Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The "STORY" of Digital Storytelling

I learned a great deal from Joe Lambert about the art of storytelling. I took what I learned and applied it to what already knew about narrative writing. After teaching DST to students and colleagues, I have formulated three building blocks for superior story writing.

Precise verbs drive story. First off, action verbs create much richer meaning and appeal to senses better than linking verbs do. Instead of “The cat was relaxed,” a better choice is “The cat lounged on the couch.” (That example was inspired by Sunny, who right now, is “lounging” next to me.) However, just using action verbs is not enough. Verbs with “narrow” meaning always surpass words with “wide” meaning. “Walk” should be replaced with “saunter,” “stroll,” “stagger,” “stomp,” or “strut” (like the alliteration?) Finally, never rely on adverbs to carry the load. “Dart” is always preferable to “run quickly.”

Effective writers must observe carefully. From those observations, readers infer meaning. One of the ways we cheat our audience is to make inferences for them. “He was mad,” tells the audience. When I read that, my thought is, “I don’t believe you, show me he’s mad.” Instead I would rather read, “His nostrils flared, his teeth clenched, and his eyes bulged like Ralph Kramden’s.” (If you don’t get that last allusion, ask someone over 45). The key here is to rely on sensory observation and let the audience create the picture in their minds.

Many writers feel the need to dilute stories with background. This phenomenon stems from politeness. “So I don’t confuse my audience, I need to set up the entire scene with background information,” is the thought of many a storyteller. However, a carefully written first sentence can take us right into the story, and we will figure out what is happening based on what we bring with our own experience. I had one student who wrote about an incident at dance camp she attended. The first paragraph explained the location, how she got there, when she went… and so on. After some revision (and reassurance) she opened this way:

“My legs tensed as I waited for my cue; after all the sweat at camp, it was Showtime.”

The tone, Point, and Dramatic Question are clearly established with this single sentence (OK, it’s a compound sentence): she is a dancer, at a camp, and has prepared for this moment intensely. Now she can tell her story.