Writing Good Stories
The Novelization Process
Rethinking and Revising Imagery
Revising the Horror of Stage Directions
and Violating POV
vs. Illogic - Hanging the Lanterns
How to End a Novel
Sound and Sense - Shelley vs Dickens
Leaves in the Wind - Essays on the Interet Experience
constitutes a Good story? The debate rages. Is it a great plot, or interesting
material? Is it climbing inside the reader's head with well-crafted character
studies and globe stopping themes? As any published author can tell you,
if you have a good subject, a well defined theme, a detailed plot and
a battery of super-characters, you will probably write the great snooze
work of the century. Well, perhaps not, if you know what to do with most
of these elements, which in most cases is to trim, muddle, blur and curtail
them. As J. R. R. Tolkien said in his introduction to The Lord of the
Rings, "This story grew in the telling." That is how good stories
are born-in the telling.
If you now are shaken because you have researched materials for five years
and have enough elemental surplus to populate seven novels, be of good
cheer. All you need to make it work is to tell a story. Remember, you
have material, characters, plots, images, and dare we say, themes. But,
in the long run, unless your readers are bored literature professors who
are looking for thematic prevalence, all you need to do is tell your story
and, most important, engage the reader.
Engaging the reader is the most important key to commercial and literary
success. If you fail to engage your readers, you loose your readers. With
no readers, you have library shelf dust. Is this pandering? No. You need
to know who your potential readers are and, especially in genre fiction,
if it is a specific readership slice that requires particular treatment.
For example, if you are writing in the Slice of Life genre, you know your
reader needs some emotional impetus; while, a mystery/adventure needs
puzzles and solutions. However, no genre is so grounded in itself to exclude
a variety of story telling techniques to the exclusion of a more general
readership. It is true that if your subject material is Bloodletting in
Medieval Malta, that you may exclude a portion of potential readership.
However, story telling begins after the reader is seized between the covers,
not before. It begins on page one, and must engage, engage and continue
to engage until the end.
There are five sound story-telling techniques discussed here, which can
be used to engage the reader in most genres. There are others to be sure.
These are shared with the buoyancy that writing is; that, hard and fast
rules make for grammar, not style. These five techniques are easy to remember,
especially when reviewing your work prior to an editor's touch. Remember
that your editor will shine you up more if you have applied as much polish
as you can before submission. These techniques are: twist, resonate, image,
seed and move.
Twisting is something we generally loose when we gain clear sight of characters,
plots and themes. We may have planned a great plot twist, but we fail
to remember that twisting is an old story telling technique, a technique
key to every campfire since stories have been told. From the tall tales
of Homer to the great yarns of Mark Twain, twisting the story is the great
differentiation. Such twists, of course, need to be carefully considered.
In fact, twisting may be an exercise you engage before you write. You
do not need to bother the reader with all your twists, only the results-the
engaging results. Here is an example.
You have a scene set on a lonely road. A main character drives up and
stops, obviously lost. He walks about his car looking at a map. Suddenly,
he sees a farmhouse nearby. Driving to it, he knocks on the door to ask
for directions. An old man emerges and gives him a glass of water and
advice. The main character thanks him and drives away.
Thinking about the above scenario, it is part of a larger story, and in
fact, a necessary piece as it establishes the remoteness of the final
destination. However, it seems like filler, a technique to give a sense
of time and distance passing. It would occupy, when written, a paragraph
or two. Surely, the reader would not nod off here, their books crashing
down onto their heads in bed. Surely, they would! So, add a twist to your
original thinking. Make the place even more desolate and dusty. Make the
main character even more lost and desperate. He has no map. He sees, not
a farmhouse, but a campfire. There, before the fire is an old woman-a
Native American woman, who knows him by name and knows where he is going.
Startled, he retreats to his car, only to tumble into a ravine, his leg
injured. He gets to the road, where the old woman awaits. She drives him
to his destination.
