The Sciences should never subvert the Arts

Mr X, a prominent resident volunteer within the community of Y, has been donating up to a total of two thousand dollars to various charitable causes every year, since eight years ago.

‘”Donations to me is a form of altruistic intent and I intend to continue doing so,” Mr X said. “Not only that. I would also like to encourage others to do the same.”

Mr X is among the few locals who have been donating generously for the past years and there has been an increasing rise in the number of such good Samaritans in recent years, thanks to a joint promotional campaign by various charitable organisations that includes Organisation A and Organisation B. “

One can often see  examples of such case studies in the papers and magazines.  In fact, this is a common writing device that journalists and writers employ to start their articles. As the world tightens its grips and fascination with storytelling, the art of storytelling has regrettably, been turned into a science.

While there’s nothing wrong with scientific pursuits, scientific endeavours tend to be formulaic. However, its easy usage in real life applications (think decimals, fractions. percentages, angles etc) due to its structured and rigid formula secures its place and position in society as the primary tool to drive the world’s progress. Nevertheless, there are some domains which science should never intrude and seek to subvert, one of which lies in the arenas of the Arts.

Look at storytelling.

The essence of storytelling lies in one’s ability to imagine, to fantasise, to engage in a dance of emotions. When such arts are relegated to factual reporting or used as case studies for various societal trends or phenomenons, storytelling loses its shine as a tool to inspire and engage. This is not to put down storytelling devices in editorial and journalistic works but rather, a call for writers and journalists to improvise on their writings, to not use storytelling as simply a hook for readers but more as an emotional tool to engage them on a deeper intellectual level that transcends mere academic intelligence.

Look at photography.

If one were to enroll in a photography class, we usually see most of the students lamenting at the tons of technicalities (such as the delicate balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO)  that one has to plough through, save for the few who are technically-inclined.  And notice how lessons on compositions brighten these students up. All these observation only serve to reinforce the fact that photography is ultimately an artistic dance between the observed and the observe, the noticed and the noticing, the light and the shadows. Science should not intrude into such domains with artificially constructed tools such as the Golden Ration and the Rules of Third. The fact that photos are still able to stand out despite the flouting of these rules bears testament that photography can still stand on the main pillars of  Arts, even if the buttresses of the Sciences are removed. The latter are merely scaffolding that can be discarded.

An interesting highlight will be photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose trademark images seem to be captured at the precise moment. And while these photos adhere to technical specifications at times, the way that the photos are taken seems to imply that intuitive guidance plays a stronger hand.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that in recent years, photo-imaging programmes (such as www.pixlr.com) have – more often than not – provided the finishing touches on an otherwise near-perfect photo.

Not everything in life can be made possible with science. There are areas where the reign of the Arts – or even a subtle infusion of them-  will enable the images to stand out. A delicate balance should be maintained between the Sciences and the Arts, a balance which should never have been tipped.

A primary reason why sciences are highly emphasised in society – besides the credibility it establishes and the consistency of results that it offers –  is because they often generate products and services that can be sold for profit. And what makes Sciences so alluring is the fact that it is an actor who plays many parts. Besides contributing to the main profit mechanism of an organisation (such as the machines that print books in publishing firms and the various transports that enable one to move from one part of town to another for a fee, of course), the sciences also provide support on the periphery of businesses(such as computers to surf the Internet and emails to communicate), thereby enhancing human communications (but not human relations, regrettably) and facilitating business transactions. Thus, the sciences are often especially embraced with lovely, tight hugs in capitalist societies.

All these are well and good. The sciences have their angelic sides. Medical advances have extended human lifespan and prevent/cure many ails of humans. They have enabled one to travel around the world (well, if one is rich enough, that is). It boosts businesses and gets the economy moving (which means generating jobs, a current and recurring issue in modern times). And not forgetting the fact that it has hastened the process of food preparation, thereby enabling food preparation time to be shortened and the quantity produced to increase.

Nevertheless, in the midst of scientific advancement and progress, let us not lose sight of what the Arts had to offer. Because life is not merely made up of formulas and numbers, algorithms and hypotheses. Life is also about poetry and dances, songs and creative choreography, literature and plays (elements that are intricately linked to spirituality – a eroding values in modern times).

