Sometimes, when I don’t know what to write, or when it has been an eternity since I have attempted to put any semblance of a story together, I have to reenter the deep forest of stories and inhale the fresh pine scent of the poetic beginnings I love.
“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on the family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.”
— Pat Conroy, Prologue, The Prince of Tides
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ — and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim. I’m not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I’ve not read the New Testament since my Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church. I’m somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in The Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days — the prayer book is so much more orderly.”
— John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.
— Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
These rhythms of language remind me of the musical nature of words, how each one has its own unique key and tone and pitch. And how, when they are placed together in the right order, they create a symphony of setting, character, situation, and movement that paints the canvas of the mind.
Stories evoke fear, love, suspense, hope, and even grief. They are mysterious organisms moving us purposefully towards unexpected conclusions. But blogging, wrapped in the sepia tones of its journalistic origins, often strips away the joy of story by exchanging mystery for facts and narrative for bullet points.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt once said, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” And I have to agree with him. Story emerges universally in all children. It is the language that teaches us at a young age how we ought to understand the world, its social conventions, and our values. And it is the meta-cognition of adults, the primary way, other than experience, that teaches us about the complexity and purpose of suffering and the various ways we can respond to it, whether that is through grief, friendship, love, revenge, hope, or sacrifice.
Story helps us make sense of life. It interprets other’s intentions towards us. It creates new narratives for ourselves. It describes our shared history. It brings cohesion to religion. And it engages the mystery of our own journey to discover our place within life’s unpredictable themes and throughlines.
Story is a powerful tool. Yet few of us bloggers, including myself, leverage the power of story and the way it is structured to convey our messages. Instead, we believe that the best way to communicate with our information-saturated audience is through the expedient path of numerical and/or bulleted lists. This style may work well if you are limited to a word count or if you are delivering a PowerPoint. But if we writers want to explore the intricacies of a singular idea, we must eliminate the bullets from our writing as much as possible.
Bullets are only acceptable when used to support a point, but are not acceptable as a substitute for a point. Thus, you can have a blog that has a list of 50 things in support of a single idea. But you should not have a list of 50 things as a list of 50 separate ideas. Thus, a blog called “How to Take Charge of Procrastination” could be acceptable if the author uses his list like bass notes to support a budding melody. But the same article would be unacceptable if the list is the focal point of the article. Such a construction is ultimately unhelpful to a reader. It is synonymous with saying, “Here are 100 things you didn’t know about [blank].” Informational? Yes. Instructive? Perhaps. But helpful? Unlikely. Few people can discern what the song is supposed to sound like when all they have is the drumbeat alone. There must be more to the article than a mere list of advice, suggestions, or instructions. There must also be resonance or depth.
Bullets gravitate towards simplicity. Points are thought-out expressions of ideas and concepts. If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, don’t be reductionistic. Be reasoned. Every writer knows the adage: show, don’t tell. The same is true here. Readers seeking help or guidance need to know both the path to hope and healing as well as how to do it. Thus, show them the way to truth. Bullets/lists rarely do this, prioritizing breadth over depth. But what good is it to the reader if the writer can list 100 ways to do something but provides little depth to these ideas? Such an article only flexes the writer’s creativity while encouraging a “kiddie pool” life.
Think about it. In a 1000 – 1500 word article how much real estate is allotted to explaining each of the points in the list? Not much, if you’re honest. A 1500 word article, for example, that has an introduction and a conclusion, plus a body of seven bulleted points will receive about 160 words a paragraph. If you have more to say, say it. But do so in an article dedicated to fleshing out one singular point. If you discover that you don’t have more to say than the small 160-word paragraph you’ve crafted, then chances are that the reader is receiving only a superficial knowledge and a superficial benefit from what you are trying to say. Consider the possibility that you may need to learn more about this point before writing about it. If you are a blogger of non-fiction, as many bloggers are, then you must learn to not only enjoy writing but also researching. This will give your article gravitas and will allow you to curate the best information for your readers. Many bloggers can no longer conceive of how to explain “how to do [blank]” without using a list. Such thinking is a major problem in modern blogging because it has given the illusion that the list somehow gives the article authority and gravitas when, in fact, it may only give it length. To write with research is power. To write without research, however, is to offer your reader a potential pile of poo.
Instead, be a writer who uses “shorter” posts to their advantage. I do not mean shorter as in length or word count. I mean shorter as in the number of ideas explored in a single post. Such writing may lead to posts that have only one point each, but if you create depth around each point you have, you will discover that you: 1) create more posts for your blog, 2) develop credibility with your readership as you explore the fathoms of truth on each topic and 3) reduce what I call “blogging burnout” where, after only a year or so of writing, you feel there is little left in the creativity well and begin wondering if you’re as a big of a fraud as you feel. (To be honest, this is exactly why the number of my posts on this blog have tapered over the years, much to my chagrin).
What does depth look like? They look like explanations, yes. But a cold, hard examination of facts is as bland as yeastless bread if it does not have a person and their struggle attached to it. Articles built around people and their journey through the trials you are exploring pull back the proverbial curtain on whatever you are writing about and demonstrate the what, why, and how of an issue as well as the applicability of the advice you are offering. This, of course, is where a firm knowledge of story structure comes in handy. Where stakes can be raised, a journey can be explored, and a conclusion can be given that resolves the story being told. Sometimes story-structured articles will not highlight a person but will use the structure to explore the heart and struggles of the target audience, always making the reader a potential protagonist. The most important tool to use in creating depth to a story-structured article, however, is building tension.
Raising tension is not just for fiction. It is required for non-fiction too. Without tension there is no desire to continue reading, to see how it ends. This desire must be in your reader if you want them to finish what you wrote. And a list is a poor answer to a whodunit?
Because this is the same thing they get everywhere else in life. They want a gift that offers life, not a law (i.e., a list) that offers fear, doubt, self-condemnation and a sea of regret. They want the truth that radicalizes life, not to-do’s that challenge one’s willpower or self-discipline. But before they can have any of this, they must know what is at stake, see how attempts to overcome this may fail, as well as how success may be obtained. Readers may prefer to read a list-oriented article because of its efficiency, but they will remember the story-structured one because they will have emotionally engaged with it.
In short, Holden Caulfield said it best at the end of The Catcher in the Rye:
“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”