Monthly Archives: October 2015

What Does ‘Story’ Mean?

Speaking about the merits of a writer recently, I said to a colleague, “He understands story.” The colleague nodded, though he eyed me with an expression that made me believe he didn’t understand what I meant.

The exchange left me to ponder: what did I mean? When we discuss the term ‘story,’ we must make a distinction with the term ‘plot.’ Story and plot are not synonymous. Plot is the sequence and organization of the events that happen in a story. Plot can be linear (chronological) or non-linear (out of sequence). Plot devices can slow down or speed up the pacing of a story.  Think of plot as the ‘what’ of a novel. Story gets to the ‘why’ of the novel.

Story has the following elements: plot, structure, characters, setting, style, and theme. The elements of a story are clear enough, but I struggle to come up with a definition of story that gets to the heart of what it is. One of the best books on ‘story’ is Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.” Citing recent research that reveals our brain is hardwired to respond to story, Cron concludes people turn to story to teach them about the world. People can experience what it is like to be in a war or to navigate through a life and death conflict without having to go through it. Story is the framework that allows people to make sense out of life.

In a recent blog post on Writer Unboxed, Cron expanded on the meaning of story. “Story isn’t what happens externally; story is how we make sense of what happens internally.” Stories center on external events, but what they are really about are the internal struggles of the main character. The most satisfying stories are the ones in which the main character starts out with weaknesses or obstacles that prevent her from reaching her goals and  then faces mounting challenges. In the process of overcoming these challenges, she experiences transformative growth.

Using an example we all know, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is ostensibly a story about the struggle for justice and the fight against prejudice, as demonstrated through the trial of Tom Robinson. On the surface it is the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer of rare courage who stands up for justice in the face of contempt from his community. Beneath the surface, it is the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her loss of innocence as a child who witnesses the harsh realities of racial prejudice, poverty, and ignorance in Depression-era rural Alabama. It is about Scout’s internal struggle and her acute need to make sense of her world where her friends and neighbors  are decent people who are capable of doing terrible things.

As a story, To Kill a Mockingbord works on multiple levels. And perhaps that example embodies the true definition of story.  

How would you define story? Give an example of a story that works on an external and internal level?

  

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Book Review: “Housebreaking,” by Dan Pope

The disorder that lurks beneath the idyllic surface of Amercan suburbia is a familiar theme in fiction. Dan Pope updates this theme for the 21st Century in his well-crafted second novel, Housebreaking.

Set in the tony Connecticut suburb of Wintonbury (based on the author’s hometown of West Hartford), the novel opens with one family torn apart and another about to be. Benjamin Mandelbaum has moved back to his childhood home with his 84-year-old widower father, Leonard, after his wife has kicked him out of their house.  Suffering in the lonely fog of his pending divorce, Ben discovers that a high school crush, Audrey Martin-Murray, has moved with her family to his neighborhood. Ben is even more unmoored when Leonard suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.

Trapped in a loveless marriage and grieving over the death of her son, Audrey is ripe for an affair. Ben concocts a clever ruse to lure Audrey and they begin an affair at his father’s home.

Audrey’s husband, Andrew, a type A lawyer who logs long hours at a large, prestigiuos law firm in Hartford, barely notices Audrey’s absences. Andrew is consumed by his own dalliance, an implausible attraction to a precocious young male associate at the firm. Neither Andrew nor Audrey pay much attention to their daughter, Emily. In the throes of despair over the loss of her brother, Emly hooks up with a neighborhood hood, who takes her along on burglaries and supplies her with pills to medicate her pain. 

Over the course of a Thanksgiving holiday weekend that seems on the surface a normal, if tension filled time, everything comes to a head. 

Pope’s message seems to focus on how families deal with pain and loss and how the random, unexpected events of life can shatter the calm equillibrium of the suburban dream. Leonard, easily the most likeable character, lives by the old school moral code. He is an honorable person with traditional values. Ben, though he’s been unfaithful to his wife, shows remorse and clings to the hope his wife will take him back. He still values his family. The Martin-Murrays are a different story. They deal with their problems by running away from them–finding solace in doomed affairs or, in the case of Emily, self-medicating.

Housebreaking is a well-paced story about the illusions of surbubia and the fairy-tale, storybook homes and neighbohoods that hide the pain of coping with real-life challenges.  

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Whipsawed by Advice

Inexperienced writers hunger for sound advice on the craft of fiction writing. They don’t need to search for long. The internet is rife with fiction writing blogs, many of excellent quality. It is a gluttonous feast, not just for beginners, but for writers of all levels. But how does the novice writer evaluate the advice given? What is useful and what is not?

Academic training, knowledge and experience provide a solid basis for evaluating advice in any field. Lacking those things, the novice writer must ask: is the advice based on sound reasoning? It is supported by concrete examples? Does the person giving the advice have credibility?

What got me thinking about these questions was a blog post I came across recently. I don’t recall the author and, even if I did, I wouldn’t reveal it here. My purpose is not to call out another writer. The post centered on writing myths and the author claimed one of the biggest ones was to always begin a story “in scene.” That is, the story should always start within a scene. The main character is doing something that reveals information about her as well as story questions. The scene must grab the reader. This author claimed a writer could achieve the same objectives through a well-crafted narrative and he gave a couple of examples (one by James Joyce) that worked well. 

I can’t say starting a story with a narrative doesn’t work or can’t work. I can say it doesn’t work for me. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from author Dan Pope (whose second novel, Housebreaking, released recently, is very good). During a three-part workshop at our local library in 2005, Pope was discussing short stories. He said, “Always begin a short story ‘in scene.'” A lightbulb blazed in my head. Until then I’d struggled with how to begin my stories. How much narrative? Is it ever acceptable to begin with a quote? With the main character’s inner thoughts? His advice made so much sense. For me. But it may not work for everyone.

This brings me full circle to the question I posed: How does one evaluate writing advice. Let me share a few things that have worked for me:Create a solid foundation for evaluating writing advice by learning as much as possible about the cract of fiction. If an MFA is not in the cards, there are hundreds of books out there. A writer can’t go wrong by reading Stephen King’s On Writing, anything by Donald Maass (but start with Writing the Breakout Novel), James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters,  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, or Elizabeth George’s Write Away, to name just a few.

  • Research the best writers websites. Writer’s Digest annually publishes the 101 Best Websites for Writers. This is an excellent resource for all writers.
  • Read the best websites for writers on a regular basis. Some of my favorites are Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman, Helping Writers Become Authors (KM Weiland), The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn), Nathan Bransford, and Nail Your Novel (Roz Morris). 
  • Pay attention to “consensus” advice. If every blogger offers the same advice, take it seriously.
  • Incorporate  sound advice into your writing and your writing habits.
  • Recognize there are subjects in fiction writing where there is no conensus (pantser vs. plotter) and do what works for you.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Some of it is bad, but most of it is good. It’s up to the individual writer to evaluate the advice and get the most out of it.

Your turn: how do you know when you are getting good avice about writing?

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