Tag Archives: short stories

The Best Lecture on Story Structure Ever

Probably the best lecture I’ve ever seen on story, Kurt Vonnegut lays out the arc of the Hero’s Journey in it’s most elegant form (see video for the joke). In truth, Vonnegut is a hilarious man who knows the craft so well he’s able to entertain and enlighten the audience by poking fun at how obvious stories are. Good story structure doesn’t need much explanation. Stories are simple.

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A wise man once told me that a story is never complex. No matter how deep and complex something may seem, 99 times out of 100 it’s just a series of simple points you’ve experienced since the start of the tale. The art of the craft is making those points tie together in such a way that your story seems complex. And it is, in a way, but not by making each story beat circuitous.

All the rules I’ve ever heard from Vonnegut are pure and simple. Take his eight tips on how to write a good short story:

  1. Use a time of a total stranger in such a way that he/she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character, or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character is, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense! Readers should have as such complete understand of what is going on, where and why, that they should be able to complete the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
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Every Line, a Roller Coaster

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Shrunk and White published a little book that is regarded as the ultimate guide for mastery over the written word. The Elements of Style. Authors around the globe swear by it, and while some of the techniques don’t mesh perfectly with the way modern literature is going, I swear by it too. Certain rules about grammar and construction are more fundamental than passing styles or what is considered “fresh.” Every writer should pick up a copy and study its pages well.

Among the most important is how to structure your sentence.

Basically, put the “new” part of the sentence at the end for greatest impact.* I’ve found this to be true of the sentence as much as even the paragraph itself–and on to the page, chapter and entirety of the book. It goes both ways, too, even stretching down to lines of dialogue. Cross media, cross genre, it’s a universal rule that’s rarely better when broken.

Let’s look at some examples:

When Ellen Ripley confronts the Queen Xenomorph in “Aliens”, she boldly steps in front of her and says,

“You, bitch! Get away from her!” … wait that’s not right. See how when we reverse it, it just loses it’s power? “Bitch” is the MEAT of that line. Save it to the last possible moment for most impact.

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“Get away from her, you BITCH!”

Those writers knew what they were doing. It’s bold and commanding. But, it doesn’t always have to be some exclamation. It works even in description.

“Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm’s End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden’s fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned the armor and the great antlered helmet of his house, he became a veritable giant.” –George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones.

Maiden’s fantasy” defines the rest of the sentence. Everything builds to that point and puts the line in context. The next sentence does this as well with “veritable giant,” And the two even work together. We get a sense of The Lord of Storm’s End. He’s a veritable giant out of a maiden’s fantasy. Those are the parts that really stick.

This especially works for the mundane.

“Horses were always her favorite of all the animals.”

works much better as…

“Out of all the animals, her favorite was always the horse.”

Careful ordering of words creates a roller-coaster-like experience when reading. Remove what’s being said and focus on the cadence of the sentence. You want the reader to be thinking: “What is this? What are they getting at? I think I might know. Oh, It’s coming. We’re getting closer. Wow, there’s the punch! … Okay, what’s next?”

It doesn’t have to be the subject of the sentence, but it should be the word or words that sell the idea; the part that’s really defining. The part that’s new. Different. The Oomph!

By putting this part last, it gives each line a sense of satisfaction. They’ve accomplished a TINY journey by reading it and want to know more.

Story theory dictates that the plot will rise to a climax, then drop down slightly, rising to an even higher climax at the end, until it fades off to the FADE OUT or last page. The Hero’s Journey.

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I would argue that should we zoom into any one section of that line, we would see lots smaller rises and falls. Each Act would have a climax then fall down again just before the end. So would each scene. And further each section of the scene. Each line delivery. It makes the story dynamic. The ending never drops as far as it started, keeping the plot moving along, but it definitely drops. That last bit of impact changes something and propels the story forward.

*If this really isn’t working in your text, Shrunk and White point out that “the other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence other than the subject becomes emphatic when placed first:

Deceit or treachery she could never forgive.

Yet, even there, the sentence builds to what about deceit and treachery she could never _____.

The most powerful tool a storyteller has in their arsenal is withholding information.

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“Meet Me at the Falls” on Indie Author Land

Screen shot 2013-10-23 at 11.58.15 AMThe good folks over at Indie Author Land have created a dedicated hub for self-published authors, geared toward you: the reader. It’s a great place to find new up and coming talent and honestly just great and daring fiction. The whole site is run by a lovely couple, a journalist covering the arts and a computer programmer; both avid readers with a passion to help spread the word about good fiction. Plain and simple. Their slogan says it all: Great Books. No Middleman.

