Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’

Finding theme in literary stories Article About Writing Better


Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
William H. Coles

Big Gene

“Big Gene” is a story of an African American piano player who changes hatred and bigotry with friendship. How can a story convey impact of such action, action based on the teaching of Martin Luther King? Fiction, structure, drama, purpose, and meaning. Here are excerpts that demonstrate story progression in in-scene storytelling. You can READ FREE OR LISTEN FREE to the story HERE:
http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/
original-stories-william-h-coles/big-gene/


THE PROTAGONIST.

Big Gene had no love for country music. For him it was like chopping firewood. And he didn’t like playing for angry whites. He liked the white guys in the band who cared more about work and family than race, but they were different from the clientele at this all-white truck stop who seemed deprived of everything and angry at all they’d been denied.

THE CONFLICT.

“I mean it, boy. You great,” the man said with an edgy smile to Big Gene.

“You ought to learn ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ I was telling the man here. You flat ass sound like Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Big Gene waited; the leathery man stared. “Mr. Lewis learned from us coloreds,” Big Gene said.

“You’re kidding me.” The man looked genuinely surprised.

“Yes sir. Mr. Lewis learned from some of the greats, like we all do.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Yes, sir. It’s the God’s truth,” Big Gene said smiling.

As Big Gene climbed back on stage. The band leader Sid whispered to him, “What was that all about?”

“That redneck thought I took my playing from Jerry Lee Lewis. I was correcting his misconceptions.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t shoot you.”

“I was a little shocked too,” Big Gene said, grinning.

OBSTRUCTION (one of many): failure to appreciate the value of nonviolence.

Two days later in the morning before Cloretta went to school, she held up the Sunday paper with picture of Big Gene shaking hands with the man in the blue suit. The caption read: "Klan Reaches Out."

“It’s not right,” Cloretta said.

“He doesn’t look dangerous,” Big Gene said, and smiled.

Cloretta frowned. You shouldn’t be shaking his hand. You shoulda whooped his butt. That was the man you used to be.”

If you have time, read the story and share your thoughts. How would you write this story? How would you handle this content?

Theme: nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice and chooses love instead of hate.

Meet the MAN WHO INSPIRED THE STORY “Big Gene.” DARYL DAVIS. Learn more here. http://www.daryldavis.com/
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Creating Effective Scenes Article About Writing Better


Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
William H. Coles

In writing scenes, three primary elements of great fiction writing and storytelling are functioning pervasively: setting, characterization, plot movement.  One will predominate, but the three are always integrated, all contribute to the effect of a good scene, and every element is specifically acting in the story being created and developed; no extraneous or unrelated ideas or images are used.        

Setting 

Readers need orientation to time and place.  Once time and place are established in a story, readers need to be updated in any scene where place of story action has changed, or where significant change in time has occurred.  And in a scene, attention to concrete clues that aid in reader visualizing scene are important.  These aids in visualization can be in dialogue, in dialogue attribution, or in narrative, and need to be carefully chosen to not call attention to their contribution but to provide useful subtle reminders that help visualize and orient the scene. 

For example of developing concrete imagery:

“Don’t do that!” he said while eating.

Better.

“Don’t do that!” he said taking a bite of his cheeseburger.

Better (if pace and context are appropriate).

“Don’t do that,” he said.  With a serrated cutting knife, he sliced his cheeseburger and thrust half of it at her. 

Concrete modifiers can help establish setting and stimulate images too. 

The car went around the corner and made her sick.

Here is a revision to meet the opportunity to develop scene and action.

The Porsche convertible cornered on the two-lane country road and the twisted seat belt cut into her bare shoulder, her hand covering her mouth as she retched.

Characterization

Fiction writing develops characters.  Narrative telling should not dominate, He was really tired and felt like taking a nap type of writing.  Instead, develop a character’s immediate state of general constitution for the reader through action.  He stumbled over a fist-size rock, his fatigued muscles unable to keep him balanced, and he fell forward, his hands outstretched to protect him, but his weary arms collapsed and his face hit the gravel

Internalization can be used for characterization in a scene too.  She detested superbly fit people.  She thought of all it took to maintain good health as narcissism close to sin.

And dialogue should be a source of characterization by what is said, how it is said, and the credibility of syntax and word choice being credible for the character speaking.  (Dialects can be used, but are usually effective only when used sparingly without calling attention to the writing.)  Samples of different characters speaking of the same thing:

“I do not care for apricots.”

“Apricots taste funny sometimes.”

