How strong are your story instincts? This abstract and sometimes elusive concept rests at the very bottom of a writer’s toolkit. Your story instincts determine how successful your storytelling is, and whether you are able to offer readers the all-important “it” factor. Your story instincts are the foundation onto which you build with all the other tools and techniques you pick up along the way. And your story instincts are also, simultaneously, the preexisting source of all the knowledge you will claim as you grow your skills.
When I was a newbie working on my early (unpublished) novels, I would often take a walk down the mailbox after my daily writing session. Almost always, I was vaguely dissatisfied. I knew whatever scene I had just written wasn’t so bad in itself, and yet I also knew something about the book as a whole wasn’t working. I remember saying to myself at some point during my second novel that I didn’t know what was wrong, but I just knew.
I trusted that instinct then, and I’ve come to trust it more and more over the years. Time, experience, and knowledge have given me the tools to not just feel when something is or isn’t working in a story, but to put a name to what my story instincts are telling me.
This is why I believe a writer’s greatest resource is his or her own gut instinct. This inner knowing is the true source of our inspiration. It is what guides us to the “right” ideas. But it is much more than just that. It is also the well of deep instinctive knowledge, shared by all humans, about what story is and what makes it work.
Even though this sense of story is always there—the lighthouse guiding our talents and abilities—most of us must refine our story instincts and learn their language so we may understand what they are truly telling us.
It is my belief all humans have this instinct. We are born with the common language of story. Indeed, some psychological research, such as presented by Edward F. Pace-Schott, posits our very “dreaming as a story-telling instinct.”
Although some writers come to studies of story theory and technique with the belief that this information has been “invented” by all the writers that have come before us, I think it is truer to recognize that story theory is more of an excavation. It is the catalog of recognized patterns we observe to be true about humankind’s long experience with the shape, flow, and function of story.
As such, you might even consider that however much or little you consciously know about story, you perhaps unconsciously know all there is to know. You have to trust this inner knowing, learn to seek it where it will be found, and train yourself to speak its language.
There is nothing that expresses the roundedness of human beings more than storytelling. Stories are the highest technology of being…. Maybe this story-making quality of being is the principle magic as well as the principle illusion of our lives.
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