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Blogs From Exile

When in doubt, tell the story

In writing, it’s not unusual to reach a spot where you don’t know how to continue—or even how to get started. That’s a scary feeling. Some people dread such moments as the onset of writers’ block, while others view them as a subconscious warning to slow down because they’re missing something.

In both cases, my advice is the same: Tell the story.

Someone a lot smarter than I am once told a writing group, “You’re not writers—you’re storytellers.” I come back to that aphorism a lot, because I think it’s brilliant. After all, so much of our writing is little more than a good cocktail-party story that someone took the time to write down.

It really is true: Think of a story you tell in small gatherings, one that almost always holds the attention of your audience or gets a good laugh at the end. Then think about how it would look on paper if someone recorded you and then transcribed the tale. It would probably come across quite well, and that shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, your cocktail-party story has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. It’s shaped to go from the beginning to the middle to the end without losing the audience, and that ending is meant to have a certain effect. Speaking or writing, we are storytellers.

That goes for the non-fiction writers out there as well. The only difference is that your stories are real.

So whenever you’re casting about for what to do next in a project, or even wondering how to get started, follow this advice: Tell the story.

If you’ve already got something written down, your momentary pause could have many explanations: You wonder if what you’ve already written is on target. You suspect it needs something more—more detail, more description, more words. You fear you may have already painted yourself into a corner and don’t even know it yet.

All of the preceding questions are important, and if you have an answer for them (your first draft isn’t on target, the completed part of the work does need something, or you have boxed yourself in) then by all means fix them. But if you don’t have a solution for these issues (or if you’re not even sure they’re issues at all) then go ahead and keep telling the story. Ask yourself what comes next, and then write it.

Quite often, this practice will show that your earlier concerns aren’t terribly valid—or the new writing will render them moot. Think of those times when the writing of the story itself revealed the solution you couldn’t think of earlier, and keep telling the story. Consider just how much of a rough draft gets taken out later (French Connection director William Friedkin referred to such discarded material as ‘scaffolding’ because it wasn’t needed after the story he was building was completed) and keep scribbling. Continue to tell the story.

Remember, this isn’t an admonition to just go blindly charging ahead. You can’t continue telling the story if you don’t know it in the first place. It also doesn’t mean you have to figure everything out before you write it, or that you have to build the tale chronologically—far from it. One great advantage of the advice to “Tell the Story” is that it allows you to skip to a part that you know well enough to actually work on. It lets you accept the possibility that a segment you’ve already completed isn’t what it should be, but that you can leave it alone until you know how to fix it. It keeps the words appearing on the screen or the page.

It keeps you telling the story.

Just a little earlier, I mentioned that this advice can also help you get started when you’re not sure how to begin. That’s where the cocktail-party example comes back into play. There are many ways to begin a story, and you can make any of them work. But if you’re at a loss as to how to get started, try imagining yourself standing or sitting with a small group of people when a lull in the conversation occurs. How would you get their attention? What’s so interesting about your tale (or your point)? Should you start with an introduction, or just jump right into the action? Think of a few ways you might do this, and before you know it you’ll be off and running.

You’ll be telling the story.
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