“Apricots have a sweet yet tangy taste.  Not my favorite.”

“Them orange things taste like shit.”

“Apricots suck.”

“Growing apricots is a waste of time.”

“I wouldn’t pay one cent for an apricot.”

“You can use an apricot instead of lime for a tempting twist to key lime pie.”

“Apricots make me sick.”

“I saw the new crop of apricots at the store today.  They brought back sweet memories.”

“I can’t forget the texture of apricot.  Disgusting really.”

Each of the above might fit a variety of characters, but even more significant, many would not be consistent with most characters.  Authors need to be able to create dialogue from within the worldview, intellect, experiences, and memories of the character they are creating dialogue for.  For characterization in great fictional storytelling, it is imperative to write outside the authorial self when creating effective dialogue credible for character.

Plot Movement

All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the scenes that are the steppingstones of a reader’s journey through a fictional story also have their beginnings and ends.  Everything in storytelling is pushing to the end, and specific a end for each story, each scene, and scenes and stories depend on plot progression.  The writing creates happenings that advance the plot (and grow the characterization).  So in scenes, no matter what the predominate purpose (setting, characterization, plot movement), the action starts, advances, and stops.

Consider this scene whose primary purpose is setting, yet is developed with plot momentum (and a touch of characterization) from beginning to end.  First, the less effective, then the revision.

The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked though the valley.

Any movement perceived is really implied. Now with action:

The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead. He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed, by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the floor and shoved it forward. The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it reached the first turn.

Good writing is essential to convey momentum in scene.  Compare:

There was a bird on a limb. Static.

The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action.

The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. A lot of action.            

As an author creates scenes, a sense of momentum also needs to be at every level of the writing—even paragraphs, sentences, and words.  Success depends mainly on vocabulary.

For example:

1) Verbs

Look for different degrees of action in the following: (Note how action is related to specificity.)

ate–swallowed

moved–walked

understood—discovered

told–described

told—elaborated        

went—drove

lay—reclined

cooked—fried

cooked—poached

killed—bludgeoned to death

began—ignited

NOTE: Use of certain verbs may convey a degree of action or a type of action that does not suit the scene or the narration. (Example: “His humor ignited her admiration” should not, in most circumstances, replace, “She smiled at his joke.”) Authors need tasteful and accurate verb choices to develop pleasing writing styles with momentum.

2) Nouns.

It is particularly useful in description of settings, or any narrative in a story, to choose nouns that have energy. Here are nouns that have different energies.

rock–hawk

telephone pole–computer

road–river

shadow–glitter

3) Adjectives.

Adjectives restrict a noun, or a verb form.  Compare adjectival forms and their effectiveness for lively writing.

motionless steamroller

waiting steamroller

tilted steamroller

rusted steamroller

 

dead acrobat

breathless acrobat

plunging acrobat

immortalized acrobat

revered acrobat

decaying acrobat

perspiring acrobat.

Note: Adjectives are not equal in effect in a specific context, each has a different energy relationship to a unique noun.

4) Adverbs.

Examples: Talk (verb)–-incessantly, often, irritatingly, lovingly, uncontrollably, loudly, softly.

NOTE: that every one of these adverbs could be replaced by a construction that showed rather than told. Example: For ”loudly,” an author might use, “When he shouted, little Jennie winced and covered her ears.”  Probably too many words for too little effect. In this instance, maybe the adverb is better: “Jake spoke loudly to her.”

Final thought.

Here is the message.  For every effective story in fiction, a writer needs to create scenes with effective elements: setting, characterization, and plot movement.  For further reading click here.



Imagination in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
William H. Coles

Literary fiction is critically dependent on the appropriate use of the imagination. Yet, much of contemporary fiction seems void of imaginative input, either because the author lacks imagination, or – and more likely – does not use imagination effectively.

One trap for an author is to use imagination in characterization that becomes bizarre in the search for the unique.  As a working example, consider a thirty-year-old unwed mother.  She has brown eyes, auburn hair and a ruddy dark complexion.  So far, a rather ordinary character.  Many authors will mistakenly seek alternatives in traits or description, thinking the unique character is one that is markedly different.  One commonly used trick is to give the character a disease the author thinks the reader won’t know about – such as von Willebrand Disease (a bleeding disorder) or retinitis pigmentosa (blinding eye disease).  Or even more out of sync with good character development, is to make the character look odd.  Give the mother a Mohawk hair cut, hair in the ears, an amputated hand or foot, vitaligo (a skin disease of color irregularities).  These are all attempts to make the character different, but they ignore valid strength in characterization that comes from learning about the character’s soul, morality, adaptive capabilities, kindnesses versus meanness and cruelty, etc.  This in-depth type of characterization is best developed dramatically, through conflict, action, and resolution, and developed usually through the character's behavior and prose telling.

