Saturday, August 25, 2012

Week 35 - Time

26 Aug - 1 Sep: 
Time and tide wait for no man... unless you put the book down and pick it up again tomorrow night, and the story happens to be about the ocean.
The Great Gatsby uses some 450 words relating to time (ref. M. J. Bruccoli, 1992, in The Great Gatsby, Scribner Classics).  Did Fitzerald feel he needed to ground the story by giving it a solid temporal context, or did he intend time as an pervasive theme

Even if you care about the answer less than I do (which is doubtful), one must acknowledge that time is an inescapable element of any story, even if it's subtle or blatantly invisible.

1. From the Outside

1. The reader's time
2. The writer's time

Firstly, I'm going to look at the two unavoidable aspects of time in writing, and how to link them.

The reader will probably not be cognisant of the writer's time, after all, a writer could take six days or six years to complete a manuscript, and who knows what goes on in a writer's mind when he or she is organising time and in what order it is done?

But how important is it for the writer to be aware of the reader's time?

Most readers will read a few chapters before bed, reading many times faster than the writer spent writing it, get on with real life for a day or two, then pick up the book sometime later, probably at bedtime again, and continue this pattern until the book is finished days, weeks or months later.

We all know that a story needs pace to keep up with the reader's reading time, but the story also needs structure to ease the reader's mind back into the story after a day or more away from it, hence, why scene or chapter lengths and scene or chapter beginnings are so important. 

In Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting, Jack M. Bickham suggests briefly reintroducing the reader to the POV character's state-of-mind when we last heard from them, even if that was just a page ago in the last chapter.  Similarly, a familiar setting can be used to keep the reader anchored to the story, not by introducing new details of the setting each time, but by repeating old ones and then elaborating on new ones as the story moves on.

2. From the Inside

Okay, so what about fictional time and its movement within the story itself?

Well, we're all familiar with causal plotting (mentioned way way back in Week 4), that is, this happens, and then that happens, and that causes this to happen etc, regardless of whether the timeframe spans minutes or centuries.   This is a recommended approach for us beginners.

But there are endless, artistic ways to represent time.  Consider these:
  • Diary form;
  • A narration about the past (Fried Green Tomatoes springs to mind);
  • A narration about the future;
  • Flashbacks as major or minor components of the story;
  • Intergenerational tales, (I'm thinking Cane and Abel and Prodigal Daughter or historical family sagas);
  • Parallel plots set in different times;
  • Starting at the outcome, and working backwards through time;
  • Fragmented or pulp writing, that is, scenes that seem to be arranged randomly (sounds like what I'm writing, except that my efforts are not deliberate);
  • Suspension or distortion of time;
  • For those interested in time for biographies or memoirs, look out for Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer.

I'm sure there are millions of other ways a writer can use time to support a story - just look at Eric Carle's creative representation of time in The Very Hungry Catepillar.

In How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel, Ernest Acosta recommends that, whatever the approach but especially if the time sequence is complex, a writer should plot a course, and work on finding the right beginning.  He reminds us that flashbacks should not interrupt the flow of the story, and that smooth transitions (the topic for next week) are important.

A. A. Milne and Ernest.H. Shepard, Now We Are Six

I'll finish off with some wise words from some of the sources quoted:

"Time should support, not rule the story" (Ernest Acosta in How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel);

"A fictional character that does not live becomes a robot" (Michael Marsh in How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel);

A story is "life in time and life in values" (E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel).

Exercise 69. Plot a course for a story that experiments with an unfamiliar timing scheme.

Exercise 70.  Consider the well-known Ecclesiastes verse, A Time for Everything.  Pick a line and write a story.
a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Week 34 - Foreshadowing

19 Aug - 25 Aug: I just knew that was going to happen.

Here are some basic definitions from Wikipedia, just to focus my thinking:

  • "Foreshadowing or adumbrating is a literary device in which an author indistinctly suggests certain plot developments that will come later in the story."

  • A red herring is a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience.

  • A flash forward (or prolepsis) is an explicit account of plot outcomes.

  • Telegraphing is extreme hinting at or foretelling of the outcome early in the piece.  It is suggested that this technique dampens suspense, (though perhaps if a reader knows what happens, the how can be used to drive the story forward).

  • And what about the flash-sideways to alternative realities, or states that are independant of time (more on 'time' next week)?

Okay, all very interesting - back to foreshadowing.  Rust Hill (Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular) suggests that foreshadowing can be achieved through the following.  Most are pretty obvious; some require a little more thought:

  • Theme;
  • Description of setting and mood;
  • Vocabulary and the sound of language;
  • Tone and voice;
  • Dialogue;
  • Imagery through metaphors and the use of symbols;
  • Parallelism, that is, incorporating meaningful subplots;
  • Chronological inversion such as flashbacks or framing;
  • Sequentiality or progression, that is, establishing a course of change toward an inevitable outcome;
  • Choric devices, that is, using a detached figure or action to explain events to the audience, for example, soliloquys, witches in MacBeth;
  • Insertion of the supernatural, such as ghosts, oracles, horoscopes etc.

And then, of course, there is aftershadowing.  This can be used after the fact to revisit the literal or symbolic elements raised by foreshadowing if the writer feels that characters (or readers) need a reminder of something significant.

Instead of writing more, I'm going to read back through the above list and think about how relevant each technique is to my current project, and how each have been, or may be, used to strengthen my storyline.

During Week 35, I will continue to look at the concept of Time in writing.

Exercise 67.  Recover a short story or chapter that you've already written, and highlight where foreshadowing has been used or identify where foreshadowing can strengthen the piece and revise accordingly.

