anne’s illustrations and Costi’s typography and design was a series of stunning covers that branded my books with just the right voice.

Journal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyThe Alien Guidebook Series, of which two books are out so far (The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice) was designed by Costi with a guidebook brand that would stand out, yet showcase the natural British Columbia landscape art by Anne that I felt strongly connected to. Anne’s cover art for The Journal Writer is one of several studies of Toquart Bay, BC.

FictionWriterCoverWeb copy 2Anne’s illustration for The Fiction Writer (a painting of Knutsford, BC) actually represents the second cover. The Fiction Writer was originally released in May 2009 and the cover portrayed a spiral galaxy—beautifully designed by Virginia O’Dine. The cover overly stressed my science fiction background and did not give a balanced portrayal of the guidebook, which addresses any fiction—not just science fiction. Anne’s portrayal of a field in Knutsford was deemed better suited to a new branding for the series.

MockUpEcology-2I am currently researching and writing the third guidebook in the series—a reference on world building and use of ecology in story—The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

I visited Anne at her ranch near Vanderhoof, B.C., to discuss a cover. Between chores on the 100-acre ranch, gourmet meals from local produce, and lively political discussions over generous amounts of wine—we spent the entire weekend looking over and evaluating Anne’s pieces as potential cover art. Anne had so many good pieces, I became confused with what would work best.

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Nina stands in Anne’s sedge marsh

Finally on the last day, we stumbled on the perfect one: a painting Anne had done of a photograph her daughter had taken during a wildfire in northern British Columbia. Anne had stylized the photo into its own narrative that was compelling. My publisher was excited by it. We expect Pixl Press to release The Ecology of Story in late 2019.

NaturalSelection-front-web copyAnne’s art work for the cover of Natural Selection: A collection of short stories had originally resonated with me when she had first shown me the original painting at an art show on Vancouver Island. Called Mere Tranquility, her acrylic and oil painting uses shades of aqua, green, blue and yellow to convey a small pond during a quiet summer day. She’d captured the elusive dance of light and water perfectly. I was reminded of the genius of Monet. Anne was delighted to let us use it. Pixl Press commissioned Gurgu to design the cover; his minimalist clean design was pure genius.

The cover for Natural Selection remains one of my favourite covers of all time. And it just so happens that the cover art and design solidly portray the tone and content of the stories within. Bellisima!

 

 

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Anne Moody painting en plein-air

Anne Moody is a celebrated Canadian artist and plant ecologist. She worked with the British Columbia provincial government in their Department of Environment and now consults for her own company. She has been drawing and painting since childhood and won her first award at a “Painting in the Parks Program” when she was nine.

“I consider myself a realist, strongly tempted by abstract elements wrapped in story,” says Anne. “The images that speak to me are scenes that convey meaning beyond superficial beauty. My compulsion to paint takes charge when an image embedded in my memory will not allow me to rest until I promote it to canvas. My choice of medium, water-colour, acrylics or oil, is dictated by the nature of the image.”

All Nina Munteanu books can be found on most Amazon sites.

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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 book 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.

Nina Delivers Words and Worlds at WWC

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Smoky sun overlooking Rockies

I recently travelled from Vancouver with Pixl Press director Anne Voute through the smoky Rockies to the 8th ‘When Words Collide’ writers festival in Calgary. The festival was held August 10-12, 2018 and brought together just under a thousand readers and writers in multi-genres to attend presentations and panels on writing and publishing.

The three-day writers’ festival ran a 10-track program that included informative panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors Speed Mingle, pitch sessions with agents and publishers, and challenging workshops.

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Selling books at Myth Hawker

My books were on sale in the Merchant’s room at Sentry Box (a local Calgary bookstore) and Myth Hawker Travelling Bookstore. By the third day, Myth Hawker sold all available copies of Water Is…

I participated in panels, Blue Pencil Café, Editors speed mingle and several presentations and workshops:

  • You Oughta Be in Audio: a discussion between me and audiobook narrator and producer Dawn Harvey on the making of the audiobooks for The Splintered Universe—now available in three formats, print, ebook, and audiobook. While paper sales dwindle, audiobooks continue to be the fastest growing segment of the publishing world with sales increasing by 30% year over year for the past decade.

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  • World As Character: a presentation on creating a world with meaning. In most science fiction and fantasy, the world that we create is often very different from our own; in speculative fiction it’s often very similar; in contemporary fiction it is virtually the same. In all cases the world you build should embed in your story with layered metaphoric meaning. Nina Munteanu will discuss how to build a world that interacts with character to inform greater meaning in story.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-web copyJournal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEB copyI also networked my writing community for world examples to use in my Alien Guidebook on world building: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Anticipated release by Pixl Press of this third guidebook in the Alien Guidebook series is Summer of 2019. In keeping with the branding of the series, artist Anne Moody is providing the cover illustration and Costi Gurgu the cover design for The Ecology of Story. Covers for the previous two books were also done by Anne and Costi.

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‘Everyday Hero’ by Anne Moody

Earlier in the month, I travelled north with the Pixl Press director to Anne’s ranch in Vanderhoof to requisition a cover from her for the guidebook. After days of discussion and “show and tell” and after several pieces of art were tentatively selected, Anne pulled out a piece that stopped our search dead. ‘Everyday Hero’ depicts a lonely firefighter, trudging in the burning forest, tired gaze to the burning crown of a tree. Considering the subject matter and our world today, we thought this was perfect for my book.

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cover design by Costi Gurgu, illustration by Anne Moody

Depicted in shades of blue, charcoal and brilliant red, the cover contrasts and harmonizes well with the brand typology and cover design by Toronto graphic artist Costi Gurgu.

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nina-munteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.