Fritz's picture
Fritz January 27, 2012 - 11:25pm

OK - I've got one.

We all read the 'how to' books.  We all read our favorite authors.  We sometimes pick up a magazine, do a google search, catch a documentary on the tube.  We all write.  And, as steadfast practitioners one and all, we sometimes come across an amazing idea that can potentially change our thought process.

Now sure, these are gradiated, some are more dramatic than others, but so what.  Why not share for the benefit of the group, see if any nuggets of univeral truths come to bear, maybe a new Aesop in our field is lurking about.  Whichever, I will jot down the one I had just a day or two ago- it had to do with opening hooks:

An idea - wish fulfillment:  You ever noticed that often the stories you care most for have a good deal of 'coolness' in the beginning that you relate to, or might secretly wish for (obvious ones are frodo getting a ring that turns him invisible, Harry Potter - mistreated, but wait - he can do magic).  So - a challenge, can you create such an opening in a short story venue to draw in a reader?

So, that little realization doesn't deserve its own theme music, but maybe you get what I'm saying.  We all get little moments of insight that make us go, 'huh' - and kick our heads over like a confused dog.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 28, 2012 - 2:04am

I think, for me, these little nuggets don't necessarily come from 'how-to' books, but from novels. I'll pick up a book, start reading and the second something catches me, I've got a pen in hand underlining, highlighting, making notes in the margin and creasing the corner. I have a whole row of 'how to' books and for the most part, the all pretty much give the same advice, with the exception of a few stand out titles. 

These nuggets could be as small as a simple description of something or someone. Or, they could be as big as a compelling character arc. Right now, I've been reading with an eye on story structure. Sounds simple enough, but why did the author put the book in the order he did? Why are the scenes arranged as they are? Why is chapter 4 all about a sub-plot or backstory? I ask myself these questions as I'm reading along, sometimes jotting notes in the margins. 

Do I read how-to books? Yeah.  But, for the most part, I use them as reference. Someone said that the best way to learn to write, besides writing, is to read. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts January 28, 2012 - 4:54am

I haven't really put the idea to test, but last fall I listened to a song obsessively that had apart talking about watching the Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim fight on tv. I got too thinking about those kinda cultural landmark moments shared begrudgingly by everyone. Do you think it matters what a fictional character was doing or watching on tv before the news came on about JFK or the Challenger crash or 9/11? If that plays at all into the atmosphere of the setting or a character's personality? I keep meaning to think about that when I come up with a character, but usually don't think that deep.

personally, Phil Hartman was my JFK. I was devestated.

Fritz's picture
Fritz January 28, 2012 - 8:31am

@ Moon - as to reading - i keep getting hung up on the wasted words, the useless dialogue tags, how the writer could have tightened up the story so as to make it more crisp, clean, and powerful.  I think it has to do with the limitations in word count for short story markets and how i'm always trying to pare down my own stuff.  Plus, I'm a fan of the 40's-50's dime novels that packed huge punch in few pages.  If you find some method to the madnes of story arc layout let me know.

@ Renfield - ambiance / depth of character - got to love it - I think, used well, it adds power to the whole.  I'm reminded of (something I read once) - to effectively show horror, first paint a lovely, happy scene to ruin - gotta have the contradiction - or a variable palette.  Phil Hartman was a lot like JFK in the women department - loved him in Bilko.

 

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 28, 2012 - 11:08am

as to reading - i keep getting hung up on the wasted words, the useless dialogue tags, how the writer could have tightened up the story so as to make it more crisp, clean, and powerful.  I think it has to do with the limitations in word count for short story markets and how i'm always trying to pare down my own stuff.  Plus, I'm a fan of the 40's-50's dime novels that packed huge punch in few pages.  If you find some method to the madnes of story arc layout let me know.