Exercise 68.  Draft an outline for a story (long or short), with a clear ending in mind.  Include possible foreshadowing elements with plot points.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Week 33 - Suspense

12 Aug - 18 Aug: Who needs fingernails, anyway?
(Foreshadowing has been moved to Week 34 - Suspense seemed like a natural precursor.)

"To propel readers, make them wait."  Roy Peter Clark
50 Strategies for Every Writer

So what exactly is it that makes us want to know what happens in a story?  

In How to Write Damn Good Fiction, James N. Frey suggests that readers need to be concerned about bad things happening to characters they feel sympathy for.  He adds that suspense that causes readers to feel anxious or apprehensive is more powerful than just curiosity alone. 

Okay, so build strong, identifiable and sympathetic characters, and then have bad things happen to them.  Sounds easy enough.
So what are some of the techniques we can use to do that?

In the October edition of Writer's Digest Magazine, Jeff Gerke provides great pointers for building suspense:

  1. Clearly define what's at stake and what happens if a character's goals are not met, i.e., the or-else factor;
  2. Include a ticking time bomb, or in Frey's words, light the fuse;
  3. Heighten sensory details to make unthreatening things seem menacing, e.g., a car backfiring, wind through the trees.
  4. Slow down time to allow imagination freer rein;
  5. Vary intensity so that the reader does not become frustrated with prolonged suspense (or prolonged lack of suspense);
  6. Plant the seeds of the ending throughout the story by foreshadowing, rather than blatantly telegraphing the outcome;
  7. Always reward the reader, both along the way, and at the end.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner has some excellent technical advice on using delaying tactics to create suspense.  If a writer can artfully hold interest using rich descriptions, creative metaphors and the like, the reader's anticipation has a chance to grow.  He also suggests stylistic juxtaposition as a delaying technique, i.e., a scene about a young couple hiking followed by a scene about a serial killer has the reader anticipating that the two will meet up sometime during the story.  Gardner also reminds us that suspense pertains not only to action, but also to the moral implications of action (or inaction).

In Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills recognizes that suspense need not always be that nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat stuff that thriller writers strive for in every scene. 

Hills proposes that suspense can be in the form of mystery, conflict or tension, and to be effective, each must progress through three steps: preparation, suspension, and resolution, as follows:

  1. Mystery, evokes curiosity, and is resolved by explanation;
  2. Tension, evokes anticipation, and is resolved by fulfillment;
  3. Conflict, evokes uncertainty, and is resolved by decision.  (Suspense created by conflict is what Jessamyn West supposedly called "willy wonty," that is, it requires a decision, and for it to be suspenseful, the values on each side of the conflict must be balanced.)

Okay, so perhaps I'm getting into semantics now. 

As always, the best way to learn about building suspense is to look for it in the writing of others, and to practise.  Next week I'll expand on Foreshadowing.

Exercise 65.  Write a piece where the outcome is deliberately delayed.  Reveal events slowly, mislead, incorporate the unexpected, then build to the final outcome. (From Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write.)

Exercise 66. Write a paragraph that would appear just before the discovery of a body.  It might describe the character's approach or location or both.  The purpose is to hold a reader and propel them to the shocking event that follows.  (From Gardner's, The Art of Fiction.)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Week 32 - Humour

5 Aug - 11 Aug:  “Obviously, the trouble with trying to be funny is trying to be funny.”

We all know the problems of trying to be funny: skipping a key point of a joke; boring our audience; messing up the punchline; bad timing.  Personally, I can't think of a more daunting endeavour than stand-up comedy

I mean, really, there are as many different types of humor as there are personalities. Check out for a list of twenty of them.

And yet, the stand-up comic can employ not only words, but also the language of voice, face and body (not to mention stage tools that I know nothing about).  And, of course, the live comic has the added benefit of instant feedback.

So what hope does the writer have of injecting humor into prose (yes, I've dropped the 'u' because my references don't include them)?

The opening quote is from Francis G. McGuire's chapter, 'Humor in Fiction' in How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel, edited by Carol Hoover, Writers Mentor Group.

Instead of trying to emulate what McGuire says, here is a summary of his advice accompanied by some of his clever examples:
  • Use free word association to come up with funny images and word combinations;
  • Use inappropriate adjectives;
  • Use alliteration and same sounding words;
  • Use hyperbole;
  • Repeat a single tag phrase, e.g. I used to date that girl;
  • Twist familiar phrases, e.g. stark naked plus stark raving mad gives stark raving naked.  Or, if Lord Stark marries Lady Raving, the servants must take care not to make Lady Stark-Raving mad;
  • Twist grammar, e.g., Tomb Whom it May Concern may be the opening address for a letter advising a rent increase for cemetery occupants;
  • Use archaic words, such as smote.

As usual, Writer's Digest has a number of excellent articles that talk about humor in writing.  Leigh Anne Jasheway gives us a list of funny words, proposes generic tools, such as using comparisons, twisting clichés, and the rule of three, and provides interesting pointers for writers of any genre in her article on thinking like a comedy writer.

And how do we know if our attempts at literary wit are as hilarious as we think?  Look for the wet patches, perhaps?  In other words, I don't know, but I suspect that we should prepare ourselves to be a little embarrassed, just in case we mess up the punchline a few times before getting it right.

Exercise 63.  Use some of the techniques suggested by McGuire or Jasheway to write a humorous piece about a real or imagined transitional stage of life, e.g., a new school, marriage, relocation.

Exercise 64.  Think of ten clever or humorous twists of phrases, clichés or grammar.  Think one-liners, bumper stickers, greeting cards, or use familiar objects as prompts.

During Week 33, I'm going to see what I have learnt or what I can find out, about Foreshadowing.