Storytelling — Tellability

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reviewing my own experiments with fiction (the stand-alone ones are on a separate fiction blogchain) to try and understand what makes an idea for a story tellable. I got to thinking about it because I was recently asked whether writing was a “particularly fluent” experience for me. The answer is: with nonfiction it definitely is, but with fiction, it isn’t. At least not yet.

I think it’s because “tellability” of stories is a more complex phenomenon that takes longer to turn into muscle memory where it feels like a fluency. Fiction fluency is to non-fiction fluency as riding a unicycle is to riding a bicycle. Developing this fluency, so I can go from idea to story in one sitting, with little to no metacognitive overhead, is kinda what I’m aiming at for now. I don’t really care about whether the stories are “good” as such, or meet other people’s formal notions of what a story ought to be. I just want to develop a fluency in “telling” so I can log the big wordcounts easily, while enjoying myself doing so. I want to learn to balance and ride the unicycle, and worry about getting somewhere later.

It’s not a point I’ve seen addressed in any of the storytelling material I’ve read so far, perhaps because it’s so obvious to people with natural fiction fluency. A story gets told if it is worth telling to the would-be teller, and is tellable. Just as an essay gets written if it is essayworthy to the would-be essayist, and essayable. It’s like whether a flight plan gets flown. The flight plan has to be tripworthy it for the pilot to do the actual flying, and the plane has to be flyable. Skill matters only after these two conditions are met, and the second one is the more basic one. Even a skilled pilot can’t make a bus fly. Not even if you put a gun to his head to make it worthwhile.

Tellability of a story

Tellability is not about whether the story is good or bad. It is about whether the storyteller can literally sit down and (almost unconsciously) work out how to tell it at all. In whatever medium — screen/stage, comicbook, live oral performance, or prose. Skill is usually medium-specific, but tellability is a property of the story idea. If a story idea lacks tellability, the story won’t get told. As with essays, there can always be major edits and surgeries later, and first-dump drafts might get abandoned. But the point is, the basic story idea has to be worth telling and be tellable in order to get told.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Let me reflect on fluency in nonfiction a bit first.

If I get an idea for an essay, I can just start writing and go for a few thousand words and end up with an essay in a single sitting of 4-5 hours. I don’t need any outlining, planning, or conscious evaluation/massaging of the idea for essay-worthiness or essayability. I can just start with a blank-page and get somewhere. It may not always be very good, but it will get written, be worthwhile for me personally, and hang together well enough to be readable. When I fail, it is usually because I haven’t thought and read about the idea long enough to have material to work with, not lack of essaying skill. More time and reading usually fixes that.

This is apparently an unnatural, or at least uncommon, ability. People who’ve taken my (nonfiction) writing course report struggling getting past a few hundred words (how far you can get without really trying is a decent measure of natural fluency).

Fluency is perhaps the wrong word, though there’s an element of skill. It’s really more like a sort of capacity for ludic immersion, closer to Mihaly Csikzentmihayi’s idea of flow (though it’s not quite that). I can “find flow” really easily and predictably with nonfiction. But I haven’t yet developed a similar ability with fiction (or programming, which feels influent to me in a similar way).

Okay, back to fiction, and the worth telling/tellability Venn diagram.

Stories Worth Telling

The “worth telling” part seems to be easy for people like Mathew Dicks, for whom apparently almost any material is storyworthy, because they just like storytelling itself that much.

For others, there is a powerful, burning desire to tell a particular story, and that particular story gets told so long as it is even remotely tellable. Even if it comes out incoherent and messy and nobody wants to read it, and they have no more stories to tell after that one. And sometimes such burning stories are so naturally “tellable,” even unskilled storytellers can just tell it. Or rather, the story is powerful enough, it tells itself through almost anyone.

I think I’m somewhere between those extremes.

On the one hand, I have many story ideas that feel worth telling to me, but unlike Dicks, I can’t find ideas worth telling (for me) almost anywhere. This may be because I’m not in it for developing storytelling skills for their own sake, making money, or winning contests and awards. While I appreciated the skill evident in many of the examples he talked about in his book, if the underlying experiences had happened to me, I would not find them worth telling as stories.

