writing, Writing and Editing

On Story (part one)

I want to spend a little time talking about a subject near and dear to us writerly types (or it should be). Story. What is it? What makes a good story? What makes a bad one? Why are we drawn to them?

We are drawn to good stories because it’s in our genes. Story is hardwired into our psyches. It does not matter what nationality we call our own, what culture, or what language we speak. If we are human, we love stories.

Our distant ancestors told stories while sitting around the fire outside their shelters. Long before writing was invented, when a few scattered bands of humans survived by hunting and gathering wild fruit and berries, stories were how culture and history were passed from generation to generation. Stories told to wide-eyed children sitting around a protective campfire.

People tell stories in an attempt to explain things they don’t or can’t understand. Anthropologists and folklorists call these stories myths.

These myths gave rise to the epics such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Illiad and The Odyssey. Some say they also gave rise to the great religious works: The Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads, etc.

Human beings tell stories. They have always told stories (at least since we began organizing vocal sounds to communicate with each other).

We tell stories still. Not just the writers and filmmakers—the professionals—but everyone, every human tells stories. We tell them around the office water cooler and around the dinner table. We tell them in hairdressing salons and neighborhood pubs, school playgrounds and out on the street. Where ever people gather, stories are being told.

So why do we tell stories?

Three reasons:

1. To entertain. There is a special type of joy found in having your words cause a group of people to sit on the edge of their seats, jump in fear, or laugh so hard they end up in tears.
2. To instruct. The lesson of the parable is that it is often much easier to teach a student something couched in a story they find interesting, than to just tell them. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and most religious works follow this. Virtually every story has some lesson to impart, if you look hard enough.
3. To express oneself. Nearly every human has a need to share their experience of life with someone else, whether to find a kindred spirit, or as an insight into their own behavior. Shared experiences create bonds, even experiences that are only shared virtually through stories.

Next time: What makes a story good?

short story

Something Different

This is a myth I wrote as cultural background for my Ni’il Trilogy. Which means I ended up not using it. The myth comes from the fictional Sihketunnai tribe of Native Americans.

How Turtle Got his Shell
Legends of the Ni’il

At first there was only takin and Sunaktla, the Great Spirit, was in and of takin. Together with his sons He’eklaka, the Raven, and Ixtople, the Coyote, and his daughter, Puyalle, the Salmon, Sunaktla lived takin.

He’eklaka and Ixtaple were mischievous. As boys do everywhere, they enjoyed playing pranks on their sister, but Puyalle was strong and slippery and too quick. Many times their tricks were wasted on her and they became frustrated. They wanted someone to play with who couldn’t escape so often and so easily. They approached their father, Sunaktla, and asked him to make a playmate for them.

“You already have your sister and each other to play with,” he told them. “And the expanse of takin to play within. That is more than enough to amuse yourselves.”

They argued and pleaded, but their father would not change his mind.

He’eklaka and Ixtaple were not happy with their father’s decision. They thought it was unfair, but there was nothing they could do about it. Then Ixtaple had an idea. He and his brother waited until their father had fallen sound asleep, then he took one of He’eklaka’s feathers and began to tickle his father’s nose. After a time, Sunaktla sneezed and out sprang Wokani, the Turtle.

The brothers were overjoyed. This was exactly what they had longed for. Wokani was small and slow to move, and not nearly as strong as either of them. He was the perfect subject for their pranks and tricks. Unlike their sister, he would not be able to escape.

Sunaktle saw what his first sons had done and was not pleased. He immediately gave Wokani a shell fortress he could carry on his back. Whenever he grew tired of his brothers’ pranks, he could withdraw into the fortress where his brothers could not reach him, not matter how hard they tried.

Then he turned to his disobedient sons.

“I told you I would not create someone just for your entertainment,” he told them. “So you played a trick on me to get your way. So be it. From this time forward, it will be much more difficult for the two of you to play any of your tricks.”

When the brothers spoke to protest, they realized Sunaktla had changed their languages. He’eklaka could no longer understand anything Ixtaple said and Ixtaple could no longer understand anything He’eklaka said.

To this day the Raven and Coyote speak different languages and though they are often seen near each other, they seldom work together anymore to play their tricks.

And Wokani, the turtle, still has the shell Sunaktle gave him for his protection.