Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

Storytelling on Social Media – a Parable of Tanks and Rollerskates

What to write about… what to write about…

This is the question I face when writing this article, or starting a book, or anything else. What do I write about? What do I DO?

So I thought I’d write about that process – and about something that so few of us think about: the power of our words. As writers, we all kinda-sorta-maybe know that. We know that words matter, but many (most? all?) of us think about them in terms of, “I have a story. The story matters. People will like it. People will buy it and I will have a pool of golden duccats that would be the envy of Scrooge McDuck.”

To be sure, I think most people do have that kind of story in them. The trick is finding it, bringing it out, putting it down, and getting the word out (and those are a whole SERIES of blog posts/articles/book, so I won’t try here).

My dad once said (wisely) that talking about important things on social media is like trying to teach rocket science using bumper stickers. To which I would add: with the only difference that we would all agree that the latter is insane.

But not the former. We talk about “important” things all the time, never minding that they a) usually AREN’T that important in the grand scheme of things (and if you think they are, I’d invite you to tell me what you Tweeted last Tuesday), and b) the most important things merit our greatest care and attention.

I’m not telling people here to stop social media. I’m not encouraging silence. I’m saying that we live in a time where communication is possible on a greater scale than would have been imaginable even twenty years ago. I’m saying that this means words are flying around constantly.

And words, I am fond of saying, are the single greatest inhibitor of communication ever invented.

Before words, it was easy. You either hated or feared a person – in which case you ran away and/or beat them with your club made of T-rex femur – or you loved them, in which case you ran TOWARD them and shared your T-rex meat and/or went to the nearest cave to make sweet caveperson love.

Now, though… so many words. So much complicatednessosity. Even that last word is needlessly complicateder than it has to be. But I’m leaving it. BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT.

Ultimately, we created words that allowed us to exercise the single greatest power in human history: the power to tell stories. That’s the thing that differentiates us from every other creature, because there’s no other creature capable of telling Beowulf, or creating a sonnet, or writing out blueprints or mathematical equations (which are how science tells ITS most important stories).

We are creatures of stories, you and I. We meet, we converse, we share… and, fundamentally, we spend much of our time misunderstanding.

That’s one of the pitfalls of being a writer: you become convinced that not only are you telling a good story, but that the people for whom you write are hearing the same story you intended to write. This is rarely the case, though, because we all bring ourselves to the stories we hear. The audience is as much a part of the finished product as is the “original” storyteller.

This is even more pronounced on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it. A smiley-face or heart means something vastly different to me than it does to you. Sure, they mean “happy” or “love,” but those words themselves are two upon which oceans of writers have expended infinite words, so obviously there’s a lot of wiggle room there.

“Don’t just write a short story. Start out with an epic, because you gotta build to a short story.” I said that once in jest/not-jest, and there’s truth in it. Writing something short that matters, that’s punchy and interesting… it’s hard. Not least of all because, again, the chances of the audience reading the interesting, cool, deep thing you tried to write is infinitesimally small. They’re going to read the words, but their lives loom larger when the picture is smaller. They’ll bring more of themselves to a short story than they would to a novel, because the author of a short story necessarily leaves more blanks for the audience to fill in. An eight-book epic spanning twenty years of a family’s lives, well, that’s something where the author gets to put a pretty sturdy cage around what he intends, and keep prying audience members from messing with it too much. But a twenty-page short story? A five-hundred word flash fiction piece? Those are really written by the author, interpreted by the audience, and the interpretation disseminated to the masses.

So what, then, a Tweet? A line under an Instagram picture.

Again, this isn’t to condemn those forums. This isn’t to tell people to stay away. But as a writer, I’ve seen far too many times where I thought I was telling one story, and ended up telling one completely differently. I take great care now not just to tell the story, but to make it as close to impossible for the reader to misinterpret it as I can… and I still only succeed a fraction of the time.

