How do I tell a good story?
Well, again, let’s look at music.
I have been writing and composing music for thirteen years now. Most of that music had been born in the form of songs for guitar and voice.
Now, I play piano, bass, ukulele as well, and can use a variety of computer software designed for making music, so why has most of my music only ever existed in the form of guitar and voice? Am I limiting myself?
No. Let me explain why.
I discovered as a teenager learning to play the guitar, that there was a simple beauty to acoustic music. I found for me personally, that a song was and is only really as good as it sounds when stripped right back to guitar and vocals.
This is what I call creative minimalism.
Now if you’ve used the internet somewhat in the past five years, as I imagine most of you have, you may have heard of the booming minimalism (as opposed to materialism) movement. (see theminimalists.com)
Minimalism teaches that greater value is found in a life without all of the genuinely unnecessary frivolous stuff. Now I think this concept has great application in creative industries. Greater value is found in a song that has been stripped of all the unnecessary frivolity, stripped back to basic guitar/piano and vocals.
Likewise, a story that can be effectively stripped back to the most basic plot structure and still be a gripping, worthwhile tale has greater inherent value.
Now, obviously there is a great beauty in frivolity. Why, the majority of both classical music and literature is built on the concept! And modern literary fiction carries the flame much in the same way that modern metal and jazz bands still seek progressive complexity.
But at least in terms of the modern “pop song”, and most of modern “genre fiction”, I think this concept has scores of validity.
Certainly, in terms of my preconceived acoustic space, I’ve been prompted to aim for a few specific key things in my songs, namely; lyrical quality, clarity and meaning, underlying harmonic progression and general rhythmic feel.
If I can make it sound catchy and ultimately satisfying with just voice and guitar, it can sound good with a little audio-engineered frivolity.
But how does that apply in other creative mediums such as writing? Isn’t writing all about the beauty of language? Isn’t reading all about the appreciation of beautiful language?
Well, frankly, not any more.
Just as most people nowadays listen to repetitive pop music, most people read genre fiction, despite it’s bad name. Case in point, Crime and Romance are the two highest selling genres in the industry. We might as well face it, in our modern age, we, the children of television, have been raised on pacing and tension, not poetry and pontification.
Let’s take Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles for example. If you strip away all of the beauteous poetic description and language, at its core, you still have an interesting character in an interesting world, saying and doing interesting things in interesting circumstances.
On the other end of the spectrum, best-sellers like Twilight and Fifty Shades Of Gray are the same basic story in different worlds with almost no poetic description whatsoever. They’re creatively minimalistic. And wildly successful.
And many such successful authors will tell you that ideas are cheap. In fact, for most of human history, the only stories told were the classics, the same stories over and over again. And yet people would flock to hear a good storyteller recount their favourite tales, of princes and fairies and dragons and such.
Likewise, in many ways, being a successful modern author is no longer about good writing so much as good storytelling. It’s not so much about the ideas you use, but about the way you creatively combine ideas and unfold them in a way tells a compelling story.
In short, you don’t have to be full of illustrious, Dickensian babble to be a great storyteller.
So herein lies the point of minimalist prose.
Can you can strip your story/song down to its bare bones and still have a story worth telling or a song worth listening to?
Now, this is something I’ve been working on a lot in my own writing lately, largely through the medium of short fiction. And I’ve found it incredibly helpful.
When I began writing the short story I recently finished, I set a goal to tell a whole movie in a short story. One of the ways I tried to do this was by giving myself an 80-20 dialogue rule. 80% of the page space was to be dialogue.
Dialogue-heavy prose is typically fast-paced prose.
Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the exercise. My writing pace even sped up. But when I hit the 7,000 word mark, I realised that I was nowhere near done with the story that I wanted to tell. So what to do?
Repurpose the story and tell both. So I copied the entire text into a new document (that I hope to serialise into a five-part novella series) and then began hacking away at all the unnecessary stuff.
Thinking there was no way I would be able to tell the whole movie in a short story, I tried to build the whole thing to an earlier twist and capped it off at 5,000 words.
Then I eagerly got my wife to read it.
She tore through it. This is way better than the last thing you wrote.And then she hit my ending.
And hated it.
I think she almost thought it was a joke. Nothing is resolved! But it was a short story, it didn’t have to have a satisfying resolution as long as it had a twist, right?
But no, a twist is only as satisfying the foreshadowing. I hadn’t begun writing a story that led to a twist. I was writing a movie. A short movie, but one that led to a satisfying ending. So I crammed the rest of my original idea (sans those other characters and subplots) into another 2,500 words.
Now I have a 7,500-word short story that actually feels like a whole story, but you can read it in half an hour. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before, but it’s fast-paced, dialogue-heavy, has a few fun twists and turns and is apparently way better than my other stuff.
Now the reason why I also believe it’s better, is because of creative minimalism. I stopped thinking about my writing and focused on my most basic storytelling instead, and wrote a story worth telling.
And this is how I know it’s good enough to expand into a novel and self-publish it in five-part serial format.
So even if you want to write epic Rothfussian fiction yourself, trying a creatively minimalistic approach might be worth considering as your first port of call.
Again, can you can strip your story/song down to its bare bones and still have a story worth telling or a song worth listening to?