So, to apply this idea to our mother character above, we might imagine situations that would reveal a lot about how she thinks, what she believes, who she is.  Let's make her pregnant in the first trimester.   She doesn’t care for the father of the child, who is in prison on an assault conviction (implies, maybe, bad genes); she has been fired from her waitress job because of arguing with customers over their “demands for service” and has no income to support another child; and she doesn’t like mothering the child she has.  Now she considers abortion.   But she is pro-life: she’s demonstrated against abortion and has been arrested but never charged.  She was even peripherally involved in an abortion doctor’s beating.

Now the imagination is making the situation complex, and simultaneously giving the reader lots of information about the character that makes her unique, without relying on awkward description.   The imagination is now being used effectively.

The same thinking can be applied to plot and dialogue.

In plot (everything that happens in story) authors often apply imagination through thinking that the imagined unexpected event will provide surprise that will satisfy the reader.  In general, surprise is important in literary fiction (using change and reversal), but is of the essence in genre fiction (the priest murdered the choir soloist?  I would never have guessed that!).  But in literary fiction, plot twists cannot be fatalistic (predetermined and inevitable), that is, twists that are out of control of character choice and will.   Plot twists in literary fiction  must be credible and logical, and within the context of the emotional arcs of the story and all the conflicts that propel the action in the literary story.  (In a plot with alien body snatchers, characters are reacting, and the aliens come out of the blue, so to speak.  In literary fiction, the beast is often within the characters: there is free will, with choices to be made and decisions that succeed or fail.)  Characterization in literary fiction requires more concentration by the reader to appreciate the nonfatalistic logic of the plot progression, but it is more satisfying to many literary story readers.   To achieve this, the author must use imagination in plot structure that is controlled and involves the characters, not just acts on the characters like a giant meteor killing off dinosaurs.

In dialogue, authors also must apply imagination that heightens the effect of the dialogue on the reader, not just seek the unexpected.  This means imagining the responses of dialogue so that the emotional valence, the physical and mental environments of each character, the voice of the character, and the information already delivered in the plot are all consistent with what is said.   An example:

“I hate the way she does that. Always with her nose in the air as if she is better than us.”

“I don’t know.   Maybe she is better.”

“She’s famous.”

“She’s smart.  I think she sees the world pretty much as it is.”

“She thinks you’re an asshole.”

“Really. You know that?   I mean what she thinks.  How could you know that?”

“Everyone knows.”

Comment. Note the exposition error in this dialogue. “She’s famous,” is the author’s need to transmit information.  It is something both these speakers would know and would not need to say, especially in heating-up discourse.

The dialogue is not bad in that it has conflict that is reasonable and between the speakers.  Note also, the conflict is not description of something else.

Example of inferior dialogue:  What if the dialogue went like this?

“I hate the way she does that.  Always with her nose in the air as if she is better than us.”

“Give her a break.   She’s alone.  Her husband left her.”

“Really.  I didn’t know that.   Is it for good?”

Comment continued.   This is really fill dialogue.  Exposition about the husband leaving (that may not even be important to the story line).  But also the dialogue is not working. It lacks imagination. It is without significant conflict between the speakers, unrevealing of opinions and feelings essential to reader’s understanding of the character. It does not expose the emotional and intellectual innards of the characters in significant ways that advance plot.  If dialogue takes on this aura of false purpose, then the information is better delivered in narrative passage, internal reflection, or even, rarely, setting or description.

Business schools have perpetuated “thinking outside the box” as a path to innovation.  For the fiction writer, who must thrive on imagination, the concept might be more useful if stated: “almost never think inside a box, any box.” Fiction writer’s fight cliché, sentimentality, and stereotypes and try constantly to engage a reader through logical and credible surprise told with fresh original prose in stories with momentum.   Their most effective tool is their own unbridled imaginations.   (Note how this separates fiction from memoir and nonfiction where imagination for story and prose is hobbled from needs to adhere to past reality.)

Summary.

