Last December, I took vacation, pulled out one of my guitars from the closet and began playing again after a long hiatus. There is a writing lesson here, I promise. After strumming a few songs, I decided to get serious and go back to learning and then practicing my scales.
I’d learned the patterns years ago, but I’d never spent the time to understand how, when and why to use them. I decided now to focus on just the A scale: major, minor and the three related pentatonic, all in just one position on my fretboard. Instead of just running through the pattern, I focused on the notes I was playing, trying to memorize them. And then, instead of playing a pattern — running up and down the scale pattern — I attempted to make music by playing along with a backing track, which provided the chord progression.
During a break, I realized how applicable these scales were to our journey into narrative storytelling, the technique, craft and art.
Here are my thoughts, and a lesson plan for you to follow this year.
VARY THE ORDER
Why do you start a story a certain way? Does your structure never vary? Are you taking creative risks with how you tell a story?
When I started playing my scales to the backing track, I realized that I constantly started the solo on the lowest root note 100 percent of the time and then played the notes in order. There was nothing creative. It was no different than walking, simply putting one foot in front of the other. The structure, the safety of the structure hemmed me in.
Do you start your stories the same way time after time? Why do fall back on the same opening? Is it simply because it is what you know, what feels safe and what you think your editor wants?
A pentatonic scale, for example, has just five notes. But by varying the order of the notes, lingering on one longer than another or playing one louder, or softer, I could create something unique. When I was simply playing a scale pattern, I was just typing, running through the alphabet on the keyboard. When I listened to myself play, I was drawn to what sounded different — something musical, or at least my attempt to make music.
The next time you sit down to write, don’t just start typing. Pause. Ask yourself these questions: Why should anyone read my story? What do I want them to feel? What techniques (notes) are at my disposal to make the story interesting and unique?
An example from my work: Last year I wrote a story about a widow who wanted to return a medical bag to another widow. The second woman had given it to the medical school to give to a medical student after the death of her husband. School officials gave the bag to the first woman’s husband. It sounds confusing, but if you write me I’ll send you the story and I promise it will be clear.
There was no reason to write the story. It could be a brief, or a simple feature story, the kind you’ve read hundreds of times. But instead of running up and down the scales, I sat at my desk and thought about the story. What did it mean? What did I want readers to feel? What techniques were at my disposal?
I decided on voice.
My narrator’s voice could outline the theme for the reader in seven short paragraphs. The rest of the story — and it was long — would expand on that theme, drawing readers in, holding their interest and telling them an unusual and emotionally powerful story. That opening served the same purpose musically as does the piano that sets up the second half of the song “Layla” that plays off that simple musical theme.
Here is my opening:
For nearly 50 years, the leather doctor’s bag served as a reminder of the horrors of war and the fragility of life.
Over the decades, the family took the bag to two countries, four states and five cities. In every place they called home, the bag was prominently displayed next to a framed newspaper story.
That yellowing page featured a black-and-white photograph of a U.S. Army general pinning a medal on a little boy’s shirt.
To glance at the bag and the photograph was to pause and reflect on what matters.
Youth. Love. War.
Courage. Family. Loss.
And now, healing.
I practice my scales daily, still concentrating only on “A” in one position. When I can create solos in that position — and only then — I will move to the next position on the fretboard, again focusing on just “A.” In the past, I’d practice in one position for five minutes, and then move to another position and then another. But all I ever did was just play the pattern.
For your next five stories, focus on just the openings. Experiment with voice, dialogue, quote, scene and character. By working just within the confines of the story opening, you will be forced to move beyond the familiar story pattern: Anecdote, quote, nutgraf. What you learn by concentrating on just a small part of the overall story, will serve you well — in coming stories — as you move to the middle and then the end.
I listen to songs as a musician. What notes were used in that solo? In what order were the notes played? Why did I like it? How can I apply that to my playing?
As a writer, you must read. And I mean everything. Read once as a reader coming to the work for the first time, but then go back and focus on a particular passage, or the opening or ending. Why did it work? What choices did the writer make? Why? How can you apply those choices to your work?
Finally, I want to resume something I did years ago: Working with one of you on a story, and then writing about the process in a future column. If you are interested, email me.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist and author. He’s been on staff at The Oregonian for more than 35 years and has published several books. His journalism and non-fiction narrative stories explore the significance of big moments and small and their impact on a life. On Twitter: @thallmanjr