September 01, 2018

Acquiring Story Ideas

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your classes, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

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Acquiring Story Ideas

Where do story ideas come from?

They don’t just drop out of the sky into your head. Acquiring and developing story ideas is a skill that you can learn. The more skill you develop, the more ideas you’ll have at your disposal. 

This means activelyseeking out and collecting story ideas. Where do you start?

A storyhas a setting, characters, conflict, action, a narrative arc.  A story IDEAdoesn’t need to have any of these.

A story idea may be (but is not limited to):

  1. An IMAGE: something you see, hear, smell, taste or feel, real or imagined
  • “the long arm of a backhoe, folded delicately like a bird’s claw”
  • “the scent of oleander on humidity after a monsoon”
  • “fingers of a sudden cold wind thrust through the button gaps in my shirt”
  • “his cigarette ash, fluttered into my glass of absinthe, the taste still anisette but gritty”
  1. A PHRASE: a conjunction of words that just happens in your head or that you overhear. This can be the title of the story or a central image, or these can be the first words you write down that lead you into the story.
  • “Blue, everywhere”
  • “He said it first”
  • “All the icy stars came out”
  • "Wicked crow"
  1. An OBSERVATION from real life: something overheard or seen.
  • a piece of conversation overheard
  • the a gesture of a toddler and its mother’s response
  • an argument between two of your friends
  • lovers kissing on a bus, swaying with the bus' motion but not falling over
  1. An ABSTRACT IDEA OR QUESTION: maybe something that has been occupying your mind lately.
  • “Why doesn’t the left have violent fanatics anymore?” 
  • “Why can’t my mom and I get along? It’s like we’re programmed to fight, even when we’re happy.” 
  • “What, of all things is so precious to me that I wouldn’t give it up, even if tortured?”
  • “What if Ronald Reagan were cloned by environmental activists?”
  1. A STORY: from a newspaper, magazine, history book or that someone tells you. This is often just the outlines of an incident, begging to be filled in by a competent writer. 
  • A wanted profile in a paper about a drug dealer in his late twenties who was white but wore dreadlocks and “spoke like a Rastafarian” and was usually accompanied by a girl, 9 – 11 years old, who he claimed was his daughter. 
  • An article about the psychology of bullying in American high schools
  • My friend telling me that her boyfriend, who was mourning the death of his father with bad dreams, bit her on the nose while he was sleeping.

EXERCISE:

  1. Get a notebook, preferably one with a pen loop to hold a pen. Get a pen, or pencil. Carry these with you everywhere you go, from now on.
  2. For the next week, spend your free time actively seeking out story ideas; collect at least five from each category. Keep an eye/ear/nose, etc. out and write down images you experience. Write down striking images or moments from your dreams. Go to public places and eavesdrop on people and write down their actions, dialogue. Take note of phrases you see in your reading. Write down weird thoughts as they come to you (or force yourself to HAVE weird thoughts.) Read a lot of news.
  3. Keep doing this, for the rest of your writing life.

Developing Story Ideas

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

Developing Story Ideas

Now that you’ve collected a lot of story ideas, what do you do with them?Well, no matter how much people want artists to be free thinkers, you are NOT absolutely free to write anything. Artists are more slave to their obsessions and their favorite ideas than anyone else. As you experiment more you’ll find that some of your ideas simply fall flat. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Michelangelo (might have) said about his sculptures of angels that he went to the rock and simply removed everything that wasn’t an angel. This is what you need to do; write a lot of crap and then remove everything that isn’t an angel.

Prepare ideas to become stories: basically this means to contextualize your idea.  Ask yourself about the image you see, or the situation implied by the phrase or the moment you’ve observed, or the moment the question implies:

What is happening here?

