July 28, 2020
by Samantha Hoffman
In this time of the pandemic, the way we study writing and storytelling has changed; we're not able, right now, to take live classes or attend workshops, conferences, book signings or readings. We can do some of that online, of course, but the thing is, writing lessons are everywhere. There are movies and TV shows, commercials, books and magazines, which you can study for writing techniques, to figure out why the story does or doesn't work, map the story arc, etc. And if you pay attention you'll find lessons all around you; on the bus or the subway (wearing your mask, of course), as you sit in coffee shops, when you're in the lunch room socially distanced from your associates...people are always telling stories to each other. Listen to them (sometimes you can't help listening to them even if you don't want to). If they're engaging, figure out why they grab you. If they're really engaging, can you expand on them or incorporate the conversation into your work in progress?
Another valuable study in storytelling is music; songs are often complete mini-stories in themselves with a beginning, middle and end, a story arc, sometimes an effective twist, and characters you can root for.
Do you know Lewis Capaldi's song Someone You Loved? I was first introduced to it last year when I was in Barcelona (I am wistful for those days when we could just go anywhere we wanted), and the only thing I could understand on the hotel TV were the music videos. It's a beautiful song, in Lewis's distinctive and soulful voice, and it tells the story of a man whose wife is dying, and ends with him visiting the young family whose mother received his dead wife's heart. It's poignant and heart-breaking but also uplifting, and it has all the key elements of a great story in only 3 minutes and 52 seconds.
To be honest, if it weren't for the video I wouldn't have gotten the dying-wife part, but even without the visual it's an entire story about breakup or loss. (A fun fact: the man in the video is Peter Capaldi, an actor, and Lewis's uncle.) Grab a tissue before you press PLAY.
Songs contain important lessons for us. Think how much is packed into that very small space. Do you think it's easier or harder to tell a complete story in a few minutes than it is in 5000 words, or 80,000?
Songs can also provide inspiration. If we hear a mini-story that moves us we can flesh it out in our heads, or on paper. When you watched the video, couldn't you envision a short story coming from it? Or your next novel?
I've found other lessons in the countless hours I've spent watching my various screens while hiding from coronavirus. I've noticed my watching habits changing over these four months. In the beginning I was catching up on various series while I had the time; Blue Bloods, All Rise, The Restaurant, Project Runway, Ozark, Better Call Saul...then I was at a point where I only wanted to watch silly, escapist comedies, and I binged on The Office and Parks and Recreation. Eventually, after 5 or 6 seasons of those, even though they had initially been a great diversion, I found myself fast forwarding because they just got too silly to watch. Even as their goofiness annoyed me after a while, though, they had a writing lesson for me that I will incorporate into my WIP, and that is that each character in both of those shows, has his or her own very distinct personality and each serves a purporse in moving the story along. When you're thinking about that check out this article on creating distinct characters by P.S. Hoffman (no relation).
Of course I've found numerous lessons online, on whatever topic I need at the moment. It's mind-boggling how much good advice is out there. Here's just one I read recently: 10 secrets to writing better stories.
While my actual writing is stalled at the moment due to lack of focus and inspiration (a temporary state), I continue to think about my story and where it's going and what it needs. The lessons I learn as I watch all this great, not so great and sometimes terrible writing on my screen is gathering power, and when my creative juices are flowing again, and inspiration and motivation once again take my hand, I'll remember what I've learned and it will make my writing better.
Writer, editor, personal assistant, private chef, runner (8-time marathoner), film and theatre buff, traveler… Author of What More Could You Wish For (St. Martin's Press).
V.P. of the Chicago Writers Association, Executive Director of Let's Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference.
Visit me at www.samanthahoffman.com
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