Hey, folks! For today's post, I'm turning the blog over to my friend and writer Bryan Thomas Schmidt. I like his philosophy of storytelling and he's going to share it with you here. Bryan's got a new novel out called The Worker Prince. Check it out! You can learn about all things Bryan at http://bryanthomasschmidt.net/
Matt, thanks for the invitation to visit your blog. What I decided to blog about is my approach to storytelling. I know you’d commented that you were impressed with what I said about that on the Adventures In SF Publishing podcast. And I do think it’s an important yet very personal thing for each writer as an individual, how they approach story. So that’s definitely a great thing to share more about.
I like old fashioned stories with larger-than-life heroes. Not that they can’t have flaws. They have to have flaws or there can be no arc and nothing to overcome. They have to have flaws because how else can readers identify with them? So I don’t mean larger-than-life and perfect but, rather, larger-than-life in that they are people who rise above the capacity of normal man much easier than most of us and face danger and difficulties with a bravery most would struggle to muster.
Part of this is my Star Wars influence, because Star Wars IV: A New Hope was my childhood introduction to storytelling, and Luke, Han, Leia—are all larger-than-life characters in big ways. Yet all of them have flaws. Luke’s ego and innocence are flaws for him that get him into trouble. Han’s flaws are more obvious: cocky, carefree, selfishness and pushing the edge of the law are examples. Leia is flawed in being also prideful but at the same time very much used to being bossy. Just examples. Each has more flaws but you get the idea. Still the way they rise above their flaws makes us love them.
So my stories do tend to have those kinds of heroes.
I also believe storytelling has one primary goal: to entertain. Oh yes, stories can make you think about life and issues. Especially science fiction which is tailor made for helping us examine ourselves from new perspectives. But no amount of research, exposition, preaching, etc. replaces good clean plotting, characterization and heart. Tom Clancy is a talented writer. He came out huge with bestseller after bestseller. But he loved his research. Tom Clancy would spend pages just describing a weapon or vehicle. It was boring. It was annoying. It wasn’t important. So I’d skip those pages and go on with the story. It is challenging to keep exposition to a minimum. I have had to work hard on that. In fact, I probably do it better in The Returning, Book 2 of the Saga of Davi Rhii than I did in The Worker Prince, Book 1 which just came out. But ultimately exposition is dry and unemotional. As a consequence, while the reader may have a momentary “Oh cool” reaction to some few sentences, for the most part, exposition leaves them little to connect with and quickly to boredom.
So my approach is to try and focus not on a lot of detailed description as much as the emotional touches. And I also have great faith in my readers. So many people over write. Some do it because their prose is so beautiful. They can probably get away with it. I’m still learning my craft, so I can’t afford that luxury. And I believe if you give enough hints, the readers use their own imagination to fill in the gaps. They engage with the story and in doing so, making stronger attachments to it. We all love a story that makes us feel and think and laugh. We love to run the gamut of emotions because the story is so good we can’t help it. It makes it memorable and far more real to us. I love those kinds of stories, too.
I am very careful that what I include is done in a way to aide the story, not hurt it. For example, I have Christianity as a world building element in the saga, but it’s not preacher or proselytizing. It’s just there and explained briefly and in the Christian character’s lifestyles and they move on. There’s no room for preaching religion, politics, or environmentalism or anything else in good storytelling because show don’t tell is so core to engaging readers. And those things are preachy. Instead you have to show. You can demonstrate the effects of a bad environment or a religion or a political view. But it had better be done in context of the story or readers will see right through it and they won’t like that at all.
The goal in telling the story should be to connect with readers emotionally first then mentally. Stimulate their emotions and creative thinking so that they engage fully and completely and lose themselves in it. When they finish, they should feel like it was great escape from the everyday world. If you do that, whether your story is serious or comedic, romantic or tragic, readers will love you for it.
The last element I want to talk about is questions. For me, a core part of storytelling is a series of questions. As I write I keep track of the questions asked and when I answer them. Some are left hanging to build tension and engage the reader. For example, when Davi’s parents send him to the stars as a baby, it’s emotional and breaks their hearts. Will they ever see him again or know what happened? That question carries us through several chapters before we get answers. When Davi meets Tela, his love interest, they clash. He’s crazy for her but she seems to dislike him. Will he win her over? That carries us through a while, too.
It may seem simple, but it’s not because knowing what to ask, when and when to answer is how you create tension and pace that engages readers, holds their interest, and keeps them turning pages. And in the case of a trilogy like mine, some questions don’t get answered until the later books. But in any case, when done well, these questions and answers will keep readers satisfied that the story is going somewhere. If you let all questions hang unanswered for too long, they get bored and feel manipulated and may even wonder if anything is every going to happen. On the other hand, answering them too soon can totally remove all the momentum and tension driving your story. So it’s a delicate balance and takes practice and careful thought, although it can become more instinctual over time.
The three elements of larger-than-life but flawed heroes, tight prose avoiding heavy preaching or descriptions and questions asked and answered are core to my storytelling approach. Of course there are other elements as well, but those are key for me and I hope they’re helpful to other writers out there.
The Worker Prince by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Oct. 4, 2011, Diminished Media Group, tradepaperback, $14.95.
Synopsis: What if everything you thought you knew about yourself and the world turned out to be wrong? For Davi Rhii, Prince of the Boralian people, that nightmare has become a reality. Freshly graduated from the prestigious Borali Military Academy, now he’s discovered he was secretly adopted and born a worker. Ancient enemies of the Boralians, enslaved now for generations, the workers of Vertullis live lives harder than Davi had ever imagined. To make matters worse, Davi’s discovered that the High Lord Councilor of the Alliance, his uncle Xalivar, is responsible for years of abuse and suppression against the workers Davi now knows as his own people.
His quest to rediscover himself brings him into conflict with Xalivar and his friends and family, calling into question his cultural values and assumptions, and putting in jeopardy all he’s worked for his whole life. Davi’s never felt more confused and alone. Will he stand and watch the workers face continued mistreatment or turn his back on his loved ones and fight for what’s right? Whatever he decides is sure to change his life forever.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the newly released space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, interviewing people like Mike Resnick, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kevin J. Anderson and A.C. Crispin. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.