All entries for Monday 28 November 2005
November 28, 2005
Workshop 1: Teaching Story Writing
STORY STRUCTURE … in brief
What do we mean by Plot? Simply, plot is WHAT HAPPENS in a short story or novel. No more, no less. It isn't description or dialogue, and it certainly isn't theme. Theme is the subject of the story – e.g. loneliness, revenge, jealousy, self-discovery. In the best stories, plot grows organically out of character, rather than being imposed from above. Specifically, plot is the result of choices made by characters in a story, especially the story's protagonist, or main character.
Renowned writer Anne Lamott ('Bird by Bird,' 'Operating Instructions') created a mnemonic device to help writers remember how to structure plots that work:
Begin your story as close to the inciting incident as you can.
Provide only enough Background at first so that the Action doesn't confuse your readers. They don't need to know everything, just enough to follow along.
Conflict constitutes what your protagonist wants, but doesn't have. It doesn't matter what your protagonist needs, as long as he or she needs it badly. The best Conflicts are dramatic and specific. Don't write about a teenage girl who's looking for love; write about a teenage girl seeking her first kiss. For one thing, focusing on the kiss will focus your storytelling and your readers' attention. Even more important, those readers will know without question at the end of the story whether the heroine has attained what she wants or not. Hamlet seeks to overcome his late-adolescent malaise, but what makes Shakespeare's play dramatic is his need to kill his uncle to avenge the murder of his father.
Conflict IS story, and, conversely, without Conflict, you have no story.
Development is the series of attempts made by the protagonist to resolve his or her Conflict. These attempts should increase with regard to drama and/or suspense, and ideally, each step in the Development should tell us a little bit more about the protagonist. Development can be an emotional, spiritual or intellectual journey. Often, it is a combination of all of these.
Here's where the mnemonic device needs further development of its own, since 'End' isn't an especially helpful term; expand it to include 3 more C's: Crisis, Climax, Consequences.
1. CRISIS is often the final stage in a story's Development. In the best stories, it involves a choice — and not simply a choice between good and evil, since given that choice, we'd all pick good. Crisis is a choice between two options of equal, or nearly equal, value. Crisis is, by definition, the most dramatic point in your entire story.
2. CLIMAX is not necessarily the most dramatic point, despite the word's colloquial meaning. Instead, Climax is the resolution of Conflict. Climax is the point of no return. At the Climax of a story there is simply no turning back; the protagonist is powerless to change his fate. Think of Romeo's suicide, the Climax of Shakespeare's play not because it's dramatic, but because it prevents him and Juliet from living together in love.
3. CONSEQUENCES is what is left when the Conflict of a story has been resolved. How have your protagonist and his world changed — or stubbornly refused to change — as a result of the story? The French call this part of the story the 'denouement' or 'unraveling.' Take the example of the uncut grass next door at the conclusion of 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which indicates quite literally that the landscape of the book has been altered forever by its Action.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, you aren't required to use this structure in telling stories. But if you do, however, your stories, novellas and novels are sure to work. That is, when people are done reading [one of your] pieces of fiction, they will feel as if they've been told a story.
A Crime to Die For
By Nigel Spriggs
Her agent described her as genius gone cold. In her own mind, she was genius gone bad, genius found out.
She remembered the moment clearly. Seven years ago now. Conrad Macaffey phoned within minutes of the book launch. "The butler did it," he said.
In hindsight she should have thought up a better response – something along the lines of, maybe, maybe not. Or, you've looked at the last page, Conrad, you cheating stupid waste of space, over-paid, over-critical, under-achieving, book-reviewing scum. Instead she squawked, "How do you know that?"
"It's obvious," he told her. "Within the first twenty pages. A five year old could tell."
Others put it kinder, but the response was always the same. "I knew it was the butler." And then, added in a hurry. "Good read, though. Enjoyed it very much."
She determined to try harder. It somehow made things worse. Her agent looked up from the script. "For God's sake, Constance. The butler did it again."
"You've only read five pages. How can you know that?"
"It's obvious. You've mentioned him a dozen times. You've said he couldn't have done it. He's even got a limp."
"He was in an accident."
"We'll be in an accident if we publish rubbish like this." He dropped the novel in the bin. "Go write something new. And for God's sake, not the butler."
