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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Piquing Curiosity


Yesterday I mentioned some things that cause confusion—conflicting facts, improper motivation, a lack of adequate details to ground a scene, and a lack of foreshadowing. In trying to avoid confusion, however, I’m opening myself up to another novel killer—a boring story.

Well, maybe not a boring story but a story told in a boring way. I suggest a story can turn boring for several reasons.

First, the characters are flat (synonymous with cardboard, two-dimensional, stereotypical). A character who is not well-rounded is predictable, lifeless, a mere placeholder. There is no surprise, no wonder, no passion in such an individual.

The point here is to avoid oversimplifying characters in order to avoid confusion. Instead, a character, like a real life individual, should unfold in increments. Readers are not going to expect a detailed character sketch when the protagonist first shows up on the page. Rather, there will be a process of getting to know him through his actions, words, and thoughts. In fact, that process should continue all book long. Part of what will keep readers engaged is this getting to know the characters on an ever deeper level.

A second thing that makes the telling of a story boring, in my opinion, is a predictable plot. Again, it would be easy to fall into this writing pattern in an effort to avoid confusion. Even a “standard” premise, such as a romance, where the reader knows going in that boy and girl will meet and marry (or fall in love—I just liked the alliteration of meet and marry 😉 ), the story can be interesting, even exciting, because the how unfolds in an unexpected way.

The real plot question I think an author should prompt in his reader’s mind is, How will the protagonist overcome? And the secondary question might be, Or will he? Overcoming, I think, is at the heart of plot. Yes, the character must want something and must want it desperately. This something must matter. But it is in the overcoming of the obstacles that stand in the way of the character obtaining his desire that has readers sliding to the edge of their seats and turning pages as fast as they can.

But if the obstacles are ho-hum, nothing new, seen that one coming a mile away, or if they make the character look foolish because he didn’t see them coming a mile away when the reader did, the plot will fail to pique curiosity. Who is curious about what he is sure will happen?

A third area that can spark curiosity in the reader is the story world. What’s it like in this place, whether it’s the world of a research scientist working in a name university, a missionary starting an orphanage in Indonesia, an astronaut landing on Mars, or a hobbit traveling in Middle Earth. Again, readers won’t want to know all about this place up front. Just as the author must introduce the characters gradually, so must the story world unfold gradually.

Steve Almond gave a good way to determine what needs to be revealed when. I quoted it yesterday, but I think it bears repeating:

[Readers] don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Makes sense to me. 😀

Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  
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Confusion or Curiosity


So I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. In her comment to yesterday’s post, Sally Apokedak said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off Steve Almond‘s examples in his Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Helpful guidelines, I think.

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 10:49 am  Comments (2)  
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What’s in the Beginning


I keep changing my mind about today’s topic! First an announcement. Recently agent Rachelle Gardner ran a fun contest, which she does with some frequency. This one was a 100-word story based on a writing prompt—a picture of a young girl seated on a small suitcase. Today she posted the finalists, and wonder of wonders, my story made the cut. Thing is, Rachelle’s blog visitors are voting on the winner, so if you’re inclined to read 600 words (6 finalists), I encourage you to click on over to Rachelle’s site and vote for your favorite teensy-weensy story.

Actually, the finalist thing plays into what I finally decided to talk about today. I read an article in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and the author, Steve Almond reiterated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Even at the beginning.

Initially this may seem to clash with the advice I’ve heard, often from those with literary leanings, that writers don’t need to put everything up front, that readers are far more patient than we think, and, in fact, enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much back story at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it wil happen if a reader is confused.

So what about it? Take a look at those shortest of stories (you can read all contest entries here). The ones you liked best—did the writers ground you quickly in the what and wherefore? Or did they leave you wandering—and therefore wondering—a bit?

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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