The art of story

Friday, April 28, 2017
Arnold Zable

Story is an ancient art form. They stood by the campfire, the early storytellers, and gave shape to their experiences, and in doing this, they gave voice to the collective. The storyteller acquired their art through practice. Their tales took shape as they worked at them. They found the best ways to tell their stories by standing in front of an audience, and seeing what worked, through trial and error.

I am often asked ‘What is the most important thing you have learnt in years of creating stories?’.  My answer is: follow the story. Write that first line, that first paragraph or chapter, and allow the story to lead you, rather than trying to control it. The creation of a story is a fluid process. The structure, the tone, the rhythm, the plot, all arise out of the doing.

I have applied this process across genres, in both fiction and non-fiction, to novels and short stories, memoir and biography. Once I write that opening, the journey begins – and the journey has invariably taken me to unexpected places.

Take for instance my most recent book, ‘The Fighter’. I set out to explore the lives of the champion boxers, the legendary Nissen twins. I sensed there were many potential threads in this tale. However, stories are as much about what is left out, as about what is included. Early on, I decided to initially focus on Henry Nissen – the bullied, self-styled loser from immigrant Carlton who rose so high in the boxing ranks, he was offered a world title fight.

I was drawn to his story for several reasons. Apart from the archetypal tale of his apparent triumphs, Henry spent forty years working on the streets on behalf of the disaffected, outsiders, street kids and those lower on the socio-economic ladder. And after all this, he worked on the docks. The story spanned both past and present. I knew also that the fate of his immigrant mother, Sonia – her trauma and descent into madness – was potentially a major thread in the story.

What sealed it for me, was writing that first line: ‘So it’s come to this, sixty-seven years old and he works on the docks.’ Then I was truly on the way. The story began to evolve and take shape. I cannot emphasise this enough – get going, put pen to paper, put finger to the keyboard. And do this sooner, rather than later. The beginning can always be changed, but without plunging into it, nothing will happen.

I began to literally follow Henry around town. He drove a yellow Hyundai. The car itself became a character. It led me to unexpected places, to many worlds in contemporary Melbourne – the wharves, the Seafarers mission, Crown Casino on boxing-hall-of-fame nights, fight-nights in the Pavilion, opposite the Flemington high-rises, and to the old bluestone Spiritualist church in the city, to the magistrates courts and rooming houses, the Gatwick Hotel and the Port Diner café off Footscray Road servicing truckies and wharfies. And eventually, it led me back to the streets of post-war Carlton, and to the tiny cottage the Nissens lived in, and the backyard gym they trained in.

And it led me to Sandra, Henry’s youngest sister, who, more than any other sibling, shed light on their mother’s tragic past, and her descent into madness. This was the unexpected twist that came from following the story. A narrative that began in the masculine worlds of the docks and the boxing fraternity, led me to a mother-daughter relationship and to the mental homes where Sonia was incarcerated. It led me also to Sonia’s fight to be a mother, her pre-war experiences in Ukraine. And to her love for her children, her strengths and hidden talents.  

It led me also to the neighbourhood mothers, who looked out for the twins, who could see they were hurting. Late in the process, as the book was about to go to the printers, I found my unexpected dedication: ‘to the mothers of the neighbourhood.’

In every story that I’ve crafted, there has always been two interconnected challenges: What is the story? And, what is the best way to tell it? Fiction or non-fiction? Memoir or novel? Short story or feature?

Often it could have gone either way. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is not so distinct. Especially if we turn to the root meaning of the word, ‘fictio’, which means to shape, or to make. Indeed, every story we write or tell is shaped. The author must eventually decide what to leave in, and leave out – how many threads they can allow themselves to weave.

Usually the novel and the memoir allow for many threads, while the short story is more restricted. But these limitations can, paradoxically, allow depth, as we see in the works of the great short story writers, such as Anton Chekov, Alistair McLeod and Alice Munro.

At the heart of both fiction and creative non-fiction is the art of scene construction. Stories move from scene to scene. The storyteller’s job is to bring each scene to life. To do so, the storyteller must be present to each scene, immersed in it. If I, as the storyteller, see it, the reader will see it. If I hear it, the reader will hear it. If I go to the docks, the Port Diner, the casino, and am fully alert to what is happening, to the details, the choreography, then the reader will become alert to it.

Alert to what, though? John Carey, in the introduction to his wonderful anthology, ‘The Faber Book of Reportage’, calls it ‘the incidental image’. This is the image, which may not be immediately obvious­ – the men of Gallipoli crying because they could not keep clean. Or the people of Ireland, during the famine, with their lips of green, because of eating grass.

Every story requires research of some sort. The word literally means, to ‘look again.’ This can entail many things: drawing on memory, walking the streets of childhood again, revisiting the scenes of the crime or working with historical documents. When I wrote my novel ‘Scraps of Heaven’, set in post-war Carlton, I read newspapers of the times to see what people were talking about, the fashions, the styles of furniture, the headlines. Each era has its anxieties, and the anxiety of that time was the Cold War, and the dangers of nuclear war.

As for the quality of the writing, I always read what I have written aloud. David Malouf has said that it is the narrative rhythm that keeps the reader engaged. In reading the work aloud, I hear what the reader will hear. I hear the sentences that have become unwieldy. I hear the affectations, and the overuse of certain words, certain phrases. And, most importantly, I become aware of the tone.

Story is both an art form, and a craft. In this short piece, I have tried to look at the basics. There is so much more that can be said. The most important thing, however, I have left till last – as a storyteller follow your passions, your interests, the mysteries and questions you personally wish to explore. Write about what you know and love – and if you don’t know enough, find out. It is in the exploration, in the journey itself, that your story will find its shape, and its unexpected destinations.


About Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable is an acclaimed Australian author. His books include ‘Jewels and Ashes’, ‘Café Scheherazade’, ‘The Fig Tree’, ‘Scraps of Heaven’, ‘Sea of Many Returns’, ‘Violin Lessons’, and most recently, ‘The Fighter’. His workshop, The Art of Story, will take place in Waurn Ponds on Saturday 14 October.