Some folks get the chills from touching a fossil fish. It swam the warm seas of Wyoming fifty million years ago. How do you even take that in? Humans do so by picturing it, an act that plays a major role in how we fathom the unfathomable. Visualizing images is the wellspring of plot, which is the wellspring of story.
In “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Jonathan Gottschall argues that the oral storytelling tradition may be as old as language itself, and that the first peoples to tell stories had an evolutionary advantage over others.
Even if this is only partly true, it gives significance to every story. Whether about a spaceship, widower finding unexpected happiness, or linguistics professor seeking the meaning of language, every storyteller joins a tradition that weds entertainment to morality, that makes story both individual and personal yet part of something larger than self.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot says that “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” He had poetry in mind, but surely his observation applies to every writer, every artist: “The emotion of art is impersonal.”
He praises “tradition,” which “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
Again, if his premises are even partially true, they bring responsibility and opportunity:
~ Read a lot. A novelist recently complained to me that friends scorned him for “just” reading. “Oh, so you’re not really doing anything then, right?” Wrong. Reading is among the most important aspects of the writer’s craft, not only so you can know what’s been done well but so you can know what’s been done. Period.
~ Seek objectivity. This means finding strength, morality, beauty, and intelligence in all your characters (even those you personally despise).
~ Let your plot speak for you. That’s what being a storyteller means.
~ Value your story more than its teller. That creates the greatest stories of all.
Tip: Being a storyteller is quite an honor. Treat it accordingly.