Thanks to Indiewire for the starting point for this post.
One of the most difficult things to teach for me is what a story is. What makes a good one? What’s the best way to go about making them? These seem like stupidly simple questions, at least to anyone who has never spent much time trying to write stories. But beyond the absolute mechanical basics – beginnings, middles and ends, or ‘drama is conflict’ – ideas about narratology and story can become very abstract, and students often switch off at that point. After all, there’s nothing abstract about stories themselves – actual stuff happens, and it feels like real stuff happening to real people, if the storyteller knows what he’s doing. So, any attempt to theorise about them can feel phoney and artificial and the theories don’t generally result in very good stories.
The students who construct the best stories are those who have some personal investment in what they’re doing; who understand that, at its best, storytelling is always about the storyteller. This personal weight, if they can find it and tap into it, lends emotion, commitment, authenticity, interest to stories. ‘Write what you know’ is old, hackneyed advice, and it’s been pointed out many times that if writers only wrote what they knew, very little would get written. I’ve never understood it like that, though; I think the idea is that writers should write the emotion they know, not necessarily the plot. Taking details from your own life is fine, and often a good idea, but taking the emotional weight of your own experience is absolutely fundamental. Perhaps like any art worth the trouble, there needs to be a little suffering in it…
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phoney stories. (Paul Gallico, Confessions of a Story Writer)
Anyway, Andrew Stanton – the guy who wrote Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and others – explains it better than I can. There are some wonderful tips in his TED Talk (where would teachers be without them?) but perhaps the best piece of advice is the simplest – ‘just make me care.’ (Oh – there’s some swearing at the start of this.)