As they mention, their ‘site is growing, and that’s what they want. The idea is for their growth to be organic and fluid, growing to fill whatever void it may come across.’ Sounds like what it feels to look at a blank page with a pencil in your hand.

Admittedly, their site is also a selfish means to find their next favorite book. Their latest favorite pick comes from the self-publishing trio at Pen, Pint & Pyre: “Meet Me at the Falls“, the Sci-Fi Thriller by authors Ben Tuller, Zack Keller and myself.

Check out the interview with the authors, and the rest of their site here: http://www.indieauthorland.com/archives/5903

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Writing Process (9 of 9)

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Letting Go…

… continued from part 8: DEADLINE

This is probably the hardest part. I’ve looked at the book for so long I don’t even know what to think of it anymore. I love it and I hate it. I’m also indifferent about it. Overall, I’m just way too close to it. I could noodle with this or that forever, but I’ve hit my deadline and now it’s time to let it go.

This is where, if you’re self-publishing, you really have to be hard on yourself. You are never going to get it perfect. There is no such thing as perfection. Every author, every director, every artist has to at some point just let it go. Pass it off to your editor to send to the press, upload that file to Amazon and start worrying about how much to charge.

Glaring corrections can be fixed in subsequent editions. I’ve found copies of Fitzgerald that have some pretty bad typos. Who knows how long they were in there. But the important thing to realize is that you’re done. A work of art will never truly be finished in the eyes of the creator. But therein lies the beauty of it. It’s not supposed to be. I don’t write books for myself–I might come up with an idea I like but ultimately, I write it to be read by others. It’s the reader who finishes my books. And they finish it a thousand times over with endless variation. What wonders I would see if I could crawl inside their mind as they flip through the pages, deriving meaning from the unintended and totally missing meaning I tried to put in. But that’s the beauty of it all. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. Never in the history of the world has there been one piece of art that everyone came to love equally.

So that’s it. You’re done. Get it out there and let the readers have at it. I try to learn from my mistakes and improve on my next creative endeavor. And as an artist, I know damn well that I’ll be on my death bed, still with the desire to grow.

I’ve currently finished a short story, Meet Me at the Falls, with fellow authors Zack Keller and Ben Tuller… and for as much as I think I have it all figured out for this book, I know my next book may be an entirely different journey where I abandon these methods deeming them useless and naïve. I’d like to think that I won’t, but for me the point of writing… and for that matter, reading what people write… is to gain a glimpse into the soul and see the wonder and magic in the expression of the human condition.

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New Sci-Fi Serial: Meet Me at the Falls

Meet Me at the Falls

Post Apocalyptic, Sci-Fi and Horror fans alike, I’m pleased to announce the release of Pen, Pint & Pyre‘s fourth publication, Meet Me at the Falls — the first chapter in a five-part short series by authors Zack Keller, Ben Tuller and myself.

We wanted to take an idea, each write part of it, focusing on one characters and then tie the stories together in one cohesive narrative. The result was something more exciting and richer than any one of us could have imagined alone.

The story follows the Murphy family as they fight their way through hell and back again after the world has fallen apart. Planning for the impossible, they had decided that if anything like this ever happened, they all agreed to do one thing: Meet Me at the Falls

Available Now on Amazon.com for just $0.99

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Writing Process (7 of 9)

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Final Revisions

(or How I Learned to Trust Readers, Eat Sushi and Believe in Dinosaurs)

… continued from part 6: That Dreaded Second Draft

When Michael Crichton sent his first draft of Jurassic Park to his usual test-readers, they hated it. All of them. They got angry, asking him why he would even write a book like that. But when he asked what they didn’t like, they didn’t exactly know. “They just hated it, every bit of it,” Crichton said.

There’s some sort of magic that happens the moment you set a draft in stone. Printed out, handed to a reader, or even just looking at a PDF on the same screen you were editing in, suddenly all the mistakes and ideas for re-writes spring up like rabbits. Fiery demon-rabbits from Hell. Some of my fellow writers and I are working on a term for this phenomenon. More on that here.

Letting someone else read my work, I wonder how I could have missed things so glaringly obvious, or I’m immediately embarrassed of certain sections. But this is good. It isn’t the final draft, so I can put out those fires right away, and embarrassment often means I’ve unlocked some truth — something personal and deep. It will resonate with readers who are just as vulnerable as I am. So much of writing is willingly putting your heart on the chopping block. And they’ll love you for it.

Addressing reader’s notes is more about trusting the reader than getting twenty of your friends to voice their opinion. I have three people look at my book. My two writing partners and my editor. I might show it to more people, just to illicit a reaction, but I take their advice with a grain of salt, and often don’t change much. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

Obviously if everyone starts pointing out the same problem or something lacking in the story, I’ll put those grains of rice in the cooker and make something of it. Rice … for sushi, maybe.

