To some writers–including me–plot can seem like the dirtiest, most despicable of four letter words. Writers of this ilk have been known to run screaming from a room when we hear the word. “Make something happen?” we call, quaking in our hiding spots. “Why would we do that? Stories come from character, not plot. Stories should be about someone, not something.”
This, I’ve learned, is a huge, smelly load of horse shit.
Plot is important. Stories need plots. Every story. Every. Single. One.
As the speaker at the front of the room drones through her PowerPoint presentation, you furiously take notes. Those seated near you are impressed. At the break, over coffee and stale pastries, they point you out to their friends: he must have written down every word she said. Not far from the truth, but instead of taking notes you were discovering free verse. Here’s how. Continue reading
A student of mine had taken a class from Kate Braverman who, according to her recollection and my flawed memory, brought in a bouquet of autumn leaves, handed them out to students, and had them write about what the color evoked. Continue reading
In the Misconceived History story in “A Public Denial” by Allan Gurganus (published in the anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories) the narrator attempts to restore his deceased grandfather’s dignity by challenging rumors that his grandfather’s death was the result of his own foolhardiness.
The story opens with this line:
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, my grandfather did not die driving a Toyota across his pond.
The story resembles a persuasive essay; the narrator uses transition words such as “despite,” “while,” “admittedly,” and “evidently” to compose his argument. What I love about the story is how Gurganus uses no emotion to tell it, just the facts, yet it still carries an emotional impact. For a story that spans only two pages, I find this remarkable. Continue reading
I used to teach in a continuing education program at the University of Iowa that offered classes of all sorts to retirees. An exercise I liked to present to my students was one I found over at this blog that had to do with writing the perfect sentence. Here’s the little excerpt I would hand out in class to read and discuss: Continue reading
Tobias Wolff’s story “Bullet in the Brain” ends with a particularly vivid and evocative memory, the last one that the main character, Anders, has before his death. This memory “works” so well because we can read it as a moment of redemption for Anders, a literary critic, who throughout the story has been brash, entitled, obnoxious, and critical, and who is, by the story’s end, redeemed through his pure memory of a moment in which the simple music of language awed him. He recalls a moment of innocence and untarnished wonder and, in doing so, achieves some small measure of salvation.
Psychological tests are very weird and typically rely on verbal interpretation, two attributes that comprise a good writing exercise.
Rarely do products of writing exercises become anything substantial. Perhaps a line, an idea that can be expanded, but on the whole they are what they are: exercises. Practice. Necessary when you’re not performing, creating, inspiring yourself. At their best, these psychological tests as writing exercises get your brain going crazy, which allows you to do something new, which is what you want, isn’t it? Continue reading
Kyle Minor has the writing prompt to end all writing prompts over at HTMLGiant, a list of criteria and questions called The Story Generatorwhich is activated with the roll of some dice.
This is a fantastic thing that I’m stealing and using in my classes and maybe even for myself for that thing called “fun with writing.” It would even be fun to have students make their own story generators, changing some of the parameters themselves.
One technique I’ve found useful in revising is coming up with one word that my story is about in an effort to find a center. For instance, say I finally realize that the story I’ve been trying to wrangle for months is about “hope.” Great. Then I ask myself, Does the main character lose hope or gain hope? (Normally, they will abandon all hope in my stories.) Then, I have some sort of idea that the story begins with a scene that demonstrates hope, then contains more scenes with emblems or messages of “anti-hope,” and finally ends with a loss of hope. Thinking in really simple terms like this helps me see where I’m going more clearly. “How does this scene communicate ‘anti-hope’?” I can ask myself. “Is the half-eaten donut an emblem of anti-hope?” You get the idea. Continue reading
John Gardner, though deceased and personally unknown to me, is a cool dude. He has two somewhat well known books — the novel, Grendel, and the book on writing, The Art of Fiction. I happen to own a first edition of his excellent and out-of-print novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, which I have yet to have a conversation about, because no one’s heard of it, let alone read it. For the most part, people will know The Art of Fiction, a book from which I hi-jack an exercise for my classes. Continue reading