It is Always the Story

Copyspace_space_copy_246205_l Yesterday, I wrote about watching the Winter Olympics and how Bode Miller winning gold inspired thoughts about stepping up to the plate.  

Today the subject is story.

My daughter and I were watching the men's ski cross races on Sunday night.  This is a relatively new sport, and, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it is the first time in the Olympics.  It doesn't have a lot of stars that we're yet familiar with and so NBC chose to focus on one of the Canadian men.  (I know, shocking–NBC actually featured an athlete who wasn't from the US!  It was because he grew up in Colorado but had a Canadian father.)

So, here's this new sport, which is mildly interesting, and a bunch of guys participating that nobody's ever heard of. I'm  watching with half an eye, catching up on emails and blog comments at the same time.  But then there's a slow moment in the action and NBC decides to run the pre-taped story about said Canadian, whose name is Chris Del Bosco.

And suddenly I'm paying attention.  Because this guy has a story.  From the time he was a wee boy, he showed a talent for skiing and racing.  But then, as a teen, he started drinking and doing drugs.  And suddenly he wasn't winning races anymore.  Pretty soon he wasn't even racing anymore.  This dark period ended with him so wasted one night that he fell into an ice-cold stream and if a passer-by hadn't found him he would have frozen to death.

He's bombed out of any ability to compete here in the states, but through a synchronicity, he heard that the Canadians were looking for guys to ski on the ski cross team.  And suddenly a new career opens up.  He's getting a second chance to do what he loves. 

And I'm rooting for him.  Suddenly, I'm completely and totally paying attention.  The computer is closed and set aside.  My eyes are glued to the TV.  Del Bosco easily qualifies for the finals.  I so desperately want him to win!  Alas, it is not to be.  Though it looks like he is coming from behind to win a medal, on one of the last bumps (jumps? not sure what they are called in this sport) he overestimates and ends up crashing.  

The point is this: I cared about Chris Del Bosco because NBC told me a story about him. Not only that, but the story they told had all the elements of a classic–amazing talent that, lots of conflict, the opportunity for a second chance.  I was right there with him because of it.

The thing I probably suggest the most when reading a client's manuscript is to take out narrative and put in more scene.  Scenes dramatize your writing and make it come alive.  A scene shows us something, instead of telling.  It presents a story. 

We respond to story because it is hard-wired into us.  From the beginning of human time, we've told stories to each other.  And still we do, whether on TV, a movie, or through reading a book.  The power of story is so powerful that it has become a cliche.

But sometimes cliches are good.  Because, ultimately, it always comes down to story.

What about you?  How do you use the power of story?  What have you gleaned from watching the Olympics? Or have you been ignoring them completely?

Overcoming Flat Scenes: Rising and Falling Action

This is the third post in a series on scenes, and specifically, flat scenes. You can find part one of the series here, and part two, here.

What is a flat scene?  It is one in which the emotional tenor is the
same all the way through.  For instance your heroine may start out the
scene depressed and end it depressed.  Or your hero may begin the scene
happy and end it happy.  A flat scene can also be flat by virtue of the fact that there are no turning points  in it.  A turning point is when a character acts on a goal (or call it an objective, if you want) and is either successful or unsuccessful.  Since you want to create as much conflict as possible for your characters, odds are good that you will be torturing them by making them unsuccessful.  Then they have to try another way to achieve their goal.  Or if they are successful at achieving their goal, that goal creates other, unforeseen problems.

But I digress. 

A scene turns when it ends at a different place than it began, and I don't mean just physically.  If your character begins the scene unhappy, creates a goal to change that unhappiness and achieves the goal, she might end the scene happy.  And thus the scene has turned.  There has been rising action, from sadness to achieving the goal, and then happiness.

Or if your character begins the scene unhappy, works on a goal that fails, she might end the scene devastating, destroyed, completely ruined.  The scene has turned.  That would be a case of falling action.  Now she must pick herself up and figure out what to do next. 

Rust Hills talks about the end of the last chance to change as a turning point in short stories.  If the character has a chance to change and takes it, that makes a story.  But there's also a classic short story structure in which the character has a chance to change that is his last, and doesn't take it.  And that is a story, too.  Both options create turning points.

In a flat scene, there is no turning point, no chance to change, no last chance to change.  Your characters begin and end in the same emotional terrain. 

How to avoid this?  The easiest way (and I say that facetiously, because there is no easy in writing) is to start each scene with a goal.  This can be as simple as creating a desire for a character.  Then put obstacles in the way to achieving it.  This is exactly what we do when designing a plot, and if you do it for each scene, you'll have a strong structure for your novel (and by the way, all this talk of scene applies to creative non-fiction, also).  If you suspect your scene is flat, ask yourself what your character's goal is for the scene and see if that doesn't give you a spine to hang the action on.

Bear in mind that each scene is like a mini-story, a hologram of the big picture, if you will.  Don't go off creating scenes willy-nilly just for the sheer joy of it.  Your beautifully crafted scenes must relate to the plot.

Remember, death to all flat scenes.  Make them rise, make them fall, make them turn and twirl and dance.  Your novel will thank you for it.

Story

What's the difference between a novel and a story?

A story is shorter.

Funny joke.  I know, I know, don't quit my day job as a writer to to become a comedian, right? 

