A Lesson on Storytelling

by Robert Dugoni

We all have the ability, to one degree or another. It is innate—the ability to tell stories.  

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of the Saturday afternoon when my nonnie would drive down the peninsula from San Francisco, often accompanied by one of her lady friends, (she had been widowed at a young age). Nonnie always brought us Italian sour dough bread, Salami, Coppa, Mortadella, and cheese. My nine brothers and sisters and I loved the food, but what we really craved were the stories of our father as a boy. It didn’t matter that we’d heard them before; what we loved was the way Nonnie told them. Growing animated, her Italian accent thick, she would lament how my father would slip on a pair of his grandmother’s bloomers hanging in the basement, and dance and prance through Nonnie’s afternoon tea with the ladies. Or she’d tell us of the time she found her mother, who spoke little English, standing in the living room whistling because the phone company told her it was checking the service, and when my Nonnie took the receiver, my father said, “Thank you, Ma’am. You’ve won a free box of bird seed.” 

Some call it the muse, the “spirit or power that is a source of inspiration for poets, musicians, writers and other artists.” Which begs the question all writers know I’m about to ask: Where does the muse go when we sit down at the computer keyboard?  Why is an innate ability so difficult sometimes? 

I go through virtually the same ritual with each new novel. I start out fast, writing quickly, perhaps 50, sometimes 100 pages. And then the muse departs and I hit that wall. These are the moments when I am convinced I’ll never write another intelligent sentence, and that my career as a novelist has ended. The world becomes devoid of color and everyone else suffers my misery.  

Jim Thayer, a friend and frequent contributor to Author whose articles on the craft I’ve taken to printing out and keeping in a binder, once described these moments as “getting lost in the forest.”  I call it “rushing the muse.”  

What happens? We’re so excited with the new story that we rush into it head first as we might a new trail found in the woods. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t planned ahead, brought food and water, or perhaps a rain poncho. Our fingers are flying over the keyboard and we are making progress…somewhere. And progress always seems like a good thing; much better than sitting and stewing. Right? Until we reach that fork in the road, or the impassable stream, or the shear cliff with no apparent way over. We turn back, but now it is dark and the trail suddenly foreign and our progress seems to have led us nowhere. This is when we wish we had taken the time to plan ahead, and lament that we failed to bring a map. For the writer at the keyboard, this is when the idea suddenly dawns that we didn’t bother to outline. 

Now for those who don’t outline well, like me, or believe it can stifle creativity, like me, fear not. This need not be a four-hundred page tome detailing everything your characters will do and say – unless that is how you best work. If it is, go for it. And I will silently curse your ability to do so.

What I have come to realize after five books into a career and teaching dozens of writing courses, is that it is next to impossible for most of us to write our way through a story we haven’t thought through, or to write on subjects about which we do not know. And isn’t that really the lesson I should have learned from my Nonnie, the reason I loved her stories?  Before she ever spoke, Nonnie already knew the characters, and what they were going to do. She knew the beginning, the middle, and the end. She knew the setting. She knew the conflict and the climax - which she milked as well as any Broadway actress. Knowing these things, she could instead focus her energies on the art of the telling, on the words. 

Which might cause you to ask: “If you know this, then why do you keep doing it dummy? Why rush the muse if the muse refuses to be rushed.” (And try saying that five times fast).  The answer, I believe, is that writing is a process of exploring and exploration is part of the excitement of creating, and that is something we don’t want to lose. So what to do?  

Find a happy medium. When the muse departs I’ve come to realize that it has not abandoned me. It is sending me a message that it’s time to take my fingers off the keyboard and plot out where my character is headed. It’s time to research the specific information I will need so that each setting, action, dialogue, or description is credible. For me, structure is the map for finding my way out of the woods, for helping me to know the beginning, the middle and the end. Structure helps me to recognize the story questions that cause the tension that get the readers to turn the pages. It helps me to understand where my character needs to go and how he will change along the way.  This is why, when I teach, I often begin with story structure and frequently recommend Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey.   

Structure is the map that leads me back to the keyboard so that the muse can once again inspire and, like Nonnie, I can focus my energy on the art of telling.

Robert Dugoni's Third Novel in the David Sloane series, Bodily Harm will be released May 25th 2010 and advance reviews are saying the novel “brands Dugoni as king of the legal thriller.”  His debut novel, The Jury Master, became a New York Times bestseller, with The Seattle Times likening Dugoni to a young John Grisham and calling the book, "A riveting tale of murder, skullduggery and treachery at the highest level."  Dugoni's other novels are Damage Control, a Parade Magazine Summer Read choice, and Wrongful Death, the 2009 highly anticipated sequel to The Jury Master that Mystery Magazine called, “among the best books to be published this year.” Dugoni is also the author of the non-fiction expose, The Cyanide Canary, a Washington Post 2004 Best Book of the Year.  www.roberdugoni.com

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