On the other hand, though I’m more attached to some of my ideas than others, I don’t have a burning desire to tell any particular story. From what I’ve seen, people who have such a desire are usually nurturing deeply personal story ideas they need to process somehow in order to feel fully human and alive. It’s a kind of transcendence impulse to affirm and transform identity. These stories are often autobiographical in some ways, but not always. Sometimes they are about an important force in your life, like say power or oppression, that you want to come to terms with. Sometimes they are about dramatic events you experienced from a privileged (in narrative terms) point of view.

I don’t know if there are generic reasons why people find particular story ideas worth telling, but mine is usually that I’m interested in the implications of an interesting premise that I want to work out, and the premise seems like it would be more fun to work out through fiction than nonfiction.

In terms of Orson Scott Card’s MICE framework (Milieu, Idea, Character, Events), which I’ll write about sometime, I’m mostly an Idea guy. I get interested in Milieu, Character, or Events where those embody the idea somehow, but if they don’t, I like to just phone those elements in a minimum-viable way (which might not result in a good story, since remember, worth telling to the teller does not equal good).

But an idea is not a tellable starting point for a story. It is like a dog that has not been trained to respond to the command you’re trying to give it. It just sits there, happily wagging its tail wondering why you’re getting frustrated.

The hard part is to connecting worth telling to tellable.

Tellable Stories

Tellability for me is a kind of instability in a story idea that makes it want to roll downhill in a clear direction in my head, gathering momentum and raw material like a snowball. This instability seems related to what storytelling theorists seem to refer to as “conflict,” but I’ve realized I don’t really get the concept when you talk about it that way.

“Conflict” sounds like a plot contrivance that sets up a problem to be solved within the story, by the characters. It feels a bit like customer-driven product design where the customers are the characters, and you the storyteller are merely providing god-like problem-solving services that conform to the world’s rules and the characters’ abilities, with as few deus-ex-machinations as possible. You’re not really involved. A conflict for the characters isn’t automatically a reason for you to care as a storyteller.

This doesn’t work for me. I can’t get to tellability starting with conflict engineering. I have to start with why I care to tell the story at all.

I strongly suspect that robust conflict is actually a side-effect of the idea of the story having an instability that acts like a voltage potential for the storyteller, unlocking tellability.

Idea instability is a process variable that manifests as a content attribute. You, the medium, shaping the story — the message. Something you care about is turned into something that powers the story from within.

Ideally, the instability is so strong it makes the story want to “tell itself” and the storyteller just has to install an energy transformer and get out of the way, with minimal metacognitive steering or forcing. Engineering the instability is a kind of upfront automation or priming of the process. Painstakingly setting up and working out a conflict in an explicit way (brute-force “plotting”) feels like unsatisfying manual labor, and doesn’t really work well anyway, at least for me. I’m too lazy.

Instability in the idea is necessary, but not sufficient for tellability.

For example, “aliens have arrived on Earth” is a premise with solid idea instability of a kind I care about, but there’s not enough there for the story to tell itself through the teller. The instability needs something in the story itself to hook into.

This element is usually a protagonist in the story who wants something involving a contradiction. One that harmonizes well with the instability in the idea outside the story. But let’s talk contradictions in isolation first.

Archetypal Contradictions

Let’s say our protagonist is Alice, who is poor and wants to get rich, but keep all her current friends. This is an inner conflict that defines the archetype of that specific character (and here I mean character in the sense of Jennifer van Bergen’s Archetypes for Writers rather than in the sense of a tropey template like “hero” or “damsel”).

Often, but not always, the first half of such an archetypal contradiction is something felt to be missing (wealth in this case), while the second part is an internal constraint that seems to make it impossible to acquire (keep current friends). The contradiction isn’t that an adversary is trying to stop Alice from getting rich. If that were the case, it would merely be a problem for her to solve. The contradiction is that she wants two apparently incompatible things. The two can be related. For example if in a different version of the story, her contradictory want is “get rich, but play nice,” that would connect nicely to the specific problem of outwitting an adversary in a “nice” way.

Why do you need a contradiction? Because a simple non-contradictory want, such as “wants to get rich,” simply goes brrr like a wound spring, unwinding as fast as possible. In real life, many people who want to get rich, and are set up well to do so by life circumstances, simply get there entirely uneventfully. They generate no story worth telling. The straightforward pursuit of a simple want is not a story.