- I'm in the same boat, man. I'm  a huge advocate of word economy; the fewer words I can convey my point in, then better for me. I'm also a huge fan of 40-50's dime novels. But, those things you mentioned that keep you hung up are the things I look for... Understanding, what you or I or anyone else, considers 'bad' writing, I think, is one of the most important to things to look for... So we don't repeat it in our own work. But, as with most facets of writing, 'bad' is extrememly subjective, but I think you and I sit in the same boat.

Nighty Nite's picture
Nighty Nite from NJ is reading Grimscribe: His Lives and Works January 28, 2012 - 12:05pm

These little revelations happen to me all the time, and like R. Moon said, it's usually when I pick up a novel.

Most recently I can recall, I just finished re-reading Slaughterhouse-Five. It's fun to pick out the little things that Vonnegut repeats throughout the story. Like the barking dog, the blue and ivory colors, the blood gutter. And in that same instance, as I'm noticing these things being recalled throughout the story, I realize I can do that too, connect my prose with small details like this. Everytime he'd write "Somewhere a big dog barked" I'd get a stupid grin on my face, in my head going, "Oh yeah! The german dog!" I know there's a Chuck essay on this, the choruses, but it's helpful to me to actually see it in action in other works.

It's all about stitchmarks for me really. When I write, I feel like I have all these quilt squares, and I have no idea how to work needles and connect them. So lately, reading through novels, I've been going back and reading from climax to ending over, and over, and over. Trying to pick out every subtle thread. So far that's unveiled no real epiphany for me, but when it has, I'll be sure to post it.

Fritz's picture
Fritz January 28, 2012 - 9:41pm

'you and I sit in the same boat'  - and we sail on the Subjective Sea (or is it Ocean?)

@Nite - The awesome thing about writing is the sheer number of nuanced approaches you can attack it, address it, study it, approach it, read it, learn it, pursue it, et al... etc... infinity.  In the early days I used to worry about that elusive, 'voice' - you know the one I'm talking about - the once that develops over time and comes to dominate your entire written word forever....  HA - Melodramatic -  well, anywho - point is, I looked into - I practiced - on this 'voice' and came to the conclusion that 'WOW' - there's like a million ways I can try to employee this - same thing with every other component of writing.  I think it's great you got something figured out - dwelve the depths of it and beat it to death with your exploration.  Oh - and let me know what you find out (sshhh - that's the narcissistic laziness coming out) 

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 28, 2012 - 9:49pm

I sail on the seas of cheese...

Nighty Nite's picture
Nighty Nite from NJ is reading Grimscribe: His Lives and Works January 28, 2012 - 11:52pm

@Fritz: I know exactly what you're talking about. I still struggle with the voice thing. I feel as though everything I write needs to have the same kind of special edge everything else I write has, otherwise I'll be dull and uninteresting. I know it isn't true, but some part of me still gets anxious about it. 

I think the best part about writing is that you get to wear so many masks and speak in so many tongues.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 29, 2012 - 2:37am

I think the best part about writing is that you get to wear so many masks and speak in so many tongues.

- AGREE!

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz January 31, 2012 - 8:09am

Here's an obvious one, but a lot of the times the obvious ones go by the wayside or are forgotten:

"A good story feels like it started before you got there and goes on after you leave"

As the reader, you're just peeking in on that particular segment. Again, this is pretty obvious. But it ties in with what you guys are talking about in terms of word economy or tightening up. Do we really need to know that much backstory? Is it really all that important? Sometimes you'll read (or write) a story where the author is trying to fill the reader in a little too much and it really bogs the story down.

A writing teacher once said, "Fiction is like real life, but better." Again, here's another obvious one. But it's one to keep in mind. I wrote a story which was probably about 85% true. The ending was really what did happen. But some of the people in workshop felt cheated or that it didn't feel realistic (even though it was 100% what happened). When I was writing it, i felt if I strayed too much from what happened then I'd be faking the funk. Now after that workshop and keeping that tidbit in mind, I realize that I'm not my story and I'm not those characters and I can ramp it up and drive home my theme. It may have been inspired by true events, but it's not a memoir. It's fiction. Something that should have been obvious, but it was a great growing pain for me to go through.

