By Lindsay Clark, MetroWest Writers’ Guild Member and Leader
Lindsay is a lifelong reader and writer who enjoys sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology. Lindsay works at a boutique innovation consulting firm by day and writes by night.
Every medium that can carry a message offers its own approach to storytelling. As a long-form fiction writer, I enjoy exploring the expectations and lenses that other media bring to stories. Most writers are familiar with the standard frameworks in cinema, graphic novels, and poetry. Examining other storytelling media can also impart interesting lessons about how we craft and understand stories. A few of my personal favorites to explore include oral tradition, folklore and mythology, serial comics, and graffiti.
Storytelling was born in the crucible of oral tradition. Long before written language was codified, people told tales to each other, memorized them, shared them, and passed them down across generations. What made a story memorable enough to persevere over the years? Some carried important lessons, while others commanded attention through mythological and historical stories and characters. But all had to have a richness of plot, sound, and rhythm that allowed people to engage with it and remember it. Rhetorical devices — metaphor, hyperbole, anaphora, chiasmus, and more — were developed to make the spoken word more powerful and more memorable. The power of strong rhetoric is evident in oral storytelling formats today: speeches, sermons, and monologues. In my own writing, I try to think about how words sound for both dialogue and descriptions. Does it sound natural, lyrical, or stilted? Do the words stay with me after I re-read them? Reflection on the sound of written words can strengthen their impact and the power of the messages they carry.
Folklore, fables, and mythology are all distinct types of stories, but they draw on common frameworks. They are all grounded in the cultural milieu of their place of origin, and they usually teach a practical lesson or illustrate a society’s morals and values. They act as a mirror to society and reveal what people care about, what they want to teach their children, and what they want future generations to consider. Myths, fables, and folktales make me think about truths. What do I understand to be true, and what would my characters consider an unassailable truth? Is there a lesson that I’d want the reader to walk away with? Even if the messages and themes I care about are more complex than a standard fable, the types of fables, folktales, and myths that could exist in my fictional world can tell the reader a lot about what is valued within the context of the story.
Like graphic novels, serial comics combine elements of visual and narrative storytelling. But in contrast to graphic novels—which deliver long-form stories in sequential works of art—serial comics can be very short and present information in installments over an extended period of time. They can include everything from snappy 4-frame comics to expansive universes with countless characters that embark on decades worth of adventures. Crucially, stories in this medium have to work in a serial format. Each installment stands alone while building toward larger plot arcs with action, conflict, and growth along the way. Juggling characters, plots, and subplots across multiple self-contained units is an art form in and of itself. I look to serial comics for structural inspiration when crafting a long work of fiction. Could this scene stand on its own? Does it pack a punch or raise the stakes? What keeps the reader engaged at the end of a chapter? The discrete scenes and chapters set the pace for events and build toward the larger story.
Graffiti covers a wide range of art: from vandalism to commissioned public works. Graffiti is often created somewhere that’s publicly visible without permission. As a writer, graffiti helps me think about the intended audience and the balance between clarity and obscurity of message. It is public art and performative art: it wants to be seen, but the audience isn’t always obvious. Some graffiti is composed of signs that only a small group will understand, other works speak directly to passersby, and still others are composed of universally-understood symbols. As an American who travels abroad, it’s interesting to consider the language that graffiti is written in. A surprising number of messages are in English, so if English graffiti is written in Chile, or Morocco, or Italy, who is the message trying to reach? As an author, I want to bring a similar lens to my text. Why is my message public and who is it trying to reach? Is it subversive or direct, secret or universal? By better understanding those questions, I can more intentionally tailor my delivery to the intended audience.
I leverage the lessons that I glean from different forms of storytelling in the same way I use spices in the kitchen. I sprinkle some elements generously in my writing, while adding others in careful dashes. In the end, it’s all about balance. No one wants to read (or—let’s be honest—write!) a novel where every scene ends in a cliffhanger, where every word is layered with secret subtext, or where every action is trying to teach a lesson. But I find that engaging with media that rely on these storytelling methods helps me to better understand how I can emulate aspects in my own work. The alternative lenses provide a spark of inspiration and lead me to find hidden depths in my own work. I hope it can inspire you to explore new media as well.