- Tool #1: The Power of Scene
- Tool #2: The Power of Experience
- Tool #3: The Power of Sensory Detail
- Tool #4: The Power of Voice
- Tool #5: The Power of Conflict
by Clint Johnson
Writing is decision making. It’s problem solving.
We write with particular goals in mind, be it earning an A on a biology report, making everyone laugh with a quick tweet, or getting an interview by presenting ourselves as best as possible on a resume. When we write, we think of our audience and make choices about how to achieve our goals with them. The more options we can identify when making writing choices, the better our chances of finding effective ways to reach our goals.
UNC College of Arts & Sciences
It can be helpful to think of a writer as a craftsperson, similar in many ways to a carpenter. To perform a craft requires a variety of tools, various skills using those tools, and particular approaches or attitudes about the work of one’s craft. The carpenter must value the dynamic, living nature of wood, for example. Wood changes shape with fluctuating temperature, greatly complicating the carpenter’s work. Someone without that attitude of appreciation for wood’s nature is likely to ignore or fight against it, trying to make their furniture static with hardware and strong glues, which will cause the object to break down over time.
Writing is similar. Like the carpenter, a writer’s tools, skill with those tools, and attitudes about their work determine the quality of the writing they produce. While a writer’s tools include physical objects such as computers, keyboards, pens, paper, and the like, they are usually techniques that serve the same purpose as the carpenter’s tools: giving the craftsperson options in how to work with their chosen material, which, in the case of the writer, is language.
Storytelling may seem like a unique writing situation, and in some ways it is. But many of the tools we discover and gain skill with while telling stories can help us solve problems when writing in many other genres in very different situations.
You are writing a profile on Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. You want your readers to understand the power of his personality, his sheer charisma, given that Bloomberg News referred to Jobs as “perhaps the most charismatic chief executive officer in business history.”
How do you take something like charisma, the experience of a man’s nature, and put it into words?
Writing stories requires that we write meaningful scenes: areas of intense focus where we describe people, places, and actions in order to make a reader feel they have witnessed something themselves. That ability—to use language to create an experience in a reader’s mind—is potentially valuable in communicating the magnetic presence of Steve Jobs.
Maybe while researching you find a story by one of Job’s employees touting his magnetic personality and confidence. But the excerpt is short and dry, very to the point. If you have ever written a story, either from memory or imagination, you have tools to take this employee’s memory of Jobs and bring it to life as a scene. By starting your profile with an intense, illustrative vignette showing Jobs’s personality, everything that follows is interpreted through that lens. Your readers don’t just learn about Jobs; to an extent, they experience him.
Mike Evangelist (that’s his real name) believed in nothing but computers, and so he worshipped by designing and building them. In 2000, while heading Apple’s team responsible for conceptualizing a DVD-burning app that would eventually become iDVD, he converted to Jobsism.
After three weeks preparing their pitch, Evangelist and his team sat in a boardroom so full of screenshots of program windows and reams of documentation higher than their chairs that it felt like a ruined temple, only with splintered pillars of paper rather than marble. Jobs strode in catlike, his bare feet moving silently and straight toward something only he saw. He didn’t glance at the twenty-thousand pages crowding the room in pillars. Instead, he picked up a fleck of crimson in the whitewash: a marker. As every pair of eyes in the room scanned each other, trying to figure out what they were seeing, Jobs walked to a whiteboard on the room’s wall.
Pulling the top from the marker, he drew a crisp-sided rectangle. Back went the cap. He stabbed at the simple shape with the marker.
“Here’s the new app,” he said. “It’s got one window. You drag your video into that window. Then you click the button that says BURN. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.”
He exited with a small smile, seemingly not about what he had just announced and certainly not about anything anyone else in that room had done, but something secret only he knew, handing Evangelist the marker on the way out.
Evangelist never became religious, but he has believed in something other than computers since that day—the barefoot genius who smiled at things only he could see, and made others burn with the need to see them too. (Adapted from Quora.com.)
Can a hypothetical situation written as a scene work as evidence for a claim you make in an argument? Might reflecting on your past by writing a specific experience in scene lead your mind to recall details and emotions more clearly, improving your memory? How else might scenes—the ability to use language to create or re-create an experience—be useful in different writing situations?
The philosopher Plato dedicated his life to the pursuit and teaching of logical thought. Why, then, did he tell the story of Atlantis? The New Testament in the Bible recounts the life of Jesus Christ trying to reform behavior among the Jews. Why did he use parables such as the Good Samaritan? Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, has dedicated much of his life to trying to bridge racial communities, both as a politician and community organizer. So when he decided to write his first book on race, why did he decide upon a memoir—a story?