This is the reason why Science should never have infringed on the Arts, since the former leverages on logic and reason while the latter derives its inspirations from the more imaginary, flowery, emotional and intuitive world.

The sciences have the ability to structure and expand, while the arts have the power to uplift the human soul and propel us into a higher level of consciousness.

It’s the delicate balance of the two that creates the equilibrium which in turn completes the world.

Leadership series (Poll): Are leadership skills transferable?

This is my first blog entry on the series on leadership skills.

Much has been discussed on leadership traits throughout the years, and a more interesting question has emerged – are leadership skills transferable? And if so, are all the skills transferable and is it true for all situations? A poll has been created below. You are welcome to vote in the poll.  Your contribution in casting a vote in the poll below will be greatly appreciated. A blog post on leadership based on the results of this poll will be posted soon.

I will also be posting several more blog posts on the topic of leadership after this. So, if you wish to stay tuned to my upcoming post, you can subscribe to my future blog post by including your email address on the right frame of this page, under “email description”.

Thanks much for your thoughts and insights!

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 5): Investigating the “WHERE” and “WHEN”

In this post, we continue with the investigation of the “WHERE”  and “WHEN” of storytelling.  This is the fifth post for this series. Please have a look at the previous four posts before reading on:

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 1): Start with the “WHY”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 2): Exploring the “WHAT”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 3): Exploring the “HOW”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 4): Let’s look at a story

Location (“where” of a story) is very important. And when we think of location, we usually also relate it to a specific time period (“when” of a story).

Let’s look at the significance that time period plays in a writer’s work first.

There are some authors who specialise in writing novels in a particular time period, doing in-depth research before penning their novels. Sometimes, their interest in these time periods is so intense that they would decide to pen an entire series of books in this time period. We usually call these types of novels historical novels. An example of such titles lies in this list on Amazon.com.

Alternatively, some authors choose to create a world or worlds of their own. Some writers who chose this route may prefer forging a new world from scratch for the location(s) of their stories over hours spent in the library doing research. The fantasy genre is one arena where such authors exercise their vivid imagination.  An example can be seen in this list on Amazon.com. Science-fiction novels is another area where worlds can be created, as shown in this list on Amazon.com.

Of course, there are also the biographical titles where stories are narrated from the past. These may seem to be the easiest out of the three when it comes to writing a story but one has to remember that biographical stories are also the most limiting – since the stories are weaved out of established facts from the past that cannot be changed, and technical details such as the schools where the main individuals graduated from are expected to be very precise. Therefore, for such writing, it’s less of imagining or conducting research and more of interviewing individuals close to the person a writer is writing on, as well as consolidating and synthesising data and information useful to the content of the book to increase its accuracy.  An example can be found in this list on Amazon.com.

Besides time period, there is also the element of location. Unlike time period, which is usually fixed, location can vary – even within the same time period. For example, if  a story of espionage is set within World War II, the lead protagonist can move from Italy to Britain to Germany to Japan.  Hence, other than biographical stories, writers are often given the flexibility to decide on the locations, and the order in which they appear.

Stories can move from one location to another in a fast or slow manner, and sometimes, they can return to the initial location. Locations can also be indoor or outdoor, providing different scenarios for different scenes to be played out. For instance, a cat-and mouse search within a house can only happen indoor, while a car chase can only occur outdoor. Location also determines if the setting is in a rural or urban area or both – and these differences make a whole lot of difference in how readers perceive the story.

It is important for writers to have a good understanding of how their story is going to be played out. Once the story is determined, the background of the story should be decided soon. This is because only when the story background is laid out can writers determine the time period and location.

The period and location determines the “feel” of the story and hence, it is important that these two factors get decided first before commencing writing. Of course, writers are free to improvise and revise their decisions later but unless writers choose to rewrite their stories, it is impossible to change the time period of the story. Furthermore, changes in location later in the story-writing process have their limitations. Thus, extra care has to be given to this aspects of story-writing.

In the next post for this series, we will be taking a look at the “WHO” of story-writing.