Obligatory photo of sushi, for good measure. You deserve some great sushi right about now — for following my silly blog if nothing else. And if you’re in the L.A. area, I highly recommend ‘Sushi Ike’ on Hollywood & Gower. Don’t be deceived by its humble facade. It’s one of L.A.’s hidden gems, as is their head sushi chef, Rick.

But I’m wary of this too … trusting test readers, not the sushi. The sushi is clutch. No, sometimes the problem isn’t the part of the story people don’t understand, but a failed set-up or pay-off somewhere else in the book. Adding in a single line ten chapters earlier may solve something in the climax. It’s important to really analyze the source of the problem and even test your new solution on your most trusted critics.

Crichton ended up writing two more drafts of Jurassic Park, but the response was the same. Just pure hate for the story. One of the initial problems he faced when coming up with the book was the excuse to bring dinosaurs back. He couldn’t see who would realistically pay for that scientific endeavor and the only thing he could come up with was for entertainment purposes. That was the only reason it took place in a theme park. Naturally, he wrote the story from a child’s point of view.

Finally, one of the test readers said they found it annoying that it was told from the child’s point of view. They told him, “I want this to be a story for me.” Crichton did a complete rewrite from an adult point of view, and that’s really all it took to save the novel. Without that simple adjustment, we would never have had the Jurassic Park we know and love.

“Writing is rewriting,” as the great Michael Crichton said.

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Continued in Part 8: DEADLINE

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Writing Process (6 of 9)

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That Dreaded Second Draft

…continued from Part 5: Critique

Aside from fixing all the grammar and polishing sentences, a good thing to focus on during a second pass are themes, character traits and general style and language. Here I really look at the story from a bird’s-eye view. How do certain characters talk? Is that consistent? Are their motivations clear and consistent? How do we see them change? Do I have convincing arguments on both sides of an issue? Is the audience feeling what I want them to feel at any given point?  How can this sentence be phrased better? How can I combine these two paragraphs into one well-spoken and concise sentence?

This pass may be the hardest of them all, and the hardest to keep track of. Use of character worksheets, location worksheets and anything else that might help keep track of things are highly encouraged.

Running through my story the second time, I keep a rather large one-sheet of notes for the polish phase … writing rules and snippets I’ve adapted over the years about things I like in good writing; little reminders for myself. Each story is unique, too, and I’ll add many notes specific to the story I’m working on in the one-sheet. It’s a cheat sheet and one should have no shame in referring to such an item.

Here are some helpful tips from some of our favorite authors:

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Seven_tips_from_F. Scott_Fitzgerald

Seven_tips_from_William_Faulkner

Writing Rules from other Authors

Author Zack Keller just recently put up a great post about Editing your book like a reader. Some really good stuff in there that I wholeheartedly agree with. I may even find myself cutting out entire chapters, as I read my story more like a reader. Certain things are just extraneous and don’t need to be there. I might absolutely love them. But deep down I know they shouldn’t be there and you just have to kill your babies for the greater good.

I polish, polish and polish the story until I am satisfied with every aspect and feel I have explored every corner of the world without going off on unnecessary tangents. This can take several passes. Patience is a virtue.

Continued in Part 7: Final Notes

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Writing Process (4 of 9)

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Rough Draft

…continued from Part 3: Create Tent-Poles

Act Two is always the longest part of the adventure. The journey of writing a book is no exception. Still, that isn’t to say that ninety percent of the work isn’t done in the planning phase — because it is. And it’s nice to take a break between the planning and execution phase of your book. My mind needs time to reflect on what I’ve already done, what it all means for my story, and really whether or not I still like it. I’ll come back to my piles of notes and organize them so I can move on to the next step (see steps 1-4 here, if you missed them)

Now I actually sit down to write this damn thing. By hand, and with a pen! More on that here. I always try to work in the mornings, when my mind is fresh. I only write for three hours a day, maximum. Overworking my brain and not experiencing life would be detrimental to my story, my health and my social life. Not to mention, there has been so much I’ve included in my story as a result of getting out of my hole and taking in the world around me. It opens up doors and windows I would have never even thought of. I’m already finished with the rough draft of my novel, Wonderful World of Zombies, and I’m still taking notes when inspiration strikes.

This could go on forever, and it’s important to set goals. I’ll make myself a target word count and really try to stick to it. Every day I write I know I’ll write roughly a certain amount of words and then I can calculate a realistic deadline for that rough draft.