Our words are magical. Our words are lovely. They are the brightest of suns. But they also burn, they cut, they corrode. So powerful, and it behooves us to use them wisely and well. Our society has little place or use for hermits; we interact with each other and expect others to contribute to our lives just as we contribute to theirs. But we must remember: we are creatures not of concepts, but of stories. Every word we say, or write, or type, is part of a story that goes into the world, and changes it a bit. We bear every bit as much of a responsibility to do our best to change the world in a good way with every word as we do the responsibility of leaving a world behind that has food and air and water for our kids. But though most of us wouldn’t blow up a dirty bomb in a mall amongst thousands of strangers, we think far too little of lobbing potentially dangerous words into the atmosphere of social media. Then we shrug and say, “Hey, I’m being honest,” or, “Hey, that needed to be said,” or “Hey, I’ve always stood up for what I believed,” without ever asking the more important questions: how does that honesty benefit the world? Did it “need” to be said, or did I just really really wanna say it? And in standing up for what I believed, did I help others, did I harm them, or did I care less about that than I did about just getting something off my chest?

The world is magical. It’s so full of stories, so full of words. We talk, we smile, we laugh, we play. I love all those things – they make me smile myself, and (selfishly) I enjoy stealing others’ stories so I can reshape them in my own image.

But we also stand up and tell people things “for their own good” without getting to know them. We condemn groups as a whole without regard for whether that will actually change their minds or lead to any kind of change. We spit into the wind, because we are ANGRY, DAMMIT, and then are shocked when the wind changes and the person who gets the most spittle on their cheek is not the intended victim, but we ourselves.

Words are important – and there are definitely those that must be said. But we have to be careful. We have to think.

We are storytellers. That is what it is to be human: to experience things, then to take those experiences and boil them down into stories we can tell to (hopefully) make our future experiences and the future experiences of others into something more meaningful and pleasing. But as storytellers, as the most powerful of creatures, we also bear the tremendous responsibility of using that power wisely. If Superman went out and murdered someone – even just once – we would toss him out as our superhero. I’m not talking “I got into some kryptonite and did something over which I had no control,” I’m talking about a day where Supes just gets tired of it all, throws up his hands, and heat visions his frickin’ neighbor who constantly plays house mixes with full bass to death. At that point, we are done with him. He is no longer not a hero, he is forever unredeemable.

But we can lose control. We can post in the moment, because IT MUST BE SAID IT MUST BE SAID NOW IT MUST BE SAID THIS WAY BECAUSE I FEEL IT MUST BE SO.

I am a storyteller. I am a human. So are you, those of you who read this. So let us tell good stories. Let us tell kind ones. Sometimes kindness is painful (ask any child who just had a tetanus shot or got a cavity filled what he or she thought of it). But kindness is never unthinking, or motivated by my feelings of the moment – it is motivated by plans that will benefit someone’s future.

The best stories are these. Whenever someone asks me to write an article or a guest post, and I always try to think of something useful to write. There’s story tips, there’s craft how-tos. I can talk about making a relatable villain, or dealing with suspension of disbelief for a zombie story. All that’s important, but all it boils down to at its base is the fact that the story that matters deserves a well-crafted vehicle.

So craft your own vehicles well. And remember that Twitter is just as much a storytelling venue as is Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Remember perhaps as well that when we use social media as a vehicle for our stories, it’s not a rollerskate; as often as not it’s a tank with a single devastating shot. Let us take care to shoot only things we’ve really thought about, and really aimed for; collateral damage is horrid in war, but for some reason it deserves no notice when I’m posting on “my” wall – a wall of “mine” that is bought and paid for and designed and maintained by other people without any input on my part, which is the strangest definition of “mine” I have ever heard.

And maybe we should sometimes not shoot at all. Perhaps we should get out of the tank, and take a walk. That’s how we actually meet people with whom we’d like to share our T-rex meat and make sweet caveperson love.

Posted by in Life Advice, MbC Must-read

Happy Easter

It’s happening again.


It’s worse at the end of the year, but it happens now, too.


“Happy Easter!”

“Happy Easter?”

“Happy… Sunday?”


Every time there’s a religous-themed holiday, someone inevitably complains. Yes, there are the complaints about commercialization, or the True Meaning of [Fill in the Blank], or how the day brings out the worst as people horde over slightly-underpriced doo-dads. But I’m not talking about those.


I’m talking about the paired complaints: “I wish they wouldn’t wish me Happy Easter/Merry Christmas/Whatever,” and, “Why can’t I wish people Happy Easter/Merry Christmas/Whatever without someone biting my head off?”