Success factors of Storytelling (Part 4): Let’s look at a story

Before we proceed further, let’s explore a story integrating the “why”, “what” and “how” elements. This is a continuation from the previous three posts. If you have not read them, please access them in the online links below:

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 1): Start with the “WHY”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 2): Exploring the “WHAT”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 3): Exploring the “HOW”

Let’s look at a story with the topic of “tolerance”:

———————————————————————–

“What do you think you should do when someone scolds you?”

“I will scold him back.”

“Haha! Will there be an end to this then?”

“Hm….”

“What if you keep quiet?”

“He will keep scolding me.”

“No. He will stop.”

There are many lessons that Uncle Johnson taught me about life but the most memorable lessons are those of tolerance. Why do I find this lesson to be the most memorable? Because my understanding and practice of tolerance has enabled me to be successful in life, widening my social circle and advancing my career.

Uncle Johnson doesn’t teach. He shows me the lessons through real-life examples. He doesn’t shout back when shouted by others. He cleans up a water spill from a kettle after carelessly dropping it without any form of lamenting. He almost always smiles in front of hostile or aggressive parties and never raise his voice necessarily  during times when I think that he should be angry. I have learnt a great deal through Uncle Johnson’s daily dealings with others.

“Tolerance is a virtue”, Uncle Johnson used to tell me. “With tolerance, one can weather any types of storm in life. There are many people who feel that retaliation is the antidote to insults when tolerance is the prescription.”

When I was reprimanded by teachers in school, Uncle Johnson would advice me to simmer down and asked me what was the lesson that I could learn from this. When I told Uncle Johnson that there was no lesson to be learnt, he would keep quiet and soon after, told me that my anger and denial of the truth had kept me from recognising the lessons hidden within. He would give me a week to think things through and strange enough, I would almost always get the lesson by the deadline, of which he would request that I write down these learnt lessons in a journal.

Initially, I did not know that Uncle Johnson was managing my emotions. I just had the feeling that he was teaching me about lessons, lessons which I had to write in my journal. But then again, I guess I was justified in not knowing the truth since I was only twelve then.

It was only many years later, when I had lost contact with Uncle Johnson after I had left for further studies, that I realised this when I returned to my old home and found my long-lost journal under a stack of clothes in the basement of my house. Flipping through the last few pages of my journal, I came across a few paragraphs of text on the last few pages that I have not seen before:

Dear Kenny,

You are almost done in writing on this book, so I will like to give you a last advice to serve as a closure to all that you have learnt.

 You might think that you are learning lessons of life from me but in actuality, I am teaching you about tolerance. This is the only lesson that I am teaching you. Whatever you have written on this book is all about tolerance. 

How is that so?

Life’s lessons have tolerance at its core. 

This is all you need to learn in your life.

Love,

Uncle Johnson 

Brushing the dust off the dried pages of the journal, I cried.

I cried because I missed the lessons I have learnt under the tutelage of Uncle Johnson.

I cried because I have not known and acknowledged Uncle Johnson’s years of effort and dedication in taking care of me.

But most importantly, I cried because I missed Uncle Johnson.

Suddenly, there was a few loud knocks on the front door.

“Kenny! Are you in there?”

I recognised Uncle Johnson’s voice instantly, despite years of separation.

I climbed the stairs out of the basement in exasperation, sprinted towards the front door, grabbed the door knob, twisted it around and opened the door.

Bright sunlight streamed in and I squinted my eyes to refocus them.

And there, standing outside the door was Uncle Johnson, who haven’t aged one bit.

He gave me a big smile.

——————————————————————-

This story is written in a first-person perspective.

Why did I write this story? 

Well, I want to describe the close relations between a child and an old man where the latter serves as a mentor and coach to the former – and how the old can guide and teach the young.

What do I want readers to take away from this story?

I want to focus and emphasise on the importance of tolerance as the essential quality which lies at the core of life’s successes. And I like readers to learn and practice tolerance in real life.

How would I want my story to reach out to readers?

I have deployed the use of dialogues and content which require inner introspection through a narrative structure.

In my next post, we will discuss the importance of “WHERE” and “WHEN” in story-writing.

Success factors of Storytelling (Part 3): Exploring the “HOW”

This is the third instalment of the “Success Factors of Storytelling” series. You can find the first and second instalment here and here, respectively.