A contradiction, on the other hand, works like a clock, ticking steadily, generating a scaffolding of natural narrative beats for the telling. The primary want is the drive spring, providing the motive power, while the contradictory want is the escapement mechanism (see my post on pendulum clockmaking for details). Each time the story “escapes,” driven by the spring, the escapement mechanism “catches” it again, generating a beat.

This understanding of conflict, contradiction, and progress is strongly linked to an improv approach to storytelling, where you work out the telling by sort of simulating the unfolding. In the first version of our premise, Alice can be put in a situation where she takes a high-paying job, and is invited to a group dinner at an expensive restaurant by a work colleague, Bob, but is then forced to cancel a cheap fast-food hangout with an old poor friend, Charlie. You can tick-tock through this beat simply by asking “Ok, what does she want? To get rich. So she gets a high-paid job. What happens there? Well, she might get invited to hang out…” This is almost a child-like confabulation process.

The main adult element, as Keith Johnstone points out in Impro, is callbacks to earlier events to create a compound interest type network effect within the story. This is where skill comes in. Skill is specifically skill in using the clockwork energy you set up with the governing archetypal contradiction as efficiently as possible, to make the most of it.

Clockworking Skills

You run into fine-grained beat-scale conflict easily once you wind up up a sufficiently rich governing paradox properly. Then you “solve” the story as a series of problems from the point of view of the character.

This isn’t enough for a good story, but it’s enough for a tellable story, which is what we’re trying to get at. To clock works. The challenge is to get it to tick as long as possible with a given spring wind-up. The plane flies. The challenge is to get it to fly as long as possible.

You can make it fly better by letting the problems compound in ways that set up bigger problems that hit a climax, and then wind down to an anticlimax, and resolve gracefully on a note of philosophical insight that embraces the contradiction, and so on. That’s the skill part.

For example, Alice, instead of being honest with Charlie and saying she has to go to an after-work hangout with rich coworkers, might pretend to be sick, setting up a lie that gets found out with a greater cost in terms of betrayal of trust. Maybe multiple lies get found out at once, setting up a breakup at the end of Act 1. That sort of thing you can practice, experiment, and get better at. But the basic tellability has to be set up to even allow you to experiment. It’s like how you can’t do electrical circuit experiments without a power source.

Setting up basic tellability, in the sense of a driving clockwork mechanism, seems to be about seeing an imaginative option rather than skill in using the energy of the clockwork. You may be able to wind up the clock and get it ticking, but then lack the skill to actually govern the clockwork.

If you have a core contradiction, almost everything else falls into place neatly, as far as the technical elements of low-level tellability are concerned, and the only limiting factor is your skill.

If you have multiple foreground characters with such governing contradictory wants, you’ll have a more complex story that will take more skill to wrangle. If you just have one, it will be a simpler solo story.

Often, you have to improvise a few beats with a germ of an idea for a character before you start to feel the energy of a sufficiently energized and controlled contradiction flowing through you, and then the writing gets easier as the story begins to tell itself. I suppose this could be analytically worked out and planned by more skilled writers, but for me, the only technique that works is to try and wind the character up and see if the clock ticks.

Okay, that’s all I’ve learned about governing contradictions and clockwork energy so far. There’s probably a lot more that experienced storytellers know, but this is enough to hook up idea instability and get to tellability.

Main Character Energy

The “character” embodying a paradoxical want need not be a live protagonist. It can be an abstract “wanting” force embodied by basically anything. Any container capable of holding “main character energy” will do.

In fact, since a story is only worth telling for me if the central character paradox hooks well into the instability of the idea I’m interested in, it’s often worth it for me to create a weird “character” just to hook up paradox and instability in a way that generates tellability.

In other words your story doesn’t have to be “character driven” to make use of a clockwork-like energy source derived from contradictory wants. It just needs to store “main character energy” somewhere and release it steadily. In fact, I prefer the main energy store of the story to be outside a character, since, to be frank, most character-level contradictory wants don’t interest me much.

In my most recent story The Map, I got to “tellability” by asking “what does the map want?” Though it was unconscious during the process of writing, I think in hindsight the answer that made the story tellable was “the map wants to eat the world, but not hurt any humans.” The map is not a character in the ordinary sense, but it did work well enough to embody a clockwork-like energy, which is all I needed to tell the story. The story actually has no regular characters at all. Just nameless swarms of humans milling around like ants.

