In developing my concept of three essential elements of literary storytelling, published in How To Write Your Best Story (now in an expanded 2nd edition, published 2017, with 40 added pages), I did a lot of consideration of why we are drawn to the work of famous writers, past and present.
While there are plenty of ways to analyze (and over-analyze) great work, my goal was to put my finger on a simple approach to storytelling skills that the emerging writer could use immediately and effectively . . . to better understand the nature of a good story and how to write one.
One of the literary luminaries I turned to was Anton Chekhov, a Russian writer considered to be one of the greatest short-story writers of all time.
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was a master storyteller, a beacon to those who followed his glittering lead, such as Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver (two writers who considered Chekhov one of the greatest influences on their own work).
Here is the beginning of Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” (Yes, it begins with an evocative description of place, an approach dear to my heart, as you may know by now. Weather, no less.)
The whole sky had been overcast with rain-clouds from early morning; it was a still day, not hot, but heavy, as it is in grey dull weather . . . when one expects rain and it does not come. Ivan Ivanovitch, the veterinary surgeon, and Burkin, the high-school teacher, were already tired from walking, and the fields seemed to them endless.
Then, Chekhov delivers a compelling line:
“Last time we were in Prokofy’s barn,” said Burkin, “you were about to tell me a story.”
Ivan Ivanovitch begins to tell his story – “Yes, I meant to tell you about my brother” – but just as he lights a pipe, the rain begins . . . and we have to wait as the duo tromp to a nearby farm, wash up, and retire to the drawing room.
And only when the lamp was lighted in the big drawing-room upstairs, and Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch, attired in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, were sitting in arm-chairs; . . . and when lovely Pelagea [a beautiful maid-servant], stepping noiselessly on the carpet and smiling softly, handed tea and jam on a tray – only then Ivan Ivanovitch began on his story. . . .
The hook has been baited. We all sink into comfy arm-chairs in the mind’s parlor . . . and wait for the story.
At first, the story (about Ivan’s eccentric brother whose goal in life is to own a farm with gooseberry bushes) seems to be just an odd tale about a goofy person. By the end, though, Chekhov brings it home to a core human issue: what is needed for a person to be happy?
How is happiness earned?
And to what extent is it ever truly deserved?
Chekhov’s storytelling technique delivers the three elements essential to a good story:
- a curious starting point,
- what happens in the middle, chock-full of enjoyable details, page to page,
- at the end, an arrival at some rewarding point of meaning that the story holds or interesting ideas it spawns . . . not necessarily a moral, but why the tale has stuck in the head, why it is worthy of telling.
These three elements are at the heart of How To Write Your Best Story, a guide I wrote to explore in a practical way the time-tested storytelling techniques that great authors use (and that you can use too!) to turn their works into bestselling books, to win major literary prizes, and to delight generations of devoted readers.