We have explored the reasons for writing the story and analysed the elements that readers find interesting when reading stories. In this article, we are going to explore the following questions:

HOW would I want my story to reach out to my readers?

For this questions, there are several factors that a writer needs to consider:

  • Genres: First and foremost, we have to look at the genres, just like films.  As writers, we need to decide on the genres first. This is because genres set the mood, which is the next element we will discuss. But before then, let’s look at how the types of genres determine the story development. While as writers, we may often frown on stereotyping stories in the same way that people are stereotyped, it ‘s unavoidable to avoid all forms of stereotyping.  If it’s a mystery thriller, the story cannot be too light-hearted, unless we want to add comical elements into the story, like “Monk” the TV series, where humour is injected intermittently to spice up the drama. Similarly, we do not see much action or thrilling scenes in romance novel, because it doesn’t fit the expectations of the readers. All of us have expectations about what to expect from a story or a film after reading a synopsis or watching a trailer (although we shouldn’t!). Come to think of it, writing a novel that switches genre midway during the story is interesting, such as the film “Rec“, which switches from a documentary film into a horror visual feast midway through the film.
  • Mood: After selecting the genre, a writer would need to select the mood for the story. The mood of the story will probably fluctuate if we choose to chart them out but on the whole, the mood level varies accordingly to the genres that we choose. For example, a romantic comedy will most probably infuse more humour into the story than say, a horror tale of eight strangers stranded in a motel along a quiet highway. Although we have lesser control over the mood of the story than we often imagine, there’s still a certain degree of control that we have over them. For example, we can add conflicts and altercations into a romantic comedy where tensions run high as the couple rides the highs and downs of emotional turmoil and upheavals of a romantic relationships and/or marriage.
  • Narrative, descriptive or brief:  A narrative, descriptive and brief story formats are very different, although some of us would feel that they are the same. Most stories strike a balance between the three, although there are some where one or two of the three may take up a substantial portion of the story. Consider Agatha Christie‘s mystery novels. It’s a mix of narrative and descriptive style, with the former having a higher proportion as dialogue is the main engine that drives the interrogation processes, which in turn thrust the story forward to an often interesting and satisfying conclusion. “The Lord of the Rings”  is a novel which is filled with detailed descriptions of places, such as Middle Earth, interspersed with dialogues between the various characters. Incidentally, the trilogy also plots a man’s journey from adolescence to adulthood, a concept popularised by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces“. Brief stories refer to novels with numerous short chapters of 2-8 pages each. There are writers who adopt such writing style in recent years, specifically in thriller and suspense novel and the more popular ones include James Patterson and Dean Koontz.
  • Length of story: In composition writing, writers have minimal control over how much details they are able to put in but then again, they are still able to control the length of the story by controlling and determining the plot. With short writing, writers need to know how much they have to say and how. If they have much to say, they would have to use descriptive paragraph and if they have not much to say, dialogues may be a better tool to move the story forward.  For novel writing,  there are more leeway and control for writers. Regardless of the type of story-writing involved, a writer should have a basic idea of the length of story and how it’s going to end. It need not be concrete and writers can and should improvise along the way. Nevertheless, a good grasp of how the story should develop is important in creating and crafting a great tale in the initial stages.
  • Pace of story: Besides the length of the story, the pacing of the story is also important. Although we are individuals of habit, it is human nature to love variety. And a shift in story pacing is important to sustain readers’ interest in the continual development of the story. Adding a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapters also helps in building excitement and suspense for the story. For cliff-hangers, the varieties are endless. For composition or short story writing, the pace can be controlled through a calculated and measured use of paragraphing and dialogue.  The opening paragraph of a story is an important tool to start the pace of the story and writers should be discerning in creating this. Starting the story with an ongoing dialogue and beginning the first paragraph with the narrow escape of an individual all serve to interest and sustain the reader’s interest in the story.

The elements above are a few important tools that writers can use to develop the structure of the story and interest the readers. There are many more literary devices that writers can use.  Mastering the above elements first will enable anyone to be a proficient writer. As one reads and writes more, one will gain the experiences to be a prolific writer over time.

