Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Monthly Archives: June 2012

What Makes a Good Story?

I have had a very busy year.

A rough estimate would suggest that I have seen over 110 plays in the past 12 months. In a way, it has been fantastic: I have been exposed to so many differing types of stories through the medium of the theatre. In another way, it has been a chore. Most of the shows have been perfectly acceptable pieces of theatre, with a few true “stand-out” pieces. And the elements of those stand-out pieces vary. In some instance, it was the direction, and in others it was design that made it stand above the rest. In yet others, it was the performance – the skill and craft of the actors involved. And in precious few, it was the story – the elegance and execution of a perfectly crafted script.

That definitely gets me thinking: What is it that makes a “good” story so hard to tell?

We can and do spend countless hours trying to understand and master structure. We struggle to perfect the rhythm and the pacing of the piece, and we try to create compelling characters. We throw them into interesting worlds with challenging, believable conflicts, and we hope and pray that we will succeed, that someone will be moved by our work.

So why is it that we so often come short?

I do not have the answers.

I am still learning this myself, and while I have theories, I cannot claim to have true knowledge as to what makes a good story. Indeed, when I read, watch, or experience what I would describe as a “good” story, I often find it challenging to explain why. I find myself saying that it touched me, moved me, excited me, or surprised me. In other instances, it inspired me, sparked something in my imagination that took me to another place, that caused my own ideas to multiply and grow. All good things, but definitely not tangible – and certainly not universal.

The elements of a good story are something I am exceptionally curious about. I do my best to read other people’s take on the subject in an effort to understand what it is, what that magical trick might be, that allows a storyteller to weave a tale that will have an impact.

So I wonder: Can we ever truly master the elements of a good story? Do good stories exist that defy the logic, the “formula,” as it were? And when that happens, why does it happen?

Is it voice? Artistry? A certainĀ je ne sais quoi?

The curiosity lingers.

But we are curious beings, so I can only conclude that this is a good thing.

Have you read any articles that have given you an “ah-ha!” moment when it comes to what makes a good story? What resources have played important roles in the development of your craft? What are some examples of good stories that defy the logic, as it were? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!

Rhythm and Pacing

Hello, friends.

It has been a while since I have last updated. I have been busy with a new “joe-job” (which is actually pretty fun) and a number of other work opportunities that have come up – working as a mentor for a festival, participating in workshops, substituting classes at a private institution, and a handful of auditions and the preliminary exploration for a film opportunity. When it rains, it pours.

The Magnetic North Theatre Festival is in town this week. For those of you who don’t know, this festival brings the best of the best theatre to one lucky town every year – with each alternate year being in our nation’s capital, Ottawa. As Calgary is the Culture Capital of Canada for 2012, and as we’re celebrating a number of wonderful milestones (Stampede’s Centennial, for one), Calgary is the ideal choice for the host city of the Festival. I am privileged to be living here, as it’s giving me the opportunity to attend.

Last night was a production of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s “Oil and Water” directed by the new Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre, Jillian Keiley. There was some wonderful work happening in this very interesting show about a piece of Canadian history: the true story of Lanier Phillips, the only African American survivor of the shipwrecked USS Truxton.

The director, Ms. Keiley, has an incredible gift for rhythm and pacing and, from what I gather, she often makes use of this sort of exploration in her theatrical storytelling. Through rhythmic percussion and acapella singing, she builds the dramatic tension and intensity from start to finish.

The result?

A powerful piece of theatre whose climax hits us on a highly emotional level. It carries us on an intentionally and carefully crafted ride, keeping us invested and engaged in the journey of the story as it unfolds.

Building tension through rhythm and pace.

Building tension through rhythm and pace

 

Seeing this piece of theatre and the effectiveness of its execution got me thinking about rhythm and pacing in writing. It exists, and it is a tricky thing to master (kind of like trying to “master” artistic “voice.”) Some people have an innate talent for it and are able to feel the impact of the writing – and everything from word choice to use and type of punctuation contributes to it.

When I edit my own work, one technique I always use is to read the work out loud. If we trip over the phrases when we read them out loud, chances are people will be tripping over the same phrases when they read them. Their little inside voice won’t be too happy, and we run the risk of losing them as a reader.

When I start tripping over sentences, I investigate them further to figure out why. More often than not, it has to do with the rhythm of the phrase, or the length of the thought. Something isn’t jiving, and this technique definitely helps point out what, exactly, is amiss.

Another thing that happens – and this is an added bonus – is that you start to hear the rhythm of the piece. When you’re hitting climactic moments of a scene, the intensity should be building, and the reader should be swept along. Reading out loud helps us determine whether this is truly happening – and if not, we know where to tweak.

We want to build tension, and we want to catapult the reader through the story. We don’t want them to put the book down. We want to tease their curiosity and force them to stay up way past their bedtime because they needed to read just one more chapter. Taking a look at rhythm and pacing is perhaps one of the most effective ways to improve your writing.

How often do you focus on rhythm and pacing in your own work? Do you find it easy, exciting, or challenging? How do you handle areas where the pacing is off? Is it a technical thing, or more of a reliance on your intuition? Please feel free to share your thoughts (and links to great articles, if you’ve got them!) in the comments below – I would love to hear them,