The Art of Storytelling, Part 7

This is probably the last in this series. The February issue of Writer’s Digest has fueled a lot of my thoughts and I’m reaching the end of the articles dealing with fiction.

The one I read today reaffirmed some of the things I’ve learned about plot, but also said succinctly what I think inhibits some writers. From Steve Almond‘s Fiction column, this month’s article, “The Great Plot Test,” in which he discusses common problems he runs across in teaching fiction:

The truth is, we often can’t see the bad decisions in our own work because we’re too narcissistically attached to it.

Yep, the truth hurts at times. But he said what I bumbled around a few days ago. “Too narcissistically attached.”

Years ago, in a long forgotten article or writing book, an author wrote a well-remembered statement that if we have lines in our story that we really love, those probably are the first we should cut. I disagreed! Vehemently! Why would you cut something you knew to be good?

Finally, finally I get it. The lines themselves were standing above the story, and that’s backwards. The writing, as much as the characters, plot, setting, foreshadowing, description, symbolism, dialogue must serve the story.

If I write a pretty line I refuse to cut, I am no longer serving the story with that line. That’s not to say I need to cut a line because it is pretty. But I do need to be willing to cut it.

Lo these many years later, I’ve been lopping off favorite lines right and left.

Writing fiction really is odd. I mean, it is a form of communication, so it’s me writing something I want to say to … an unseen and unknown group of people “out there.” And, if I do my job well, those people won’t think about me at all. They will feel attached to my characters, perhaps, and after the fact become aware of me, but if I intrude in the story, they very well may put the book down, or at best skip the pages where I am visible.

The point is, those lines I love just might be the ones that intrude. At least, I need to consider that possibility.

One more line from the article. Two of the common problems Almond finds in his students have to do with plot/character issues. The first is plot drift, in which the action is not driven by the character trying to achieve his greatest desire. The second is plot shallowness (my term—Almond says the author fails to push hard enough). Here’s the crux of this last point, and I’ll end here to let you mull it over:

My point is this: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forching him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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  1. You know, Becky, I understand the vital points of all of this, I do, but there is another side to “the story” if you’ll forgive the intentional pun. The long novel is shunned in today’s literature, not so much for certain genres or as much in the ABA. I am NOT saying that every long novel needs to be as long as it is, but some do because the story and the characters demand it. Yes, we all know Moby Dick, some of Dickens’ work, Gone with the Wind even would be edited down to a trifle or rejected by today’s editors. What does that say?
    To me it says there are trends in publishing and we’re primarily in a Hemingway trend right now. Trim and pare and eliminate. Make it lean. Exactly the kind of writing I don’t like to read and certainly don’t like to write.
    There’s a lot to be said for teaching craft, but sometimes the teaching takes the heart right out of the story process and produces that formulaic model which is supposed to ring up dollar signs at the cash register.


  2. Yay Hemingway! LOL. I love lean minimal writing. Diversity is good, tho. Teaching craft is good too, it makes me consider my writing in a different way. But at the end of the day, I have found what it comes down to is instinct. And the only way I know how to discover that instinct is by practice practice practice.


  3. Becky,
    I do take a little exception with the “pretty lines” concept. I’m not sure if I’ve written pretty lines–kind of goes against my inner guy–but sometimes my characters spout off something profound.

    I believe that’s the key: if the line comes from the character (truly from their inner self, their thinking, motivation, desires) it can be extremely powerful, especially so if it ties to other parts of the story.

    A horrible example is a character who waxes about the beauty of birds; but then tie that to, as a young boy, taking care of an injured bird and his desire to be a vet, it would work. However, if I as the writer (outside a character’s POV) spend a few sentences describing birds, they don’t work nearly as well, even if they are the best poetic prose.

    Okay, back to unpacking boxes after our move. Thanks for the good series on storytelling.


  4. A little birdie told me that your site was over in My Window today!

    Have a blessed weekend!


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