  • is the backhoe animated? Does it think? Is it resting?
  • Does “blue, everywhere” mean literally that? That everything is blue?  Did someone go crazy and paint his whole house blue? 
  • Did the toddler learn that gesture from his dead father, the only legacy he has? Does his mother see this and finally realize that her husband is gone?
  • If I were tortured, would I betray my boyfriend? What if the mafia tortured me in a motel room and I gave him up?
  • What if the girl really isn’t the white rasta’s daughter? What if she doesn’t remember where she comes from? What if she helps him with his drug deals because she’s afraid of losing the only family she remembers?

Where would this happen? 

In what part of the world, or in what kind of place (suburb, sewer, penthouse, playground, forest, space station, etc.)?  On the street or on the sidewalk? In a Confucian society or a Judeo-Christian one? In the women’s room, or the men’s room? In a ghetto or a mansion? In an animistic world or a void?  In a single place or on the road?

When would this happen? 

In 1934 or 2025? In ancient, medieval, or modern times, or in the future? In the morning or evening?  When she was angry or when she was calm?  When society was at war or when society was at peace?  During an economic high or low? Before, during or after the cataclysm?

Why would this happen?  The moment that you’ve seen – the image, conversation, gesture, situation – what would cause that situation to be?

  • Did the rasta drug dealer kidnap her for ransom only to find that her parents had died in a car accident? Did his stone heart crack just a little? 
  • Did the young mother have a fight with her husband before he was murdered? Has she been in guilt and denial?
  • Does all heavy machinery have a soul? Are we simply being treated to the inside view of the life of a backhoe? 
  • Is the blue guy schizophrenic? Has he been hanging on by a thread until now?  Did the voices start speaking to him in the middle of a job interview? 
  • What if my boyfriend were a gambling addict who fell afoul of the mafia and ran away, leaving me to their tender mercies?

Select an idea and begin to write: This is the one part no one can tell you how to proceed in. This is where your subconscious takes over. Which idea catches at your attention?  Which commands you? Which do you wantto write? By this time, one of these ideas will have caught your imagination and you’ll be spinning it out without thinking. This is the best part. Enjoy it!

Story

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

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What is a Story?

What differentiates a story from a scene or a sketch or an excerpt; what makes a story a complete story:

Passage = movement from one stable set of circumstances to another; the experience of passage differentiates a western story from different kinds of narratives. In the course of the action, the protagonist experiences a change. This change is caused by the protagonist’s action to remove or circumvent the obstacle. The change may be described as either the protagonist succeeding at acquiring his/her desire or the protagonist failing to acquire his/her desire and giving up. The change may also be known as a Passage, a movement from one place to another. Passage usually involves implied or explicit personal transformation.

Neo discovers he is, and then becomes The One; Frodo overcomes great difficulties, is personally transformed, and succeeds in destroying the Ring

Story Arc

The “story arc” or overall structure of the story has also been known as “plot”. The traditional story arc is depicted below. Master it. Once you have done so, you can break these rules as often and in as many ways as you like. (Examples from Lord of the Rings and The Matrix films.)

Story Arc Graphic

Balance = a stable, unchanging set of circumstances

The protagonist begins the story in a state of equilibrium or balance. Things are stable, the protagonist is in stasis, i.e., not in motion or in action. Action in this case, is not the things that the protagonist does every day, without changing (go to work, brush teeth, go on date with boyfriend, etc.) The actions the protagonist takes to maintain his/her life as it is are not “action”.

Frodo living in the Shire; Neo searching for clues about the Matrix and not finding them.

Conflict = desire + obstacle

Conflict drives the story. Conflict is the desire of the protagonist blocked. The blocking of a strong desire causes the protagonist to act to remove or circumvent the obstacle. This action is the action of the story.

Frodo wants to remain in peace in the Shire but the black riders have invaded; Neo wants to find the nature of reality but he’s been searching for years and can’t find anything.

Incentive Moment = event that upsets balance, causing conflict and requiring action

The conflict may already exist in the situation but simply be in stasis like the rest of the circumstances (the Matrix exists, Neo is looking for it, Morpheus is looking for Neo), or the conflict may be introduced into the circumstances (the One Ring is found) In any case, something happens that upsets the balance, creates or increases conflict and sends the tension shooting up. This is called the Incentive Moment.