As writers, we need to be patient. Writing skills are developed over time. Understand what readers are looking for and how , as writers, we are able to deliver our stories in words to them. It is an art form that  – over time and with consistent practice – we will definitely master.

Let’s continue here.

Success factors of Storytelling (Part 2): Exploring the “WHAT”

This post continues from the previous post, which can be read here.

While the first post investigates the “why” of storytelling, this post touches on the “what”. However, even this is too wide a subject area to be covered in a single post. Hence, we are going to zoom in on this specific question:

WHAT do I want readers to take away by reading this story?

Understanding the reason for writing the story establishes the scaffolding for continuing and completing the story but writing – as in all if not most forms of writing – goes both ways. Readers would often ask the “what’s in it for me?” question. In the same way that one would question the need to attend a particular speaking seminar or to take the time to participate in a lesson on children education,  readers will also ponder on the necessity to read a story – and this is even more so if it is a novel.

A writer might think that their readers will be happy just by merely reading a story. But in current times, there are tons of titles and countless stories to choose from. So, why should it be our stories?  What is the special attractions of our stories? Each author has their own unique strengths in creating a powerful story.

What is yours?

Just to provide a few examples. I was enthralled when I read “My Sister’s Keeper” by writer Judi Picoult – because her stories often do not only show the readers what the story is about, they also ask the readers very interesting questions about dilemma and life. This is the essence of what makes her story shine.  I was equally mesmerised by “Warrior of the Light: A Manual” by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer who has his works translated into so many languages that one will have to select “English” so as to access his official website. Coelho’s writing strength lies in this ability to narrate very educational and insightful stories with a dose of spirituality that leaves the reader enlightened with life’s wisdom.

In Asia, a Japanese writer by the name of Haruki Murakami rose into prominence with “Norwegian Wood” and “After Dark“, both of which are among his more popular titles. He has mastered an ability to turn artistic cinematic flicks into literary words, transforming what the movie medium wants to tell us into art house literature – thereby giving readers a feel of the cinematic reel without being in the theatre itself. This ability of his is matched by few and herein lies his forte.  And Terry Brooks is a great fantasy writer whom I have come across during my primary school days. His novel “The Sword of Shannara“was the first novel I have read and it was this title that brought me into the world of fantasy. A strong ability to characterise heroes and villains enabled Terry Brooks to be one of the most popular fantasy writers around.  “Watchers” by Dean Koontz  was the book that brought me into adult fiction, and he has the ability to bring his characters to life through unusual story twists and almost unrivaled suspense.

So, what are the ingredients that attract readers other than the story content itself?

For story writing, readers are attracted by various elements in the stories and they are summarised as follows:

1. Values: This is one of the most important things that readers would usually want to take away from the stories they read. Values usually go both ways. The protagonist advocates the positive values while the villains promote the negative ones. However, a great story will portray the various characters with some flaws, thereby making them more human and easier to relate with. Look at fairy tales titles such as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Most of them carries with them certain values that readers can learn from. Writers should ensure that the same goes for their  stories. You can ask yourself this question. What makes Lord of the Rings such a classic hit years after the book has been written? What has its author Tolkien done that makes his tale such a memorable one – that even a movie trilogy has been made based on its content?

2.  Communication skills:  A commonly overlooked area is communication skills. This is where the use of conversations are put to great use by writers to personalise and characterise the characters in the story. Many communication skills can be learnt through conversations in the story. Thus, readers should put in a great amount of effort in choosing the time and content to insert conversations into the story. A careless insertion of conversations into a story will make it less interesting while a strategic insertion of conversations into the story will turn a mediocre tale into a lively one. It is challenging to determine where and when to insert a specific conversation into a story as this skill can only be mastered through consistent reading of other writers’ works, as well as continuous writing practices on the part of the writer.

3. Self-reflection: One of the unique talents that seems to be found among great writers is the ability to enable readers to self-reflect not only when they have finished reading the story but also, when they are reading the stories. And to do this, writers have to master not only strong observation skills of everyday happenings and integrating them into the story, they should also have an in-depth understanding of psychology, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences, as well as the ability to ask the right questions (which are usually not directed at the readers but the questions usually materialise in the form of inner thoughts within the readers’ minds).  Self- reflection can take place at any place in the stories – when the character faces strong doubts in their lives, when they encounter a challenge, when they question life, and when their inner thoughts are portrayed in words.

