Three Points about Story Craft

StoryCraft1

Writing a story takes skill, time, and work ethic. Here are three strategies to apply to your work in progress.

  1. Write

Wait – isn’t this a blog about how to write? So what’s the deal with advising I must write if you aren’t going to tell me how to do so?

We all dream. I dream of winning the Olympics, in figure skating. I take the ice and complete the first five-turn salchow double-lutz back flip camel. Then I stand at the podium and beam through my victory tears as The Star Spangled Banner plays and I’m jeweled with the gold medallion. My friends who read this tumble off their chairs, laughing and hold their bellies as they imagine this fat old body out there on the ice, wearing not much more than a sheath of glitter (painful sight, that), twirling around on skates until my tush meets the ice – for the tenth time in twelve seconds. Yes, I dream of skating, though I can’t. But I write, and so must you.

Everything you write is an opportunity to practice your writing skills. Emails to your faves, reminder notes to your spouse, business reports for the boss, you write all the time. If your computer isn’t open to the rough draft of your latest tome, but is open nonetheless, you might be writing. Write the most dramatic, funniest, pithiest, compelling, mesmerizing sentences you can. Even if you are only telling your no-longer-BFF to pith off. Write and always write well. Better yet, turn the blank page into words, paragraphs, images, characters, plot, into the story that keeps you up at night, making that blinding white page active with black letters. Millions of them. Because if you can’t sleep you might as well write. And if your story doesn’t keep you up at night, how do you expect your reader to be too excited to sleep?

A writer writes.

  1. Put on your briefs

It’s cold out there. Writing is not about finding the longest way to say something but about finding the most memorable. You’ve done well if your fans walk around quoting you. They savor your story as they repeat it. They also promote it to your next reader. Isn’t that cool?

Remember when you were in fifth grade and your teacher told you to write a story with as many adjectives and adverbs as possible? That was terrible advice from someone who wanted to make certain you learned a vocabulary list. How many of those convoluted sentences do you walk around repeating because of their sustaining emotional impact? You might just as well open a big dictionary, list all the impressive words, and call that your book.

Get briefer. This is a tip for the well advanced story, the one that’s complete and awaiting (more) editing. Length does not equal quality. Edit by excising. Eliminate all the filler words that contribute nothing to your story. Very, good, nice, big, little, pretty, ugly, that, (all the extra “thats” that simply stuff a sentence,) bad, lots, many are among the blah words that say pretty much nothing at all. They lack pungency.

Saying the same thing over and over and over and over is, well, unnecessary. Repetitive sentences and paragraphs bore readers. Trust that your readers are bright, introspective, and have decent memories. They draw conclusions and recall most of what’s important in your story. Remove the chaff and let it blow away. It was garbage no one could swallow anyway. What remains will be powerful and gripping.

Get rid of the words that say nothing of merit, dump the sections you’ve written previously.

  1. Write from the stage, not the balcony

Put your characters in the thick of the story, not at the beginning of the history of mankind. (Though that could be a great book also.) Get up on stage into the active part of the plot. Don’t sit back in your chair and type sentences distant from the scene. Too far distant from the interesting moments, too far away from the characters to see their warts, and the audience will wonder when they’ll get anything worthwhile. If you haven’t been to Medieval England in the court of the king, close your eyes and imagine it. (Also crucial: research it.) Now tighten your cloak, pick up the sword, and seek the knave who’s stolen your beloved. Walk with your characters, speak through their souls, leap their mountains, weep their tears. Don’t tell us the black knight got his due. Hang the bastard.

You must be in the middle of your own plot to report it believably. If you can’t convince your reader you’re right there, how can you convince them they are? If you can’t draw your reader into an exciting, intriguing, mysterious section they want to know about, why should they bother being stuck with your book? And if they’re not in the thick of your story, they might as well be shopping at the mall. That’s something they can believe in.

