Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Heart Remembers

Santa on a BikeI was not going to write a blog this week – so close after Christmas and so close to the new year. I’m so chock-a-block with chocolates, good Greek food, and merriment that, frankly, I thought I’d not be in mood. Truthfully, I have never been a great one for that sort of festivity.

But as I think about the moments of the past day or so, moments spent with family and friends where new memories were laid down for future access, I get to thinking about love and memory and how they are golden threads that stitch our lives together and give it meaning, so I decide to write down a few words anyway.

I have often wished I could travel back in time, back to some juncture in my life and change something small – go left instead of right, pick up the phone when I did not; small things that sometimes have big consequences.

As if to torment myself, I often imagine revisiting such moments, over and over again. I see two versions of myself, one standing to the side, like an invisible unsmiling time-traveller, looking on at my younger self as he goes about his business, and I wish I could whisper in his ear about the things I know now.

But of course the past is a place to be frequented by the heart, while the present affords us the opportunity to ensure that the past will be a good place to visit in the future.

So, now, as I say goodbye to friends and family for yet another year, I take the time to hug each of them a little tighter and longer than before, and tell them how much I enjoyed our time together.

I throw a wink over my shoulder at my future self standing under the big tree in our yard to let him know that I finally get it. This time I imagine he is smiling.

A Good Story Needs A Good Plot

The Land BelowA good plot makes for a good story. One of the surest ways to strengthen the plot of your story is to tie your scenes together through cause and effect. The English novelist, E. M. Foster, for one, defined plot as a series of events linked by causality.

Aristotle referred to this important aspect of a story as unity. He believed that if a scene makes no difference to the characters of a story then it has no business being in the story. Unity, or causality, is fundamental to the well-written tale.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty, provides this example: ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is not a plot. Although the two events follow upon each other they are not causally linked. ‘The king died and then the queen died because of grief’, however, is a plot because the first event causes the second.

Causality is at its strongest when it stems from a character’s goals, needs, wishes and desires pitted against an opposing character or force. In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, the hero’s desire to explore the world beyond the confines of his underground existence drives most of the plot. It explains his actions and reactions to events around him and makes his actions authentic.

Novice writers often believe that a series of action-packed scenes makes for gripping viewing or reading. I remember reading a script filled with scenes comprising mostly of ‘skop, skiet, en donner’ (an appropriate Afrikaans expression for violent and melodramatic action). The student believed that pace and action was what people wanted from a story.

That may, in part, be true, but that is not all that people want. The student’s characters had no higher purpose other than beating each other up. The scenes provided no new information; they failed to deepen or explain character; the characters survived only to meet up again and repeat the same action in a different setting – in short, the scenes had no link to the overall plot. There was no plot to speak of precisely because the action did not have repercussions. It was action without psychological reaction. Needless to say the student returned to the word processor, where, I am happy to report, he made progress.

Linking scenes through cause and effect, showing actions having consequences, is indispensable to generating a good plot.

Summary

A plot is dependent on consequential actions undertaken by characters with conflicting goals, wants, needs and desires.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Advice to a Young Writer

F. Scott FitzgeraldF. Scott Fitzgerald offers this advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.

“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …

The amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see. That any how is the price of admission.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use genuine experience with heightened emotion when creating characters and stories, especially when first starting out. It takes many years of learning the tricks of the trade to be able to take seemingly small and trivial events as subject matter and make them interesting and absorbing to readers.

Summary

F. Scott Fitzgerald advises that we mine our lives for the big, wrenching events and emotions when starting out as writers. It will make our characters more authentic and impactful. We should expand our range as we master our craft.

For the Love of Story

An open story bookThere are two ways to write a good story: You can be gripped by inspiration and allow it to guide your hand, or you can use the existing set of techniques and writerly advice to craft and polish your story until it sparkles like the crystals of a chandelier.

The first will come knocking on your door when it damn well pleases. It may take a week, a month, or even years. Or, it may never come at all. Few, but the very patient, will wait around for the languid muse to saunter in.

The second is to determine a time and place of your choosing and begin writing your story by utilising the many writing techniques at your disposal — a knowledge of story structure, how theme informs the ending, and so on. Sites such as mine, and many others, offer advice for free — for the love of story.

Will this second way guarantee a great story? Perhaps not. But it will set you on the path of writing a well-structured story.

Learn your craft by adding to your arsenal of techniques every day. Don’t let a day go by where a new spanner is not added to your toolbox. Work to master your craft, to be the best you can be, and in time, you will be.

In rereading Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting, I was again reminded of the usefulness of certain practices — in this case, the practice of labeling scenes according to their function as a way of keeping the writer focused on how each narrative segments performs its task in service of the plot.

Apart from the inciting incident, turning points, midpoint, climax and resolution that we’ve all heard about, Seger labels several other sorts — the establishing scene, exposition scene, love scene, confrontation scene, pay-off scene, resolution scene, realisation scene, decision scene, the realisation-decision-action scene, and others.

In the film Big, for example, Josh decides to slot money into the vending machine in return for becoming ‘big’. In the following scene he realises that he is ‘big’. This leads him to an emotional reaction scene in which he begins to experience the complications of being an adult. The result is new action that has him working for a toy company as an adult, while, in many ways, he remains a child.

The point is that by studying the craft, by breaking your story up into a series of scenes with specific functions, scenes that connect to one another, you lay out a blueprint for fulfilling the structural requirements of most, if not all, stories.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the muse, being the jealous mistress that she is, decides to pay you an unexpected visit after all.

Summary

Studying the craft beats sitting around waiting for inspiration.