Monday, January 17, 2011

Piecing Together a Story

posted by Rebecca J. Carlson

Strip away the page, the stage, and the screen, and what beats at the heart of any work of fiction? Story. What do we crave as readers? Story. What do we strive for as authors? Story.

But how do you make a good one?

This past week I came across some new ideas from a professional storyteller. His name is Donald Davis, and every summer on a little island off the coast of North Carolina he runs a storytelling workshop. No, I didn't get to go, but I caught the documentary film about it:

What's Your Story?

Even though Mr. Davis teaches people how to find true stories in their own lives, I discovered a lot of things I could relate to writing fiction. He said our first step shouldn't be to ask, "what's the plot?" Our first step is to gather scraps, like a quilter getting ready to make a quilt. I realized that I like to do this for years before I begin a novel, dreaming up little dialogs between the characters, thinking about what their world would be like, what their histories are. I've also tried writing a book without gathering scraps first, and I ran into snags at every turn.

One of my favorite things that Mr. Davis said is that we need to establish what normal life is like in our stories. That's what people want to know about. What was your life like? What's it like to be a potato farmer's daughter, or to grow up in the Projects? Or maybe if you're writing science fiction, what's it like to live in an alternate world? But that's not all people want to know. They want to know what problems we faced, and then most of all, what progress we made. What did we learn? How did we grow? How did we survive and overcome? A story is a quilt made up of these three kinds of scraps - daily life, problems, and progress - put together in a unique and beautiful pattern of meaning.

I also enjoyed Mr Davis' wisdom on how to take care of "newborn" stories, on tapping into our memories, and on why humans need story. Take some time to enjoy this film and get a refreshing, inspiring view of the heart of our craft.


  1. I love the picture in my head of me gathering scraps--seemingly useless bits of colorful words and piecing them together into a thing of beauty. I'd never thought of it that way. What a fabulous post!

  2. I'm just getting ready to focus on my next project. This was great!! :-)

  3. I love the idea of gathering scraps! I've been doing that in my head for this story that I don't have time to write - too busy writing other things at the moment. I like the idea that all this wool gathering will help when I sit down to do the hard part of writing. :)

  4. What a great video and words of writing wisdom! I'm passing it on to my son, who loves to write and is a master at gathering scraps. It was a great help for me, too. Thanks for sharing it!

  5. You're welcome, everyone! I thought it was the perfect compliment to Robert McKee's in-depth and detailed study of story, which I gleaned from reading the book Sue recommended. I liked following up with Donald Davis' laid-back, easy-going, this-is-all-it-is take on the subject.


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