Imagination is essential in literary fiction for effective prose and story, and should not be limited to simply altering description for surprise. Knowledgeable use of imagination in characterization, forming plots, and in creating effective dialogue can make an author’s storytelling prose more acceptable and enjoyable for the reader



Great Fiction Is Creative, Not Intuitive: Getting Started Article About Writing Better


Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
William H. Coles


Story in fiction is special.  For the right story – one that is remembered and passed on to future generations – fiction is the best and most uniquely imaginative way to deliver a story.  But few contemporary writers write fiction created in the imagination for maximum lasting story effects on the reader.  The trend is to tell you, the reader, about me, the author, and the trend erodes the longstanding value of great, well-written and engaging literature.  As a result, there is little doubt the literary fictional story is disappearing and readers who love good fiction can only turn more and more to rereading the classics.  There may not be a cure to the defection from reading great fiction, but a possible vaccine would be for writers to write enjoyable stories well enough to be remembered.

There are differences between a writer and a storyteller that can be synergistic, but not ignored.   A writer often writes and uses story to suffice the urge to explain what happened; a storyteller needs to make his or her story interesting, entertaining and enlightening, and uses the process of writing to create imagined scenes that will best suit the reader.  The writer needing to write searches for inspiration through soul-searching until she or he finds something in their background to write about; the storyteller searches for the best way to form and narrate the imagined story – with a purpose – that she or he can’t wait to create on the page.

Among the reasons contemporary writers don’t produce great fiction are:

  1. Faulty thinking about story
  2. Fiction that ignores the valuable complexities of fiction
  3. Laziness that defaults to intuitive writing
  4. A cathartic need for writers to write about themselves

With any one of these failings, the easy, noncreative approach to writing a story often emerges and the writers fall to description and telling rather than imagining and showing. The resultant prose is more memoir or autobiography than fiction, yet it is accepted and published – and read – as fiction, dulling the reader’s expectations of what real fiction can achieve.   There must be a purity of purpose to please the reader.  The storyteller discovers a story idea and then begins to create a series of scenes with vividly imagined characters to entertain the reader and change the reader’s way of thinking.  This creative prose is literary fiction.

Often, it is easy to tell intuitive writing in the first few sentences.  It is often first person, with the usual character/narrator/author separation collapsed into one – a memoir descriptive style.  Here are examples of various styles and different narration . . . some intuitive “memoir” based subjective fiction, and others closer to creative objective fiction.  Note that objective fiction is neither void of emotions nor boring.  The opposite, in fact, occurs as emotions are expressed in action, rather that telling, for more impact.

A scenario.

A writer has been fascinated by his or her  grandmother who delivered the writer’s mother out of wedlock, and whose father was never disclosed by the grandmother or known by the family.  The writer researches the circumstances, remembering family comments and opinions.  The writer has been disturbed by the effect of an unknown father on the mother and believes it is the  reason for her failure to achieve in life that later resulted in depression and dementia.  The writer sits down to tell the reader about the events and the emotions.

 General comment.

The fiction writer in control of his or her craft might well look at this scenario with these thoughts:

1. There needs to be more significance to the premise that withholing the identity of the father caused mother's decline.  Possibilities.  The mother (child of grandmother) has a serious geneticly transmitted defect with looming physical or mental manifestations that need to be identified for some action or treatment.  Or, the grandmother does not know the father because she was promiscuous and ashamed.   Or, the grandmother was raped by a serial killer and the family wonders what lurks inside them (probably too much but could be toned down for effectiveness, that is, the father could have done something seriously wrong without illegality – maybe something morally wrong).

2. The scenario, as it stands, especially if delivered in first person POV, is inherently sentimental.  There needs to be objective narration to filter out inevitable sentimentality.

3. The time line is a problem.  Grandmother’s conception, delivery, silence and then the family's worries decades later.  Chronological, in-scene narration will give a story covering decades.  If back story is the preferred technique to deliver information, story telling will become awkward because of what the narrator can know and not know. Decision needs to be made early to be effective.

4. Story idea may be, or at least border on, cliché.  To be effective, innovation in plot progression will be needed to keep fresh and original.

5. Always a thought of incest in this situation.  Needs early decision to rule it out or keep it as  a possibility.  Exposition of the information will be tricky no matter what technique is used.

6. The writer might try to use third person, with a distinct objective narrator telling story at time different than author real time – keeping the author out of the narration, but establishing credibility and reliability for the narrator.  Which characters will be used for internal reflection will need to be established early.  Which character will change, and be responsible for valued enlightenment, needs to be established.