Again, I’m not claiming it’s a good story, or even a proper story by particular structural definitions like the Hero’s Journey or Harmon’s story circle. Merely a tellable one for me, which is all I care about right now.

Some people liked it, others didn’t, but the idea of a map with a paradoxical want is what unlocked the tellability for me. It allowed me to go from staring at a first sentence, It was the most sublime map ever made; superbly detailed and wonderfully dynamic, to actually writing out the whole thing (in a single day, with no rewrites).

This story also illustrates the connection between a paradox-powered protagonist and an instability in the idea that makes it worth telling. What interested me in the first place was the premise of a map so advanced it could eat the territory, a kind of extreme and literal version of the premise in Borges’ On Exactitude in Science. The reason the story got told is that something I as the storyteller wanted to work out for my own satisfaction intersected fruitfully with what the protagonist (the map itself) “wanted” within the story.

In my experience, this is usually the case with stories that are tellable for me: the unstable, paradoxical wanting in the story is a detective-type main character energy deputized to figure out a mystery I want resolved outside the story. An externalized tulpa set loose on a mission in a world constructed to contain the mystery of interest. Preferably with skills I don’t have myself.

By contrast, the toy example we’ve been working with, about Alice wanting to get rich but keep her current friends, is tellable, but not worth telling for me. She’s not going to find out anything I care to learn. It doesn’t connect to an unstable idea I want to chase down outside the story. It might be worth telling for someone else. Or I might find a way to connect it to an idea that actually interests me. Perhaps aliens land and abolish currency economics by giving us all replicators? That would force Alice to examine what “get rich” really means to her, and perhaps drill down to a deeper archetypal paradox that unlocks tellability for me? It takes a lot of such iteration to get to tellability.

Relatability and Inscrutability

Of the eight stories in my fiction thread so far, six involve regular human characters with contradictory wants of varying degrees of motive power and clockwork regulation, and two involve non-human stores of main character energy (The Map, and Non-Contact, where the protagonist is “humanity,” and it probably “wants” to “acknowledge reality, but not feel any diminishing in agency”). But I think in all cases, I did manage to hook up instability and a paradoxical wanting to get to tellability.

But human main characters do add an extra couple of elements to tellability that are useful — relatability and inscrutability.

Eyeballing the six human-character stories, I think I have most success with characters whose contradictory wants are fairly high up the Maslow hierarchy, ideally at the self-actualization level, but somewhat inscrutable to me. I think this is because I relate to them better and they are more useful for me personally, outside of the story. They do better detective work for me inside the story world.

Relatable characters for the teller seem to lead to tellability in the story, but crucially they can’t be completely scrutable to you. If they were, writing nonfiction would be a more efficient way to get to what you want, and you’d unconsciously realize that and not want to tell the story. The reason to use a fictional deputy is to set them up to perhaps figure out things you can’t.

I think my favorite story so far is The Retiree, whose protagonist, Ozy Khan, apparently wants to save the world, but also get away from it. It was worth telling for me because I wanted to work out some ideas on breaking through gridlock on climate action with godly power, and Khan’s governing archetypal contradiction provided a “clockwork engine” for doing so. I don’t share or entirely understand his motives, but they are at a level (self-actualization) that I can relate to, and they are useful in exploring questions I am motivated by. So his story is tellable for me.

But his motives, though strong and well-regulated enough to drive the story, remain somewhat inscrutable in the end. I don’t have a formula for achieving this, but it is important to achieve.

If you fail, the character will become a boringly predictable zombie by the end, and the story will probably not be worth telling all the way to the end for you. You’ll probably get sick of the character and want to kill them off long before they’re done.

The character has to retain your interest as the storyteller long enough for you to finish the story. Even if the character is living happily ever after at the end (as Ozy Khan is), he has to be living, which means, not entirely explainable and predictable. Another way to test for this is to ask: at the end, is there room to tell another story about the character, featuring the same or another contradiction? Can the character solve more mysteries for you the teller, that you yourself cannot?

In Ozy Khan’s case, I think there is and he can. What happens when he wakes up after 3 years of cryostasis? Did his plans continue to unfold smoothly, both for himself and the world? I don’t know and don’t know how to find out. But he probably can.

Putting it Together

Putting all these elements together in the form of a complete, tellable story, is not easy. I think I’ve succeeded only once, and not very well, with my earliest story, The Heirloom Lounge (2014).

