Most people in the publishing world will admit there’s no magic formula for creating a great story. The art of storytelling is difficult to pin down, hard to teach, and challenging to master.
Mastering story is a continual task for most writers – a never-ending quest for excellence. That’s why being able to analyze one’s story – to determine what it’s doing well and where it needs revision – is essential.
For years now, I’ve been exploring the teachings of screenwriting masters to help me better understand story. A long-time favourite is Hollywood story consultant Christopher Volger. In June, I had the pleasure of learning from him in person at his weekend seminar on the Essence of Storytelling. The seminar covered essential story structure, the hero’s journey, major character archetypes, and strategies for deepening the audience’s involvement in the story. It was great fun to attend with fellow writers Anne Laurel Carter, Lena Coakley, Jennifer Gordon, Gwynn Scheltema, Rebecca Upjohn Snyder, and Erin Thomas.
At the seminar, Volger proved himself to be a master at analyzing story. Here are two particular aspects of story analysis that I found useful.
Vogler suggests that story connects with the body, that it can have a physical effect on the organs of the body. For example, we talk about how a story chokes us up or warms our hearts. Somehow, stories are hardwired into the human body.
That’s why Vogler has this rule: If a story is not making two or more organs of your body squirt fluid, the story is no good.
By observing our bodies as we experience story, we can better determine what makes an effective story.
Throughout his career, Vogler has sought to understand the hidden rules of storytelling through analysis of story structure:
- What is the expected story structure that a reader will intuitively anticipate?
- How can we use unorthodox story structure to give readers fresh, original stories?
- How does structure punctuate a story, heighten key moments, and invite the audience to breath at the pace set by the writer?
Volger explains his twelve-stage template for story structure in his book The Writer’s Journey (based on the writings of myth master Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Basically, Vogler has developed principles to analyze stories, building a writer’s toolbox from which to select tools to use in a particular story.
Of course, Vogler’s story structure is a guideline of a classic story structure, and many variations on it exist, from the tightly formed mystery genre to avant-garde and non-linear storytelling. Any story structure serves as a model only, and writers need to trust their stories to tell them when and how to vary a model.
Using Intuition and Logic
It interests me that Vogler marries both intuition and logic to analyze story, although it’s no surprise that both are needed. It explains why there are no hard-and-fast rules to storytelling and why no publishing expert can regularly identify which books will be the next bestsellers.
So if you’re looking to expand your writer’s toolbox, Vogler may be of help. You can check out either The Writer’s Journey or his newest book, Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character.
Maybe Vogler’s thinking will shake up your view of storytelling. Maybe it will validate it.