Engaging writing is more like a debate than a lecture. Lectures plod along. Debates are varied. Debaters interject with important points. Debaters create theatre. Debaters repeat key messages in new and surprising ways.
“The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know”. — Steven Pinker, Harvard University linguistic professor.
Many clever people’s writing is confusing. For example, read this paragraph by the PhD Barbara Vinken. It’s highlighted in the newspaper The Atlantic:
“Excellence of style consists in being clear and not commonplace… Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. The latter is persuasive, the former is not; for if artifice is obvious, people become resentful, as if at someone plotting against them, just as they do against those who adulterate wines.” — Aristotle.
When you’re reading and you feel like you’re watching a movie—that is the classic writing style at work. The classic style uses words to project a movie into the reader’s mind.
When we write with the classic style, we make the abstract concrete, the confusing clear, and the unseen seen. We transform chaos into order. To understand something we need more than abstract notions—we require real-world descriptions. That clarity helps us understand.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw.
We assume that when we write or speak others understand us. George Bernard Shaw knew better.
For example, here’s a story featured on Thought Catalog, originally from Reddit; “My Mom really liked the fried noodles that were served with soup at this Asian restaurant. She asked what they were called, and decided to tell everyone about the “Kwan Chi noodles.” It was a good while before she realized the waitress was just saying “Crunchy Noodles” with an accent.”
“Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we naturally do”. — Dan Harmon; writer, producer, Emmy award winner.
Storytellers work like statisticians; they take raw data and find a pattern (story) that we can derive meaning from.
Your mind is constantly searching for meaning. Stories take complex experiences and translate them into structures that you can absorb and learn from.
Structure is the foundation of stories. Here are the 8 steps in a story’s structure:
- There is order.
- Change creates a need.
- Begins search to meet the need.
- An obstacle emerges.
- The obstacle is overcome.
- Success creates unexpected suffering.
- Suffering produces a solution that fills the need.
- An improved order emerges.
Great stories follow this structure. For example, take the film Gladiator: