By Carrie Knowles | July 17, 2014 at 10:13 AM EDT | No Comments
Dialogue is one of the great tools of writing fiction. So, let’s learn something about how it works and what how people talk to each other tells us about both the characters and the story.
Here’s the challenge: Go to a coffee shop or some other busy place where people are talking, and listen. Don’t pay attention to the words but to the rhythm of what is being said. Take some notes.
Remember, I told you not to listen to the words? As you listen, draw lines. Set it up like a dialogue. When the first person speaks, write A, then start making a line. Try to mimic the speed of each person talking as you move across the page. The faster someone talks, the faster your line grows. When the next person speaks, go down a space and write B then start a second line. Go back and forth between the two speakers. Your page should look something like this:
Go ahead and use a question mark (?) to indicate someone has asked a question and an exclamation point (!) when someone has shouted or raised his or her voice or given an emphatic response.
Do this for a whole page. Look at the lines: Are some longer, others shorter? What do you now know about this interaction? Is one person dominating the conversation? Are the two people taking turns talking? Are the sentences they are using long or short?
What does all this mean?
Some things are obvious. If one person is talking more than the other, you can safely assume that the big talker is the one who is dominating the conversation and that there is something in the relationship that is not equal.
There are, however, situations where the one dominating the conversation has the least power and they’re trying to talk their way through the brick wall of power in front of them to get what they want. Think of teenagers fast and furiously trying to talk their parent into giving them the keys to the car for an upcoming football game. The parent has the upper hand because they own the car and the keys, but the teenager is the one doing most of the talking because they are trying to either get over on their parents (grades are in and they’re not good…or the plan is not to go to the football game but to pick up the girlfriend and a six pack and make a night of it in the backseat). In this scenario, the one in power doesn’t have to do anything but listen and say no.
As I said before, not all conversations are about equal relationships. Sometimes, the big talker is the one in total control and the one who answers in short sentences is forced to listen because of a power differential. Could be a boss dressing down an employee or a teacher correcting a student. This conversation pattern could also indicate an unequal sexual relationship. The one doing most of the talking in this instance is the one who is controlling the situation, and who is most likely in control of the relationship. There’s a bit of tension in this dialogue.
How do you show this tension in dialogue? Short yes and no answers go a long way in an unequal fight.
If long versus short indicates unequal relationships, then what would intimacy look like?
The more intimate and compatible two people are, the shorter their lines of dialogue. It’s like the intimacy allows for a kind of shorthand speech between two people.
What a great way to show that one character is intimately involved with another: short, broken sentences…because the two characters who are intimate and share some history could easily finish each other’s sentences. They don’t really need to say too much.
What about two people fighting? If the fight were really heated, they’d be cutting each other off, not allowing the other person to finish what they were saying. So, the short/short dialogue pattern often indicates a form of intimacy. But, when people cut each other off, not allowing the other person to finish what they are saying, you are probably looking at a fight rather than an intimate conversation between lovers.
Long/long dialogue patterns indicate that people are on equal footing and are just getting to know each other.
Think of meeting someone for the first time. You want to get to know that person, so you not only listen to what they have to say, but you also choose your words wisely and in nearly complete sentences when you respond to their questions because you want to be sure to be understood. You want to look smart.
Whether your characters are sleeping together, fighting, trying to get the car keys or getting ready to fire an employee, you can use dialogue length to show rather than tell what is going on.
Okay, now listen to what people are saying. As a general rule – unlike narrative that demands grammatically constructed full sentences – conversations, even between two highly educated characters, rarely rely on full sentences. Grammar be damned.
Also, when characters are talking, they should be talking in their voices, not yours. Listen to speech patterns of friends and strangers. There’s a rhythm to how each of us speaks. Be aware of that rhythm and find a rhythm that fits your character.
Regional as well as social class speech patterns are most easily represented through the use of dialect. We often think that dialect is used to indicate low social status, but think about it. Haven’t you ever noticed really highly educated (okay, snobbishly educated) folks talking with a kind of high class holier-than-thou kind of dialect?
What happens with Gatsby when he is trying to impress? He tempers his speech. He picks up the dialect of his wealthy friends.
Pay attention to regional words like soda, pop and cola. Give your character words that we can believe he or she would use.
Make each character’s speech pattern distinct enough that we can tell, without you telling us, who is speaking when.
Writing good dialogue takes practice, but once you master it, you’ll discover a great tool for bringing your characters and your story to life.
NEXT: Where to put those quotation marks, and other questions of formatting dialogue.
By Carrie Knowles | July 01, 2014 at 09:19 AM EDT | No Comments
There’s a new program available that tells you how to write a novel in ninety days. What’s unique about this approach is not so much the ninety days (there have been other programs designed to show you how to slug it out in a month or so… not my style), but in the prescription that you spend the first thirty days NOT writing.
That’s right: thirty of the precious ninety NOT writing. Instead, you take the first thirty days to answer questions about your characters. Lots of questions.
In other words, you really get to know your characters: their likes, dislikes, their strengths, their weaknesses, their problems, and probably most importantly, their motivations. The idea is a simple one: once you understand who your characters are and why they act the way they do, turning them loose to create a story is easy.
I doubt, given my track record, that I could actually knock out a book in ninety days, or at least one that I’d be proud to put my name on, but the idea of spending thirty days not writing, but getting to know the characters instead, is intriguing.
As you already know (if you’ve been reading my other posts), I like and practice character-driven fiction. I like creating characters and watching them move through the world and their problems. To me, that’s something worth writing about.
It’s also something worth reading. It’s the old story of one hand clapping… books only make a sound if they have a reader. Readers are voyeurs, plain and simple. They like watching other people make mistakes, get into trouble, make even bigger mistakes, flail around, get it together and pull out of it.
Reading is gratifying and satisfying because reading a story gives you the luxury of watching something happen at arm’s length without having to get involved. Think of it as experience without the consequences.
Now, let’s go back to that first thirty days of creating characters before ever sitting down to write. If you want to be a successful author, you best not write without thinking about what your reader wants from a book.
The key to writing a good story is in telling not only the what, but also the why of your characters’ actions.
It isn’t enough to know what happens in your story. To tell/write a really good story you have to understand why something happened. This is the key to why and how you can write a book in ninety days. Once you understand what motivates your characters, the rest is easy, or at least easier, because you know what makes your characters click.
Grappling with the why of the story is the fun part. Why do your characters do the things they do? What’s in it for them? What has happened in their past that has made it possible for them to steal, kill, cheat, lie, drive the getaway car, fall in love or cook dinner? Are they motivated by money, righteousness, honor or desperation? What’s the one thing they want most? Asking and answering these types of questions will help you feel like you can turn your characters loose in your story and at least have a good guess as to what they might do in whatever situation you put them in.
Dig a little. Have fun with the motivation. Let the motivation become part of the arc of the story.
Real people are complex. This is something that Stephen King understands in spades. Like his work or hate it, once you start reading one of his books, you can’t stop reading until you find out just why his characters do all the terrible and wonderful things they do.
You say you’ve never been interested in reading Stephen King? If you think you won’t like Stephen King and all that crazy Carrie prom stuff, you should treat yourself to a really fine literary experience and read The Green Mile. And, if your favorite movie is the brilliant Shawshank Redemption, you need to know it’s Stephen King’s work. Surprised? Open your mind and take another look at King’s work. Pay attention to the way he reveals how his characters think and what makes them do what they do. Brilliant.
Bottom line: Characters should be believable. What that means is that their motivations should be plausible. Believable can be ordinary or extraordinary depending on the character’s ability and passion. Believable doesn’t mean your characters have to be ordinary, but their motivations need to ring true. Your characters need to react and act like real people. They should have dreams, problems, pasts, fine points and flaws. Drag all that out for your readers to think about.
Spend thirty days with your characters. Talk to them. Dream about them. Write them a note or two. Invite them into your imagination. Don’t worry about the plot or where your story is going. Get your characters down on paper and let them go.
Whether or not you charge through a book in ninety days, don’t worry. Once you’ve got your characters down, really down pat, the story is just waiting to happen.
However… if you’ve REALLY done your work, you should expect to be surprised by your characters’ actions. The best-created characters have minds and wills of their own… and like strong-willed children, they won’t always listen to what you want and will do what they want to do despite your good intentions of trying to get to the end of your book in ninety days!
Let go of all your great expectations of knocking out that book in a fortnight. Enjoy the fact that you’ve created some interesting characters. Let the characters have some fun while your book grows its own life.
If you trust the characters you’ve created and are willing to let them be who you’ve created them to be, your characters will keep the story moving. But, it might take them longer than ninety days to get where they want to go.
By Carrie Knowles | June 16, 2014 at 10:57 AM EDT | No Comments
At the heart of every good story there’s a problem that has to be solved. Or, there is something the main character wants that he or she either can’t have or has to pursue. No problem, no story.
Murder mysteries are great. The problem is right there: dead on the floor. Who did that? Why? And so the story unwinds…
One of these days I’m going to write a murder mystery. But, in the meantime, I’ll keep struggling with good characters that make bad decisions.
That’s right; the wonderful characters you have so carefully crafted have problems. They also make some pretty bad decisions. They fumble around. They screw up. They say and do some pretty stupid and sometimes awful things, and then, in the end, they find redemption.
That’s what it’s all about: mistakes that move to redemption…and doing the Hokey Pokey along the way.
The problem can be big, like Fargo, where the least of the problems for the main character is how to dispose of the body. Or small, like what do you do if a child you kidnap is so much trouble his parents say they will only take him back if you pay them: O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief.
The problem is central to the story. How your characters handle the problem is the story you’re telling.
So, what’s the problem?
Your main characters have to be flawed in some way. They cannot be perfect. If they are all knowing, kind, generous, good looking, trim, athletic, top of their class, honest, nice teeth, perfect life, perfect husband/wife, perfect children, beautiful house, a fine car with a tank full of gas, best mother-in-law ever… there wouldn’t be much to tell about them.
In fact, they’d be pretty boring to write about, and even more boring to read about. Sorry about that.
So, you take that “perfect” character and you give him or her a flaw. Dig back in his/her past to a secret: an affair, a shaken faith, a bad family, or some lie they told. Give your main character some doubts, some angst, something that he or she has to make right.
That’s part of the key: Main characters have to have a problem and also have to DO something in the story. They have to confront their past, correct a wrong, get out of their comfort zone and either leave or rise above a bad situation. Or, if you’re shooting for something warm and totally redeeming in your story: have the courage to fall in love.
One of the best examples of how character flaws and past problems generate an interesting story is the show Scandal. As the series unfolds, the story line digs deeper and deeper, one step at a time, into the past and the problems of each character. The show is unflinching and tough minded. It is more than compelling. It is fascinating because we know from the get-go that we are not in Camelot.
The other compelling thing about Scandal is the basic story line: Olivia Pope and her crew are the fixers. They are the ones who are Johnny on the Spot to fix whatever problems come up – the more complicated, the better. But, as we move through the series, we quickly begin to discover that the “fixers” have problems of their own.
I won’t spoil the story line for you if you are still rumbling around season one, but just say that from Olivia Pope and her motley crew to the president and his cabinet, the past and the problems of each character play out in unexpected ways.
And here is what you can learn from watching Scandal: From the opening scene and the opening few minutes of each episode, we learn something new and compelling about one of the characters and his or her past/problems. In the truest sense of the metaphor, we are hooked.
We are also teased a bit with something from the past that is put there to help us understand what that particular character may or may not be capable of doing. There’s some truly bad stuff, both past and present, and through it all, you never quit hoping that the characters will find a way to become their better selves. It’s addictive.
It’s also right there, from the very beginning, and we watch dutifully, waiting for both the problem and the solution to unfold.
The rule for the day: The more quickly we learn about the problem/the flaw, the more quickly we get involved in the story.
By Carrie Knowles | June 05, 2014 at 10:10 AM EDT | No Comments
Readers are surprised to hear I don’t know what my characters are going to do before they do it. For some strange reason, people think the writer is in total control of the story.
If you want to maintain control of your story, you usually write plot driven fiction (which I don’t). In plot driven fiction, you work out your story line (your plot), i.e. how the story starts, what happens in the story, and how the story ends, then create characters that are best suited to make all this happen.
Plot driven fiction is one way to do it. Character driven fiction is another.
Character driven fiction is less about control for the writer, and more about letting a story unfold through the development of the characters. Writers who write character driven rather than plot driven stories create some interesting characters, then get out of their way so the characters can do whatever it is they want to do. It’s a slow and messy process, but a fun one, and if you’re lucky, the plot develops one page at a time with twists and surprises you hadn’t even imagined when you first set those characters on the page.
This is harder than you think. Character driven fiction requires you to listen as much as it requires you to write. You have to listen to your characters. You have to be careful not to put words into their mouths. You have to turn your head and keep quiet when they decide to do something bad. More importantly, you have to let go of what is happening and allow your characters to muddle through their problems on their own.
Rule number one in character driven fiction: Your characters must ring true. Good or bad by nature, the characters you create have to be believable. They don’t have to be likeable (think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), but the reader has to believe, and sometimes fear (again…good old Hannibal) that the character is as real as the person living next door.
Just like people you meet in real life, characters in character driven fiction are not perfect. They can be sweet, mean, unpredictable, unbelievably kind, rude, irritating, self-centered and magnanimous, all within a couple pages…but never boring.
Writing a character driven story makes for a lively writing experience. You never quite know where the characters are going to take you. If you don’t mind things getting messy and sometimes totally out of control, writing character driven fiction is, by my way of thinking, just about as fun as work gets.
In case I haven’t mentioned it before: writing is work, but it is also fun. It keeps your imagination alive. It provides hours of entertainment. It challenges you to think about the world in new and interesting ways. It pushes you to be honest about what you see and feel. It is creative and fulfilling. But it is hard work.
While doing a recent workshop I was struggling to figure out how to best explain what a well-developed character is and how they act. That’s when I remembered Katherine.
Katherine was our daughter’s imaginary friend. If you had an imaginary friend, or have a child who has an imaginary friend, you already know what I’m talking about.
Imaginary friends are very much like well developed characters. They have whole worlds spun out for them: present as well as future lives (and sometimes past lives depending on the imagination of the child). They have wants and desires. They say what they think. They can be a little uncensored. They can be impetuous. They can be demanding. They can also charm you into doing whatever it is they want you to do…try your best not to think about Hannibal Lecter here.
Our daughter loved cake, particularly birthday cake complete with pretty frosting and lots of candles. She also knew, in the plot driven world she lived in, that she only had one birthday a year…and therefore, only one chance for a birthday cake.
Katherine, on the other hand, was blessed with many birthdays. Morning after morning, our daughter would come into the kitchen for breakfast and pull me aside to announce, sotto voce, that today was Katherine’s birthday and that we should bake her a cake. Being both the good author and the good mom, I understood the situation and baked a cake.
After dinner, the cake would be brought out, candles lit, and to the delight of Katherine (who had taken on the physical manifestation of a large doll in order to participate fully in our daughter’s world) we’d sing Happy Birthday and eat cake.
Katherine had other wants and desires as well, all voiced for her through our daughter. It was an excellent arrangement for all involved: we always had cake for dessert.
Writing character driven fiction is about not being afraid to create something and let it go. When we do this well, quite often our characters surprise us.
In my novel, Ashoan’s Rug, I was surprised as anyone that Mary Frances burned down St. Mary’s library. She didn’t do it intentionally, but she did, in fact, burn it down. Sorry about that.
If you want to get philosophical about it: Fictional characters have free will. So, let them make mistakes, ask for forgiveness, fall in love, fall out of love, fail, succeed, get discouraged and dream. Give them space to be themselves and trust that your story will come along for the ride.
By Carrie Knowles | May 22, 2014 at 07:50 AM EDT | No Comments
Now that you’ve started writing, I feel compelled to tell you the truth: Sometimes your work will be rejected. But don’t panic. Rejection is just the everyday whiplash of this business.
It is important to remember that rejection has nothing to do with whether your story is good or bad…okay, sometimes it does, but if you feel like you’ve written the best story you can write, and you feel the characters are solid and the story line is compelling, there’s still no guarantee that it will get published at the first place you send it to.
In fact, more than likely, it won’t.
Here’s the reason why: Editors are human.
This is one of those hard to accept facts of life, especially if you’ve been writing and sending out your work for a long time. In fact, the longer you put your work out there for editors to read, and the more you get rejected, the more likely it is that you will begin to think that editors are a very low form of life.
However, despite how bitter the rejection feels and how humbling and humiliating the review process feels, the only way to understand why you’ve been rejected is to come to grips with the fact that editors are, in fact, quite human.
This is the problem. Editors are just like you and me. They actually LOVE reading, but some days they wake up wanting to read a funny story while your story isn’t funny. So, you get rejected.
Other things can happen as well. For instance, imagine that before the editor (to whom you have sent your wonderful story) gets to his office, he has a fight with his teenage son over drugs, the new ding on the back fender of the car, failing marks in school, and the son’s new girlfriend who has both a pierced lip and a nose ring and wants to move into the son’s room because she’s been kicked out of A) her home, B) school, C) the National Honor Society.
Uh, oh…the first story the editor reads that morning is your story. Most unfortunately, your story is about THE perfect teenage son who saves the world. Halfway down the page, the editor starts to hate your story because he doesn’t have a wonderful teenage son. Rather than enjoying the good fortune of your well-crafted character, the editor feels cheated and resentful, so he rejects your story, but this time he does it with a twitch of a diabolical smile on his face.
In their defense, editors get so many submissions they can’t give them all a good reading. Instead, they make snap rejection judgments, like: Did you send a short story when they had asked for poetry? Did you follow the submission guidelines, including font size and word count? Did you miss the submission deadline by even one hour?
I once wrote a story I knew was good. At the time, I was having a crisis of confidence (please note: this happens from time to time to every writer) and was feeling unsure about my writing in general, even though I knew I had written a good story. Not feeling at the top of my game, I sent the story to what I would call a grade B type of literary magazine. They rejected it.
The rejection spooked me. Had I lost it? Had I been fooling myself that I had written a good story?
By this time, having lost all sense of confidence in both myself, and my good story, I said a prayer, set my sights lower, and sent the manuscript to a grade C journal.
So, the third time I sent it out, I sent it to something like Tiddlywink Press and THEY rejected it.
Instead of being upset by the third rejection, I became angry. I was better than Tiddlywink Press and I knew it. The story was better than all the other journals I had sent it to and I knew it.
So, I sent it to Glimmer Train. They were not only one of the best in the country, but they actually paid real money.
I submitted my story to their Very Short Fiction Competition, which paid even better if my story won rather than merely being accepted for publication.
It was an impulsive move. The odds were against me. Glimmer Train gets hundreds and hundreds of submissions every week. The whole thing was foolish. My story had already been rejected by three far lesser journals. Who was I kidding?
Much to my surprise a few weeks later, the editors called to congratulate me. Selling Fish had won first place in their Very Short Fiction Competition (Glimmer Train, Winter 1999, Issue 29, p. 62).
When you get rejected, you can’t give up. You have to keep trying.
By Carrie Knowles | May 08, 2014 at 08:34 AM EDT | No Comments
At the 2014 North Carolina Literary Festival, Lee Smith announced that she believed first person was the easiest and most natural way to tell a story because it feels like you, the writer, are telling the story to the reader through the voice of your character in the same way that you might tell the story to a friend.
The danger of a first person point of view (POV) is that the reader gets only one side of the story, making the narrator prone to be unreliable. Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye is a good example. The narrator, however, can also be reliable, i.e. telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
First person also has the power to bring your reader into the story in a very immediate and intimate way. I love how Isak Dinesen pulls you into her book, Out of Africa from her very first line: “I had a farm in Africa.”
This is such a great first line that you just don’t care if she is a reliable or unreliable narrator; you are ready to believe whatever she has to say.
First person, however, limits the writer, as well as the reader, to the exclusive point of view of the narrator. With this POV, you can’t know what the other characters are thinking…just what the narrator thinks about those characters.
Second person POV is tricky and can become tedious. It’s the “you” narrator. I think it’s one of the least successful POVs and also the hardest to pull off without the narrative feeling distant and weird.
Here’s an example of the second person POV: From the very start you knew this day wasn’t going to turn out great.
There aren’t many successful books in second person. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is a good example of the “you” narrator. You might want to read his book before you attempt to write in second person.
The “you” narrator, on the other hand, can work to surprising advantage in flash fiction when the narration is short and snappy and needs a quirky twist.
Third person unlimited omniscience, the he, she, it, they, or them narrator is used more often in fiction than another other POV. With this POV you get to see what everyone is thinking. Charles Dickens was a master of this and kept his readers engaged by letting them into the heads of a whole village full of interwoven characters.
Third person unlimited allows you to enter the mind of any of your characters at any time in the narrative. Also, when using third person unlimited you aren’t burdened with needing to have the main character with you at all times in order to tell your story. The other characters can reflect on the main character and help the story along.
With third person unlimited omniscience, you have the benefit of different points of view, which gives your reader more chances to identify with other characters in your story and to understand the main character’s actions from a variety of viewpoints.
There are some disadvantages to having the option to see the story through more than one point of view: each of your characters has to have and maintain a unique voice as well as a unique take on the narrative in the story, so your reader doesn’t get confused. With so many people chiming in, the reader can lose the story line if you switch POV too often and are unable to make the voices of the various narrators distinct. Again, Dickens is the master at creating and sustaining unique characters. A reader would never confuse the words of Scrooge with those of Tiny Tim.
There is a second type of third person POV: third person limited omniscience. In this third person format, you limit the number of characters who can have a POV in your story. In Lillian’s Garden, I made a conscious decision to stay out of the Devil hunting preacher’s head because it was more important to me for the reader to understand how Joe Nathan’s actions impacted the lives of the other characters than to know what he was thinking.
This is my personal favorite because it has all the advantages of third person unlimited omniscience, plus it allows you to concentrate your story on the major characters’ and the strategic minor characters’ thoughts. With third person limited omniscience you don’t have to be accountable for what EVERYONE thinks…just those characters you like, and a few scallywags you don’t like but who really manage to move your story line along.
Choosing to use first person rather than second or third person doesn’t make or break a narrative. It just determines what kind of and how many points of view your narrative can have.
In short, don’t worry excessively about what point of view to take in a story. Just start writing and see what develops.
By Carrie Knowles | April 24, 2014 at 11:23 AM EDT | No Comments
Short stories are about telling the truth. Not exactly the kind of truth we usually think about, that this happened, then that happened, but the emotional truth of what has happened to the main character and why.
The idea of an emotional truth versus a series of events as the truth is a tough concept. So, let me take you back to last Thanksgiving.
Let’s talk about the dressing/stuffing.
But, before we talk about whatever it is your family likes stuffed inside the great Thanksgiving bird, let’s talk about what happens when two or more people gather together over anything.
First, it is important to know that when several people attend or share the same event, they have as many different experiences and/or memories of what happened at that event as the number of people involved. Why? Because everyone brings a different set of experiences and expectations with them wherever they go: they have their own emotional truths they carry with them. And, therefore, they interpret each event they encounter through that truth. It might be fair to say that emotional truth is a lot like emotional baggage. Like it or not, it’s there and it impacts how everyone both experiences and interprets the world.
Back to the Thanksgiving table and the dressing.
Everyone sitting at the table may be in the same family, but each person there has very different family memories from that very same family. This leads to quite a few family arguments, because we naturally expect that if we are all family, we are all of one heart and one mind. Not.
As you have doubtlessly figured out by now, it is not a good idea ever, especially at Thanksgiving, to talk about politics, sex or religion at the dinner table. Whew! Glad we got that settled.
But, even if you push those topics aside, there’s still the dressing.
It was your grandmother’s or your mother’s and they always started with day old bread, soaked the bread in broth and mixed in browned onions, parsley, celery and plenty of sage.
But, this Thanksgiving you are not at your mother’s house, but at your older sister’s house, and she has decided to make the dressing with cornbread the way her husband likes it. The switch of day old bread to cornbread would be bad enough, but last year, you had offered to have Thanksgiving at your house, which your sister flatly refused saying that Thanksgiving wasn’t Thanksgiving unless it was at their mother’s house.
Whatever your sister insisted on last year, now she is pleased to have at last established herself as the rightful owner of the next generation of Thanksgiving tables. You are angry and your spouse is rightfully wondering what the hell is going on. He would rather be home watching football.
I don’t have time to get into what is going on with your children because there was a fight in the car about whether or not the children would have to sit through the WHOLE dinner or whether they could leave after grace to go play video games with their cousins. Your oldest daughter, by the way, has declared she is a vegetarian and has already announced she isn’t going to be eating anything anyway.
Having Thanksgiving dinner at your sister’s house when she made a different kind of dressing than your mother always made is a correct representation or truth of what happened at Thanksgiving dinner. The emotional truth of what happened at that Thanksgiving table is not whose house you went to or what was in the dressing, but what happened before anyone ever got to the table. The emotional truth of the experience is the very foundation of short fiction.
Thanksgiving just got a lot more complicated. The dressing, by the way, was dry and lacked flavor. It could have used more sage and a whole lot more celery and onions. What’s with the roasted pecans and dried cherries? Mom always added walnuts.
If you took the time to explore the emotional truth for each character at the Thanksgiving table, you could write a novel about that one dinner and the cornbread dressing. But, right now we are talking about short fiction, so the best way to write about Thanksgiving or any other event, is to be aware of the history your main character carries with them to the narrative. Try to think through how that history impacts what they are doing or saying in your story.
Better yet, the next time you sit down to eat with either family or friends, think a minute about the emotional truth that each of you has brought to the table.
Oh yeah, and please pass the dressing.
NEXT: POINT OF VIEW AND HOW IT CHANGES THE STORY LINE
By Carrie Knowles | April 10, 2014 at 11:13 AM EDT | No Comments
A short story has less to do with length than it does with form. Short stories can be as long as 30+ pages or as short as a few sentences. The shortest story I ever published was just 96 words (Long Story Short, UNC Press, 2009: My Family p. 88).
Short stories are human in scale. They are not grand and sweeping or epic. Short stories are not short novels. In some ways they are more about the ordinary than about the extraordinary. They are generally about how one decision changes not only the situation, but the main character, as well.
Short stories are character driven.
In this character-driven literary world, it’s important to remember that it is often not the decision so much as the character making the decision that shapes the story.
For example: The main character decides to wear a red dress to her sister’s wedding. Depending on the character, wearing a red dress to the wedding could be just a moment of flamboyance, a kind of coming out for the main character (the wearer of the dress). Or, it could be an act of defiance against a family’s code of conduct. It could also be a way to grab attention away from the bride.
A good short story makes the writer, as well as the reader, dig deeply into the main character. When you start to write a short story, it is more important to understand who your character is and what motivates him/her, rather than to know where the story is going.
I once met a carpenter who liked to put together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, working from start to finish with all of the pieces face down. He enjoyed the challenge of creating something without knowing what it should look like when it was finished.
Writing a short story is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it is supposed to look like.
So, where do you start?
Some people start with an idea for a story and then create a character to play out that idea. Others start with a situation that is going to force a character into making a decision (Roald Dahl was a master of this method, as is Stephen King) and create a character that will be challenged by that situation. I often start with just a vague notion of where I’m going with a character I just met.
I call this my WWMCDT? (What Will My Character Do Today?) method. This is how it works for me. I like to collect characters: people I overhear in the grocery store talking on their cell phones, waiters at restaurants reciting the daily specials, politicians and preachers saying ludicrous things to the press, or the elderly woman at the swimming pool locker room today who was giving away radishes because she had to buy the whole bunch in order to have “just a taste of springtime in her salad,” knowing when she bought the bunch that her husband would refuse to eat the radishes. I collect them all.
Once I have a character clearly in my mind, I spend some time with them. I think about how they got to where they are and what they would do under various other circumstances. I puzzle over where they fit into the world and what they might want.
When I write about them, I let them take the lead. I try my best to listen to their voices and let them be. I try hard not to put words into their mouths…words they wouldn’t say. I follow them around. And, if I’m lucky, they take me down a story path where they will stop in the shadows of the narrative long enough to make a decision and change their lives.