Can effective storytelling strengthen our ability to communicate logic? When people make claims about what is good or bad, effective or ineffective, or true or false, we automatically compare the claim to our lived experience. We ask, Does this make sense to me? Have I seen it bear out in my life? Stories can provide new experiences by which people can make sense of the claims they encounter. Could this help a reader understand something that may be accurate even if they have not experienced it themselves, making them more likely to accept your claims?
Check out the Native American parable of the Two Wolves.
You are writing a review of your new favorite restaurant. You think every person you know, and every person they know, should eat there. It’s that good. How do you motivate them to try the place beyond a fierce “I said so!”?
As a storyteller, you know the importance of sensory description. To describe something using the senses not only gives an additional texture of reality to the subject, but it can help memory. Knowing that one of the most important criteria for most eaters when choosing a restaurant is taste, could skillfully describing the succulent experiences of the dishes at your new favorite spot motivate readers to frequent it? Could the evocative description of human tastes—salty, savory, sweet, bitter, and sour—help people remember their favorite flavors, maybe beloved childhood foods, and associate those with this new restaurant?
The chocolate cake ($8.79) will knock you out with a pure, earthy fist and then, languidly, lure you back toward awareness with its tart breath of raspberry tickling the back of your throat.
Your professor assigns you to write objectively about a social subject you care about greatly, let’s say global climate change. You have passionate opinions on the subject and wish to criticize those who hold positions you feel are foolish, unfounded, or dishonest. However, you know that doing so will result in a low grade as your professor expects you to maintain an objective style throughout the paper. Do you have to give up your desire to point out the weaknesses of your opponents’ stances on the issue?
Most good stories are about dramatic, interesting characters, people who the author creates yet are not the author. Their words—dialogue—have great power to establish unique, distinctive voices separate from the author’s own voice as a story’s narrator. These character voices seem so real it’s easy to forget that the author created them. Could you find quotes that work similarly, allowing you to draw a reader’s focus to your opponents’ statements, their voices, without using your own voice? Could the controversial, confusing, silly, or abusive statements they have made allow you to shape your reader’s view of them without directly sharing your thoughts on the issue, allowing you to seem objective while still influencing your reader’s opinions?
How might a supporter of the theory of man-influenced global climate change use these statements collected by Rolling Stone to persuade a reader without giving their opinion in their own voice?
Your political science teacher asks you to take part in a debate on the issue of safety versus individual liberties in America’s age of terrorism. She specifies you must choose a subject of focus and approach the subject from many different angles, including historical, legal, geographic, and religious. Soon into your research preparing for the debate you feel lost, drowning in more information than you could tackle in a lifetime. How do you make sense of the mass?
You know that every good story is about conflict because conflict means people care. Conflict is produced when different individuals or groups have competing interests and take action trying to achieve their personal goals, often by overcoming resistance from others. Might you not find similar patterns in your research on safety versus privacy, and might that pattern help you discern where you should put your focus? Is it possible to understand a social issue as a story, with different parties serving as characters with their own motivations? What is at stake with the issue as in a story? What actions are the different sides taking that create a kind of societal plot? Finally, what would each group envision as a climactic resolution and what would their victory or defeat mean?
Okay, so, what’s the conflict in the gun control issue, as seen by those who support more control? It’s a matter of safety, of life versus death. Who or what is the threat? It’s not just murderers but also people who accidentally misuse guns. So, really, maybe the guns themselves are the bad guy! Then that would make the law and government the good guy. It isn’t about choices made by individual people. It’s about government acting in the best interest of the people while guns, those who make them, and those who insist upon their accessibility and use, are antagonists. So from this perspective, it’s ultimately a matter of whether responsible government, in the eyes of gun control advocates, triumphs over a form of mob rule.
How many tools can we learn by writing stories? Where and when can they be applied in different writing situations we later face?
There is no definitive answer. Indeed, the writing process is unique to every writer. We each have our own toolbox brimming with techniques and the experiences we honed them on. Writing stories is a distinctive and sometimes overlooked way to add specialized tools to our toolbox.
Does considering the tools provided by storytelling provide easy answers to future problems we have when we write? Likely not. But it does give us more options to choose from.
When deciding if we should use storytelling tools, we can consider:
- Do we seek to connect with readers logically, emotionally, or both?
- Do we let someone else tell their experience, do we dramatize their experience for them, or do we build our own hypothetical reality?
- Do we skim over a subject or really focus on it, adding the intense emphasis of description?
- Do we communicate literally or using the figurative language of metaphor?
- Do we base our judgments on information or examine the stories we use to interpret what information means?
Writing, much like life in general, is decision making. It’s problem solving. Our storytelling tools will not solve every writing problem we face—but they will sometimes be a productive option, and sometimes even the best option, to achieve a goal.
Look for ways to use them when you come upon this story: “Once upon a time there was a writer who had a problem …”