In the short video below, author and screenwriting mentor Robert McKee answers the question, “How do you define the truth of your story?”
My main struggle as a writer is to express the truth of my stories or poems in a way that will also resonate with my readers.
McKee says that there are many levels of truth in a story. There’s the surface level—the how and why things happen. The facts of the story.
For example, my protagonist in my current work starts out as a veterinarian focused on healing animals with her science and medical abilities only but, as the story progresses, she is drawn deeper into the magic of her hometown and her own special healing abilities. This is the surface story.
But, McKee says, a storyteller is after how and why what happens on the surface happens. We are looking for the deep hows and whys even down to our character’s subconscious level.
In my story, my protagonist resists using her special abilities because bad things have happened to those she loved when she used her powers as a young girl. She carries this trauma forward and it is her truth.
In a good story, says McKee, you express the truth that you believe in. Someone else may see it as a totally different truth from their own experiences but this doesn’t matter. If you express your truths well and beautifully, the reader will resonate with your work. They will come away from your book or movie recognizing they are in the presence of the truth.
In his great Ted Talk, filmmaker (“Toy Story” & “WALL-E”) Andrew Stanton shares his thoughts on storytelling.
Stories tell us who we are and give our life affirmation and meaning, says Stanton. Here a few other ideas he has about story:
- Stories make you care;
- Stories are inevitable but not predictable;
- Each character has a spine–an inner motor–a dominant unconscious goal they are always striving for;
- Change is fundamental in story. Life is never static;
- The secret sauce? The best stories infuse wonder.
To learn more about what story is, watch Stanton’s talk here:
Storytelling has always been one way people process life, happy and sad.
Angelo Merendino found that telling the story of his wife Jennifer’s fight with breast cancer helped him create meaning from the experience. He wrote an iBook, “The Battle We Didn’t Choose,” and in the Ted Talk below, Angelo tells how he met his wife and how, shortly after they married, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Angelo and Jennifer’s story was a global inspiration. As I watched the video, I was struck by how powerful the story was, and I realized that, in part, it was because it revealed Angelo and Jennifer’s love story first (including the influence of his own parents’ love story) before she received her diagnosis.
Angelo’s story reminded me of something one of my writing advisors told me years ago about storytelling. “You have to give readers a reason to care about your characters by letting the reader understand who the characters are up front.”
Angelo created a very moving tribute to his wife in pictures, print, and in this Ted Talk. He says these photos and the story were created out of necessity. His need to make meaning out of the tragedy continues to have a powerful impact.
Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article by Susan Dominus about novelist Stephen King and his family. In “Stephen King’s Family Business,” I learned that two of King’s three children have gone into the “family” business of writing novels and one son is married to another novelist. Wow. Can you imagine a family of novelists?
One thing that struck me was when King explained that as he and his novelist wife, Tabitha, put their children to bed at night, they didn’t read stories to their children, instead they asked their children to tell them stories. What a great idea and what a wonderful way to encourage young people’s imaginations.
Even as an adult, I try to think of ways to stimulate my imagination such as:
* I practice oral storytelling whenever I can, paying attention to my audience to see if I’ve hooked them. Read more
Are you a storyteller? I come from a long line of storytellers. They’re not necessarily writers (in fact, I believe I’m the first “writer” in the family tree), but they are serious tellers of stories.
I wrote about my family’s storytelling in my memoir. In one scene, I’ve just come home from 4-H camp with a sprained ankle and my father has met me in the parking lot of our grocery store with bad news about my cousin and best friend, Susan. Read more
Have you ever had a story or scene to write but struggled with finding a way into it?
I have a friend who’s known for the stories she tells. She’s a keen observer of people and life and has a way of making scenes come alive. By observing her oral storytelling technique, I’ve learned how to find my way into writing scenes and stories.
Storytelling has been used since the beginning of time as a way to process life. Before paper or printing presses existed, stories were told verbally. My friend instinctively adopts the techniques of natural storytelling by creating foreshadowing, suspense, strong images, and closure. When she tells a story, I can tell she feeds off her audience, whether it’s one or several, for cues that her story resonates.
If you’re struggling with how to get into a scene or story, you might try telling it to a friend or two.
While some people say you don’t want to “talk your story out” for fear of losing the energy of it, you might find it could actually be a useful tool if you do it with purpose. Read more
Years ago, when I first started writing prose, I remember a literary agent said he and his wife never watched TV unless they were at the gym or a local bar because they don’t even own a TV. They focus all of their attention on reading.
Looking for role models for my literary life, I thought, “Aha…I won’t watch TV either.” It made sense. Less time in front of the tube equals more time writing or reading. My husband and I didn’t watch much TV anyway, but we did have our favorite shows we’d record and watch later.
At some point in my literary life—after graduating from my MFA program—I realized that being a writer wasn’t just about the ability to write well. Just at important, if not more so, is the ability to tell a good story. Read more