7. Overall conflict needs to be defined as well as conflicts for each scene.

Here is a story-start.

Grandmother was crusty even when she was young.  She was sixteen when she delivered mother and her hair was the color of harvest wheat in the sunshine that waved in the breeze of my great grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania in the late eighteen hundreds.  The delivery was in her bedroom, with only her mother and a neighbor in attendance.  How afraid she must have been so young, but she never talked about the birth, or the pregnancy.  And when my mother arrived, and as she grew up, grandmother treated her with a distant sense of obligation, void of doting and barely associated with maternal pride and love.

Comment.  Accept, first, the awkward exposition, overwriting, telling, and poor writing in general.  Then carefully note the narrator.  At first glance, this might appear to be third person narration.  Actually it is first person without use of “I”.  This is immediately established in the first sentence.  The narrator is communicating directly to the reader, and the narrator is related to characters.  Later there is the use of “my.”  The narrator is probably the author.  With this established, note how difficulties pop up.  Much of the detail is almost surely conjecture – fear, never talking about birth or pregnancy.  How can the narrator know she never talked about it?  How she felt in the moment?  The narrator is loosing credibility because the writer has failed to choose the most effective narration for this story.

Another story-start example.

I am independent and secretive, but not to the extreme my grandmother was.  She never let on to me or anyone who fathered my mother, and I prayed, even at bedside when she died, she might reveal my grandfather.  Who really was he?  What had he become?

Comment.  This is using the “I” protagonist as a “narrator” to tell the story.  It will be limited because the narrator is limited to her or his world, and the reader must decide whether to trust this “I” . . . Is the story credible?  Is the narrator reliable?  The question will loom: Why is this POV chosen if it is not memoir, or written from life experienc?  If it is not fiction, the story may be limited in effectiveness.

This next example.

I’ll never forget my mother’s face the night grandmother died.  Grandmother had never divulged who fathered mother, her only child.  And my mother had been haunted by the insecurity of her unknown genetic heritage.  As grandmother lay conscious, but near death, I knew my mother prayed for an answer to her often asked question.  But grandmother passed quietly, without a word, and I could see the anguish on mother’s face.

Comment. The purpose of this passage seems to be exposition of the mother not knowing her father.  The “I” narrator here is awkward because it ignores the opportunity to dramatize with action and conflict a scene perfect for the talented writer to make an impact on the reader – and without sentimentality.  In this opening paragraph the writer (who is again the narrator and the “I”) is asking the reader to sympathize with the mother.  But there is nothing earned.  Nothing happens, and there is nothing for the reader to attach to and legitimately feel when the writer asks for belief in the “anguish.”

 Another story-start example.

The old woman lay motionless under crisp white hospital sheets, only her shriveled face visible with dusty gray hair splayed on the pillow.  Her mind was sharp, she  refused to speak, and she could hear every word, even in the corridor and the next patient's room.

The younger woman, an only child, had been by her mother's bedside for days.  She didn’t care really; she had grown to despise her mother over the years.  Now, glaring at her, she suspected her mother could hear her, and hated her for refusing to acknowledge she was even there.  This would be the last opportunity to know who her father was.  Her mother knew, had always known, and here she was at that moment when truths should be flowing, still refusing to divulge it.  She would try to convince her to speak now.  What difference does it make? she would say. Why not speak just the name, so that all the questions she and her children carried with them, laden with fear and guilt, could be justified or cleared up?  It took only a name!  Why can’t you do that?

Comment.  This is in third person POV using both characters inner thoughts as told through a narrator, who is probably created independent of the author (but by the author, of course).  It begins to set up conflict, yet it does not engage the reader as much as needed.  This could be improved by some interaction and responses, improved setting details, and  effective, expressive dialogue, maybe with an additional character.

Last example of a story-start.

I was with mother in the room where granny died.  I don’t think Mother did not care she was gone.  At least the expression of her face didn’t change.  Granny had never revealed mother’s father, my grandfather.  She was stubborn to the end, although we all believed she knew exactly who it was and probably where he was if he were still alive.  Mother’s life had been irrevocably changed by the mystery, and after Granny’s death I could see she still failed to find her self worth, always wondering what half of her genetic heritage had done to her.  So I determined I would find out.  Learn the truth, to give my mother a chance to enjoy her later years.

Comment.  This choice of narration pushes the reader away, although the author would believe the intimacy – an illusion, really, of intimacy – will entice the reader to read on.  But there is a glaring lack of dramatically developing conflict with this approach, often as a result of some egoistic urge in the writer, that continuously brings the focus back to the “I” when the real story is between mother and daughter – or whatever is chosen, children and mother, mother and new lover, etc.

