Wednesday, 20 May 2015

If Shakespeare had an iPhone...

I would like to take this opportunity to flag up the brilliance of a tweet I got from Teri Carson (@dizzydentfilms). Not just for its humour, and of course succinctness, but because there is a lesson for us all in these 140 characters – a lesson in story delivery in subtext.

So, before I oversell the thing, here’s Teri’s tweet:

“Honk all you want. When I got shit to tweet I don't give a fuck what color the light is..”

You think… You read it again… The penny drops… You laugh. And you get a picture – a picture of a girl sitting in the car, waiting at a red. She’s texting on her phone, so she doesn’t see the traffic lights change, and there is a guy in the truck behind getting mad with her, and he starts letting her know about it by leaning on the horn. She is unmoved and is determined to finish her tweet before pulling away...

Now look carefully at the words I used to describe the picture she created. None of the words I used appeared in her tweet. You had to make that whole scenario up for yourself from the verbal clues she gave you. And THAT is master storytelling.

You give the audience only signposts, and they do the rest themselves. Stories are not about giving information, but holding it back and having the audience project it for themselves.

Thank you Teri! Love it!

If you'd like more of Teri, go to her blog at and of course, she’s always welcoming followers on Twitter…

For an entire chapter on all types of story subtext and the methods writers use to embed subtext in their stories (and another example like this one, taken from a newspaper small ads column and which I find hilarious) you might like to consider The Story Book, Chapter 4.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Delivered Story; The Interpreted Story

Whenever you absorb a story, you are actually experiencing *two* stories. Or at least, two versions of the same story. This is well accepted in academia, and was first documented by the Russian Formalists in the 1920s, (Victor Shlovsky, Vladmir Propp et al) who called the first version the Syuzhet and the second version the Fabula. Great words, but let me try to simplify it to what can help a writer deliver better story today. 

The first version is the delivered story. All the tangible sensory stimulation you receive from having the story communicated to your eyes and ears. So, in a film, this includes the music, images, dialogue, action, character behaviours, the poster, the trailer, the reviews you read, the blog-post, your knowledge of the star's personal life - everything that contributes to what you think about the story.

In a book, of course, the written words are the total sensory stimulation. Here is, allegedly, the shortest novel ever written:

"For Sale. Baby's Shoes. Never Worn."

In this case, the total delivered story is just those six words (and whatever else you might overlay if you know it was (allegedly) written by Earnest Hemmingway).

But of course, there is more to every story than just what you are delivered. There is the second level - the Fabula - or the interpreted story. This is everything you know from the delivered story PLUS everything else you add to the delivered story in order to make a complete production of it in your own head.

    The delivered story
 + Your conclusions from understanding the delivered story
== The Interpreted story

The delivered story is the same for everyone; it is objective and denoted. We can point out all its elements and quantify it. 

The interpreted story is a unique and individual production, produced in full inside the head of the receiver as a result of interpreting the delivered story.

The skill of a writer is in crafting the delivered story - that's what you write - but just enough so most target audience will fill the knowledge gaps in similar ways, and create for themselves in mind a wonderful, complete interpreted version of your story.

So, what interpreted story did you get from Hemmingway's six words? most people get a sad story comprising a child tragically lost in pregnancy or shortly afterwards. If pushed, they can describe the couple and envisage numerous events going back to their meeting, the circumstances surrounding the conception, the onset of the tragic problem, what happens afterwards and so forth; but the interpretation is essentially the same for most people.

However, those six words could just as easily have spawned a comedy story in mind, in which the grandparents have bought the new born baby a pair of baby shoes, only to find that the kid has giant feet, coming in at size nine from birth, causing much mirth and a driving need to sell the shoes.

However, very few people get anything like that from this delivered story. We all interpret the knowledge gaps in the same way... and that is master storytelling.

As a writer, the thing to bear in mind here is that we humans *love* to fill in knowledge gaps. We adore puzzles and questions and projecting and speculating and subtext and getting the right answer. As a writer, your job is to craft knowledge gaps. They are the tool of your trade. You bed knowledge gaps into your delivered story in order to inspire interpretation; in order that that the complete, interpreted story is found in the subtext and built beautifully in the mind of your audience.THAT is the skill of a fine writer. 

So learn about knowledge gaps. Learn about the relationship between gaps and subtext. Learn about the relationship between gaps and morality.

The more knowledge gaps there are, the more your audience will love your stories.