Now, with a twist in the original scenario, you have a better canvas to
keep the reader engaged. Before you write it, you might add a pet dog
or coyote. Perhaps, this woman speaks only Cherokee, an interesting challenge
for dialog; or perhaps, not. In any event, twisting needs to be carefully
considered. Your imagination should shine through, and twisting is the
product of your imagination. The only caution is to avoid twisting to
excess. You can tell when the twist becomes incredible. In fact, incredibility
is a good way to disengage the reader, making twisting a technique bordering
on art. With such genres as Adventure and Speculative Fiction, you have
a wider boundary of incredibility. However, even in those genres, the
art is presenting the big twists and making them feel like reality. In
that respect, the second technique plays an important part-Resonance.
Resonating with the reader is important. Resonation is a musical term
where the listener becomes tuned to the mood and tones the composer sets.
A listener may not be able to name the difference between C major and
E minor, but they certainly can feel it. For an author, words go beyond
their intrinsic meaning for their sound and cultural value. Sound value,
both the mode of the sentence and the sound of the word, frames the reader.
Changing to the passive mode, for example, will lull the reader; while,
the active should be stirring. Mix the two together and you can orchestrate
frustration and confusion (with skill). Choose soft words for rain and
snow-harsh ones for heat and pain. Sound, in this case, is very much like
poetry without the cryptography. Dickens for all his prose was a fine
poet within his prose, setting moods and resonating with his readership.
Some of that resonance is lost today as we are not his readership and
need a cultural guide to value the full weight of this resonance. That
does not mean we should disregard the lesson taught.
Here is a use for all that researched material. As you introduce interesting
facts and points, make them feel less absurd or less like classroom intrusions
by resonating with the reader. Use a modern cultural reference or perhaps
a cuss word. Introduce facts through dialog, where the reader can take
up one of the character's roles and be included in the conversation. Invite
the reader to the party. Engaging the reader-that is, telling the story,
means resonating with the reader's knowledge base allowing your reader
to participate as a collaborator. Give your reader credit for brains.
Do not insult their intelligence with details that the reader can fill
in as obvious extensions of the story's activity. If a character is on
an airborne plane, there is no need to mention that they are flying. If
they drink, there is no need to describe the glass (unless it is the murder
weapon). You bring the resonance and the necessary skeleton. The reader
will bring the bric a brac.
Another major point of resonating with the reader is your presentation
point. Words can be presented in many styles within the same paragraph-from
Austen to Hemmingway. These will resonate differently, but adds variety
to the story. A brief sentence, such as "He wept" or "The
door opened," one active, the other passive-both Hemmingwayesque,
is very effective for capping or moving a story along. However, a passage
such as "It is in the realm of human experience that men generally
do not weep unless provoked in the extreme," or "Shaken by the
thunderous waves below the terrace, the mighty door decided to release
its unbidden secrets," are good examples of Austenian (and Dickensian)
presentation. Both have their place, especially if we add a drop of humor
or whimsy. Humor resonates well, and is very engaging.
Combining twist with resonance, we get image. Each reader has a wealth
of experience that they bring to your work. If you tap into it, you resonate
and engage. If you add to it, you engage relentlessly. Therefore, you
should always be conscious of the images you create. Thinking of images
brings the old yarn spinner to mind. You could write: "The moon shimmered
over the water reflecting the tree-line to the mind's eye." Or, you
could twist and resonate this into a memorable image. "Like Trojan
horses against the night moon, the old oak forest lorded over the sleeping
pond-a beach head of foreboding." Now that is an image that engages.
It is also a building block for more images of a Homeric kind, allowing
you to reference everything from ankles to doublets, from Helen to Iphegenia.
It is also more interesting, and therefore more engaging. Spin the yarn
to it credible limits.
There are local images, such as the one referenced above, which engages
the reader as they travel your words; and there are global images, which
are built on situations, great big twists and bigger than life resonance.
