Transformational Storytelling

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    This morning I had the privilege of watching a limited-time video from bestselling author Ted Dekker. He talks about writing transformational stories, stories that go beyond characterization, plot or descriptions, though those have their place. I transcribed as much of the video as I could for you guys, but I missed like the last 3 minutes. I also couldn’t do the second video.


    ‘If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting the same results you’ve always gotten.’

    Ted has written over thirty-five novels in twenty years, and he’s sold over ten million copies. It’s estimated that his books have been read over twenty-five million times (because books are shared). And an average book takes about six hours to read. So people have spent over 150 million hours in his worlds.

    When he started off, he was just like us. He didn’t really know what he was doing. He saw a friend write a novel and thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ He began to read books about writing, go to conferences, and all the different stuff he thought was ‘necessary’ to write. He would come home from work and write his first novel, ‘To Kill With Reason’ (I don’t think it’s available). Six months later, he finished and bound his book. But no one besides close friends and family wanted to read it. He began to search out an agent to represent his book, and finally convinced one to have lunch with him. He was expecting to be told he was the next King or Grisham or something like that, but not only did she tell him his novel was unpublishable, but in short, it sucked.

    So what he did was what anyone reasonable would do in that situation. He gave up. For six months his novel sat in the bottom of his drawer.

    But eventually he couldn’t stand it anymore, and after reading a Frank Peretti article, began to read more books on writing, attended writing groups, and began to write again, this time a sci-fi called ‘Song of Eden’. But he got the same result. It turned out the advice he’d been given never showed him how to reach an audience. He wrote two more novels, but still got the same result. The advice on HOW to write was immensely helpful, but that’s not what makes stories connect.

    Then he figured out what he needed to do, and his novels began to take on a whole new quality.

    By now he had an agent, and he’d received only hundreds of rejections from dozens of publishers. But everything changed with his fifth novel, Heaven’s Wager. He got four different offers from four publishers.

    He immediately signed a three-book deal and began writing his second novel. Heaven’s Wager was published in 2001 with zero marketing behind it. Ted says he remembers going to book stores and seeing one copy, if any, of his book on the shelves. So he had a book out, but no one knew about it.

    Then, one year later, he got an email from his publisher saying that Heaven’s Wager had hit the bestsellers list. How? Word of mouth. Apparently it had become a big deal in Canada, and word had spread to the US. ‘But of course’, he thought. Because he had written that book in that new way. And over the course of his next twenty novels, he continued to find the new way of storytelling that he had discovered. Like the treasure in the field, he gave up everything he had to pursue that treasure, and it rewarded him beyond his wildest dreams.

    You see, he had discovered a path that not many others had. He now had an unfair advantage. He recognized the primary problem we all have, and found a solution.

    So what is the primary problem all writers have?

    The problem is that almost all new writers, and some talented writers, either don’t know or forget what story actually is.

    ‘But of course I know what story is. Everyone does.’

    If failing writers really did, then their novels would be selling out. No one can resist a good story. They don’t let go. They’re what we long to write.

    Even those of us who’ve written a dozen novels must be reminded often, because it’s losing focus of what story that keeps us from writing a story that sells out.

    So this is story: ‘A story is a series of events involving worthy characters who are changed as a result of those events.’ Memorize that and tape it to your PC.

    There’s a difference between storytelling and writing, and it’s critical that we understand it. There’s only, like, two degrees of separation, but those degrees make all the difference. It’s like a radio dial. You go from static, and with one little turn of the dial, you get beautiful music. Writing is what we do to put stories on the page. But with no story, what good is our writing?

    If someone were to stop by your campfire and wax eloquent about, say, Moscow, with amazing characters and beautiful descriptions, we may be interested for a little bit. But if someone were to come by the fire and, even in stilted language, tell us a story of how he was kidnapped, shipped to Moscow as a slave and then fell in love with his master’s daughter, we’d be on the edge of our seat all night. That’s the difference between writing and storytelling.

    Story is about transformation. Period.

    Without the transformation in the character’s behavior or perspective of life, you don’t have story. You only have a series of events or worthy characters, or both events and characters. In other words, you have a normal life. And that’s the opposite of what readers want to read. But it’s the dynamic of transformation that captures readers.

    Whether they know it or not, readers are looking for change in their own life. Or an escape from their life for a better, more interesting life in your novel.

    Any good novel checks the box of transformation.

    But most writers lose sight of the transformation, because it’s not core to their own life. They’re more interested in the plot, the setting, or the characters than the transformation of those characters through the plot.

    Remembering and staying true to what storytelling really is, is the key to unlocking good storytelling.

    Then he talks about the unfair advantage that led to readers spending 150 million hours reading his stories. He calls it unfair because most writers really don’t get it. Once he realized what he was doing, he noticed how this singular approached elevated his stories beyond what all the craft in the world couldn’t accomplish.

    The advantage is to write to understand and transform your own life, and invite the reader to come along for the ride.

    If you enter the story forming process to facilitate true change in your own life, that transformation will bleed onto the page and capture the reader. Because all readers read, whether they know it or not, to find change, escape, hope, and a better and more exciting life that they find in your novel. His novels begin with a question, a struggle, or a problem, in his own life that he wants to explore in the form of a story.

    For example, Ted wrote a novel to discover the true nature of forgiveness, not because he wanted to teach it, but because he felt like a victim and wanted to explore it and understand what forgiveness was and how it might free him. That novel was called Water Walker.

    When you create a character to explore and satisfy your own genuine questions and struggles, you automatically connect with the heart of your readers, because they’re looking for the same thing. Now you’re writing to explore in an authentic way, and readers can see that. You don’t necessarily know how you will change or what you will learn yourself. Now You’re forming story to take a ride with your characters for your own change. Now you’re actually treading that dark valley to find the light beyond it.

    This is the soul and art of storytelling. All true story is a transformative journey, not only for the characters but for us and the readers as well. You must long for a new way of being in the world to write great story. This is why any novel is written. This is why romance writers write. To find love. Why horror writers write, to deal with their fears by facing them. Why thrillers are written, to deal with the conflicts we all face in a metaphorical hyperbole. Why fantasy writers write, to find a whole other world beyond this mundane world.

    But not only this, but writing for your own transformation offers another advantage. It not only vastly improves your story but also gives you an incredible motivation to press on when you encounter discouragement. Your writing is not only means to and end but the end itself. This is why you write when you write this way as much as getting published.

    No one reads these anyway

    Parker Hankins

    Very helpful, @samuel! I like Ted Dekker! And Frank Peretti!

    Living in a world of mystery and dangerous predicaments while working with the AWESOME Meraki's.

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