I mention “Christian” holidays above, because they’re the ones I hear most about. But I have no doubt there are similar arguments about Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or Vesak, or any other holiday that has a deity (or two or three or more) at its center – or at least at its genesis, since that argument that the once-Holy-Days have converted to nothing more than “Retail Day #7” or “Buy Overpriced Roses Day” certainly has some merit.


I digress. Sorry. I do that. Squirrel!


In all seriousness, though (yeah, like that’s possible for me), I hate this argument, this “Respect my religious holidays vs. “Respect my lack of faith/belief/interest in your religious holidays” dispute. Because it makes it about belief, and in so doing, it utterly misses the point.


Yes, the holidays have the beliefs themselves as their basis. Though you don’t have to believe in Christ to celebrate Christmas – at least in the trimmings: presents and cocoa and a wonderful excuse to be nicer to each other – you can’t have Christmas without Christ. You can’t have the holiday without its history. You don’t have to ascribe to the stories, but they’re there, and without them you don’t get the holiday – package deal.


Similarly, you can run around pelting people with colored powder, exchange gifts, and enjoy some of the greatest food of your life no matter what you believe… but that doesn’t change the fact that Diwali doesn’t exist without its history, without its god-stories of Krisha and Vishnu and King Rama.


Easter, of course, is the same. I love Cadbury Eggs, and that enjoyment is completely separate from whether or not I believe that one day a tomb was empty because its inhabitant had risen up and ascended to Heaven. But without that ascension story, Cadbury Eggs probably wouldn’t exist (and the world would be all the poorer for it).


Now, note that I call these things “stories.” I mean no offense to those who believe them – I’m a believer myself, and will be celebrating Easter this Sunday with egg hunts and food and family, but also with time in church, time in prayer, time talking to my children about what Easter means to us.


So no, calling them “stories” is not an insult. On the contrary, it’s a compliment. Calling them “facts” would actually lessen them in certain respects, because facts are what control our lives, seen or unseen, believed or not… but “stories” are what we choose, what we as humans have that is separate from every other creature. Every animal – every bit of matter, for that matter (see what I did there, ha!) – is governed by “facts.” By the realities in which we exist. Perhaps those realities include this God or that, or none at all… debating that isn’t the point of this essay.


Stories, though… if facts provide the framework, then stories provide the potential. Stories are what we choose to believe, and in so doing, point us toward what we hope to become.


And that’s the point of “Happy Easter” or “Merry Christmas” or whatever Holy-day that enters a greeting. It is about a story.


Stories are wonderful things. They entertain, they enlighten. But at their heart, the greatest magic they weave is this: they create communities.


An example – and please trust me, I actually have a point to all this, ya just gotta bear with me and pay close atten – SQUIRREL!


Sorry, where was I?


Right. Example.


Picture this: I’m in line for the newest Marvel movie. Behind me is a 15-year-old girl. Suddenly, I whip around and say, in tones of near-frantic worry, “Do you think Iron Man’s gonna DIE in this one?”


What does she do? In all likelihood, she’ll respond with a good-natured laugh, and then her own personal fan-theory about what’s going to happen; maybe something she heard about the plot on the internet. Someone a bit down the line will shriek, “Spoiler alert!” when she does that, and everyone laughs.


Okay, now picture this: In an alternate universe where everything’s the same, only here I’m in line at McDonald’s. Suddenly, I whip around to the same 15-year-old girl, and say, in tones of near-frantic worry, “Do you think they’ll ever bring back the McRib FOR GOOD?”


What does she do? In all likelihood, she laughs nervously, says, “Uh, maybe?” and then steps back a pace or two while covertly getting ready to hammer 911 onto her phone before the coo-coo can eat her face off.


What’s the difference? Same people. Same middle-aged guy and same teenager. We’re standing just as close to each other in both situations; we’re even wearing the same clothes, for crying out loud. So why the disparate reactions?



[continue to the rest of the article…]


Posted by in Life Advice

Happy Easter (part 2)

The answer is simply this: because there is no story associated with the McRib. Sure, you might like it or you might hate it, but there’s no group-fable about the origin of the McRib, its slow ascent from the Barbecue Pit of the all-knowing Ronald McDonald, and its return to that savory underworld to bathe itself in the Sweet River of Semi-Sauce.


