Three More Points about Story Craft

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

1. Gather verbs

Verbs are action words and action is story. This one is so simple but it can’t be overlooked. Figure out exactly how your characters do everything they do and use the word, the single most perfect word, that describes just what that is. Render each action succinctly and accurately.

There’s always more than one way to write a sentence. Get a book of clichés so you know what has already been used and scrape all of them out of your story. He’s chomping at the bit was a great sentence with an action verb at its core when first written a million years ago. Gronk’s fans loved it.

Use your thesaurus carefully. Every word listed as a potential synonym is also a potential drop into the language sinkhole. Open the page of any thesaurus and choose a word.  How many of its attributed synonyms do you really know? If any poke awkwardly in your mouth, spit them out. Find another. The wrong word can turn a gripping mystery into a joke. If you don’t really know what the alternate word means or precisely how to use it, don’t.

Write the one sentence that provides the most sensory, physical but unique experience possible. The thrill your reader gets will make her turn the page, page after page.  Write the next sentence just as well. The craft of writing is in the construction of words into sentences and those into story. Verbs are the most important kinds of words at your disposal. Scuttle, cringe, bustle, gawk, flounder, prickle, notch, chasten, scorch – we react at the sounds of these words. Understand every verb intimately and get lots of outstanding ones into your book.

You know what the director said: Lights, camera, action! Yes, another cliché. Gronk’s fans loved this one too.

2. Try out your acting chops

Nothing helps an author sense the drama and intrigue of her story better than reading it aloud. You shout, whisper, cry, jump, and cringe at the words on your page. You wipe away tears, laugh out loud, and snort in derision. You wish the protagonist had more common sense and the antagonist had some decency. You try accents, speed, volume, and you hear the poetry, the power, the flow. Words repeated repeatedly are exposed so you can delete them. (Got that, didn’t you?) You catch the words are that out place of and the rung words that you meant two right – the stupid things we all do that Spell-Check didn’t catch. (Got that too, didn’t you?)

Most importantly, you will hear how consistent your characters sound, whether or not they speak in their own vernacular or have borrowed another voice. You’ll sense awkward scene shifts and unintended changes in points of view. You’ll spot what’s missing in action and what’s excess verbiage. Reading out loud especially while gesturing points out problems and skill like nothing else. And I have to admit: it’s pretty funny to see my husband’s reactions when I’m so engaged. Even Gronk guffaws to hear me and he doesn’t speak English.

Read your story out loud and you’ll know the drama, humor, and success of your creation.

3. Give it time

Let it ferment for a while. Ever try making beer? Bathtub beer, as my son and daughter-in-law sometimes make, boutique beer as specialty breweries make, commercial beer like the name brand companies make –  it all has to ferment or it isn’t beer, it’s dirty dish water. Coffee percolates. Stew simmers. Bread dough rises. Everything takes time while it gathers essence and establishes desirable qualities. (And the fragrances – ah, intoxicating.)

Writing is much the same. Write your story, edit, revise, rewrite, and then let it sit. For a month or so, shift your completed book to an unopened folder while you work on something else. Maybe you’ll try making beer.

Over the month you’ll forget a bit of the details. You’ll forget on exactly what page the lovers first made whoopee, what was the speed of the train wreck, who stashed the knife in the parlor. Then read your story again, beginning to end. It will have a fresh smell and you’ll detect aspects you didn’t observe before. Did you write the story you meant to write? Does the plot progress and excite? Did you end it as intended? Are the loose ends wrapped? Did the hero react according to character and in consideration of all she has learned? Is the story arc consistent and complete? Is there resolution to the original quandary? In this less familiar state, you’ll figure out what needs to be addressed further or deleted altogether. Like adding more hops to beer, salt to stew, sesame seeds to bread dough. Like realizing coffee doesn’t need raisins. Gronk figured this one out.

No point tasting the beer till it’s fully brewed. No point presenting your story till it’s truly done.

Ahhh, now that’s good stuff.

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.