Word Shots 8: Strong Writing Grows From a Kernel of Story
Even if you’re producing expository prose, the key to strong writing is story. All you need is an entity and an action.
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The following may or may not describe your experience with Word Shots. But I’d guess it’s true to at least someone’s experience:
You want to know how to write strongly. I’ve assured you that good theory can help you get there. But now you’re seven episodes into his podcast and you haven’t seen your prose improve in any remarkable way. Last week I talked about ritualization, but I didn’t really explain what it is, and you’re finding it hard to do anything with the concept. Before that I talked about why you write. But you were already pretty good at working out why you write each thing you write, and you always aimed at recruiting and empowering your audience. You’d like to hear something that will really improve your writing.
Very well. It’s time to descend from the heights of abstraction and get down to where pen meets paper.
Page 1: Our First Look at Structure: The Story Kernel
There’s a skill that too many writers lack. This skill is far easier to learn than grammar, far more quickly cultivated than a rich vocabulary. But too few writers have studied with teachers who teach it.
The skill I’m talking about is structure.
If you really want to empower your audience to take in and benefit from what you write, you need to understand that each member of your audience possesses a human brain, and that the human brain is wired to respond to certain kinds of things. Understanding what the mind likes to respond to will help you structure your writing so as to make a maximum impact.
I hope the next thing I say won’t be too obvious. I’m afraid the reason for much of the bad writing we see is that people consider this fact so, obvious that it’s not worth anyone’s attention. But in fact, because it’s so important, and so neglected, I’m going to say it three times:
People respond to stories.
People respond to stories.
People respond to stories.
Of course, not everybody neglects this; if you’re one of those who gets it, please stick around. Maybe together we can work out the most potent way of converting those around us to the gospel of story, because many writers and speakers do neglect it. I think different people have different reasons for this neglect.
Perhaps many fiction writers think it’s all just too obvious. They’re writing fiction; why do they need me to tell them to be sure to write a story? It’s like telling somebody you see running to be sure to get some exercise today.
And non-fiction writers may think: “I’m not here to write a story. I’m writing expository, not narrative prose. If I wanted to write stories I’d become a fiction writer or a journalist.”
Promising I won’t neglect the fiction writers forever, for this episode I’m just going to address the others.
What expository writers need to understand is that story is the kernel of good writing. I choose the word kernel for two reasons: 1: It’s at the heart of good writing. 2: The smallest version of story is a very tiny thing indeed. It consists of nothing but an entity and an action.
At its smallest, story structure is even smaller than sentence structure. For example, listen to this:
“Gusts, hot, dusty gusts off the Sonoran Desert…”
Those eight words aren’t even a whole sentence. And yet they contain both of the two elements of story: entity and action.
There isn’t even a verb, which is why, syntactically, it isn’t a complete sentence. But there’s a noun, gusts, which packs a verb inside itself, which comes armed with action. The heat can be felt, and the dust even makes it visible.
And that’s what people respond to. Entities and actions. Things and change.
Again, this is so obvious that I’m feeling the need to prove that writers ever neglect it.
For that proof, I’m going to refer to last week’s episode, in which a large, pale creature tried and failed to execute a courtship move on a princess in a comic book shop.
Page 2: Why We Don’t Understand Ritual
In discussing that story, I used the word ritualization. The word has been haunting me for years, since I learned it in a course in interpersonal communications I took as an undergrad at Northwestern. I felt it was poorly defined, but also that it was a very important concept, and I’ve been struggling to come to grips with it ever since. Every once in a while I reach out for help. And that leads me to all too many things like the piece of prose I’m about to read you.
This is from page 109 of Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, by Catherine Bell.
Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic. It does not see what it does in the process of realizing this end, its transformation of the problematic itself. And yet what ritualization does is actually quite simple: it temporarily structures a space-time environment through a series of physical movements (using schemes described earlier), thereby producing an arena which, by its molding of the actors, both validates and extends the schemes they are internalizing. Indeed, in seeing itself as responding …
Zzzzzz. What? Oh. Sorry. I didn’t make it; there were five more lines.
Indeed, in seeing itself as responding to an environment, ritualization interprets its own schemes…
No. I can’t. Must… Spare… Audience…
Folks, that piece of prose went off the rails with its very first word, “ritualization”.
Let’s reread just that first sentence: “Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic.” Now, I believe that ritualization is worth studying, and I’m motivated to study it. So what could be wrong with starting a sentence with that word?
The problem is that the word is in the subject position.
To make this clear, let’s map the elements of story into the simplest form of a sentence.
The simplest form of story is an entity and an action.
The simplest form of sentence is a subject and a predicate.
