A Writer Like You: Ross Hartmann
Meet Ross Hartmann, story geek and creation enthusiast.
He is the creative director at Kiingo, a storytelling university dedicated to teaching the fundamental principles of successful storytelling. His hobbies include analyzing movies and screenplays, creating endless vocabulary lists, and trying to figure out what makes a great story.
You’ll enjoy Ross’s technical definitions of good writing and great storytelling, his advice on how to overcome writer’s block, and his writer dreams that will inspire you to think BIG.
Onto the interview!
What makes a great story?
It’s a loaded question and I love it. I ask this question of every guest on the Kiingo podcast and I’m always fascinated by the variety of answers. I’d say a great story has two core components: the ability to engage the audience (drama) and the ability to move the audience emotionally, usually stemming from some sort of realization about how the world works or should work (theme). And so story has both a dramatic and thematic realm.
The dramatic realm is all about keeping the audience engaged, interested, and continually asking the question, “What will happen next?” Various dramatic techniques can be used ranging from mystery, suspense, dramatic irony, secrets, turns of events (peripeteia), subtext, juxtaposition, misbeliefs, and misunderstandings. The storyteller’s job on a page to page basis is to generate interest and intrigue.
The thematic realm, on the other hand, is less tangible and is that nebulous sum of metaphor, symbolism, moral argument, and theme that arises from character change, crises, moral choice, and philosophical arguments played out through story structure. While dramatic tools keep the audience in their seat, thematic tools bring the story home to the dinner table. These techniques are the ones that make us see the world with brand new eyes. Theme, when done properly, is what separates a good story from a great story.
Of course this only scratches the surface of what makes a great story. Creating and using the prescriptive tools needed to put these ideas into practice is no easy feat either! But it’s a worthy endeavor. It’s what I love so much about the writing and storytelling craft—there’s never an end. You can always become a better writer and storyteller.
What is your ultimate writer dream?
My ultimate dream with Kiingo is to turn it into a transmedia creative studio. The prototypical examples of this are Star Wars and Harry Potter. Essentially as storytellers we create an expansive and fascinating story world (the worldbuilder’s dream). Then we explore the story world through different stories and across different mediums. Notice how the stories in the Harry Potter universe aren’t all just about Harry Potter. Additionally notice how stories in the Star Wars universe are told across books, movies, board games, video games, etc. Using transmedia storytelling techniques, we can take advantage of the full power of each different storytelling medium in order to thoroughly explore each aspect of the world in an interesting and immersive way. It’s the storytelling future and it’s where Kiingo is headed!
How do you define "good writing?”
This is an interesting question because it highlights the difference between writing and storytelling as a skill. Stories can be told across mediums—with silent film being an example of a medium that tells a story without any writing. But the written word has the ability to ignite imagination, due to the fact that it leaves the visual (and audio) aspect of story to the reader. The mind’s eye is forced to be active. And for this reason, the written word really has the opportunity to engage the imagination of a reader like few other mediums.
With that said, I’d define good writing as that which is able to fully immerse the reader in the story world. The implications of that statement are rather broad. We all know that feeling of being so wrapped up in a good book that we completely forget that we physically exist in the world. The mind is so immersed in the story world that our physical bodies almost seem to make that journey as well. The great writer can not only excite our imagination to produce visual spectacles, but they can also make us feel like we’re actually in the story world. We experience the emotions and feel the sensations. That’s what immersion and imagination are all about. To me, that’s the key to great writing.
What are your favorite books, and why are they your favorites?
Since we’ve been on a roll of storytelling theory here, I’ll offer a few of my favorite craft books. I’d recommend John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story for an excellent overview of story structure that extends beyond the 3-act structure and beyond the hero’s journey. Then I’d recommend John Yorke’s Into The Woods for an exploration about how story works on a macro level and micro level. He also offers an illuminating exploration of psychology in storytelling. Finally Karl Iglesias’ Writing For Emotional Impact is an immensely helpful reference guide for the nitty gritty of scene work and how to evoke emotions in the audience. Keep that one at your side as you write. There are so many great storytelling books. Although many have similar information, I can usually find a few gems in each that offer a helpful, new perspective. Those 3, however, are pretty fundamentally different in their approaches and consequently will help you see story from multiple angles.
What prevents you from writing, and what helps you overcome those writing barriers?
A lot of it comes down to willpower, honestly. The hardest part of writing for me is to just get in the flow of writing. And with that in mind, the most helpful thing I can do to overcome a writing barrier is to just start writing (I know, easier said than done). Freewriting and stream of consciousness writing are helpful techniques. Just start writing whatever comes to mind. Let your writing be bad. The goal here is to write whatever is top of mind. Don’t filter yourself. Turn off your judging instincts. Embrace the terribleness.
Another technique comes out of the Kaizen Way. The theory is to commit to a minuscule goal—something so small that it’s hard not to accomplish. If we give ourselves the goal of writing an hour every day then the task can seem so daunting that you never actually want to start. If your goal is something like writing for 5 minutes, on the other hand, you know you can do that. The key here is to actually allow yourself to stop after 5 minutes. If you don’t allow yourself to actually stop then you’ll know that the 5 minutes is a fake goal. Of course most of the time you’ll find the 5 minutes come and go as you enter the writing flow and continue on.
Another technique is to enter a state of creative play. I like to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and start researching a topic in depth. Often just the act of exploring can ignite ideas and cause me to want to write.
Thank you, Ross.
My favorite FREE THE WRITER takeaway from Ross is his tactic to overcome writers block: “Commit to a minuscule goal—something so small that it’s hard not to accomplish. If we give ourselves the goal of writing an hour every day then the task can seem so daunting that you never actually want to start. If your goal is something like writing for 5 minutes, on the other hand, you know you can do that.”
Last year, I applied this tactic to exercise—my goal was 10 minutes a day. At first I thought exercising 10 minutes a day would never help me achieve my actual goal (75-150 minutes per week), but after only one month, I was achieving my actual goal every single week. This technique really works, so I know it can help you reach your writing goals.
If you have more questions for Ross, share them in the comments below. Don’t forget to check out his website and follow him on Instagram (@kiingocreative).
Keep freeing the writer,