Crafting The Unconventional Story

I’ve been writing a long time, and when I go back and read my earliest works written in the 1980s, I see a lot of experimentation and non-conformity while still sticking to the basics of story structure: a defined beginning, middle, and end falling neatly within the boundaries of the standard plot sequence.

Although I have never strayed fully from the unconventional (and those who have read Cold Rock understand what I mean), I have tried, unsuccessfully, to play on both sides of the fence, breaking into traditional markets with rather unconventional works. I have had little patience for the game, and I have made the decision to stick with self-publishing. It gives me unlimited creative license to publish my works while still reaching my core group of readers. If more comes of it through word-of-mouth because my readers like what I am doing, then more power to the self-publishing approach.

So yesterday, I started reading Into The Woods, a book on story structure by John Yorke, which takes the works of story analysts like Joseph Campbell and story strategists like Christopher Vogler to the next level.

I am no stranger to Vogler’s work, and I have been using the 12-stage journey he outlined years ago in many of my works.

Yorke challenges such structures and ultimately asks two vital questions:

  1. Most analysts of story, such as Vogler, posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?
  2. Not one of them asks: Why?

And herein lies the main question. There is no doubt that the story analysts are correct; they have identified what works with readers and viewers for centuries, and they have offered reliable story structures for creatives to use in the most predictably formulaic style that meets with success nearly every time. Ask them why and most writers and directors will say it has something to do with what we’ve been experiencing all of our lives; it’s what we are used to. It’s built into our DNA.

Probably one of the most indefensible but satisfying answers ever spewed, and the meta-conscious generations of the 21st century aren’t going to buy it for much longer.

I’ve had the extraordinarily good fortune of working with two writers living in Australia who are not afraid to take risks, to bend the boundaries of those conventional structures, and explore the connections with readers in very unconventional ways. It has made me a stronger writer, and it has given me greater confidence to develop my writing through my own eyes, and not necessarily through the more narrow confines of what traditional publishers are looking for.

Yorke is absolutely right. Creatives — writers, artists, musicians, producers — need to understand why that connection exists with their audiences so they can abandon the more formulaic structures of story and still connect as strongly — maybe more powerfully than ever — with their readers and viewers.

What This Means For Creatives

We, as creatives, need to continue to boldly experiment with form, crafting unconventional ways to reach our audience that don’t necessarily follow a story structure identified by Joseph Campbell in the middle of the twentieth century.

In other words, we can’t let numbers dictate our craft of story, and just continue to crank out the formulaic pieces that publishers want that are going to sell the highest number of copies and pull in the highest number of dollars.

I believe and know that this is continuing to happen all too often. My hope is that, with the explosive opportunities offered in self-publishing, creatives of all kinds will begin to take greater leaps of faith in experimenting with their structure and approach to storytelling.

Give yourself the freedom and the license to create, to experiment, to discover uninhibitedly the storyteller within you that, in your own unique way, still connects and resonates deeply with your audience.

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