So here she was, five years down the line, screen blank, mind empty. From a shelf her novels watched her. She picked one up, looked at the writing on the fly. Constance Grainger. Queen of Mystery. Master of Macabre. Another Slasher Smasher. Constance sighed. The only mystery now was where it had all gone wrong. She couldn't seem to think straight. She couldn't seem to see. She looked down to her right. A pile of novels towered on the carpet. Greatest Ever Mysteries. The World's Wackiest Unsolved Crimes. Murdered By Who And Why. To her left, a larger pile of cuttings, taken from the press. Constance "The Butler" Grainger Disappears from Scene. Constance "The Butler" Grainger Attacks Critic at Awards (In the picture she is getting fat. Luckily, most people fail to see this. They are too busy gawking at Macaffey, the blood pouring from his nose.) Constance Grainger To Wed (again).
She'd tried marriage to get herself going. And divorce. And marriage two times again. Constance had tried everything, from not working for six months to not having a day off in three years, from typing out her first ever number one smash to typing out every single Harry Potter in the hope her own magic would return. Yet here she was, nothing left inside her, nothing left to write. All the mysteries had been solved.
And if they hadn't, they'd all been done to death: Jack The Ripper. The Mary Celeste. The Babes In The Wood. All the great unsolved. Everything had an answer. Constance couldn't add a thing. And then it came to her. What the world needed was a brand new unsolved crime. A puzzle to get them thinking. Something they'd never be able to solve, no matter how long they spent trying. At last she began to type:
Constance Grainger is retiring. Yep. She's had enough. To show there are no hard feelings, you are invited to a Farewell Constance Party at the above address on Friday, 23rd August. RSVP if you please.
She sent one to her agent, her editor, her ex-husbands, her three main rivals for the title Queen of Scream. She sent one to Conrad Macaffey. With herself, there would be ten. Constance prepared the way she used to write; quickly, methodically, and with an added touch of invention that made her feel brand new. The weeks seemed to fly.
Suddenly, it was time. Her agent turned up first. Then her first and second ex-husbands. Then the other novelists, giggling and preening. Constance showed them in, then ex-husband number three. Finally, her editor and Conrad arrived together. "Conrad," she said. "So glad you could make it. Your nose is looking swell."
He touched it with his finger. "I suppose you think that's funny?"
"Believe you me," Constance said with feeling. "You've caused me much more pain."
This seemed to cheer him up. He allowed her to take his jacket. They went through to join the others. Constance stood at the head of the table.
She tapped her glass for silence. Her guests all turned towards her.
"Well," she said. "Thank you all for coming. As you'll have seen from my invitation, I feel my writing career is over. I just wanted to hold this little party to show there were no hard feelings. Not in life and not in writing. It's been a good innings. I've had a lot of fun. So I propose a toast. Constance Grainger's dead. Long live Constance Grainger." She raised her glass. The others raised their glasses. Constance watched them drain them, then watched as they slumped forwards, one by one, against the table.
Smiling, she put her untouched glass down, went through to the kitchen. The handcuffs and bags were ready. She took them through to the other room. Her guests were sleeping soundly. She cuffed their hands in front of their bodies, then put the bags over their heads, pulled the draw-strings tight. Nine faces turned deep blue; their air began to run out.
Constance went back to her seat: one pair of handcuffs left, one drink, one plastic bag. She looked at her dying companions, then clicked her handcuffs on, drained the drug laced drink, and put her head inside the bag. Her breath began to fog it; her last chapter had begun. Constance pulled the draw-strings tight, smiled at her own genius. This was the perfect crime. No motive. No survivors. No suspects. No forensics. Detectives and writers would puzzle forever and ever, but they would never pin it to her; never, ever solve it.
Constance fell forwards, towards the table, and slipped mysteriously away.
Story Openings: Four Essentials
By John R
The opening paragraphs of a short story are particularly important. If they don't tilt the reader into the rest of the story, the reader may well give up before they get to all that meaty stuff 1,000 words in.
So, make sure your opening is effective.
