Saturday, June 14, 2008

Groping Towards A Vision



“Love is the ability of not knowing.”
(John Cassavetes)


The only dramatic stories that are important to us are the ones that start and end in our own experiences.

Examine your values. What do you believe and disbelieve? What you love and not love? What is admirable in human life, and what is not so admirable? Find, enact and tell those stories that are true to your self and tell them completely.

A dramatic story is a reply to the unseen, the unheard, that gnaws in the darkness of ignorance. A person who refuses to ignore, ridicule, or falsify the gnawing is an artist – whether s/he makes her/his daily bread teaching school, digging ditches or working as a CEO.

The best dramatic story-makers are creative and courageously so. They apply creativity to every significant dramatic action they encounter.

Creativity is not antithetical to management, leadership or authority. When merged with story it produces the most compelling and inspiring form of leadership.

Essentially, creativity is the art of relinquishing control.

We necessarily relinquish control every time we enter a story-in-the-making. This is what allows the story to make us just as much as we make it.

The most powerful stories are the dramatic ones.

Dramatic stories are powerful because they are about PROBLEMS and CHANGE.

Dramatic stories involve characters that suffer and whose actions are aimed at overcoming that suffering.

A dramatic character ACTS in order to overcome suffering.

A dramatic action always has a goal or objective. The ultimate goal of every dramatic character is to resolve the problem that has created the suffering.


Dramatic problems require real change in order to be solved. Without real change the solutions that one applies to solve dramatic problems will only make the problems worse.

Change is frightening because its outcomes are not predictable, because human characters frequently equate change with loss.

Every dramatic character is an aspect of us.

Dramatic characters navigate this human predilection to fear change by actively and persuasively pursuing goals with which the audience can readily identify. By virtue of emotional identification, an audience also becomes a participant in the evolving story of change.

The actions of dramatic characters ARE the change that leads to the story’s ultimate resolution.

Great story-makers understand that they are but one character among many characters, that they, too, are going on a journey, guided by a clear objective and propelled by a credible plan of action that might be changed at any time to accommodate the changing circumstances of the story.

Drama, in the form of story, is humanity’s way of contextualising its experience of change in terms of living, human experience with all its suffering, hope, risk, faith, conflict, fear, growth and love.

Characters in dramatic stories are revealed by their actions and the impact that their actions have upon the other characters..

Dramatic action - by definition - either propels a character closer to or further away from their ultimate goal.

As story-makers and audience we must be aware not only of what the characters are wanting to communicate, but also of what they are trying to hide.

Dramatic storytelling involves both creative exposure and creative hiding.

The story-maker, like every other character in the story, is also in hiding.

The story-maker is also a character.

To understand any character’s story, you need to view it from the inside out. Short of an intimate understanding, there can be no emotion, only emotional cliché.

We don’t necessarily know – or need to know - the story we are trying to tell. If we did, we wouldn’t need to tell it.

Knowledge, for the most part, is useless. Finding “the story” requires ridding yourself of everything you know.

What you know usually stands in the way of what you might discover.

Finding the story is a voyage of discovery – self-discovery.

Understanding drama = understanding yourself.



“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage
to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads."
(Erica Jong)


To be is to be anxious. To be creative is to endure the anxiousness – to use it, shape it, transform it, into something that transcends anxiety.

As story-makers we are custodians of a “dreaming”, which we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream with others in all of its potency. The ultimate meaning of the dream resides in its shareability.

An appreciation of the inspiration and obsessiveness of the story-makers, finders and tellers that have gone before is itself a story – the awareness that one is operating within a timeless tribe of storytellers carries a sense of responsibility that is freeing insofar as one begins to realise ever more vividly how all storytellers speak through every storyteller. Those who have gone before have drawn from the same pool that you draw from, and those who come after you will do the same. We are family. We are part of a tradition, whether we know it or not. There is courage to be found in this understanding.

Acquaint yourself with different kinds of stories from all sorts of oral and written traditions, including short stories, autobiography, letters, and oral histories (e.g.: Idries Shah’s Sufi Tales and Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, Dickenson, Robert Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, etc.).

Know what it is that you do not know.

The art of the story doesn’t begin and end with a book or a poem or a screenplay or a keynote address. It is a way of being in the world; a way of seeing and hearing the world; a way of letting yourself be touched by the world. (i.e.: by yourself).

Every person, place, memory, image, dream, song, smell, and shadow, is potentially a story, or the beginning, middle or end of one.

The expression of “modernism” in poetry is the materialisation of the idea that the power of art resides in what is not stated or shown, but implied. In business, it is called walking the talk. It is no different for good dramatic story-making.

