A Storyteller's Resolve in the New Year

Posted by Stuart Voytilla on

The Roman god, Janus, is often depicted with two opposing faces. His name gave us January and, nowadays, symbolizes our need to look back at the old and look forward to what our futures hold. But more importantly, Janus served as god of doorways and of journeys. And a god associated with entrances and exits needs two faces to see where he's come and where he hopes to go. As we move into the new year, a writer can value this god's symbol. We can reflect upon our personal journey, appreciate its past with its numerous thresholds and acknowledge our individual values that help us determine the stories we need to write. Too often, I hear from my students and fellow writers, 'What should I write?' My suggestion is to look within yourself. For the time being, let's put aside the best-seller lists, the weekend box office grosses, let's push aside that crystal ball foretelling the latest hot genre and, instead, look into the writer's greatest resource -- ourselves.

Aristotle believed that all art serves two purposes: to delight and to teach. Whether we write novels, sitcoms, comic books or screenplays, we are artists. And our art deserves its place atop that pedestal, alongside music, sculpture, painting and dance. But placing it on that pedestal acknowledges art's two purposes. The 'delight' or entertainment factor is evident. But does our art 'teach?' Stay with me here, I'm not talking 'if you want to give the audience a message call Western Union.' The first stories were more than likely survival lessons. The first dramatic lesson was told around the campfire, How Caveman Nelson killed the great mastodon.' The first comic epic was performed by Nelson's life mate Fern: 'How Caveman Nelson slipped on mastodon blubber and broke his leg.' Both survival lessons, primarily serving art's function 'to teach.' As Nelson and Fern retold their stories, enjoying the reaction of their audience, each realized that certain phrases and images could get more fear or laughter. At this junction, the purpose of the art shifted to one that primarily entertained.

The stories we enjoy today have the potential to serve this dual purpose. Has a movie or book transformed you in some way? Made you change the way you look, the clothes you wear, the way you walk, your choice of words, the way you drive your car?

On a much deeper level, our stories can also instill more universal values: how to treat one another, how to love, how to live our lives. These survival lessons riding beneath our characters' actions and the story's plot can enforce morals, ethics and other codes of living that our audience can take with them after they place the book down, leave the cinema or turn the television off. And it is this moral resonance within the fibers of our stories that can uplift our tales into eternal retellings. What are the lessons we learn from the actions of Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker, or Casablanca's Rick and Ilsa? The same lessons and values that you have the power to infuse in your own writing.

But how do you begin to wield this power? And how can this power help guide your search for your next story? These exercises focus you on your personal journey, where you've been and where you hope to go.


If you keep a daily journal, create a section labeled 'Credo' (or 'This, I believe...') which is a private area to explore your guiding principles as a writer. Let me stress that this is your place to write what you feel. No one else will read it. As long as you are writing what you believe -- there are no wrong answers. Answer the following questions:

1. What are you passionate about? What are the issues that matter most to you? Make sure that you explore all areas of your world. Are there family issues? Social or world problems? It could be equal rights, recycling, drunk driving or demanding more vacation time. If you are passionate in your view of an issue, write it down.

2. What about hobbies? How do you value your personal time away from writing and any other 'bread-winning' occupations? Any recreations? Sports? Travel? Spending time with the family or loved ones?

3. What stories attract you? We're not seeking general categories of media or genre like Comic Books or Thrillers or Children's fantasy. But list five of your favorite stories. If you write for movies, list your five favorites. If you write romance fiction, list your five favorite titles. For television, you can list your favorite series, but do you also have specific favorite episodes? Since movies have become such a strong storytelling tradition, regardless of what you write, I also suggest that you include your five favorite movies. And if you write for multiple venues, explore each one for your favorites.

4. What attracts you about these stories? Are there common themes or life-lessons? What are the external goals or problems that the central character(s) must accomplish? Are there similar inner needs that are addressed by these characters? Understanding any common resonance in these stories helps you understand the life-lessons that you value as an audience member. For example, your list may have a common theme of the underdog vanquishing the evil force, or that true love can help us overcome our differences. Understand that these life-lessons are important to you at this stage in your writing, and they can change over time.

How many times have you heard 'Write what you know?' Often we limit ourselves with this statement, feeling we should only write what we have directly experienced. You may be fortunate to live a life that would make a daytime drama character envious. Life experience is essential fuel for the pen, and the following questions and exercises can help you broaden your source of experience and perhaps reawaken a moment in your life that could fuel a story:

1. What was the most joyful event of your life?

2. What was your most painful life experience?

3. Observe life around you. Not reading a textbook or watching reality television, but going out and observing the world you inhabit. Take 15 minutes and sit somewhere and observe -- a flower, a squirrel foraging for nuts, a customer buying his coffee, a lovers' spat. And after you observe, try to write about it, giving it as much specificity as possible.

4. Explore your empathic powers. Empathy is our capacity to vicariously experience someone else's life or event. One of the keys to great character building is tapping into our empathic powers, thus allowing our audience to identify with our character in some way. Focus your 15-minute break on a person or people in interaction. Try to step into their shoes and see the event through their eyes. Can you understand their motivations, needs, desires, their point of view or attitude? What observed actions trigger these observations? Challenge your imagination by being out of earshot of their conversation. Write out an imagined interaction by only using non-verbal communication as your clues.

5. Yes, life experience is what you know. Name ten subjects about which you consider yourself an expert. These can be college majors or minors, hobbies, armchair interests or special talents.

The master magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini, punctuated his illusions with 'Will wonders never cease!' Until his death, he maintained that appreciation of the awe and wonder of life's mysteries. We, as writers, can learn to rekindle this childlike quality in our view of the world. I am not suggesting that we all revert to children, or become childish, but awaken the unbridled imagination that we see in children.

1. If you have a child, or perhaps a niece or nephew, spend time watching the world through their eyes. What are the values that are important at this age? What are their fears? What are their goals, their hopes, their longings? What achievements do they strive for (putting on shoes, balancing on ice skates, catching a baseball?,) and how do they experience the accomplishment of that achievement?

2. Have the child tell you a story. What are the important events of the story as seen by the child?

3. Reclaim your inner child by nurturing your creative comfort zone. Create a space or situation that allows you to let your imagination fly. For one of my acting teachers, it was making a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Do you have a comfort food? Is there a place or activity that fuels your inner child? It may be a favorite chair, or gardening, or playing in the park. Try performing a favorite activity from your childhood such as building blocks, playing with dolls or cars, or coloring with crayons.

4. Was there a toy you had always wanted as a child? Did you ever get that toy, and how was your time spent with that toy? If you didn't get it, why did you want it? What would you have done with that toy then? And what would you do with it if you had it today?

These exercises are designed to allow you to look at your journey from Janus' two-front vantage, tilling the fertile soil to enrich your storytelling. Each of us upholds a long lineage of storytellers, going back to that first campfire audience with faces mesmerized by the storyteller's magic. The needs to tell the tale were evident then. And tapping into our personal wellspring that fuels our individual needs for story, can help us determine and deliver a story that our audience can enjoy again and again.

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