It is not very satisfying to me because the “worth telling” unstable idea was a milieu featuring a lot of unstable near-future sci-fi elements, but the unnamed first-person protagonist’s contradictory wants don’t hook into the instability in any interesting way. He lives in a world I am curious about as the storyteller, but teaches me nothing about the world through the telling. He’s like an ungrateful asshole who didn’t pay me back for bringing him to life. He didn’t solve any mystery I wanted solved.

Still, he did come alive though, at least for me, and is still alive at the end, in the sense of not being rendered completely scrutable, and with stories left in him. I particularly liked that he came alive, but was not like me at all. He was relatable and scrutable, but I didn’t like him, which is probably why I couldn’t learn anything from him about the world I put him in. He had different priorities.

But I did feel like I’d invented and gotten to know a new person, a feat I don’t think I’ve truly managed to repeat. It was particularly satisfying because it was an unnamed first-person narrator, and I still managed to make him inscrutable (unnamed first-person narrators are extra hard to separate from yourself).

His world though, simply sits there, without its instabilities being triggered into motion. He simply works out his contradiction without disturbing the world in the process (without spoiling it: the contradiction is embedded in his snobbery). Actually, the contradiction doesn’t even really kick in till almost the end, which leads to the first part of the story reading like a brrrrr unwinding spring. The drive spring is overpoweringly strong, but the escapement mechanism only gets strong enough to contain and regulate it towards the end. The clockwork mechanism is poorly tuned, and its energy hard to harness. The second half of the paradox needed to be stronger to regulate the action earlier. That would have created a steady beat energy that could have been harnessed and steered better.

Still, it was almost tellable and hangs together (barely), and almost worth telling.

If I ever rewrite it, I’ll try to make the Venn diagram have an actual intersection, and also engage the contradiction earlier. The reason the story got told, despite not being very tellable or worth telling for me, is that the “technical flaw” of having the contradiction engage late allowed it to simply “spill out” one day when I was in a writing mood. Like a clock driven by a spring too strong for the escapement to trap repeatedly until it’s almost run out of energy.

But I’ll take fluency-developing wordcount wherever I can get it. Sometimes stories get told by accident, despite not being tellable.

Also, in this particular case (as in The Map), simply running with the premise for a while was interesting enough to me.

Or perhaps the right way to think of it is: once the contradiction/conflict is actually triggered, the story actually begins. But if it takes 1000 words to get there, it’s probably the start of a 10,000 word story, and cannot easily be wrapped up in 1200. Story ideas have potential energy, and both The Heirloom Lounge, and The Map probably should be much longer. I think the reason I’m inclined to stop quite soon after uncovering the latent contradiction is that that’s often enough for me, and the “worth telling” runs out of energy. I have a mathematician’s taste in solutions — once I know a solution exists, and can be constructed, I don’t need to actually see it worked out in detail.

The challenge is to strike the right balance, where the story remains worth telling so long as there is energy left in the paradox making it tellable. You should not lose interest before the spring runs out of energy.

The story should be worth telling for at least as long as it is tellable, and probably just a little longer. I suspect it’s a good idea to always leave yourself wanting more, so you can do a sequel. Or work the idea into a novel.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Mediocre MetamodernismStorytelling — End-Times Tales >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I just read “The Map” for the first time and found it unnerving with this ghostly narrator voice from nowhere. It is a bit like the infamous SciFi scientist who explains the world, in the middle of the novel, but without the pretension of knowledge and precision, because it is all a stream of rumors from they/them and it uses even passive constructions like “it was said”. You write beautifully about assembling a clock but when you write fictional prose you invent the narrator voice of a bugman (sorry!) or something even worse. Strange.

    Maybe art in the 21st century must be unpleasant (e.g. rap, graffiti, documenta 15… ) and the aesthetic reward of the reader/listener/spectator must be avoided on all costs, but is this cruelty morally necessary or is it just an attitude which became a platitude?

  2. Do you have a mechanism for collecting “ambient” energy and storing it in the drive spring to be released all at once? perhaps to recharge the spring?

    • for a story? that’s the role of suspense in a story… to store the energy created by character contradictions interacting with problems/decisions

  3. This was a really interesting read.
    I am not a professional writer but I have been writing a memoir. It’s been difficult structuring it, however, your piece has given me some ideas regarding that.
    Thank you for sharing this.