Get into the center of your story where it’s interesting. This is where your story must begin even if the motivation began generations past. Trash the boring stuff. If a few background details are truly important, find a way to sneak them into the narrative, conversation, or internal dialogue of your characters.

Start where the action made you shout, where the characters made you cheer.

Now, go write, Wordsmith.

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Showing, not Telling

“Show, don’t tell.”  Great advice for any writer and the advice that annoys me the most. Seriously, it’s irritating on many levels, not the least of which is that it is spot on in most cases.  The problem isn’t with the suggestion, but rather with the delivery.  The first writing workshop I attended that discussed this failed to offer any examples of what this looked like.  Instead of explanation and example there were vague threats like:

Your work will never be accepted if you don’t learn how to ‘Show and not tell.’

Great, not only did I not understand what it was, but now if I didn’t do it I’d be branded as an ignorant failure.

I’ve also had teachers who’ve taken their time to explain, shown examples and offered suggestions in my writing on how to achieve this.  Still, even with time and practice, it can be difficult to figure out what this means while your fingers are pounding away on the keys.

I will admit that it is something I tend to do by intuition rather than conscious thought.  I tend to feel my way through a poem or story and show where I think appropriate.  There are a few things in my mind that are triggers.  Some of the things I look for are emotions, the verb to be (is, was, etc) and simple nouns, like “tree” or “fence.”  These are areas where I am often guilty of telling rather than showing. I am also on a campaign to eliminate the use of the word, “very,” in my writing, but that’s for another post.

Emotions can be easy to show.  For example:

Bob was happy with the new car.  Could be rewritten: Bob smiled as he closed the door, smelling the new car smell just before he turned the key and the powerful engine roared to life.

Likely, I’d add a couple of more sentences to fill that out but you get the idea.

The verb to be (is, are, was, am, etc) is another trigger for me.  For example: Bob is a doctor.

Well isn’t that nice and boring?  Think about what a doctor looks like and acts like.  What do doctors say? How would you know one if you saw one?  Now, I’d like you to write two or three sentences showing me that Bob is a doctor.

I’ll give you a minute…

Here’s what I came up with:

Bob brushed a bit of lint off his white lab coat and pulled the chart out of the rack on the exam room door.  It was Mrs. Smith again, still complaining about her back.  He put on his best bedside smile and turned the handle saying, “Betty, let’s look at those x-rays I sent you to get and see what we can do.”

Or something like that.

Sometimes a simple noun, like “tree” or “car” needs more description around it to truly inform your reader what you mean.  Think of the word tree.  What image is in your mind?  Draw a picture of it.

I was thinking of the tall California coastal redwoods along the trails I like to hike.  Were you thinking the same tree?  Or were thinking of that maple tree just down the street?

One time I tried that little exercise with a group of software engineers.  Most told me about trees they grew up with: maple, pine, magnolia and cherry.  One engineer surprised me when he said, “I was thinking of a file directory tree on my computer.”  Your readers have the uncanny ability to interpret your words in ways you didn’t intend.  When it matters what kind of tree your writing needs, you have to be specific and show me what’s in your mind or I’ll be thinking computers while you’re writing about leaves.

Or sometimes, just telling me is okay.  Showing generates a lot of words and sometimes to move the plot along faster and maintain the story’s pace it’s okay to just say, “Bob sat under the maple tree.”  The question you need to ask is, “how important is that tree?” If it’s just a prop, tell me it’s there.  If it’s important that Bob be at that tree for a specific reason, show me why.

Now, let’s again think about that sentence with Bob sitting under the maple tree.  If you were a movie director, how would you film that?  What would it look like on a movie screen or as part of a TV show?  Movies, television, plays and other visual forms are all naturally about showing.

When you write about Bob and the maple tree, write it as though you were seeing it through the lens of a camera and show me the richness of the green leaves, the smell of new-mown grass, the slight rise of the hill, the cooling summer breeze, his shoes tossed aside and his smile as Betty slowly sits down beside him.

It takes practice, but you’ll get it.
Keep writing,
Andrew