Learning from a novelist/professor about storytelling
Clyde Edgerton is one of my favorite novelists — and a nice guy to boot. I made sure I got to the Decatur (Ga.) Book Festival last week to hear him give advice to aspiring writers.
“Seeing” people. Edgerton has students count how many times they can “see” a character’s face or how she’s standing/sitting/etc. in a story. Storytelling may have a lofty message, but no one will hear it if they aren’t engaged by the characters.
What strikes you? “If something strikes you, write it down and start there.” That’s Edgerton’s advice for finding fiction ideas. But I think it also applies to finding the real heart of any story. Part of my advice about writing with voice is to honor your emotional reaction as you interview/research. If something provokes an emotional reaction in you, you may provoke it in your audience. Edgerton says he often finds that emotional core late in his first draft, so he advises quickly blasting through the first draft to see what happens. A great question his book editor often posed to him, “What is this story about?”
Scenes. “When I teach non-fiction, I teach scene,” Edgerton said. Amen. The most helpful framework for understanding narrative storytelling is to think of your story as a movie and yourself as the camera operator. When I hear students describing their narrative stories, I often find myself asking, “So what’s the opening scene?” And “what’s the next scene?” That moves your narrative out of the realm of flowery ideas and into a real plan.
This ain’t easy. Struggling with a story? Take heart. An experienced pro, Edgerton described ideas that he couldn’t execute for two years. He talked about the difficulty of where to put the “camera” to create the story’s point of view. “I have all kinds of problems with point of view all the time,” he said.
Bonus tip from me: Read Edgerton’s novels — or any novelist you enjoy. You can learn a lot about technique and about finding the emotional heart of a story.