Summary

 The lessons are plain.  First, none of these beginnings really succeeds.  Not enough thought has gone into them.  Second, certain essentials must be kept in mind.   Story ideas have to be good – as original as possible – and weighted with significance.   Choice of narrative technique is critical for story success, and first person POV must be used sparingly when it might lead to memoir description of life experiences, which can thwart development of some effective fictional stories.  Finally, stories require creative imagination; stories need to be thought out before writing; and stories must have dramatic conflict.

Writing the fictional literary story is not easy, but the rewards for reader and writer are maximally satisfying.


Additional resources: Narration1st person POV, Interview with Lee Martin.



Literary Fiction Needs Writers Who Care About Story Editorial Opinion


Thursday, October 8th, 2009
William H. Coles

These are tough times for literature. Fewer humans read for pleasure; publishers seek a true story, usually with salacious innards; and writers have lost the art of entertaining through a prose fictional story.

Literary writers shun the advantages of fiction

In truth, contemporary literary writers mostly write for themselves.  They are a fraternal bunch, obsessed with the clever metaphor or the strident oxymoron, intent on telling the reader about meaning rather than allowing a story to reveal significance, and searching their own existence for material.   These writers find readers who are like themselves, like poets at a slam, and they have long ago turned away those readers who enjoy a great story well told that is meaningful and unforgettable. In contemporary writing, stories progress based on shocking turns in the plot, overwrought voice, and faulty ideation that results from writing from experience. Rarely does the contemporary story evoke enlightenment in what it means to be human.

At the core of the problem is intuitive writing.  Many contemporary writers, even those who are published as fiction writers, are often writing memoir, autobiography or creative nonfiction as fiction.  This blurs the value of true fiction that entertains the reader and demonstrates, through story action and character development, significant enlightenment about what it really means to be human.   Contemporary writers frequently use the “I” protagonist—it is intuitive and easier to write since it depends on description of events, often from experience, rather than creating an imagined story.  But it is ego dominant and detracts from substantial character development.  These writers tell stories they’ve experienced as they would tell the story to themselves, unable to create a story in the dramatic ways fiction has developed over the last two centuries.

How does the talented literary writer achieve purpose in a literary fictional story?   Admittedly, it’s like trying to capture butterflies with chopsticks.  Here are only a few essentials:

  • There must be a quality idea for a story.
  • The story must be thought out thoroughly before writing.
  • Action dialogue and setting in story are imagined as the story is constructed, for maximum effect on the reader and for remaining true to story quality.
  • The story is written as a matrix of emotions with related details added, each with a clear purpose for story beginning, middle and end; a story is not details thrown one by one into a still-water pond to see what will happen until the author loses interest.
  • Enlightenment should come from story action, not narrator or author telling.
  • Emotions should be embedded in in-scene action, not told with abstractions and modifiers.
  • Characters must grow with a logical progression of actions, emotions and thoughts that are essential to the story.
  • Characters should be credible, if not likable.
  • The reader must be allowed to believe in characters, setting and plot.
  • Stories should be structured on a clear timeline.
  • Stories should have a series of dramatic scenes that are interrelated.
  • Characters should have identifiable emotional progress and change.
  • Characters must have believable choices and freewill (no fatalism).
  • A story should have an unanswerable metaphysical question. This may not be expressed, but it has to be embedded in the development.
  • Narration of the story must not be authorial, but it must be in control of the author.
  • Something has to happen, and the ending must have some significance.

This is said assuming a writer has mastered craft and style in ways that provide energy, momentum and drama (conflict, action and resolution) to the writing.  Unfortunately today, craft and style that contribute to a good story and solid prose fiction are not strengths of many contemporary published authors.

Fiction as an art form needs sharp definition.  Fiction allows prose to produce the most enjoyable and memorable stories.  To continue to label other forms of legitimate writing as fiction will continue to rebuff readers who read fictional stories for pleasure; it will also fail to attract readers to prose as a pleasurable way to meet their story needs.



Creating Effective Dialogue Article About Writing Better


Saturday, August 22nd, 2009
William H. Coles

 

Dialogue seems difficult for many fiction writers.  To be effective in fiction, dialogue must serve more than one purpose.  Characterization, plot advancement, revelation of emotional states, advancing imagery, providing movement to story, marking a timeline and introducing conflicts to be solved are just a few objectives.  Take a simple example of a snippet of conversation that occurs in real life.