Well, effective openings generally do at least four things:
a) introduce character
b) set up conflict
c) suggest a Dramatic Question the story will answer
d) demonstrate the writer's prose-writing ability.
a) If you introduce your main character early, you give the reader a person to focus on, and perhaps to identify with. That can increase reader involvement.
b) If you hint at the nature of the main story-conflict in the first few paragraphs, the reader is primed for what comes later.
c) If your opening raises a Dramatic Question in your reader's mind (will your main character find the love she needs, or discover the truth behind her father's lies, or defeat the school bully…?) – your reader has a solid reason to carry on.
d) In your opening you must convince the reader that you can handle the English language well enough to tell a good story. If your prose is awkward (and especially if it contains basic mistakes) your opening may not get finished – which of course means your story won't get finished, either.
Get the opening right and your reader (or editor) will keep on reading.
The Man at the Bar
By Hasan Shikoh
The night flashes absently with gaudy neon signs in the empty General Mathenge Road. In numerous alleys along it, old men and women sleep with blankets draped around them. From a building in a corner, a red-orange light spills out from a doorway. A loner sits half-asleep on a chair by its entrance. A cacophony of conversation and music emanates from inside.
The night is cold. People inside the bar warm themselves with cheap beer and laughter. A bleary-eyed band plays live reggae music amid the cloud of cigarette smoke, stench of Tusker beer and body odor.
"The boss is a bastard, Kamau."
"That's not new."
"He doesn't know a damned bit about what to do."
"He's always like that, Njoroge. He has no sense."
"Who brought him to the top?"
"I wish I had that kind of money."
"Well, you just don't."
"Then what's the point?"
"Can't I just wish? Don't I have the right even to wish, damn it?"
"Perhaps. But you don't have money. And that is just that. You are a poor thing. You'll die so."
They sip their beer.
"Tell me, where did he get that kind of money?"
"They say he's rich and has good contacts. He says he's worked as foreman for 12 years at another place. That's all. Nobody knows anything more."
"I'm thinking of quitting this job."
"Where do you think you'll go?"
"I don't know."
"Thank the Lord you can get even this cheap beer with what you make, my friend."
"Let's go over to those girls. You need to relax. They're playing roulette."
The barman snatches their lagered mugs away along with the smeared two ten shilling notes from the bar. Njoroge, taller of the two, and short tempered, lights a cigarette as they plod toward the crowd.
Everybody is excited. People are gambling. Two girls with long, red painted nails manage the game. One rolls the machine while the other collects the chips and the money. Men snuggle around them, jostling deliberately against their bodies.
Njoroge, towering above others, can see best what is going on. Suddenly, there is clapping and excitement. Somebody has won. Everybody looks greedily at the fingers giving away five hundred shilling notes to a shabby little man who wears a hat over his bald head. He has won five hundred shillings – half a month's pay – in just a few minutes. He has become rich – in one night!
The little man decides he will have a go again. He wants to get even richer. He slams the bank notes on the table and the girl pulls them charmingly towards herself. Somebody shoves people away and arranges himself alongside the girl with the money. He removes his cap and rubs his hands together. It is Njoroge. He wants to get rich, too. He, too, has a dream.
The little man rubs his huge belly as he takes a long sip of his beer. "Five hundred shillings," he says.
The girl with the money smiles.
"Five hundred shillings," Njoroge echoes.
"What are you doing, man?" Kamau cries. "You got no other money. You got a family to feed."
Njoroge counts five hundred shillings – some of it in small change – and hands it over to the girl. Kamau shouts at him again from behind other thronging men; but Njoroge's mind concentrates, and his eyes stare at the red, black and white rink with passion.
The other girl rolls the rink. The men drink and suck long at their cigarettes before the dice and the rink come to a stop.
There are cheers as Njoroge wins. He does not have many friends around so the merry-making does not last long. He wants Kamau to see him having won a game. He would like to look at him straight in the eye now.
There is going to be a set of three rounds. Quickly, arrangements are made for the next one. Njoroge has won one. If only he wins one more, he would be five hundred shillings richer – in the middle of the month!
The smile on his lips disappears as he concentrates again. He must win.
The rink and the die are rolled again. Njoroge stares at the rotating movement, concentrating so much that his eyes nearly lose focus. He curses it to stop, and prays for the red for he has chosen that color again.
The die stops on the black. The short, unkempt man wins. Njoroge swallows. His heart skips a beat. It is one-one now.