Morpheus contacts Neo; Gandalf tells Frodo about the Ring.

Action = action protagonist takes to restore balance or achieve desire

As a result of the balance being upset, conflict is created or increased to the point that the protagonist is moved, or moves him/herself, out of stasis into action. The action is what the protagonist does to restore balance or to achieve his/her desire.

Neo takes the blue pill/chooses to see the Matrix; Frodo decides to leave the Shire and take the Ring to safety.

Rising Action = series of events that increase tension and move protagonist through Passage

The Passage is expressed as a series of actions or attempts to achieve the desired goal. Each action results in an incident or event. Each action either succeeds or fails, but falls short of the ultimate goal. Each action raises the tension (feeling of conflict), the conflict, and the stakes a little more.

Neo learns kung fu and fights Morpheus, goes to see the Oracle, rescues Morpheus from the agents; Frodo goes to Rivendell and collects the Fellowship, goes through the mines of Moria, encounters Galadriel, escapes from Boromir, goes into Mordor, etc.

Climax = Breaking point of tension; moment of transformation

With the rising action, tension has been ratcheted up and up and up. At some point, it can’t go any higher and something has to break. The final incident or event that breaks the tension and forces a resolution to the conflict—for better or for worse—is the Climax. This is the moment of highest tension, conflict, action, movement. This moment is both inevitable, and surprising.

Neo becomes immune to bullets and dives into Agent Smith, destroying him; Frodo makes it to Mt. Doom, finds he can’t get rid of the Ring, and fights Gollum, hurling him, with the Ring, into the lava lake.

Falling Action = action that brings tension back down to a new state of balance

The resolution to the conflict will now create a new balance—things can never return to the way they were, but a new balance or stability will be in place. However, after getting everybody’s panties in a bunch at the Climax, you can’t just drop back into stasis. You have to bring people down slowly and connect the transformation that happens with the new balance. This is the Falling Action, which is, of course, much shorter than the Rising Action.

Neo goes back into the Matrix and does a voice over, setting us up for a sequel; Frodo goes to Rivendell to recover, then returns to the Shire but can’t settle in so he goes off to Elfland with the elves.

New Balance = not the shoes, the new stable set of circumstances after the Passage

You know the story is over when the tension is gone, the conflict is resolved. This results in a New Balance, or new set of stable circumstances, a new stasis for the xtrs. This can be hinted at, or shown.

Neo is now the leader of the resistance (hinted at); Sam is the inheritor of the peace of the Shire (shown in his returning to his family.) 

August 31, 2018

Narrator; POV; Voice

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

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Narrator; Point of View; Voice

Please note: not all people use these terms in this manner. Often "voice" is used to refer to what I'm calling "narrator." But these terms aren't used consistently.

  • Narrator: who tells the story, the immediate “voice” on the page, speaking to the reader
  • Point of View (POV): whose eyes we’re looking out of or whose brain we’re examining – this is not always the same character as the narrator
  • Voice: the “sound” of someone “speaking” on the page.  All writing is verbal language, all writing is a representation of speech (esp. alphabetical writing).  In fiction, a lot of imaginary people (including the Author) are speaking, and all of them have a voice.

Narrator:

