Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Storyteller’s Voice and Art Individuality

“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend.  Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid.  It grows up and talks back to you.” – Joss Whedon

The idea that I discussed last week – that a storyteller’s purpose is to give questions, not answers – rankles some people, most of whom are storytellers who regularly ignore this purpose, thinking themselves wiser than their audience.  My post from last week does require some caveats, however.  Once we accept the purpose of the storyteller, there is a second truth we must embrace: Your voice matters.  It may not be your place to tell the audience what to think, but it is your job to tell a story, and one that is ultimately meaningful.

Your storytelling voice matters, and sometimes it matters in ways you never expected.

Now, I know the quote that I used this week is from a storyteller who regularly violates the purpose of storytelling.  No one knows better than I the appalling number of times Joss Whedon has downright browbeaten his audience with opinion, but that doesn’t change the fact that, when he desists from forcing a specific agenda, he is a peerless storyteller.  And the discernment shown in the above quote is striking.

The first part of my point is that your voice matters, and that’s important to grasp before we move on to the next half.  Your artistic voice matters.  I may repeat it a thousand times in this post, but it’s an important truth to embrace as a lifelong artist.  If you don’t embrace it, you won’t be a storyteller, plain and simple.  You’ll give up.  You’ll stop telling stories.  If you believe you’re shouting into the void, how long do you think you’ll sit around listening to your own echo?  Not long for some.  Years for others.  But, if you don’t embrace the idea that your art has unique value, you will eventually quit.  Embrace this truth.  You’ve got a voice, you’ve got questions to give the world, and only you can deliver them the way you do.

If you accept that, we can move on to my second point, summarized by Whedon as “interpretations the author did not intend.”  Often, your work will become something you never planned for it to be.  One of the greatest facts about this world is that people are different.  They interpret life and experience and art in a way distinctive to themselves.  You don’t always get to choose how your art affects people, and that’s okay!  After all, you may be the god of your stories, but that doesn’t make you the God of this one.  Your only duty is to tell stories to the best of your ability, putting 110% of your work and effort into each one.  And don’t apologize for them!  Never apologize for your art, whether it is received poorly because it is interpreted as you intended or not.  It’s your art, and just as you’ve no call to force your audience to think as you do, they’ve no call to silence your voice.  Tell your stories – without preaching, without bowing to the whims of social critics – and tell them well.  Tell them with care and with meaning and with purpose, but don’t fret over interpretation.  Sometimes people need something specific from a story, and yours provides it.  Life influences people to equate what they see in art with their experiences, and you can’t control that.  So don’t try to!

Storytelling, like life, isn’t about having it all together or being in control.  It’s about doing the best we can, and trusting that something larger than ourselves will handle the rest.

Tell your stories, because your voice matters!  But relinquish control, because worthy art is always bigger than the person who made it.

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The Role of the Storyteller

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.  Too often, we forget that.” – Wit, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

What is the role of the storyteller?  He or she brings a tale to the audience, yes, but what is the purpose of doing so?  It could be to entertain.  After all, entertainment is the reason most of us regularly partake of stories in the first place.  In fact, a story can be said to have failed in its purpose if it doesn’t entertain, whether through humor, excitement, suspense, pathos, or some other means.  I agree that a storyteller must entertain, and cannot fulfill the real purpose of the profession if he fails to do so.  But entertainment is not the significant role of the storyteller.

In a world that always has been, is now, and will ever be gray, we storytellers have, by and large, abominably bungled the presenting of that fact.  The present is no more polarized than times before – humans will always find reasons to break into opposing camps, extolling their side’s virtues while vilifying their “opponents” – but we are not any less divided either.  Which proves only that we’ve done a poor job of learning from the past.  Right and wrong are rarely what separate people and their enemies.  It’s different standpoints, different perspectives.  Just two sides holding disparate views about what is most important. What does this have to do with storytelling?  Why, it shows that much of the time we have forgotten our role as storytellers!  Many of us are as guilty as anyone of dividing the world, cutting it up into stark sections of black and white, of using our stories to cram agenda down our audience’s throats.

The reality, however, is this: The role of the storyteller is not to tell people what to think, but to teach them how to think for themselves.

We storytellers often try to influence how people think and act, though it is not our place to do so.  Rather, our goal should be only to get people to put that brain between their ears to work.  Questions!  The storyteller’s duty is to present them with questions upon which to ponder, because thinking for ourselves, not merely mimicking what we’re told to think, is the only we grow.

So we must make them think.  We coax them into evaluating life – both the big and small things – on a deeper, more personal level.

You might say: “Come now, Dakota, all storytellers build their stories around theme.  Without theme, without purpose, a story is just a jumble of words or images.  Themes are all about trying to influence people to act a certain way.”  You may be right.  Themes are important.  They do provide purpose to a story.  But I will say this:

Good themes are about questions, not solutions.