Marvel, on the other hand, does enjoy that group-story status. No one is claiming that Cap and Iron Man and the others are really gods (well, maybe a few weirdos at a Comic Con or two), but they are well-known enough and popular enough that they have become an indelible part of our lives. Their stories have permeated our culture, and our beliefs in regard to them define us, at least in a small part. If you doubt this, try posting “Marvel sucks” on a major internet forum and watch the near-genocidal war that begins as the DC vs. Marvel armies mobilize.


So… stories. Remember when I said that they create communities? That’s tremendously important, because it means that they define our friends and our enemies.


Do you know who is an American (or Paraguayan, or Ibo, or anything else)? It’s not really someone who lives in the U.S., or someone who holds a legal citizenship, or any of the political responses – there are exceptions to all of them that make those unworkable as a definition. No, what makes someone an “American” is that that person believes the same stories as the other Americans. They believe this is the greatest country on earth, or we have the greatest freedoms, or our healthcare sucks. They even believe the patently false stories, like that one about George Washington and the Cherry Tree, or that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope.


We believe the stories… and anyone who doesn’t isn’t “American.” Anyone who doesn’t isn’t part of our tribe.


Anyone who doesn’t… is a potential enemy.


Sounds awful stark when you put it that way, but it’s true. Beliefs are our most prized possessions, so anyone who shares a different one – or even worse, actively seeks to denigrate or destroy ours – is at best a potential threat, and at worst a current target of attack.


Stories create communities. Stories forge bonds. Stories determine whom we accept, whom we reject; whom we love, and whom we hate. Because the stories are us.


Now here’s the thing, the point of this whole article: the stories are also how we invite others to be a part of us. Think about it – in high school, you gather with your friends and giggle or complain about what the teacher did, what that other kid said, why your parents are bigger jerks than her parents. At work, you gather around the water cooler to gossip. You meet someone new, and immediately you ask, “So what do you do?” or “Where do you go to school?” or any of those questions meant to elicit a story. Then you tell your own story, and now you have a shared set of stories – the creation myth of your own little clique.


How does it relate to “Happy Easter”? It’s because if someone says, “Happy Easter” (or, again, “Diwali” or “Kwanzaa” or “Day of the Festival of the Great Deity of Sesame Street” or anything they view as a religious greeting), they are not saying, “Believe what I believe” – no person, no matter how religious or how naive, believes in conversion-by-greeting.


What they are saying is, “I like you. I value you, either as a friend or just a fellow human with whom I share this world. I want you as a friend, and so I extend my most precious stories to you. You don’t even have to accept the story; the fact that I offered you something valuable and though you did not accept it for your own, you treated it with care and respect, is enough to create our own story, you and I: the moment I said I loved you, and you said you loved me back.”


It is not about forcing a belief on someone – at least for the overwhelming majority of us. It is just about the story of me, and what I see as the story of you, and the possibility of creating the story of us.


I believe in stories. I believe in communities. I believe the best tribes are the most inclusive, and I hope someday all of us will be included in that one Great Tribe of friendship. Not full agreement, not even full peace. But the recognition that we are all brothers and sisters, and fight as we might, we will be family at the end.


So, to you all, I say, “Happy Easter.” Because that is part of my story, and in saying it, I hope that this moment can be the first part of ours.

Posted by

Creation in Writing

There are several reasons we write. For personal satisfaction, as a way of making sense of the world around us. We write to create emotions in others, to teach lessons that will (hopefully) make the world a better place.

We also write (perhaps most important) as a way of creating community.

Think about it: not only is our world defined by stories, but who we are as a people is defined by stories. We aren’t members of the USA because we live in a certain geographical area – there are plenty of people all over the world who define themselves that way. It’s not determined by laws, either – huge debates in the news give plenty of air time to people who are here “illegally” yet who stolidly insist they, too, are “Americans.”

So what is it?

The stories.

An “American” is someone who knows the story of the American Revolution. Of the Civil War. Of Washington chopping down the cherry tree and Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Neither of those last stories is true, but that doesn’t matter. Truth is less important than the binding capacity the stories have.

Another example: say you – like every other person in the known universe – went to see the final Harry Potter movie at midnight opening night. You got there six hours ahead of time so you could get a good seat. And while you’re sitting there, waiting for the movie to start, a middle-aged guy with a comb-over and a T-shirt that’s a bit too small for him whips around and says, “Do you think Harry will die in the movie?” And that’s the signal for a conversation to start. And it does.

