Lessons from “Story” – What’s Your Writing Superpower?

Welcome back, lit critters![1] I hope y’all are having a wonderful week and enjoying the colors and scents of Pumpkin Season! (That really should be fall’s official name, don’t you think?)

As promised, I’m back this week to talk about the positive aspects of the “two bad types of stories,” which I discussed in the last two posts. After all, there are two sides to every coin, a Yin to every Yang… choose your metaphor – it’ll work :-).  So it goes with today’s topic: portraiture and spectacle aren’t without their redeeming qualities.

This series of posts, I should remind you, is inspired by one of my all-time favorite books on the craft of writing, Story by Robert McKee. Here are his words on the “powers” of authors who often err, either by focusing on verisimilitude in an effort to convey truth, or by replacing imagination with an overabundance of high-octane action scenes and never-before-seen (or read) monsters and magic, what we call in the movies, “special effects”:

“Writers who lean toward reportage often have the power of the senses, the power to transport corporal sensations into the reader. They see and hear with such acuity and sensitivity that the reader’s heart jumps when struck by the lucid beauty of their images. Writers of action extravaganzas, on the other hand, often have the imaginative power to lift audiences beyond what is to what could be. They can take presumed impossibilities and turn them into shocking certainties. They also make hearts jump.”

Do you recognize yourself in either of these descriptions? I know I do. I’m much more of a reportage-type writer. You put a leaf in front of me and I will spend ten minutes observing it and another twenty writing a story about its life’s journey from the top of an oak to the palm of my hand. I’d include enough metaphors, similes, and alliterations to make your head spin.

Writing action sequences, on the other hand, makes me want to bash my head against the giant concrete slab – otherwise known as writer’s block – it sets on my laptop. I don’t particularly enjoy action movies or thrillers, so I suppose it makes sense that writing them is not my cup of tea. But that doesn’t exempt me from tackling them.

Continues McKee:

“Both sensory perception and a lively imagination are enviable gifts, but, like a good marriage, one complements the other. Alone they are diminished.”

Writing quote by Robert McKee

I could write a 50,000-word essay full of descriptions of what I thought, smelled, tasted and touched over the course of a week, but that wouldn’t make a novel. I could also write an equal amount of words’ worth of car chases, explosions, ship wrecks and shootouts, and all I’d have was a pile of action-packed pages in need of a story to give them life. A balance must be struck along this spectrum. It is incumbent upon us as storytellers to simultaneously transport readers to a time and place (using our sensory portraiture skills) and wow our readers with original conflicts and compelling action.

This week, I challenge you to put your editing hat on and read over the last 1,000 words or so of your work-in-progress. Ask yourself whether your writing drifts to one extreme or another, either too far toward portraiture, or too far in the opposite direction, toward spectacle. If it does, then it may be a good time to strengthen whichever weakness you discover you have. This best way to do this, from my experience, is to read novels that excel at whatever is you’re struggling with. A faster way is to watch good TV shows (“good” being a relative term, of course). For me, watching Arrow and The Flash has taught me a boatload about writing successful “spectacles,” that is to say scenes that deliver in terms of both entertainment and emotion.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful! What’s your writing superpower, portraiture or spectacle? Let me know on Twitter @dandersontyler or on Instagram at @authordianatyler. I would love to hear from you!

Keep Shining, (1)

[1] I was in Literary Criticism in high school and the nickname has never left my memory.


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