The truth of the matter is, a short story is a lot shorter than a novel, and that makes all the difference.  For starters, every word and every sentence must count in a story.  That doesn't mean that you novelists get to slack and not worry about words and sentences, it just means that stories are more like poems in that every word must count.

A story also has to reach a pinnacle of some sorts.  Of course, a novel must also, but the novelist has 300 or so odd pages to accomplish this while the short story writer might have 20 if she is lucky.  In a story, either the character changes, or he reaches the "last chance to change" as the famous editor Rust Hills called it, and decides not to change.  Something happens over the course of the story (or else there wouldn't be a story) and your character either changes because of that, or decides not to change, consciously, or more likely, unconsciously.

Why am I pondering the elements of a short story?  Because I've actually been working on one, for the first time in quite awhile.  My friend and colleague Linda Parker is putting together an anthology of Christmas stories and essays, and I'm adapting a chapter from my first novel for it. 

Story is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and because of this, I'm going to devote a feature article on my first newsletter to it.  That will be coming out next week, after I return to Nashville, and if you want to get on the newsletter mailing list, just sign up on the handy little box to the right.

But I Get To Write About It

Reason Number Gazillion why its great to be a writer: because no matter what happens, you get to write about it.  When your heart is broken and life sucks, at least you get to write about it.  And the worse the things that happen to you, the better story they will make.  What other enterprise offers such a fabulous inverse proportion of bad to good?

In writing about it, you will distill it down and see what the true story is.  From this, you'll be able to make something of the experience.  The solace of this is immeasurable, and I'm not sure how people who don't write exit without it. 

Even if the experience doesn't make it directly into the pages of my journal, odds are good that it will be transmuted into a character in a novel or a story, or somehow filter into a blog post, or even color what I write to a student.  One way or another, writing is alchemy.

The only thing I remember from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is the anecdote she tells about a fellow writer about to get mugged on the streets of New York.  "Don't hurt me, I'm a writer!" the friend yelled.   I imagine the writer friend said that because she needed to write about the experience.

I just remembered another thing from the book (Reason Number Gazillion and One to write: it helps you remember things): how Goldberg, or one of her friends always said that writers live twice.  You get this, of course, but I'll explain it anyway.  Writers live twice because we experience the event and then we get to write about it.  Sometimes it is difficult to say which is the more pleasurable.

So, in these precarious times, give thanks that you are a writer.  And, when the check doesn't come in the mail, the man doesn't email, the weight doesn't budge, the words won't flow, the figures don't add up, just remember: at least you get to write about it.

A Big Damn Post on Story

One of the prerequisites to being a writer is curiosity.  Period.  You can't be bored with the world if you want to write.  And the good news is that writing not only forces you to engage with the world but the act of it is so engaging, that as a writer it is a crime to be bored.  Should you find yourself in that unfortunate state of affairs, just pick up your pen and start writing.

But the down side of curiosity is that it can lead you astray.  It can lead you to spend a hot afternoon farting around on the internet rather than attending to the work that awaits.  The up side of that, of course, is the interesting things you run across.  (You wouldn't keep doing it if there weren't interesting things out there, right?)

As a naturally curious writer, I tend also to be a complete slut for informative sites.  I have this terrible habit of signing up for every internet newsletter I stumble across.  In the moment, when I first discover the site or blog, I'm so enthralled with it I'm certain, just certain, that I'll want to read every single word of the author's production.  And then I wonder why my email inbox is so clogged with, well, crap.  I actually spent an afternoon last week deleting things from my inbox and canceling subscriptions to various newsletters (though I do notice that some didn't seem to get the memo and are still arriving in my inbox).

One of the newsletters that I stick with and always read is Early to Rise. Michael Masterson, whose newsletter it is (though others contribute) has made a fortune from copywriting and he always has good ideas and interesting points of view.  I've actually pointed to one of his posts before, in this post.

The post I want to bring to your attention today, however, is written by copywriter John Carlton, whose blog is titled John Carlton's Big Damn Blog (and now you get the title of this blog post.) His post in a recent issue of Early to Rise is an excellent mini-primer on story.  (When you click on the link, scroll down to the post titled, Bring Your Story Home to the Reader.)

Carlton gives a simple outline for a story:  set-up, plot elements, action, and punch line.  He comments in the story that it is most often the punch line that is missing in stories that he sees (and he is talking about sales copy and copy writing here, too).  Once upon a time, when I was a student editor for the Louisville Review, I often found the same thing–a story would grab me and excite me as I continued to read it, only to fall apart or just peter out at the end.

Truth be told, I'd never heard of John Carlton before.  But I thought his advice on story was so good that I investigated him further and this is when I discovered his blog.  I like his blog because he flies in the face of common wisdom and writes long, like me.  (It is thought that in this age of Twitter, nobody will read a post more than a few sentences long.  BS.  I like long posts.  Short ones make me think the author has nothing to say.)He sells some very expensive programs on copywriting which I'd love to buy, too.

So now in this blog post, I've written the set-up, the plot elements, and the actions.  All I need is the punch line.  My blog posts are often devoid of punch lines I fear, but in honor of John, here you go:

John Carlton has lots of great info about story on his blog.  Check him out.