Good storytelling is about having at least a somewhat conscious relationship to our ideal reader, and telling the story in the most compelling way possible. It is about understanding the most effective order of events. This is achieved through “holding the story loosely” and being willing to write and rewrite.
The process of telling a story is akin to a Polaroid coming into focus, or an alien spacecraft moving toward planet Earth — as it approaches, it sees the Earth in greater and greater detail. We began with an idea, then we imagined the world, wrote an outline, and finally bashed out a first draft. Now that we have “channeled” that initial story, we step back and become curious about the most effective way to tell it.
Let us imagine for a moment that we are the typical ruthless, yet openhearted reader. Our reader comes to the book with expectations. He wants to be taken on a journey, to be under the spell of the storyteller, in fact, our reader wishes to be seduced. The accomplished storyteller approaches his story as if it were a seduction. The accomplished storyteller never forces his will. The accomplished storyteller is sensitive to his reader, while at the same time never losing focus, always moving toward his objective.
How is this accomplished?
It is accomplished by having a grounding in basic technique, while staying open to our Source, to that primal impulse that spoke to us in the first place.
Basic technique, as far as I’m concerned, really just means maintaining an ongoing curiosity about structure, i.e., tracking the “want” through the plot points. As we grow as writers, we discover over and over again that our story is never entirely what we thought it was going to be. By being open to the structure questions, we can develop, over time, an abiding relationship to the infinite complexities of our human condition. By being open, we can become surprised at the unpredictability of human behavior. These discoveries can be frightening and thrilling all at once. Story structure is not a formula. Story structure can hold all of the complexities of the human condition. It is our job as writers to continue to be curious about our own humanity, to be willing to ask ourselves, in moments of crisis or doubt, “I wonder where this experience exists in the world of my characters?” rather than allowing ourselves to become swallowed up by our own guilt, fear, or neurosis. Let us always hold our stories loosely enough that we are willing to be surprised by our character’s choices. When we do this, we are often led to deep truths we didn’t even know we were seeking.