Thursday, November 09, 2006

Can Storytelling Be Taught?

For a few years I've taught a synopsis writing class for various online writing group--it's been an education for me, too. The most recent, for Outreach International RWA, is a good group. They all are, actually. It's always encouraging to think more good writing is coming from somewhere. But I always hit a point where I wonder if this class should be "How to Tell A Story."

That is what a synopsis is, and folks seemed to get bogged down in details, not the actual telling of the story.

The class always hits a point where I start talking about telling only the main points, the turning points, of the story in the synopsis. And a collective duh seems to come up. So--does no one teach story structure (other than Robert McKee, who does it brilliantly)?

McKee teaches story structure--he's thought about it, knows how to break it down. And it certainly sticks with some people to judge by the successful works that have come from his class. But obviously not everyone gets it. So are there some things about story telling that can't be taught? Some kind of instinct you have for when a story goes off? Sort of like the kind of sense of direction that keeps some folks from getting lost in the woods?

Even my earliest memories of writing, I knew when it was 'bad.' I just didn't always know how to fix the bad stuff, (and thank god I learned). But that's craft. That anyone can learn. One reason I can teach is that I've learned a lot of stuff the hard way--I had to break it down, figure it out, so that's what I teach in return. But is there something more. Some combination of analytical and creative left/right brain and damn stubborn inclination that makes a story teller?

I've always been inclined to think anything can be taught. I know you can always teach enough to make someone technically capable. And maybe that's the real truth. Maybe it's not so much an on/off writer gene. Maybe there's degrees of story telling ability--and willingness to learn.


Cheryl Bolen said...

I'm not sure if storytelling can be taught, but I really like your comment about limiting the synopsis to the plot's turning points. I can't tell you how many truly horrible synopses I've read from unpublished authors who crowd the synopsis with trivialites like the color of the heroine's eyes and what she had for breakfast!

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

Enjoyed this... and I am also trying to understand the difference between a mediocre story and a kick-ass story.


Nancy Morse said...

I agree with Cheryl that I don't think storytelling can be taught. You can learn the basics of plotting, characterization, etc., but all the technical knowledge in the world won't make you a good storyteller. As for those whose synopses contain trivial things that have no bearing on the story, there's enough info out there to learn what makes a good synopsis. They just haven't done their homework. I'm not one of those persons who picks apart a story and analyzes the life out of it just to figure out what makes it mediocre or kick-ass. I just know when I read it if I feel like putting it down or if I can't wait to turn the next page.

Colleen Thompson said...

I believe there are absolutely natural, unschooled storytellers. Sometimes these folks don't have a lot of craft, but they have something more important: fans. :)

Anyone who's read, listened to, or watched stories should develop a sense of what works and what doesn't. If you don't pick that up, maybe you don't love storytelling enough to do it in the first place.

That said, I think the study of storytelling can enhance it. I've always found Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey (based on Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey) extremely clarifying as I muddle through a draft.