Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tell Me A Story

A Sunday night ritual at our house is watching Sixty Minutes. A few weeks back, shortly after my return from the Hamline residency, the show featured a segment on Don Hewiit, the genius producer of the longest-running TV show in history. "Tell me a story," Hewitt says to his reporters. "Every kid in America knows that."

Hewitt passed away last year. But footage from interviews and production meetings revealed a man who valued story above all else. What's the best story to tell about this person, this situation? What angle serves the story best? These questions to the likes of Mike Wallace. Hewitt discussed how every week he likes to feature three stories, one of which wil appeal to every viewer in America. Not to water down, but to reach Americans coast to coast. There is always one story segment that draws me in more than the others.

This week I am reading James B. Stewart's book Follow the Story: How To Write Successful Nonfiction. I just wrote to one of my students in her packet letter about Stewart's emphasis on story-telling rather than analysis. The old show not tell.

Every kid in America wants a story. Let's go write them.


  1. When this was going on (Hewiit's death) I heard several rivetting documentaries on NPR about him. What an amazing man, and story.

  2. Do you suppose Hewitt defined story differently over the years?

    These recent posts have really been snowballing for me. After hearing from my mother-daughter readers and mulling over Lisa's perceptive answers in the interview in which she puts her finger on changes in publishing, and then enjoying Ron and Anne's shout outs to Virginia Woolf's angels, and now thinking about 40 years of storytelling on 60 Minutes head is spinning.

    Recently someone I trust told me a manuscript I'd sent her to read was "old fashioned." No doubt there are other things wrong with it but that was the first thing out of her mouth, and it’s the comment that's stuck with me.

    As Lisa pointed out days ago, the type and subject matter of books being published and read are different than they were a few years ago. I know the angels I feed and/or try to kill are different than the ones I dealt with 5, 15, 20 years ago. Things change. Stories change, I guess, probably even for 60 Minutes. Some can be called old fashioned. How would all of you define an old-fashioned story?

  3. Hmmm... First, I have no business contributing to this post because of the uber-workload I must tackle, but I'm easily distracted.

    MQ, et. al,

    The idea of an "old fashioned" story seems like a moving target, at best. Obviously, the term is subjective, so I am only able to offer my neophyte first semester understanding of the term. IMHO, An old fashioned story lacks edginess and has some elements of predictability that readers have seen before (character reactions, technology, diction, etc.). With that said, I need to learn "old fashioned" story skills. I seem to have the polar opposite problem. I tend to be too edgy (in my subject matter and the way I employ the elements of craft when writing about it), which leaves me unsure about how to handle the story with point of view shifting, etc., but I'm learning.

    I am not as well versed about the market, and I found Lisa's interview answer helpful. The ideas that come to me are often premised on what I can offer readers that they haven't seen before. My characters may respond one way, for example, because the response is what the reader did not expect. However, this unpredictability is anchored in predictability because readers must relate and draw upon their narratives to help understand the text.

    American Idol has popped into my head while writing this response. The world watches as contestant after contestant takes the stage to perform a song. The most memorable contestants (not necessarily the most successful) are the ones who offer a new spin on a well known song. The contestant may rearrange the melody or sing a song that is different for his/her tone. One contestant, during try-outs, rearranged Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" song. It was memorable, new, and different, yet his version was anchored in predictability (many viewers know the song). The singer shocked us. Who wants to leave the reader thinking, "this has been done before..."?

    My philosophy in life, but particularly as a new writer, has been to shock, but within the boundaries of what readers want and what the market dictates. Of course, I don't worry about the market when I write. I worry about how to anchor my ideas in a way that an audience will relate, but I let my characters do the dancing.

    I'd rather be edgy and fail doing so than write about a pretty blonde hair, blue eyed princess in a pink dress(no offense to those who are writing about pretty princesses in pink dresses). Write about the "anti-princess." What we she look like? Taking risks ROCKS.

    Signing off,


  4. Hmm. Old fashioned? A meaningless term really. My work has often been coined "old-fashioned" or "classic" or sometimes even "a traditional tale." This could be a positive spin or negative. Is it because my books deal with relationships and emotional content, which I believe is at the core of all stories, therefore making all stories (and certainly the best stories) old-fashioned?

    Perhaps it is merely a new and different format that makes it "modern," and eventually all modernizm becomes mundane.
    Harriet the Spy, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mocking bird, anything by Joyce Carol Oates--all modern storytelling when first published are now considered old-fashioned, merely because they are old!

    I don't think edgy and old-fashioned are mutually exclusive. I happen to like old-fashioned, traditional, classic storytelling as much as anything edgy, as long as the emotional content is there. Old-fashioned is not the same as weak. But then, as I said in the beginning, the term is meaningless--perhaps something used by someone who doesn't know what else to say.

    As Melissa does, don't worry about the market when you write, or about being edgy or shocking or old-fashioned. Just worry about telling the story.

    Marsha's books are full of emotional depth and rich character and plot. Nothing dated about that!

    Perhaps it's a sign of publishers desperate to sell. Readers will read it as long as it's engaging.

    so goes my rant....

  5. I agree that "old-fashioned" can be good or bad, and hard to interpret.

    Some books present an old-fashioned perspective, like Robinson Crusoe's ideas about the native people whose island he shared. An old-fashioned perspective doesn't necessarily make a book old-fashioned, but it can if the purpose of the book is more about promoting that perspective than about telling a good story.

    Flowery and excess language can make something feel old-fashioned too. I'm thinking of some novels I've read, but can't name, from the late 1800s/early1900s. There again, people can overlook stylistic language if the story is strong enough.

    However, just being written at a particular time doesn't necessarily make a book feel old-fashioned. Ramona the Pest and Charlotte's Web don't feel "old-fashioned" to today's young readers. They just feel like satisfying stories where some specific details of the character's lives are slightly different than the readers.

    Sure, every generation is different from previous generations. But we're more alike than we are different. Even stories that push the edge take advantage of the commonalities--like MT Anderson's Feed. It's futuristic in setting and lingo, but it pays attention to basic human emotional needs.

  6. I agree, Lisa. Edgy and old-fashioned are definitely not mutually exclusive terms. When I think about an object being "old-fashioned," my brain gravitates towards clothing trends and art. I wonder how Tim Gunn would define, "old fashioned" books? My guess is he wouldn't, and instead, would strive to "make the story work." However, as Lisa clearly states, and as I attempted in my earlier post, "old-fashioned" is a "meaningless" term. Classic storytelling with familiar themes are often most memorable, especially when the author takes a new approach. There should (maybe) be a balance between the "old fashioned" (whatever that means) and "edgy" (whatever that means).Our characters will let us know when the story is just right. So far, I've gathered that my characters hate labels anyway. Their like their momma. :0)

    I'm off to crimp my hair and throw on a pair of skinny jeans. Why? Well...why the heck not?