These are the icons of your work. The reader will most probably not remember
your words, but they will remember the big pictures - the icons. When
we think of The Wizard of Oz, we think tornadoes in Kansas, Scarecrows,
Flying Monkeys, and Emerald Cities. We do not think of L. Frank Baum's
words. This is due to a famous movie. But, like the movies, the reader
will remember iconic scenes. Therefore, to get a reader to say to another
(potential) reader "My favorite part was when the cow fell out of
the sky and landed on the pitchfork," you must provide both cow and
pitchfork, although not necessarily the sky. Even if your genre is Slice
of Life psychoanalytical, step by step character development, you must
provide an iconic scene, the grand image, for remembrance. When we think
of Anna Kareninna. we think Woman throws herself under the wheels of oncoming
train (with snow and all the trimmings).
Engage the reader's memory by seeding. Think of the story and its logistics.
Introduce objects and people as seeds for later development. A spoon used
to stir the tea, may very well be the twist that turns the story line.
The chance meeting of a street bum might be an opportunity to have that
street bum become the main character's sister's cousin. Perhaps he was
an accountant fallen to hard times. Perhaps you will need an accountant
to take inventory of the spoons. Like kneading bread, the more you use
and reuse characters and objects, the more engaged your reader becomes.
The reader begins to feel at home within your world, because they now
have a vocabulary of things and people they trust. The more they trust
them, the more your opportunity to twist through contradiction.
A vital part of seeding is structural. As you seed, you shore up the overall
structure of your novel. You can seed by using scenario patterns or similar
characters. Patterns are redundant behaviors in the plot, mirrors so to
speak, that emphasize some part of your theme. At the same time, it hides
major beams in your structure. A good example is from J. R. R. Tolkien's
Lord of the Rings, which repeatedly has a departure image of a shining
woman fading further and further away until disappearing. Tolkien also
creates a pattern of danger and safety again and again, until the reader
inherently believes that the characters will inevitable by in danger and,
likewise, will be saved. Such patterning can be applied to similar characters,
usually brothers or sisters, who extend each other's depth by dipping
from the same gene pool. This can be seen with Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby
with the brothers Cheryble; or, the variety Jane Austen creates with her
family portraits. These patterns are part of seeding the work to better
engage the reader.
Finally, and most important, movement is critical. Stay in the same place
for too long and you risk disengaging the reader. Therefore, you need
to know when to dwell and when to move. Move too quickly and the reader
is puzzled-too slowly, they nod off. In both cases, disengaged. Remember,
if you cease to tell the story, the story ends. The trick for serialized
genres, for example, is to forecast story movement so the reader can be
disengaged from the story at a point in time and reengage immediately
a week later. You can move forward by moving backward, although back flash
is somewhat cliche. Nonetheless, you can move backward in story telling
by having the characters tell the story. You can manipulate speed by changing
points of view, although changing from first person to third person can
be disconcerting if not handled well. Dickens discovered that in Bleak
House. However, if you need to control the speed of delivery, try this:
In a third person novel where character A is always the point of view
for the reader, begin a chapter where character B is now the focal point.
This will change speed and tone (and will have your English teacher screaming
bloody murder. As long as your editor does not commit suicide, you are
Many authors have difficulty moving forward. Their plot points call for
a character to go from point A to point B, through many interesting subpoints.
They manage to waste a good deal of time and effort writing non-essentially,
using valuable materials and disengaging the reader. The secret of moving
forward is just that. Do it. Have the character at point A, with a notion
that point B is the destination. Then, start a new paragraph at point
B. Use a short phrase like, "It was raining at Point B." The
reader adjusts to this immediately, and will not miss the mounds of walking,
hiking, flying, swimming (although swimming might be worth a subpoint-sharks
and barracudas). They will be in the story and very much engaged. They
do not need the infamous three asterisks (***).
In conclusion, a good story is one that fully engages the reader by twisting
the elements into something worthwhile and memorable. You constantly tell
the story, resonating with the reader's natural ability to simulate into
the world you create. Give the reader interesting images and some icons,
and they walk away satisfied. Hold this world together through seeding
and patterning; and, above all, keep it moving. Tell a good story and
your characters will write themselves and your materially will team with
themes from cover to cover.