Njoroge breaks from the throng and orders a beer at the bar. He swallows the whole drink in one swig and returns to the rink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He adjusts himself beside the buxom girl and waits until the other one rolls the rink and the one by his side rolls the die a third time. This time, he has chosen black as his rival did before because he thinks that the short man has a lot of good luck.
The rink rotates at a fast pace, then it slows down and the poor man's heart beats faster.
"Black, darn you. Black. Gaawd … please, black!"
Njoroge watches the dial point at white, then red, then black. The rink crawls ever more slowly and it seems to stop at white; then that last millimeter squeezes past and it rests at red. The lucky little man wins again. He is the owner of another five hundred shillings now.
Njoroge's dream is shattered once again. Men praise the short man. The girls smile and eye him approvingly.
Njoroge is dazed. He does not seem to register anything now. He loses his temper. He swears at the little man and flounces at him. The men around him clamp his limbs. There is a lot of hooting. After a little struggle, Njoroge sags. The men set him free. He trudges out away from them and reaches the bar. He orders a beer but the barman looks at him reluctantly. He knows he has just lost a lot of his money and doubts whether he would be able to pay for a drink. Njoroge notices his attitude and orders rudely again. The barman complies, spilling some beer out of the bottle as he serves with disgust. Njoroge grabs it and pours the entire beverage down his throat in one go again; then he slams the bottle on the counter and orders for another.
Presently, Kamau flashes through his mind; then the issue of money for the month springs up and he instinctively grabs the new bottle that just appears before him.
There is no more money for his wife and his seven children. And there are fifteen days yet to go. He drinks.
He looks nonchalantly for his friend but does not find him anywhere. A few paces away the band entertains a sparse group of swinging drunkards to Red, Red Wine, in a smoky wash of disco lights. Njoroge seems to think for a while then pulls out some last ten-shilling notes and drops them on the counter. Then he slides away from the barstool, but his legs buckle as a sharp pang of nausea attacks him. Banter breaks out at his back.
"Shurrup!" he shouts without turning but the men hoot back even more. His knees hurt but he manages to lift himself up and trudges toward the exit, away from this smelly, noisy world.
It is three o'clock and the night has gathered on with its earlier bite. The sky is a confusing blue-black with the distant, jewel-like stars far away and above watching Njoroge slave himself along the empty road.
In the fresh air, he catches his own beer-fumed breath and feels even sicker. He drops his arm into his shabby blazer that he had bought at a second-hand clothes sale from an Indian family up at Kusi Lane, and pulls out his half-smoked cigarette. He lights it up after a series of failures and puffs deeply.
The distant howls of stray dogs reach his ears as he passes along an unlit area of the road. Just then, a skinny dog sneaks past him and he looks at it hasten away into an alley. Suddenly his spinning mental theater straightens.
Ah, yes. Although everybody else despises him – his boss, Kamau, the girls and the men at the bar – he is not the only defeated creature in this cold world.
While he is engrossed in this consolation, he trips against a large slab of cement placed half over a manhole. He pitches headlong and crashes into a dented lamp post. He senses warm blood pour across his face and a violent pain stab in his head; then everything turns dark. But still, just before he collapses, he registers a last strange solace: It is still two hours before day break when somebody might spot him, and if at all, pick him up; at least till then, it would be a dreamless sleep.
Ten Quick Tips for Inexperienced Writers
By V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D.
One of the biggest problems that inexperienced writers have is simply knowing how to get started. If you’re unsure of your writing skills, then here are some quick tips to help you get started.
1. Get yourself a thesaurus—or better yet, two of them. These can be tremendously helpful tools when you’re struggling to find the right word. A thesaurus is no substitute for a solid vocabulary, but it is still helpful in a pinch.
2. Avoid using the same word too frequently. This can make one’s work sound repetitive. Again, a good thesaurus can be helpful in this regard.
3. Keep your sentences fairly short, since longer sentences can sound unwieldy. I’ve found that 17 words or fewer is a good guideline. Do remember that this is just a guideline, though.
4. Even as you keep the sentences short, make sure that they flow together well. Sometimes, unskilled writers will simply chop longer sentences up into shorter segments that don’t blend together smoothly. If in doubt, try rephrasing the sentences or adding the proper connective phrases (e.g. “then,” “so,” “as a result”).