I think about that bunch of radishes and the decision not only to buy them, but also to give them away because the woman’s husband wouldn’t eat them.
The impulse to buy the radishes knowing her husband won’t eat them is the decision that builds the story. The heart of the story lies not only in wanting something your husband doesn’t like, but also in having to give what you want away.
By Carrie Knowles | March 27, 2014 at 08:54 AM EDT | 4 comments
As part of my life as the 2014 Piedmont Laureate, I am writing a new blog post every other week. I am more of a writing coach/mentor than I am a blogger, so I decided I would use this blog space to present a series of mini-lessons on writing short stories.
Think of it as a free online writing course. Feel free to share it with your friends.
Let’s get started.
That’s the hard part.
Writing is usually not a team sport. Even if you are working with another writer on a project, you are still really working alone most of the time, with a little bit of sharing thrown in once you’ve got it figured out in your head.
That’s the key: IN YOUR HEAD. Writing is a head game and in order to succeed you need to keep your demons at bay and not lose your nerve or, worse, lose your way.
Writing is not only a creative act; it’s a courageous act. It takes courage to put your thoughts on paper. That empty white sheet of paper or that blank screen in front of you is intimidating. The joke used to be that a writer started out every day by sharpening twenty pencils, shuffling papers, making a cup of coffee, returning a few phone calls, eating lunch then sharpening another twenty pencils in order to get started by 3pm. Some, like Hemingway (one of my favorite short story writers), managed to smoke a few cigarettes during this getting started exercise while he sipped a few cups of whiskey-laced coffee before the first word dropped onto the page. I’m more of a tea drinker and a desk cleaner. From time to time I throw in a few ankle circles just to keep the blood flowing to my brain.
When they took the pencils and the paper away, it made starting to write a lot harder. For a brief moment in time there was just that terrifying blank computer screen waiting to be addressed: no pencils, no excuses, plus the computer had spell check so you didn’t even have to get distracted from the task at hand by leafing through a dictionary. Then along came Facebook to replace those twenty sharpened pencils and that list of phone calls needing to be returned. Posting on Facebook, alas, is not writing.
So, how do you get started? Get comfortable.
Yep, it’s as easy as that.
Find a place where you feel comfortable. I’m talking about a comfortable table and chair, as well as a comfortable environment. The table could be your kitchen table, or a table at your favorite coffee shop. What matters is that when you sit down with your computer or your notepad in your writing place, you’re ready to start writing.
Next, turn off your cell phone and do the best you can to keep from clicking on that Facebook icon. Do not punish yourself if your mind wanders. Wandering is good for writing, as long as you return from your wandering to write.
Start slowly. When you first begin, commit to writing for a half an hour each day you sit down to write. Stare at the page a little. Be happy with a false start or two. Get familiar with that magic delete button. Make it work for you. Let it give you courage to put down anything that comes to mind. Getting started means turning on the words and letting them out, no matter how messy or miserable they might be.
I often start a piece in longhand in a small notebook I carry around in my purse. I prefer mechanical pencils to ones that need to be sharpened. I also like starting on 5x7 note cards. A blank 5x7 card is not as intimidating or as big of a commitment as a blank screen or a full sheet of white paper.
I consider a good day of writing to be two pages. That is, two pages that are polished, that I like, and I think move the story along. Three pages is a personal best triumph.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that two pages, or even three, are paltry… not worth the effort. But, think again. If you wrote two good pages every day for a year, and you took off four weeks for vacations and holidays, another week for your birthday, and every weekend, that means you would have 235 days of writing, which would net you 470 pages. Once you got those 470 pages down, you’d want to edit (more on that in a later blog) and would more than likely lose 70 pages. After editing you still have a 400-page manuscript. That’s a big deal. That’s a big book.
But, let’s be realistic. Stories take time. Good writing is really rewriting. And, life happens all the time.
I’d be thrilled to end a year with 200 pages I loved.
Get started. Be kind to yourself if you don’t make those two pages every day or even only one day out of five. Life is like that: take notes.