Another thing about working only a few hours a day is that my brain doesn’t shut off. As mentioned in that John Cleese video, the mind keeps working at problems for days on end after you’ve put in the hours and then put down the pen. I think most of my story has come out of moments driving in the car, scrambling for a notepad or my phone at a stoplight so I can get all the ideas down before I lose track of them. And let me tell you, they come in like someone opened a floodgate! Pouring out of my mind at lightning speeds, sometimes it’s hard to keep up. But by working in a method like Cleese describes, it really does allow me to find better solutions than if I were to have burned the candle at both ends. I’ve tried that method. It never works as well as I want.

I realize now, looking at what I’ve written about this part of the process, that I really don’t have much to say about how that rough draft actually gets down on the paper. And I think that’s because despite all the planning and character development I’ve done, writing is truly a loose, creative endeavor. There are no rules or guidelines that will tell you what an interesting and engaging story will be. But I do trust the process, nevertheless, and I trust my instinct.

Go with your gut!

This is play time!

I shit out the rough draft onto the page so I have something to work with, and I work in the most effectively creative way that I can. Alone in the dark of my mind, there isn’t much that would really help me except my own imagination … and no one to hear me scream! Okay, it’s not that bad … most of the time. I let myself go and open my mind to any possibility. Often times, I’ll bounce ideas off other trusted writers or just simply listen to the characters. It’s amazing when the story starts revealing itself to you by surprise. In fact, this is the part where the real magic happens. Let yourself be surprised.

Continued in Part 5: Critique

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Writing Process (1 of 9)

As much as it’s good to be free and loose when you do something creative, it’s equally as important to carve out a schedule and follow a specific creative process. A bit ago, I wrote a post about creativity that outlined how John Cleese understands creativity to work. I highly subscribe to his methods.

I’ve even adopted techniques from other artists and creative outlets like music and animation and film. I discovered that the creative arts all basically work the same way. Story is story. The process to create any piece of art uses basically the same way of thinking. It’s still an ongoing process, but as of today the following 9 Steps are basically how I work when I write:

Develop Characters

Fellowship Characters

I would encourage writers to do this step first. Character is King. There is no such thing as a plot-driven story. Story is the result of believable characters interacting with each other and making genuine decisions about conflicts based on who they are.

There is a great writing exercise to help develop characters. Create a list describing as many aspects and bits of history  for a character that you can possibly think of. It’s important to not go hog-wild. Keep it believable, even if it’s in a fantastical world. It’s highly unlikely you’ll come up with a genius twelve-year-old boy who likes snowboarding, flies into space in his free time, eats gummy worms, rides dragons in ancient China, and is one of twelve children — all different cross-breed species from the future.

Some of the questions may be: What are their flaws? What are their strengths? Do they realize either? Why or why not? What was their childhood like? What do they think they want in life? What do they actually need that they’re not aware of? Any number of questions to really get to know this character as best as they can. Include daily life stuff too like their least favorite foods, but create a reason why that is. And focus on deep level stuff. Remember that your character should come off as real. Are they afraid of snakes? Why, what happened? Did they have an abusive father who dropped them in a pit of snakes just for a laugh?

Next, repeat the process. Now that you have a character you really like, create another in that same world. Treat it like a potential alternate protagonist, but don’t even worry about it being related. Once you have these two characters, stir things up. Put their names in a hat and draw one out at random. That first “hero” you made? Yeah, now he’s your antagonist. Your story is only as good as the characters in it. And your hero is only as good as the villain. Develop the antagonist with as much love and care as you would your hero.

Now, come up with the first time these two characters meet. What is that situation? How does it happen? Why does it happen? Do they like each other? Maybe they’re best friends at the start. Maybe they just bump into each other on the street. Then, create the last time they meet. What is their last encounter? Project a potential moment when the two of them will have the final show-down. Of course, it doesn’t have to be some epic battle between good and evil. It might be that they were star-crossed lovers, and the last time they meet is a painful good-bye. Maybe they are mortal enemies in a huge final battle. Maybe they’ve become best friends and one of them is reading a story to the other on their death-bed. Maybe they’re anthropomorphic lollipops.

Finally, of course, come up with the moment in the middle where they’re most at odds with each other. Write down a bullet point list of what happens. Include key moments of dialogue. Often times, I’ll even draw the scene out in a single frame vignette (like a Rockwell painting) if I see it clearly enough. Soon, secondary and tertiary characters will pop up and before you know it, they will have created a world and a story will come out of it.

By putting your characters through their paces, you’ll start to get a sense of who they are, how they might react in certain situations. It will become clear what they would and wouldn’t ever do. You’ll start eliminating and molding who they are based on these initial tests. Or perhaps you’ll change them entirely because they aren’t working. But, when successful, the characters will be believable and richer than if you had started with the plot. No one cares about plot. They care about how characters react to problems. Story comes out of that.

Continued in Step 2:  Sketching and Research

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