5. Get a copy of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It’s a short book, but incredibly helpful. There is no better reference for aspiring writers.
6. Don’t rely too much on your word processor’s grammar checking features. They can be quite impressive, but their capabilities are still quite limited. Spelling checkers are also limited in their capabilities, since they cannot recognize a lot of proper names and technical terms. In addition, spell checkers cannot detect situations wherein the user has entered the wrong word in place of the proper one.
7. Proofread, proofread and proofread… over and over. When you’re done, have a friend proofread your work as well.
8. Remember your target audience. Ask yourself, “What information will my audience require in order to understand what I’m saying?”
9. Avoid clever wordplay unless you’re sure that it will work. In most cases, it is best to gain more writing experience before trying something witty.
10. Remember the artist’s adage, “Practice, practice, practice”? If you want to become good at writing, then write, write and write!
Show, Don’t Tell
By Stamford Jackson
This is an article I found on the net – can’t remember where. It may be useful when considering this often discussed problem:
If you've been writing long, and probably even if you haven't, you'll have heard the old writing advice, "Show, Don't Tell." This is good advice, to a point, but sometimes you can't avoid telling rather than showing. We'll explore both in this article.
Think about real life for a moment. If someone told you that a lion had escaped from the local zoo and was running loose around your neighbourhood, you'd probably want to find out if it was really true before investing in a high-powered rifle (though you might bring your cat inside and avoid going out yourself, just in case). If they actually took you to see the lion wandering about on the streets, you'd likely take protective precautions right away.
You may wonder what escaped lions have to do with writing. It's not the lions, but the normal human reaction to being told something versus being shown something (especially if that something is out of the ordinary). In the first case—being told—you may or may not believe the teller, and are likely to want further proof. In the second case—seeing for yourself—you'll probably believe right away (or at least be more easily convinced.
When to Show, Not Tell
Just as in our lion example, readers are more likely to believe something they are shown than something they are told. This is why the saying "Show, Don't Tell" was coined in the first place. So when you really need a reader to believe something right away, it's better to show it to them than to tell them about it. In other words, show the important stuff.
One area where showing rather than telling is especially important is in character development. If you say, "Jack was a cruel man who liked to torment small animals," it might make an impression on a reader. If you write a scene that shows Jack stringing rabbits up by their back legs and leaving them to hang in a cage full of ravenous ferrets, it makes an even bigger impression. No matter how many nice things Jack later does, the reader will not forget "seeing" the man torturing rabbits. Of course, there's no reason you can't both tell and show, but we'll get to that later.
Other aspects of writing can be treated the same way. Just remember that whenever something is important, you'll get the reader believing more quickly by showing it to them (and in some cases, showing it to them more than once).
How to Show Without Telling
It’s all very fine to know that you need to show rather than tell, but how do you go about it? In the example of Jack, the rabbits and the ravenous ferrets above, Jack's character was shown to the reader by writing a scene in which Jack does something cruel. To show—rather than tell—character, the scene is your most effective tool. Through scenes, we can "hear" the character speak and "see" them act.
Descriptive passages can also show things to the reader, but it is easy to fall into telling the reader in long descriptive prose.
But what about something like setting? How can you describe a place without telling? You can't, really, but you can use various tricks to make it seem like the reader is seeing for themself. Most effective in describing setting is to create a full sensory picture, complete with sound and smell and touch. Remember that you have five senses to draw on and use them all to put the reader into the setting. That way, they seem to experience the setting; you haven't told them about it, you've shown it to them. Be careful, though, not to overload the reader with too much detail. Be selective, and choose the detail that will most effectively create the mood or feeling you want to achieve.
When to Tell, Not Show
So now you know how and when "Show, Not Tell" is good advice. When is it not good advice, though? Imagine writing a novel in which every single aspect of character, every new setting, every action and every detail are fully and completely shown to the reader. How long would such a novel be? Not only would it be so long that very few readers would tackle it, but those who did try to read it would get bogged down and overwhelmed by all the stuff they were shown. Probably, they'd get bored and give up because there was too much development of trivial things.