  1. First person – the “I” narrator, who is necessarily a character in the story, or in the world of the story. Unless the I narrator is a god or telepathic, he/she is limited to his/her own perspective and can’t get into anyone else’s thoughts (except by imagining them). My mother always told me when I was growing up that patience is the greatest virtue.
  1. Second person – the “you” narrator. This sort of telling sounds more like a command – “you do this, you say that” – and the presumed narrator, the person telling the story, is never named or indicated.  This can be confused with direct address narrative, in which the first person narrator addresses the reader directly, or addresses another character who never appears or responds.  Direct address is actually first person. Your mother always told you when you were growing up that patience is the greatest virtue. (direct address) Let me just remind you, young lady, that it was your mother who always told you when you were growing up that patience is the greatest virtue.
  1. Third person – the “he/she/it” narrator. This is the most common in fiction and has a variety of subsets. The differences among these subsets are a matter of degree:
    • 3rdObjective – not terribly common. This is where the narrator cannot get into anyone’s head or perspective and just tells the story “objectively” seeing only what a camera could see. She walked into the room, looked around, grimaced, and found a seat. The man looked up at her and then back down.
    • 3rdLimited or “close third” – The narrator can only get into one character’s head and remains with that character’s perspective. She walked into the room, looked around grimacing at the shabbiness of it, and thought she might as well sit down and wait. She saw the man looking at her but decided to ignore him.
    • 3rdOmniscient – The narrator is god and can see and know and hear everything everyone thinks, says or does. She walked into the room, looked around grimacing at the shabbiness of it, and thought she might as well sit down and wait. He found her both attractive and repulsive, and wished she had sat closer to him. He looked away. In truth, the agency could have afforded a more stylish waiting room, but wanted to discourage camaraderie between such applicants.

Point of View (pov):

pov ≠ narrator. If you are using a third person omniscient narrator, you may choose to drop down into various characters’ heads at different points. Each time you enter a different head, you are changing pov, without changing narrators.

The pov belongs to the eyes you are looking out of, or the person whose senses or thoughts are being used at that time. You can change points of view in first person by changing the voice, the xtr who is speaking. In second person it’s more complicated. In close third you can switch whichever xtr you’re following, although this then slips into omniscience.

Voice (there are layers of voice):

ACTUAL PERSON: the real person who wrote a piece: this person’s voice is nowhere in writing, rather, this person’s writing is a representation of the person.

AUTHOR: the reader’s image of the person who wrote a piece, the by-line, the Author is no more real than, say, Madonna, or Marilyn Monroe. The Author is a fictional construct.

AUTHORIAL VOICE: the sound of the author’s voice on the page, over the course of several pieces; the author’s writerly personality: “this sounds like something Shakespeare/Woolf/Eggers would write”.

NARRATOR’S VOICE: sound of the voice of the particular narrator for this particular piece. If it is a 3rdperson narrator, it may be confused with the authorial voice.  Don’t be fooled. Each 3rdperson narrator is different, and specific to that piece.

CHARACTER’S VOICE: each important character whom we hear speak or think should have his/her own distinctive voice – the sound of them on the page, talking, thinking; if we’re dealing with a 1stperson narrator who is a character, then this can refer to the narrator’s voice as well

August 11, 2016

Characterization Handout

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

Characterization (“Xtr” = “Character”)

STEP ONE: FIND YOUR XTR’S SPINE

Essential building blocks: these are the things you should know about your character.

  1. Physical appearance as it affects personality and how other Xtrs respond to this Xtr.
  2. Cultural background, especially if this xtr lives in a world with more than one culture.
  3. Family background as it affects personality, limitations, etc.
  4. Upbringing and education as it affects personality, ability, how other Xtrs respond (“education” means a great deal more than school. It can mean training and areas of knowledge and expertise, etc.)
  5. What does this character do? This means job, vocation, calling, passion, as well as the role the xtr fills in his/her community.
  6. What are his/her strengths and how are they shown?
  7. Why does he/she have these particular strengths?
  8. What are his/her flaws and how are they manifested?
  9. Why does he/she have these particular flaws?
  10. What drives him/her? What does he/she want from life?
  11. What does this xtr fear? What are his/her “issues”?