It is often what you leave out – what you don’t express (overtly) – but that is implied by the emotional logic of what is shown that has the power to move an audience and conduct the energy that makes the experience of transcendence possible.


We prize our poets because they are the most economical of storytellers - their poems, the most succinct form of the story: the brief-but-vivid image, the relationship of one image to another, the implied comparisons, the particularity of voice, the exactness of phrase, the thumbnails of dramatic structure – it’s no accident the world’s greatest dramatist was a poet.

The inspired story-maker is alone but seldom lonely. His/her characters have more substance than the strangers posing as cut-outs in the queue at Cole’s, and yet even the characters in Cole’s are potentially important characters, or characters-in-the-making, poised briefly on the threshold of a checkout counter waiting for some catalyst that might suddenly transform them and us into another story.

Great stories always speak – not only for the story-maker but also for the voiceless ones. Justice comes into it. The carriers of the wisdom (read: stories) of any tribe are courageous beings. Without courage where does one find the strength to confront the unknown? Lacking courage and the inspiration of creativity where does one find the impetus to consider something from a unique or unexpected point of view?


“The world is made of stories, not of atoms.”
(Muriel Rukeyser)


So, what is your story?

What is your obstacle?

What is it that you can’t get over?

Talk about your characters and their stories as if you know them. Talk to them! Gossip, embellish, fabricate. Don’t simply write them down. Become them! Live them, Breathe them, dream them! Eat them!

Leave your ego at the door.

No one has power unless the story itself has power.

Only the story can empower you. You cannot empower yourself. Nor can you humbly or otherwise bestow your power upon the story. It is the story that baptises you, not the other way around.

The only reason to make choices for your characters is to enter into a relationship with them that is vivid enough that makes it possible for them to choose for themselves; at which point it behoves the story-maker to let them do as they will and simply manage the time it takes them to do it.


A story progresses according to a character’s needs, fears, plans, and obstacles (i.e.: what stands between the character and his/her goal).

A successful story reveals both a character’s strengths and weaknesses. These can only be authentically revealed when a character is faced with drama. A dramatic story is the presentation of creative action aimed at overcoming a problem that threatens one’s well being or one very existence. Adversity BUILDS character!

The onset of creative thinking/feeling is signalled by the arrival of problems. It is the problems that forge the initial relationship between the story-maker and his/her characters.

The business of telling a story is working through the problems that result from wanting to tell it.

You cannot solve all the problems and then proceed to tell the story; the problems are the story you are trying to tell.

The more you seek an intimate relationship with your characters and their story, the more you flee from them and it.

You do not choose your story. It chooses you.

So long as you don’t become discouraged and give up, you will eventually discover that in working as a character with the other characters to solve problems that are common to both of you, you have developed a level of intimacy, respect and a competency in collaborative problem solving you wouldn’t have thought possible.

Story-making is essentially about catching not pitching. It is about listening, and keeping open. It is an illuminating dance of relationships in transition.

As much as possible, learn to convey stories without employing words. Focus on the non-verbal and the imagistic. Whilst the voice is an important story-making tool, remember that the voice of silence carries an eloquence all its own. Speech is tango – both movement and stillness.

Become familiar with the nuances of your own voice…

and begin to discover those other voices that live within you.

2 comments:

Oscar said...

Hi Billy. Thanks for your insights at the writing seminar. I learned a lot.

I was intrigued by your recognition that the Writer is a character as much as the characters in the script, the Audience and the Tribe. Some writers make this explicit, e.g. Adaptation, which has a multi-layered treatment of the writer-as-character. In fact, there's a whole Tribe of writers!

In Sunset Boulevard, we learn that the writer/narrator anti-hero speaking through the Writer is actually dead, and therefore a Tribal Ancestor. In film noir generally, we often find the protagonist is reluctantly drawn into a situation he believes has nothing to do with him, only to discover that he is intimately connected to the other characters and what happens affects him deeply on a personal level. This mirrors the experience of the Writer. Any thoughts?

Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

Yes, you make some very interesting points, and you are right. Of course, writers are a tribe, so are poets and bakers and candlestick makers. My notion about the writer-as-character demand the appliction of Ockum's Razor, Otherwise we would have endless duplication of who's writing what - as in if the writer is a character then who is writing THAT character, ad naseum. The only real value of this thought/notion for me is that it calls attention to the seamlessness of the story-finding enterprise. There is no actual border line that one can draw that separates the world of the story from the world of the writer, no demarcation line that one might straddle and declare that the story is happening on this side but not that side. It's ALL story - and it's also tortoises all the way down!!