"Would you like some sushi?"

"Yes."

This is unacceptable in good fiction.  It is flat, useless writing.  If, indeed, the purpose for the story is to indicate the acceptance of sushi, a more effective way of making the point might be narrative:  She took the sushi.

But there is also opportunity here, depending, of course, on context, what has come before, and what will come in the story and the prose.

"Would you like some sushi?  I prepared it myself."

"My Grandfather was tortured on Okinawa."

A lot is now happening.  The giver has positive emotions and is offering a special gift, which would indicate a liking for the recipient.  The recipient has a dislike for the Japanese, because a relative was tortured (even killed, maybe) during the Second World War.  Time is indicated in that two generations have passed.  The recipient seems unreasonable in the response.  And the response is not logical, given that sushi is a food, and not a product of, or related to, participants in World War II.

This is taking advantage, primarily, of characterization, and indicating emotional valences in the scene.  It locks in a time period.  But there is another aspect of dialog that is useful and relates to drama.  It is the most often ignored opportunity, and the most often needed for story momentum.  It is conflict.

In real conversations, conflict is avoided as the easiest way to get through life.  But in creating a fictional reality, readers need conflict for interest and for movement and knowledge that the conflict action and resolution will deliver.  For example:

Real conversation.

"Look.  You'll hit the ball to the green if you line up more to the left and bring the club back farther."

"Good idea.  I'll give it a try."

But in fiction, the response has to be different.  It has to have purpose to be dialogue rather than conversation.  So the answer might be:

"Bring the club back farther."

"I've tried that.  It never works."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Your back-swing isn't so great."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Who the hell are you to be giving me advice?"

If this type of dialogue does not work for the story, then almost always the purpose for the attempted dialogue segment is better expressed in narrative, or even internalized in character thought.  The point being that poorly conceived and written dialogue on the page is deadly for story and style.  And if an author is simply describing dialogue from an imagined or real event, the advantages of created dialogue with a purpose in a fictional story will be lost, and the story will not reach its potential.

So much of fiction today is memoir based in conceptualization – a first person narrator telling what happened to them is common – that it is replacing creative fiction that is created for the enjoyment of the reader, rather than the pleasure of the author, and that grows from the techniques of structure, imagination and meaning.  The unhappy result is that great dialogue seems to be a diminishing accomplishment among authors.

Here are examples of dialogue from classic literary novels that multitask purposes in dialogue in the story's best interest, are enjoyable, and are alive.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

"Now he is here," I exclaimed.  "For Heaven's sake, hurry down!  You'll not meet him on the front stairs.  Do be quick; and stay among the trees till he is fairly in."

"I must go, Cathy," said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion's arms.  "But, if I live, I'll see you again before you are asleep.  I won't stray five yards from your window."

"You must not go," she answered, holding him as firmly as her strength allowed.  "You shall not, I tell you."

"For one hour," he pleaded earnestly.

"Not for one minute," she replied.

"I must–Linton will be up immediately," persisted the intruder.

Wow.  Note how the use of reversals, surprises, and opposition are employed.  And the insertion of will-it-happen? when he says, "But, if I live, I'll see you . . ."  And the conflict and action.  A great on the page performance.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"But who did he tell it to?  You and me?"

"And Porfiry."

"What does it matter?"

"And, by the way, do you have any influence over them, his mother and sister?  Tell them to be more careful with him today . . ."

"They'll get on all right!" Razumikhin answered reluctantly.

"Why is he so set against this Luzhin?  A man with money and she doesn't dislike him . . . and they haven't got a penny, I suppose?"

"But what business is it of yours?" Razumikhin cried with annoyance.

Again, reversal, conflict, opposition, emotions emoting, and information flowing by.  Dialog can do so much when written well, the information and ideas to be expressed well chosen, and the use appropiate for the time and happenings in the story.  There is also application of a general useful rule:  Try not to answer questions, especially with definitive answers.  "Do you like it?" followed by "I like it," does not work well.

 

It may be easy to see the worth of the examples, but difficult to know how to apply the ideas to your own writing.  When reading fiction for pleasure, look for flat, uninteresting dialogue that stops story momentum and breaks that unique fictional dream that envelops the reader.  Then you might imagine how, using the information already presented, you might create more dynamic dialogue that works.

