I am happy to offer you a post from Carla Stewart, who just happens to be from Oklahoma, the state where I was raised. I met Carla at a writing conference a few years ago. She became a reader of my novels and also a friend. What a sweet twist that since then she has become a published author herself. She has excellent advice for you in this post about the power of story.
The Power of Story, by Carla Stewart
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been intrigued with stories. Aren’t we all? They take us to new places and introduce us to people who, while they may seem ordinary, do extraordinary things. Zaccheus might have been a wee little man, but his desire for just a glimpse of Jesus led him to do something bold, probably something he’d never done before. The results were spectacular—more than he imagined, I’m sure—an invitation from the Savior himself.
Miriam and her baby brother, Moses. Daniel in the lion’s den. The parables Jesus taught.
I don’t think it’s by accident that beloved Bible stories have endured and become the foundation of stories throughout the ages—fables, stories around a campfire, those handed down from one generation to the next. Stories of bravery, sacrifice, hardship, terror, and victory. I grew up with in a family of story tellers. The tales spun by my dad, my granny, and aunts and uncles made me laugh and cry and feel like I was right there watching them unfold.
So what makes a great story? Can it be crafted? What is your Calgon take-me-away kind of story?
I can’t speak for you, of course, but I can tell you that I’ve read many well-crafted stories that didn’t take me away. They followed all the precepts of story, but the more I read, the more painful it became. Enduring to the end was cause for celebration.
And then there are those books where I’ve raced through because I’m so invested in the story that I have to see how it ends. And yet, I don’t want it to end. I want to know more, to ask questions, to have the characters over. I want us to sit at my kitchen table while they tell me their secrets, their passions, what their favorite foods are and what movies they like, and who their favorite authors are.
Stories like this have a magical quality. And it usually begins with the opening line. Or the cover of the book. Or the back cover copy. There is something so intriguing that you feel you must read this or else.
That said, there are a few elements that lift ordinary stories to the “extraordinary” realm for me. These are the things that, as an author and the offspring of a string of storytellers, I aspire to.
Premise. Some people call this high concept.
“A young girl hides her baby brother from murderers and an entire nation is saved.” ~ Miriam and baby Moses
“Two youngsters in the South learn bitter truths when an innocent black man defended by their attorney father is convicted of rape.” ~ To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
High concept stories often have unusual pairings of characters or situations or a new twist on an old story. Interesting, but often unfamiliar slices of history make great high concept stories as they give the author a fresh idea to work with. The story world must breathe and move with its characters. It’s not just the setting, but the very essence of the setting that gives high concept stories their appeal.
Characters: Books that I can’t put down have characters I adore. They might be quirky or damaged in some way emotionally or thrust into a tough situation, but I need to be intrigued on page one—if not by the character, then by the situation or setting.
In The Book Thief every character had a story and a purpose, and I was captivated by them all. While the book is tragic, the characters are imbedded in my heart. I will never see or hear an accordion again without thinking of this book, how it became a metaphorical character and wove the story together. (If you haven’t read this book, make yourself a promise to read it in 2012.)
Journey: Stories need to unfold like tissue paper, one thin layer at a time, and also like tissue paper, they need to crackle with tension. When we peel back the tissue paper of a gift and get a peek inside, it’s like we’re viewing a very private world, one that’s alive with people and situations we care about. One thing as authors that we must do is to respect our readers ability to “get it.” I read (and write) far too often stories that over explain what the characters are feeling and why they feel this way and why they have to do what they do. One of the delights of a story to me is letting my imagination fill in some of those gaps.
Resonance: When I turn the last page, I want to sigh not because it’s a happily ever after or all the plot threads are tied up neatly. I want to know these characters have grown, they’ve learned hard lessons, they’ve stumbled and fallen and gotten back up again. I want to feel with them their hope for a bright future. And weeks or even months later, it’s a joy to remember the story and wonder how those folks are getting along.
The magic formula for writing a great story? There isn’t one, but I know that stories have the power to live on in us, to give us courage or insight or even a good belly laugh. They must come from a deep place in the author and be told with authenticity and confidence. Not arrogance, but walking alongside the reader, saying like Jesus did to Zaccheus, “How about we have a cup of tea? I want to tell you a story.”
About Carla Stewart: Carla’s writing reflects her passion for times gone by. She’s the author of two current novels, Chasing Lilacs and Broken Wings, an alum of the Guideposts Writer’s Workshop, two-time winner of the ACFW Genesis contest, and a 2010 finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. She believes in Jesus, the power of the written word, and a good cup of coffee. She and her husband have four adult sons and delight in the adventures of their six grandchildren. Learn more about Carla at her website, www.carlastewart.com, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook. You can buy her novels in Christian bookstores, as well as in Barnes and Noble and online.
Carla’s novel, Broken Wings is one I am proud to have endorsed. Here is a summary of her beautiful story: In the twilight of her life, Mitzi Steiner clings to her memories of being a jazz singer with her singing partner and husband, Gabe. He, though, has slipped into the muddled world of Alzheimer’s leaving her to ponder her future alone. When Brooke Woodson, a young professional, trips into her life after an abusive encounter with her fiancé, Mitzi reaches out to her. Both women have an uncertain future, but as they navigate the transitions of their lives, their friendship grows, making them both stronger and able to face the future.
(The Comments Feature is at the top right of this post.)