A Xtr’s SPINE is his/her central, operating elements of personality. “Operating” means that they’re important to the story, they work in the story. For example, Neo (from The Matrix) may have had a shoe fetish, but it doesn’t operate in the story, so it’s not part of his spine. When you’re through figuring these things (above) out, you (and your reader) should have no trouble describing your character's SPINE in three or four items. 

e.g.:

  • Neo is a computer genius, he has intuition about the nature of reality, he is obsessive about discovering the truth, he is physically and morally courageous
  • Frodo (from Lord of the Rings) is a comfortable homebody, he loves the Shire with a passion, his only talents are courage and a strong moral compass

STEP TWO: FIND YOUR XTR’S MOTIVE FORCE

  1. A Character is a creature or object that reflects and acts. A Protagonist is a Character whose action drives the action of the whole story (there will be other characters in your story who act, but their action doesn’t drive the story. E.g.: The Oracle in The Matrix tells people important things but it’s Neo who makes the story happen.
  2. In step one you thought about what drove your Xtr, what s/he wanted from life. Which one or combination of these desires is strong enough for a Xtr. to act upon?
  3. Xtrs do not exist in a vacuum, they live in a world. Some of their desires will be fulfilled by their world, and some blocked. It is the blocked desire that, to be fulfilled, requires action. Which of your Xtr’s desires interacts with his/her world in such a way that requires action? This will be his/her MOTIVE FORCE.

MOTIVE FORCE = desire that requires action

e.g.:

  • Neo wants to learn the truth about reality but the matrix keeps reality away. This drives him to seek out Morpheus, take the blue pill and exit the world of the matrix.
  • Frodo wants a quiet life in the Shire. This is threatened by the black riders searching for the ring. His desire to preserve the Shire drives him to set out to destroy the ring.

STEP THREE: REVEAL YOUR XTR IN THE TEXT

You can’t just sit down and tell everything about your xtr and have that operate. Your reader has to know your xtr, but s/he also has to feel and see and intuit your xtr to become really engaged. You can’t give away your xtr, you must reveal your xtr. (i.e. you can’t make your reader passive, you have to entice them to dig a little.) There are several methods of revealing character. Keep an eye out for these as you read. Not all writers use all of these in every story, and often, they are manipulated in interesting ways.

Methods of revealing Xtr:

  1. Exposition: telling about your character

    Snorfle was a strong smark from the forests of Lagoo. His parents had died when he was small and he had raised himself. He was much respected. More than anything, he wanted to avenge his parents’ death.

  2. Description: describing your character physically or otherwise

    Snorfle had three small eyes in the back of his head and a lot of hair around his neck. The females especially loved his slime-green claws and the way they all curved so gracefully to the right. They also loved his beautiful manners over a fresh carcass and the intense way he pounded its skull to jelly.

  3. Action: what your character does in a large and small sense

    Upon learning the name of his parents’ murderer, Snorfle fell into a green funk for three weeks and refused all food – even girl-eyeballs, his favorite. He sat in a corner of his cave and didn’t move, except for whapping his tail against the floor. In the end, he decided to go on a quest to find the murderer and place sharp sticks in every available murderer orifice.

  4. Gestures and mannerisms: the very small actions that distinguish a character

    Snorfle had a habit of picking his snout, putting the results on his tail, and flicking them across the lake into the trees. Or: Snorfle read the notice, skritching his underscales as he read.

  5. Dialogue: a way of establishing voice as well as the character’s modes of interaction with others.

    “Too Small!” Snorfle shouted. “Snorfle don’t eat small humans!”

    “Calm down,” Weedy said. “We can still eat it.”

    “No! I am Snorfle! No small humans! If Snorfle eats small humans then Snorfle won’t have big humans to eat!”

    “I know,” Weedy said, sighing and releasing the human. “You’re a conservationist. You’ve told me. Many times.”

  6. Thoughts: a direct line into the character’s brain

    Snorfle tried to look like he was listening to Weedy, but he only wanted to squeeze her scaly yoohoos. They were so … juicy. She was female, why should he not squeeze them? Oh, yes, because she would hurt him. Better not. Better look like he was listening.

  7. Narrative voice: Only when the story is told by the character – a first person narrator.

    I am Snorfle. Hear my tale! I come from the forest. You do not. Listen to me or die!

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