I absolutely write themes into my stories.  I write with a purpose in mind, but always with the intention of revealing universal principles, thoughts, and feelings, never blatant conclusions that READERS MUST ACCEPT.  I want my readers to see what I present in my stories and use it to consider who they are.  I want questions – glorious, inspiring, dark, bitter, infuriating questions – to be the product of my work.

We all want to change the world in some fashion, don’t we?  Of course we do!  But consider how you do so, otherwise you may end up changing it in ways you would never wish to have done so, because the forcing of change often backfires.  Don’t force it.  Promote it.  And more than that, accept the fact that you are not, nor ever will be, fully in control of change.  Change cannot be forced on people; you will harden them against it.  Change can only grow from within, as they consider things for themselves.  The movie Inception is a great visual representation of this.  People will often reject the ideas forced on them.  But the ones that seem organic?  Those ideas shape the world.  Remember: The ideas you plant without rancor, without design, without insisting people should think a certain way are the ones that will be deeply and seriously considered.  Don’t browbeat them.  Inform them.

“Here is an interesting concept, reader.  Perhaps you should consider it, and decide how it affects the world.”

“Here’s an issue we struggle with in today’s world, viewer.  It’s there now, front and center in your mind, why not analyze how you see it?  What you think about it?  How we might be able to fix it?”

As a storyteller, think of the philosophy you champion when you try to force an agenda on others.  This, in a nutshell, is what you are saying: If only the whole world thought as I do we would never have any problems!  You’re absolutely right.  We wouldn’t have problems.  Not of a certain sort, at any rate.  What we would have is stagnancy.  Apathy.  A world full of boring people who might as well be vegetables for all the stimulation we would receive from others, since everyone would be carbon copies.  We would all be mindless clones of one another, espousing the exact same things.  I don’t want to live in a world like that.  Do you?  Then why bully others with your stories?  You’re not changing the world for the better when you tell people what to think, but you most certainly are when you help them learn to do so for themselves.

Asking tough questions is to be encouraged in storytelling, pushing agendas is not.

The example this week is going to be The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  The story, if you’ve not read it, starts out great.  There are some excellent scenes that really hit you with a new appreciation for tragedy, and the early stages raise some provocative questions about rampant capitalism.  By the end, however, it has devolved into a soapbox, a pedestal for what can only be labeled as propaganda.  And you know what?  The novel did change things, though not in the way Sinclair intended.  The Jungle did not convince the American people of the benefits of socialism (the agenda which Sinclair pushed with all the subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show), but it did expose horrific conditions in the meatpacking industry.  In effect, the agenda espoused by The Jungle fell flat, while the questions raised by Sinclair’s tale inspired a generation to enact change in what had been an oppressive, unsanitary industry.  What would have been the result if Sinclair had simply provided his readership with thought-provoking questions about socialism instead of cramming it down their throats?  We’ll never know.  Because he didn’t.

“But The Jungle is a classic!”  I can hear the outrage from the peanut gallery even as I write this.  “How dare you use a literary work, hailed the world over, as an example of abusive storytelling?”

The answer is simple.  To a certain extent, people like to be told what to think.  Life is easier that way.  We can either eagerly embrace or easily reject what is shouted at us, because we are given no reason to give such blatant messages serious thought.  If we agree with a brazen message?  We heartily agree and move on.  If we find it out of line with our preconceived notions, we either put the story aside or ignore its obvious propaganda and continue on with the story.  When we are told what to do, we don’t have to go through the hassle of carefully considering life.  We simply agree or disagree out of hand.  Passivity is easy.  Scrutiny is hard.  Ladies and gentlemen, storytellers are not obliged to make life easy for the audience.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It is our purpose to make certain that they never stop moving forward, never cease growing and learning and being.

So let’s make a resolution, shall we?  No more agendas.  Only questions.  People will learn to be who they need to be without our sanctimonious preaching.  Our audience, after all, is no less human, and they’ve got more to teach us than we ever could them.

 

Did my post about questions raise any questions? Comments? Rants?  Do you find it ironic that I used a post about not using stories to tell people how to think to tell people how to think?  Let me know!

 

Go on!  Go introduce the world to some questions!

The Power of Stories

“There’s power in stories.” – Varric Tethras

I’m a bit of an oddball.  Always have been.  But I’m not ashamed of that fact.  It makes life more interesting for me.  I like to imagine it makes me enigmatic as well, but that’s probably just me indulging my not inconsiderable ego.

The point, however, is this: I’ve got some unusual ways of looking at the world.

For instance, if you asked everyone on the planet about the meaning of life, what do you suppose the answers would be?  They would be far-ranging, but I think we could expect a dozen or so common themes around which the majority of people’s answers would cluster.  We’d hear about love and service to others, adventure, experience, survival, proving your worth and living simply.  We would most certainly run into people who believe life was about serving God, just as we would discover that many people believe life has no purpose at all.

