Lessons from “Story”: Why You Should Study “the Craft” of Writing

“The Craft.” That word is frequently thrown around in the writing world, but what exactly does it mean?[1]

The first definition of “craft” that pops up on merriamwebster.com is: an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands. When I think of craft, I think of “arts and crafts,” quilting, scrapbooking, and other such tactile activities at which I am most definitely not skilled. But, technically speaking, writing does involve our hands and is certainly used to make things, albeit abstract things that are held not in the hand but in the mind and, one might argue, the soul of a person.

I confess, I was a little disappointed when, during my first semester in film school, my professors lectured ad nauseam on a little something called the “three-act structure.” Terms like “midpoint,” “plot point one,” “plot point two,” “inciting incident,” and “denouement” were hammered into our heads, awakening us wide-eyed aspiring writers to the fact that even works of art must have a structure to them, a skill that elevates them from the prosaic to the visionary, from the amateur to the professional. After all, it’s only once we’ve mastered the rules that we’re best qualified to break them. Just ask Picasso.

I posted a writing quote on Instagram recently that reads, “Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” This echoes what one of my favorite writing teachers, Robert McKee, wrote in his popular book on storytelling, aptly named Story:

“Literary talent is, however, common. In every literate community in the world, hundreds, if not thousands of people can, to one degree or another, begin with the ordinary language of their culture and end with something extraordinary. They write beautifully, a few magnificently, in the literary sense.”

The world is filled with gifted writers, not storytellers. There’s a difference. I’m sure you can think of former classmates who aced every single research paper and essay assignment, but would surely flunk if you asked them to write, even outline, a compelling novel.

Why is this? Sure, part of the reason is a lack of natural talent and imagination, but much of it is simply a lack of skill; they haven’t studied story structure and therefore have no idea how to create a novel filled with rich, empathetic characters, meaningful, believable conflicts, engaging, well-paced dialogue, etc.

Robert McKee Quote

 

If you’re like I was when I heard my screenwriting professors talking like scientists, then you may think that craft and structure have no place in the life of an artist. I thought it offensive that I, a free-spirited, science-averse writer, should be expected to study things as preposterous as three-act structure and to write screenplays and television spec scrips that reflected it. Why couldn’t I just write?

Short answer: because just writing = sucking.

That’s a little harsh, actually. I’m sure all of us could write some fairly impressive stories without paying any mind to things like turning points and character arcs, but would those works be the absolute best we could offer? I’m almost positive the answer to that is no because, as it is with most, if not all, things in life, discipline and study enrich our God-given gifts.

Ignoring my teachers in college in the name of intellectual independence (and let’s face it, youthful arrogance) would have been a grievous mistake. I wouldn’t have learned how to keep a story moving forward, how to avoid the sagging middle, how to keep the story as a coherent series of events in my characters’ lives, how to make every scene convey meaningful change, and how to create characters that are well rounded and unique.

I love the quote that says “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”

Assuming we’re all writers here, I believe this talent of ours is innate and immutable. But I also believe it wasn’t intended to forever remain in the same state in which we received it. I’m convinced that it was intended for us to joyfully pursue and perfect as best we can, purifying it as a refiner holding rough ore over the fire, waiting for the dross to fall away and the brilliant ore to shine.

What are you doing right now, today, to hone your craft? Whether it’s listening to podcasts, reading an article or a chapter a day, I encourage you to do something each day that will strengthen your skill as a storyteller. I promise you’ll begin to see positive changes in your writing and feel more confident as you face the page with time-tested knowledge and inarguable insight.

 

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – W.B. Yeats

 

I’ll be out on vacation next week so I apologize in advance for the lack of a post! I’ll try to post on my Instagram account though, so follow me there and say hello! I’d love to hear from you!

Keep Shining, (1)


[1] And does anyone else think of that creepy 90s film about witches when they hear the term, “The Craft”?

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