4. Learning lessons to be applied in real life:  Unlike some who feel that fictional stories – like movies – are meant to be regarded as a form of escapism, stories are in fact portals and channels which allow readers to delve themselves in, thereby gaining the experiences and insights that are useful to be applied in real life. If a writer is able to enable readers to see themselves in the story and whose stories resonate strongly with the readers, he or she is a great writer. Solutions can be found in stories – and usually in an unintentional manner. We can learn much from stories , and because we usually find lessons in stories by chance, we learn them in a more relaxed manner than a deliberate search for answers in non-fiction titles. And it’s often this experience of falling in love with the characters and understanding ourselves through them that we discover aspects of ourselves that we have not realised before.

These are the four main types of elements that distinguish a great writer from an average one. While the four elements are simple to understand, it’s challenging to apply them strategically to maximise the emotional impact of your story. Consistent practice in writing is key. Nevertheless, a basic awareness of these elements are necessary to establish a strong base on which your journey towards excellent writing can begin.

Begin your writing journey now, as we continue to explore the “HOW” of writing in our next post.

Success factors of Storytelling (PART 1): Start with the “WHY”

The art of storytelling is not new.

But some do not understand why storytelling is necessary when reporting the mere facts of something will do. We see this happening all the time, especially in email correspondences in the workplace. As work pace increases, there is greater need for information to be concise, precise, succinct and brief – so everything else is cut off except for the cold, hard facts. However, this also means that all emotions – including positive ones – are cut off too. There are some who will even advise on eliminating all kinds of formality, such as “Good day”, “Have a nice day” etc. Saving one’s time and effort are the reasons for the advice. But unknown to them, emotional detachment and loss of interpersonal rapport with others are the price we pay. Taking some time to tell others the reasons (which is the “why”) for requesting or doing something may at times be time-consuming and tedious but what one gets back in return is mutual understanding and respect. And when the “why” is complemented with a narrative story when time permits, the positive emotional impact on others can be extremely powerful and at times – life-changing.

Similarly, when parents educate their children, they are often direct and to the point. “Do not watch TV while eating”, “be quiet when you are studying”, “do not come home late tonight” and “greet your elders” are some of the basic social etiquette that are commonly taught to the kids. However, because the children do not understand the “whys” behind the “hows”, they often refuse to obey or find the rules too ridiculous to even abide by them. “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” is a great read to inspire oneself to explore and understand why the understanding and acceptance of the “why” behind our every actions in all aspects of our lives are important. We should question if every aspect of our inner motivation for doing things are positive for others and to do so, we need to investigate the “why” of our everyday lives. More importantly, we should encourage and motivate a child to explore the “whys” of his or her every action. And using stories is among the best ways to achieve this.

The same goes for short story or novel writing. Why would reader want to read a short story or novel? What would attract reader to a story? What elements of a story would readers be interested in? Other than the first question, we will address the second and third questions in subsequent posts.

A lot of writers commit the fallacy of engaging the “what” instead of the “why” first – unaware of the fact that it’s the “why” that precedes the “what”. If the readers do not understand the reason for reading the story, why would they be interested in the types of literary devices used in constructing the story? Think about this.

Therefore, to start a story, all writers should ask themselves this questions before penning the story, starting with the “why” before progressing to the “who”, ‘what”, “when”, “where” and “how”:

WHY would I want to write this story? 

WHAT do I want readers to take away by reading this story?

HOW would I want my story to reach out to my readers?

WHERE would the setting in which the story takes place be in?

WHO would be great characters to include in the story?  

WHEN would be a great time period to set the stage for the story?

Out of the six questions above, the first question is the most important. Answering the first question will not only provide one with the intrinsic motivation to continue writing the story, it will also establish a basic reference point for one to refer back consistently when writing the story.

So, the “why” should be connected with an inner aspect of a writer, emanating from his or her inner essence and through this connection, what resides in the inner psyche should in turn manifest externally in the form of stories. All great stories in the world probably originate from this source.

What great stories do you have to tell the world?

Let’s continue here.