Trivial things do not need to be shown. In fact, if they're truly trivial, they don't need to be in the story at all. But remember how I said that the important stuff should be shown, not told? Well, sometimes you have information that is important to the story—perhaps a small detail without which the plot cannot move forward, or a minor character trait that gives one of your fictional people more depth. This kind of information may not be central enough to the story to require the emphasis that showing gives it, but it still needs to be in there. What do you do? You tell it to the reader.
One place you'll find telling rather than showing useful is in scene transitions. When you want a reader to know that your characters have moved from one place to another, but the journey is not important, you can tell the reader about the move. "Sandra went down the hall into the kitchen" is perfectly adequate as a transition between a scene with Sandra and James fighting in their bedroom and a scene where Sandra gets a knife with which to kill her husband.
Unless there is something very important in the hallway that the reader needs to know, you don't have to linger there. Also, if you finish a scene with one set of characters and need to move to a scene in a different place with a different set of characters, you can simply tell the reader: "Andrew and Emily had made up but across the street Sandra and James were still screaming at each other across the expanse of their king-sized bed" quickly leaves one scene and moves to the next. It's all you need.
Show AND Tell
The moral of the story is this: show and tell. For the really important things, show the reader. For the less important but still necessary things, tell the reader. For the really, really important things, show the reader and tell the reader. Then maybe have one character tell another character where the reader can "overhear." Show the reader again if necessary. Next time someone says to you, "Show, don't tell," look at the specific part of your story (or poem) they are objecting to, and see if it's an instance where that advice is good or bad, or if it's somewhere you can both show and tell.
by Timber Shelton
Write true. Write what you know. Open the vein and let it pour out, says Faulkner.
I have always believed these widely known, often repeated pearls of writing wisdom to mean a good writer should somehow write about their own life, delving into their most painful memories, using glimpses of the things they have actually seen or done, even in fiction. That is, until today.
While I have been told by many that I should write a book about my life, my childhood in particular, that is something I am just not ready to do. At least not yet.
I have shied away from writing anything too personal, particularly the hardest experiences of my life – the experiences that played a major role in shaping who I am, often the experiences I try very hard not to think about. Instead, I choose to write about other people’s experiences or realities – whether real or fictional – choosing situations that are as different from my own as possible, or if my own, at least my funnier experiences. Even in my journals I tend to focus on the present, or at least the pleasant.
I distance myself from my writing, and I often feel a little guilty for it, like I am not giving it my all because I avoid the pain. After all, aren’t real writer’s supposed to be angst filled and willing to pour out their tortured souls on paper? Willing to bleed ink?
Over the day’s first cup of coffee I was reading “Escaping into the Open – The Art of Writing True” by Elizabeth Berg. I usually do a little reading before I start writing in the morning to help get into a literary frame of mind. During the first chapter she gives a short biography describing how she came to make writing her career, (which sounded very familiar). I was pondering the book’s subtitle, wondering, as I often have lately, if I would ever be able to “write true” without actually sharing my own experiences. Suddenly I was blessed with one of those lovely little epiphanies that all writer‘s occasionally enjoy – that lightening bolt of pure, clear understanding that instantly illuminates a path you didn’t know existed. It didn’t exactly come from what I was reading, though it may get into this further along in the book, (I am quite anxious to find out and will finish reading it as soon as I finish writing this).
I suddenly understood that “writing true” doesn’t mean you have to write about your actual biographical occurrences, the setting and situation is just the wrapping paper. To “write true” means to write about the core of any situation – the anger, envy, joy, grief, shame, loneliness, abandonment, longing, denial, rapture, fear and, of course, love – and the impression it makes on your spirit. Emotional landscapes that most of us have visited and sometimes lived in. Finding the grain of truth in any circumstance your characters are given and how the emotions brought on by those circumstances shape their hearts. It is not the specific experiences that readers usually relate to. Instead, it is the truest, deepest and most profound sentiments that lie behind those experiences – whether it be the humiliation that we wish to keep hidden, or the passion we want to shout from every roof top.
Maybe this is something I would have learned years ago had I experienced a formal writing education, but somehow I don’t believe so. This is a realization I was meant to have today. An understanding that will change my writing from this day forward.
I don’t have to put down on paper the experiences of my life, but I do have to remember those emotions. That is something I am willing to do.