Sentences become more interesting when the predicate has an action verb, and the sentence form becomes subject-verb-object.
And sentences become far more interesting when either the subject or the object is an entity which the human reader is used to thinking of as an entity.
Here’s that first sentence again:
Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic.
What’s wrong, in terms of the writer’s effort to reach a reader, is that humans are not wired to think of ritualization as an entity. That’s what makes the word a poor choice as the subject of a sentence.
The sentence does contain an action verb, of sorts, the word see. But that only makes things worse. It makes the reader say inwardly, though not necessarily at a conscious level, “No. Wrong. Ritualization does not see.” Why does the reader think this? Because he or she knows, instinctively and correctly, that nothing whose name ends in T I O N ever sees anything. Such things do not have eyes, are not, in fact, even things.
Page 3: Your Entity Doesn’t Have To Be a Subject
Now, a sentence with a non-entity in the subject position can still be redeemed by having a real something as its object. For example: “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.”
That sentence has sadness in the subject position, a thing that has no physical being. And yet the sentence is a story, and a true and an important one. For people who know and have any opinion about Virginia Woolf, there is, packed into those four words, a whole saga as rich and troubling as any tale told by Dostoevski.
Given that Catherine Bell is dealing with a topic as abstract as ritualization, what could she have done? There’s a broad hint waiting for us in the third subordinate clause of the third sentence of the quoted passage. The important words are:
…thereby producing an arena which, by its molding of the actors…
Wait! Whoa! Stop! You mean there are actually actors in this labyrinth? And you kept them hidden until we were already asleep? If only we’d known, we would have paid a call on the poor lonely creatures.
Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic, but we’ve truly found the essence of the problem. The actors mentioned here are probably human. Those are exactly the sort of beings we care about and want to read about. Yet the author has put them in the object position in a triply-subordinate clause, deep down inside the paragraph.
It’s just possible that losing the audience to a coma isn’t even the worst result of this writing. But let’s save that larger damage for a minute, and finish talking about story.
Here’s the formula:
If you can, give your readers something real and concrete in the subject position. If it’s the sort of something that can actually perform actions, that’s great; now you can introduce an action verb. Now you have our favorite kind of story: one in which real beings do things. If those actions results in consequences, you’ve truly covered all the elements of story. Second best is if some real being can go in the object position.
Here’s the hierarchy of the kinds of things that should be subjects and objects. I present them from best to worst:
1. human and exercising moral agency
2. human, not exercising moral agency
3. conscious (with consciousness as close to human as possible, such as an anthropomorphized animal, or the artificial intelligences of Heinlein or Philip K. Dick.)
4. sentient (such as a non-anthropomorphized animal)
5. changeable and responsive (for example, plants or seascapes, which have no senses yet respond to stimuli)
6. concrete and physical
7. non-physical but perceptible (such as sadness or an ominous silence)
Last and absolutely least:
8. abstract (such as things that end in tion).
Page 4: To Sleep, Perchance Not to Evaluate
I said that our sample paragraph did worse harm than even that of putting us to sleep. That greater harm was to make it hard for us as readers, even if we stayed awake, to think critically about the substance of the paragraph.
The author might have rescued those actors from down there in the bowels of sentence three and made them the subject of the entire paragraph. This would have allowed us to think about what the author’s actor is experiencing when in the midst of ritual. We could have compared that to our own experience of ritual, and thus have weighed the validity of the author’s claims. This might even have made it easier for us to determine whether the word ritual actually needed to be stretched out by those three added syllables, and turned into ritualization.
Now, let’s get this week’s idea into a nutshell:
If you really want to reach your audience, it’s not enough for your sentences to be syntactically complete. If at all possible, they should tell stories. You achieve this by coming as close as possible to the ideal of having a real thing, preferably a living thing that people can relate to, in the subject position, and having the primary verb in your sentence be a real action. Second-best is to put that relatable entity in the object position. After all, we are often acted on by impersonal forces, and so, as readers, we can relate to a sentence that presents that sort of situation.
Least desirable is a sentence in which both the subject and any object are abstractions, nouns that don’t represent anything having physical or perceptible existence.
That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll talk about those abstractions that creep into the subject and object positions, how to spot them, and what to do about them. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to wait for me, a title I recommend is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. There’s a link in the transcript on the Word Shots website. A much earlier version of this book is where I read my first lesson in using kernel stories (although the term kernel story is my own).
In episodes beyond next week, we’ll talk about larger story structures, and how they’re helpful for both narrative and expository writing.
Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen wishing you a great week and effective communication.
[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]
End of transcript.
Bird writing photo credit: jefka – Flickr.
Books mentioned in this episode: