Gabriel Bergmoser is a Workshop Leader at Creative Write-it, based at our Fitzroy North Studio. His most recent book, Boone Shepard's American Adventure, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Book Prize 2017. Read more from Gabriel at www.gabrielbergmoser.com.
There are a lot of arguments about what the first purpose of a story should be but at the risk of sounding reductive or shallow, your number one task as a storyteller is to entertain. This isn’t to imply for a second that the other stuff isn’t important, that you shouldn’t give comparable focus to having powerful themes, beautiful prose and relatable characters, but the simple, brutal truth is that none of those are worth very much if people find your story boring.
Entertainment is treated as a dirty word by certain writers, but let’s take away the assumption that entertainment refers to popcorn movies and Twilight novels and look at entertaining for what it is; engaging an audience with every tool you have at your disposal. A heart wrenching emotional drama rooted in real issues and problems can be just as entertaining as a superhero blockbuster if done right. But doing it right is the hard part. The very first thing I teach any young writer who comes through Creative Write-it is what I see as the difference between good storytelling and bad storytelling, or more specifically the difference between ‘but, therefore’ storytelling and ‘and then’ storytelling.
‘And then’ storytelling is pretty much what it sounds like; storytelling that is not based in clear turning points, huge twists and terrible obstacles for the characters, but instead just a bunch of stuff happening. Today I woke up and then I went to school and then aliens attacked and then the aliens blew up the school and then I turned into a crossbow wielding manatee and then I fought the aliens and then the aliens said sorry and then I became king of the world and then I decided that there would be no school ever again. It’s bad storytelling precisely because it sounds like a kid reeling off whatever comes to mind, with no clear structure or progression of narrative. Things happen just because, and while this sounds like something that is exclusive to young writers, learning to recognise ‘and then’ storytelling is something plenty of adult writers could stand to do as well.
"It is imperative that young writers
are taught early how to keep
their story moving."
A case study that I am uniquely placed to discuss is my second novel and second instalment in an ongoing series, Boone Shepard’s American Adventure. I’ve often referred to this book as a ‘problem child’, because outside of a few vague ideas of what had to happen in it I didn’t really know what the story was. I knew my time travelling hero was stuck in America in the 1800s and needed to get home to the 1960s, I knew he would meet a bunch of famous musicians and I knew he would have a final showdown on a flying casino. Outside of that, there wasn’t much story and in the first draft it showed; Boone stumbled from situations to situation not because he was trying to achieve a certain objective or reacting to a particular obstacle, but just because. That first draft was ‘and then’ storytelling precisely because it just felt like I was making it up as I went along, throwing more and more absurd events at the page and hoping the audacity of what was happening would outshine the fact that, even by the absurd standards of Boone Shepard, none of what was happening made very much sense. Consequently, of all the friends I sent that manuscript to for feedback, I think maybe one actually finished it. The biggest issue with ‘and then’ storytelling is that it is ultimately really, really boring to read.
Now let’s contrast this with an example of ‘but, therefore’ storytelling. Today I woke up and got ready to go to school BUT I had no toothpaste and I knew I was going to sit next to my crush so THEREFORE I couldn’t go to school with bad breath BUT when I asked mum to buy me some toothpaste she said I was already late and had to leave THEREFORE I ran away from home to buy toothpaste BUT realised when I got to the shops I had no money THEREFORE I had to steal the toothpaste BUT a policeman saw me and THEREFORE I had to go on the run and so on.
The above is hardly an example of sterling narrative craft but the difference is stark. In the above story our audacious central character has an objective he is trying to reach and obstacles stopping him from getting there. Every obstacle (the BUTs) forces the character to react (the THEREFOREs) and leads organically to another obstacle, which leads to another solution and ultimately presents you with a story that makes sense, where the characters do what they do for logical reasons in response to clear problems.
When the time came for me to re-write Boone Shepard’s American Adventure I decided to scrap everything I already had and, using the starting point established by the previous novel, go forward with ‘but, therefore’ storytelling in mind. Boone Shepard is stuck in 1800s America BUT he learns about a potential way home THEREFORE he goes on an adventure to find it BUT while he achieves his goal his best friend is left behind THEREFORE Boone is forced to try to go back for her BUT the bad guys take him captive THEREFORE he is forced to make a deal with Elvis Presley to help set him free in exchange for helping The King with his own problems and so on.
It’s still silly, zany and ridiculous, but within the world the story inhabits it makes sense. Boone has an objective, he tries to achieve it, something gets in his way, he is forced to adjust his goals, and on the story goes until we reach a logical and satisfying conclusion. By structuring the story around a series of obstacles and reactions, causes and effects, the story immediately becomes not only engaging but satisfying, as nothing comes out of left field or feels like it’s been thrown in there for the heck of it, give or take an Elvis cameo.
Having fun with your story is important, but so is the enjoyment of your audience. It is imperative that young writers are taught early how to keep their story moving and engaging in order to reel the readers in and leave them wanting to know what happens next. Teaching them the simple but deceptively effective difference between ‘but, therefore’ and ‘and then’ storytelling is one of the most potent lessons they can learn, and the earlier the learn it the better their work will be.
Where young writers (and some older ones) write.