Aspiring writers frequently agonize over words, sentences, and paragraphs. They want to get every piece of it right. Because they admire great writers’ style and distinctive presentation, they believe the technical aspects of writing are foremost. They are not. Storytelling is foremost. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories. Here is one of the best writers of the 20th century telling us how to compose a story.
Great writers first understand the art of storytelling, and then concentrate on telling it in a fresh and pitch-perfect manner. The painting to the left is a portrait of Pablo Picasso’s mother, painted by her son in 1896. All of her features appear to be on the proper side of her face. This was not an isolated Picasso painting. Before shaking up the art world with George Brague, Picasso mastered the craft of figurative painting. For Picasso—and most great authors—a thorough understanding of how to use their medium came before experimentation.
The basics of storytelling are simple. I was taught that in the first fifth of the book, you get the protagonist up a tree. In the middle section, you throw rocks at the protagonist. In the final section, you get the protagonist out of the tree. This sounds simple and close to what Vonnegut advises. It’s surprising how such a simple formula creates an interesting story. After all, no matter how pretty your sentences, you must keep the reader interested or he or she will wander off to parts unknown.