Now, change venues. You’re in the local fast food place. Waiting in line for lunch. And suddenly the middle-aged guy in front of you whips around and says without preamble, “Do you like seasoned curly fries or the regular kind?”

This is the part where you very reasonably start edging toward an exit and perhaps put “911” on your cell phone’s speed dial.

Same guy. Same you. What was the difference? The difference was that in the first example you were sharing a story. You were, for the moment at least, members of the same community, of the same tribe. And we do not fear members of our community. We understand them. And it isn’t because they’re the same as us – there’s plenty of diversity and strangeness within every community. But the more stories people share in common, the closer their bond and the greater their trust. That’s what makes a “BFF” – just a bunch of shared stories.

So writers are in a place of sublime power and responsibility. Writers create the communities that others will cling to, they create the frameworks that the world at large will hang on as reference points for who they will treat as “friends” (i.e., fellow believers of their stories) and “enemies” (i.e., those who follow or believe other stories… or none at all). It stands to us, then, to create communities that are not merely joined in pursuit of “fun” or “escapism,” but in pursuit of those enobling properties that allow the human race to rise above itself and become more than it is.

Writers are the dreamers. And dreaming is and always has been the first step in the great act of creation. We create words. We create worlds. We create context, and in so doing we create community.

Without stories, every man is and always must be an island. But writers tie those islands together and create great continents – even empires – of meaning… and hope.

Posted by in Life Advice, Writing Advice

Novels vs. Screenplays

People often ask me things. Things like, “How can I improve my protagonist’s character arc?” and “Why is it important to have three acts?” and “Could you please stop staring at me? It’s creeping me out.” And those are all good questions. Except the last one. I wasn’t staring at you, I just lose the ability to focus my eyes sometimes.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Questions.
Another question I’m asked occasionally deals with writing novels versus writing screenplays.
I know a bit about both. My novel RUN was’s bestselling sci-fi novel for a while. It was also on the bestseller lists for horror and thrillers (it’s a “genre bender”). Another novel of mine, Billy: Messenger of Powers, a fun YA fantasy about a boy who discovers he’s in the middle of a secret magical war that will determine the fate of humanity, has been on numerous Amazon bestseller lists for most of the past two years.
And as for screenwriting, well… I’ve had screenplays do very well in numerous high-profile screenplay contests. I’ve optioned screenplays (and if you don’t know what that is, trust me, it’s pretty cool), and been hired to do rewrite work on scripts. I’ve also sold several screenplays, and am a member of the Writers Guild of America (which is statistically harder to get into than major league baseball). So I’ve got some street cred in that world, too.
And let me tell you something: they are different worlds. Some people think that screenwriting would be easier than novel writing. After all, a screenplay only demands about 100 pages of writing (much of which has margins that dramatically cut down on the word count per page), while a novel requires hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words.
But in reality, I have found that both have their “easy” parts and their “hard” parts, their ups and downs. Novels do require “more” work from the point of view of simple quantity, but they also allow you more leeway to spend time creating a world, to establish a credible narrative voice and reel the audience in. In scripts, you generally have about 200 words to “hook” your audience. After that, they’re just not interested. On the other hand, scripts don’t require you to explain the backstory of every major character in exhaustive detail (though most competent writers will at least have a sound idea what that backstory is).
In sum, both are different kinds of storytelling. I liken them to speaking different languages. It is possible to be fluent in both, but it also takes a lot of effort. That’s why a lot of novelists write atrocious screenplays, and why a lot of screenwriters get bogged down and lost in the mazes of novel-writing.
But it can be done. And why? Because at their heart, both are in service of a common goal: telling a story. Whether on the page, or on the screen (or, in the case of some of my work, on the page of a novel and THEN on the page of a screenplay and THEN on the screen of a theater), the storyteller has one rule: engage the audience in a compelling story that will allow them to have experiences that they could not otherwise have.
I think that’s the great thing about novels and movies: their ability to speak to us, to take us from one place to another in the blink of an eye. To give us the gift of story, the thrill of a tale well-told.
Again, they are different languages. But all languages, at their heart, are about talking, about communicating. And similarly, whether in a book or on the screen, a good story-teller is at the heart of each tale.

Posted by in Writing Advice