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged January 31, 2012 - 8:23am

"A good story feels like it started before you got there and goes on after you leave"

This isn't necessarily true. What about a story of a person's life (either fictitious or real), that starts at birth and ends at death? And in the beginning they were an orphan and everything about the parents is unknown, and in the end they have no heirs and die sad and lonely.

[spoiler] Or what about Cat's Cradle. In the end, the world is destroyed.

Sure, time exists before your story and after, but I think it's incumbent upon the author to give the reader the sense that everything important occurs between the the front and back cover.

Happily ever after is something that occurs after your story, but the crisis is over, the important events are over.

Utah's picture
Moderator
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry January 31, 2012 - 8:23am

I'm reminded of (something I read once) - to effectively show horror, first paint a lovely, happy scene to ruin

@Fritz - Hang on, didn't I tell you that?

"A good story feels like it started before you got there and goes on after you leave"

@Otis - This statement makes me think of The Matrix.  My wife and I discussed this movie last night.  The first movie was the perfect encapsulation of the entire story line.  We know there was shit going on before we first see Neo, but that doesn't really matter to us, because it's picking up in the right place to tell this story.  And it ends in the right place.  We know this guy is destined to win.  More fighting?  Yeah.  But we know the outcome.  Didn't need the second or third movies to show us, and that's why they flopped.  The story just got longer than it needed to be.

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged January 31, 2012 - 8:29am

I thought the second Matrix movie was pretty cool. The third one was just awful, though. So awful, in fact, that it would be worth sacrificing the novelty of the second so the third never existed. You are right that the first Matrix movie could have existed on its own, no sequels necessary.

Quentin Tarentino actually said something very similar. He said The Matrix was one of his favorite movies until the sequels came out, and they drastically lowered his opinion of the first.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. January 31, 2012 - 8:32am

I love in "Cat's Cradle" when the journalist guy I believe it is asks the scientist, "Aren't you worried you are commiting a sin?" when he builds the bomb and the scientist says, "What is sin?"

 

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz January 31, 2012 - 10:30am

@Razorsharp - of course there's exceptions and I wouldn't say what I wrote is carved in stone. In no way am I saying exclude the important events. They obviously need to be there. What I'm saying is trimming fat, not overloading novels, short stories, etc with a lot of pre & post information that's not necessary to the story. I try to keep this in mind when I'm writing. For example, I'll do character questionaires to help me get closer to a character. And now, in a sense, this character develops a lot of backstory. I know it - but do my readers need to know it? Do I want to shoehorn it in there? That's what I took from that little lesson when it was passed on to me.

Tarrantino is spot on. The 2nd & 3rd Matrix were pretty bad and made me forget how much I enjoyed the first one. Same can be said for the Star Wars. I could really care less about that franchise now. I was super cool with the story before the prequels. I had the gist. Once I saw the gist, painfully played out over the course of three shitty movies, it made me give a shit less about the originals. 

 

If only some things could be unseen!

Fritz's picture
Fritz January 31, 2012 - 9:32pm

@Utah - 'Hang on, didn't I tell you that?' -You'd like to think so...  HA...  Maybe...  Maybe...

The old trickster - backstory integration.  Somebody already stated the import of finding where the story starts (and ends) - I agree with that.  What have you got - action, dialogue, description, internal junk here and there, stuff like that, and now we go about trying to add some depth and explanation by working in tidbits of backstory along the way, all the while doing our darnest not to slow the flow.  Here's a cool maxim / adage - whatever - Have everything that needs said said before the final conflict -  we (reader) should know it all by the time the shit hits fan.

1st - a bunch of questions - what's happening? - suspense and mystery draws out our emotion

then - eventually the questions get answered - we know - enter dangerous territory

2nd - We Know what's going on.... do we care?

3rd - Resolve conflicts - story is over.

as for the Matrix - hell - i'd watch it for the Monica Bellucci parts