But me?  I think everyone is wrong.  And I think everyone is right.  Because I believe the meaning of life is all of these things.  It just depends on what story is being told.

The purpose of this website is the same as that of life.  Story.  In the end, everything comes back to story.  Everything about human existence concerns and hinges on narrative.  Each individual life is a story, every day is a story, every activity, every event.  That’s what history is – stories that last.  Even religion is made of stories, the ones that inspire or motivate us to be better.  Stories are all around us, in everything we do.  Life, after all, is just one vast saga.  We’re all characters, and we each have a part to play.  It’s all about stories with us, and, in the words of expert storyteller Varric Tethras, there’s power in stories.

That’s why storytellers do what we do.

The careers of all storytellers – authors, filmmakers, playwrights, video game developers, even songwriters – are built on the assumption that stories are powerful.  That stories change people.  They challenge us to grow and explore, to look at the world in new ways.  They cause us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.  Research is beginning to suggest what storytellers have known for eons: that stories affect how we think, how we perceive life and the world around us, and, by extension, the way we act.  But we don’t really need new research to tell us that, do we?  The evidence is around us in daily life, and it is apparent in even the most cursory glance through the past.  Stories have proven throughout human history to be far more than just art or entertainment.  They are often radical agents of change.  To demonstrate this, I could cite a number of stories from any one of the major religions in the world, but that seems a bit too obvious.  How about The Illiad?  Homer’s epic influenced generations of Greek tradition which ultimately, in turn, affected every aspect of western civilization.  It also kept in place a Greek warrior ethos that radically reshaped the world through the actions of Alexander the Great.  (Funnily enough, Alexander was not Greek, but the Macedonians of his time adored Greek culture and emulated it in almost every way.)  Alexander was raised on The Illiad.  He was greatly inspired by the ethos it espoused, and he believed himself to be a continuation of its epic.  A new Achilles for a later age.

Where would the world be now if not for The Illiad’s influence on one of the great shapers of history?  Somewhere very different, that is certain.  This is just one example out of thousands, tens of thousands, of examples that could be used.  Stories are powerful; the world in which we live has been shaped by story as much as man.

So, have I gotten my point across?  Are stories powerful, or am I just a ranting lunatic?  (The latter is very probable.)  If you agree that stories have almost unlimited influence in our lives, then I invite you to subscribe for more posts.  I’m going to try to get some discussion flowing in the future, that way you don’t have to read only one person’s highly biased opinion.  After all, the internal and external conversations brought about by stories are what unleash their change-creating potential!

Changing Gears

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this blog and expanding my author platform, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one of two things must happen.

Either I discard it altogether, or I change it up.

Here’s the thing.  Blogs are a metric ton of effort if you want them to work properly.  I’ve not been dedicating the time required to put out consistent, quality content, so I’ve gained all of zero followers.  (Okay, that’s not true, but it certainly feels like that sometimes.)  Should I forget about the site and focus on my books?  Or put more effort into the blog, potentially drawing away attention that my novels deserve?  I’d like to say the former was the answer, but that’s not the world in which we live.  According to the great, collective everyone, building an author brand – through social media, blogging, etc. – is much more important.  This strikes me as odd, seeing as I want book readers for my books, not internet surfers for my books.  Geez, I don’t know.  Perhaps they’re one and the same now?  I’m not a marketing guru, and I don’t make the rules.

So this is what I’m saying: I’m rebranding this blog.  It’s time to start putting more effort into my public image of being a science fiction and fantasy writer, and less time into actually…writing science fiction and fantasy.

Am I the only one who thinks that sounds backwards?

Whether it is or not, according to the experts it’s the way to go, and I’m going to give it a shot.  I’ve realized in my analysis that not only have I not created enough content (which is the main problem), but the content I do create is wildly unrelated.  I just talk about random stuff that interests me, while throwing in updates on my novels.  That won’t cut it.  I need a focus, a distinct topic.

The Power of Stories

From now on, this blog is going to focus on the influence stories have in our lives.  It will have a fantasy/science fiction bent, of course, since that’s what I write, but that will just be the flavor of the icing, not the cake itself.  Stories – in any medium, in any genre– are going to be the topic, and we’re going to discuss the heck out of ‘em.  If that sounds like your idea of a good time, then come join me.  If not, well, sorry to disappoint, but here’s your exit ramp.  It’s only fair to give you warning.  I know I hate having content show up on my feeds that I couldn’t care less about.  And for reals, especially if this is your stop, thanks for sticking with me to this point.  I’m going to miss the 50% of my followers who are leaving.  Hope you three have a great life.

Anyway, there’s the big announcement.  Expect a bit more content on a regular basis.  (I’m going to shoot for one good blog post a week.  That should add constancy to the site without taking undue time from my books.)  Hopefully I can turn this site (and my author platform) into a place people come to get their fix for all things story.  Feel free to come along for the ride.  Your thoughts, opinions, and discussion are always welcome.