Great dialogue is rarely inherent in writers and requires practice and attention throughout a career.  Without exception, for great literary stories, effective dialog, well written and tastefully used, is essential.

WHC



Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops Article About Writing Better


Friday, January 9th, 2009
William H. Coles

Although creative-writing fiction-workshops vary greatly, the general format is a student manuscript critiqued by fellow students under the direction of a leader. Exercises generated from prompts may be added (at times, workshops may focus exclusively on exercises and omit manuscript review). Required reading of famous authors may be discussed, but this is surprisingly infrequent. Lectures are rare:  didactic teaching is replaced by a loose Socratic method where questions to students may be abstract – "What did you think of this?" – or based on personal preference rather than writer improvement – "Did you think the serial killer was a sympathetic character?” Student readings may be allowed for short periods, typically around five minutes. Readings by faculty and known authors are common, but rarely do they present effective fictional stories.

The predominance of workshops for teaching creative writing has not improved the learning opportunities for students seeking to write imagined, significant stories that provide enlightenment and a very special enjoyment for the reader. Improvement is needed in how workshops are structured and how they are marketed, to assure students of a valuable education. Presented below are principles and rationale that need to be adopted and advertised to better train the serious writer of literary fiction.

1. No student critiques.

Students critiquing manuscripts rarely contribute to improving the skills of the writer whose manuscript is under scrutiny. Personal taste in topics, character types or settings frequently is the source for comments generated from students and is not helpful. Many students cannot create a well-written work of fiction, and they will grab one rule they think is the key to improvement and apply it relentlessly to their critiques. This results in comments such as, “Outrageous deviation from point of view here,” or “Narrator intrusion! Delete!” In other words, students tend to apply a cherished, self-satisfying rule without understanding the complicated process of writing fiction.

Invariably, students’ critiques make the writer feel bad and inadequate because students (untrained and often unsuccessful in writing) tend to be inaccurate and unfair in their perception of why they think a story doesn’t work for them.

Students also tend to be competitive; they want to succeed in being the “best critiquer” (perceived as harsh) and compete by comparing the manuscript under discussion to their own writing and dissing anything that does meet what they are creating – an attitude that justifies (and they think glorifies) their own work. This often results in meanness, which is never helpful.

Student contributions to fellow writers are most valuable as alternative ways to accomplish a clear purpose to the writing, and to improve and assure pleasant and positive effects on the reader. Leaders must direct comments to be constructive without condemnation, and should be experienced, and trained, in conducting a workshop. There should never be, even implied, a this-is-wrong attitude to teaching that is so common in today’s workshops.

Careful vetting of student’s work and experience is essential before being accepted for admission. Alternates should be selected to fill in if a student must cancel his or her attendance.

Workshop participants need to be diverse in thinking, age, education, background and gender.

2. Emphasize fictional story.

Workshops must emphasize writing story and creating fiction (imagined) rather than encouraging descriptive prose of personal life experiences or opinions. Emphasize story structure, emotional arcs, core character desire and character driven plots – plus, and most importantly – effects on the reader. Instructors should deemphasize right voice and consistent tone, while stressing the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and suppressing the latter. The curriculum should also systematically present major skills of fiction writing:  clarity, momentum, conflict, dialogue, transition, timeline, pacing, objectivity, narration, and others.

3. Eliminate ineffective gimmicks and prompts.

Gimmicks and prompts are rarely effective as techniques for initiating and sustaining the writing of great stories. Fiction must thrive on discovering something to say, then using the written story to create emotions and intellectual enlightenment in the reader. Prompts and gimmicks do not do this well. Almost always, prompts call for descriptions of characters and events from experience, which results in telling, not showing, and supplants fiction with memoir. Of course, reality can, and often does, stimulate the best-imagined fiction. But reality should not be the source of a fictional story; a fictional story has the imagined elements that provide the dramatization so important in successful fiction. Writing from experience alone hinders drama, blunts conflict and restricts meaningful resolution; so prompts that depend on personal events should not be encouraged. Instead, seek emotional motivational elements and core desires that are at work in a personal experience, discover what these elements and desires might contribute to a story with significance and meaning, and then learn how to structure the story from the imagination for maximum effects on the reader.

4. Temper the importance of the craft of prose.

The craft (skill in doing something) of prose should be an essential part of workshop experience, but should not override the importance of structure (story, scenes and prose elements). Leaders must strive to teach easy-to-read, momentum-packed prose, and always tie prose into a definitive story-purpose for everything that goes on the page.

(more…)




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