Thursday, July 26, 2012
Structure--Why It Might Be the Missing Element to Make Your Writing Sing (and How to Balance It with Passion)
Writers come to my classes to learn structure. There aren't many classes that teach it, I've found, and it's my specialty. But the desire for structure is often accompanied by certain looks--teachers get to know them!--when I hand out the charts, list-exercises, and storyboard instructions. Do we really have to exit the creative flow to do this?
Yes. It's half of the process of writing--whether your goal is a poem or an essay or a full-length book.
But so many writers dislike structure. I did too, when I began writing books. I thought, Just write! And that worked for quite a while. But when faced with the accumulating scenes, chapters, islands, and continents my daily freewrites became, I was overwhelmed. And I often stopped, purely because I didn't know what to do next.
Keep writing? Maybe. But when would this mass of material manifest a book?
Wise editors on my first books taught me how structure creates a framework. Without the framing of a house, there's nothing to hang the walls on. Without the framework of a book, chapters just ride along and eventually flop.
I've found structure is a framework for both your book and your writing life--no matter your genre or style. You may enter your writing conceptually, from action and event, or from the poetry of image. All will hang better with structure.
How Structure Works in Your Writing
These past two weeks, I've been teaching at a glorious arts retreat center on Madeline Island, off the coast of Wisconsin in the middle of Lake Superior. Writers come to these retreats to learn structure for their books-in-progress.
After the writers get adjusted to the idea that structure is actually beneficial to the creative flow, they really begin to enjoy it. Each day I introduce a new structuring tool. Storyboards, image charts, character growth arcs, and other techniques let writers get an overview of all their bits and pieces, chapters and ideas.
Over the week, they begin to see how structure supports the book's message. It makes it more accessible to the reader.
We all love the ease of daydreaming about our books; we enjoy exploring and researching and letting ideas flow onto the page. But if this is all we do, it can get in the way of finishing. Structure tasks take this raw material and give it shape
Structure Tasks--What Are They?
I find structure most helpful when I feel overwhelmed with too many "islands" (scenes or snippets of writing), when I can't see how to proceed, when I've lost the thread of my book--or even its original purpose. I go to my favorite structure tasks to get oriented again.
I also like to use structure tasks when I need more objectivity about my book--if I've gotten too lost in the leaves and need to see the forest again.
Some favorites . . .
1. Getting a storyboard started or updated. Many writers in my online classes or Madeline Island retreat get intense relief when their storyboard finally works--and becomes an accurate a map for their book.
The storyboard helps shape or create a form for your book. You suddenly see where all the ideas can fit, and flow together in harmony. (Watch this short video on storyboarding if you're not familiar with the term.)
Storyboarding is a structure task because it condenses and focuses your writing process. It helps with overwhelm.
2. Re-energizing my daily writing schedule: When you have a routine of writing even 20 minutes each day, the momentum you build will become a finished book. Not only that but the routine itself is calming. You stop wondering if you'll ever get back to your writing--because you know you've committed to a short session the next day. Just like daily exercises, daily writing practice helps us feel relaxed about the book journey. It becomes a structure we can lean against and try riskier things.
3. Going into the details via line editing: If you need a structure task that takes you deeper into the details, versus toward an overview, line editing is a perfect match. It's the smallest, most focused form of revising, because it goes line by line through the manuscript. To really get benefit from line editing, approach it at revision after the content and flow of your story is intact. Line editing makes adjustments in pacing and language, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. It checks the ending and beginning of each chapter to make sure transitions are strong.
I polled my classes about other structure tasks and these suggestions are their favorites. They helped these writers feel good about their books again.
Set up a great desk for myself (stop writing on the couch).
Clean the clutter on the desk.
Talk with my family about getting time to myself for writing each morning.
Finally get that new laptop that my teenagers can't use.
Storyboard my chapters into a more logical sequence--get rid of the mess.
Transfer my chapter files into organized folders on computer.
Break my huge manuscript into individual chapter files.
Learn Scrivener (a software program that storyboards on the screen).
And When You Need to Balance the Structure Tasks . . .
Some writers love structure too much. They spend hours and hours with their storyboards and never get to the actual writing.
Remember that structure alone can't make a book--and neither can free-flowing creativity. So, both are needed to keep oriented.
Also, structure tasks can activate the Inner Critic, who loves to get you down when you're trying something new. Criticism from others and self-doubt from the Inner Critic wipe out passion very quickly. I recommend a support system of other book writers when you're first trying structure tasks. Support is essential to keep your vision for your book alive and well. Feedback that positively mirrors your creative efforts keeps you confident and believing.
So if you (1) are addicted to structure and not writing or (2) try a structure task and begin to wonder Why am I writing this book? you may need to balance with something more fun that helps you recall your passion for your project.
I call these passion tasks, because they let us explore the ever-changing reasons we are doing this creative project--and show us whether we are expressing ourselves in the most authentic way.
Write a dialogue (on paper) with your book.
Write a letter to Inner Critic to get it to settle down.
Make a mock-up of your book cover.
Make a collage of any book chapters that aren't working.
Make a collage of your goals about your book.
Write about why you don't want to write this book-even why you hate and fear it.
Cluster or freewrite about what you have read in Your Book Starts Here and how it could help your writing.
Find a different writers' group--one you can flourish in.
List thirty things you love in your life to remind yourself of your passion.
Wear brighter colors--not black.
Do you relate to any of these tasks? They come from a diverse group of writers of all backgrounds, cultures, education, and skill levels.
Maybe one of these tasks will interest you and you will try it for yourself. It is hard work to change your writing habits--to learn to add structure if you're a free-flowing writer, or add passion if you're a linear writer.
The goal is to develop both the flow of creativity and the solidity of good structure in your writing life--and let your book become all it's meant to be.
Posted by Mary Carroll Moore at 11:03 PM
Friday, July 20, 2012
A student in my class, Samantha, was writing a difficult passage in her memoir, recounting the effect of her father's death on her family. In a chapter dealing with the day after her father died, Sam described sitting in the kitchen with her aunt, watching breakfast cleanup, trying to absorb the grief that had descended on everything.
But the writing wasn't delivering the emotional punch Sam felt it deserved.
"It's a really important moment in my story," Sam complained to me, "so why do I feel like I'm writing it from another room?"
When I read the draft, it did feel as if Sam was absent from the "room" of the scene. Rather than experiencing the moment with her readers, she was observing it from a pre-digested distance.
I asked Sam to write out a list of details about her aunt's appearance that morning. She wrote: messy hair, clothes didn't match, and she picked at her fingernails as we ate breakfast. She added these in, good details to describe an upsetting moment in someone's life, specific and real. But Sam's passage was still not vibrant with the impact of grief. It wasn't a "felt" emotion, only a thought.
"Perhaps it's because you're telling us about her," I suggested, "and you need to show her to us."
Effect of Showing, versus Telling
Showing and telling are familiar terms to most writers, but many have no idea how to put them into practice.
I asked Sam to close her eyes and put herself back into the moment at the kitchen table the morning after her father died. "Watch your aunt move around the room, cleaning up from breakfast," I said. "Pay attention to any particular details you notice about the setting; note the tension, journey back into the intimacy of that moment. Be open to what might appear that was forgotten in the writing."
It took focus. It took some bravery--because this wasn't an easy event to remember. Eventually Sam jotted down four things:
1. A rotten smell came from the garbage can.
2. My aunt's lilac sweater was buttoned funny, odd because she was a good dresser, a fashion maven.
3. Her hands shook-they were so unsteady, she dropped a glass in the sink.
4. She left the glass pieces in the sink.
When Sam wrote this last item, tears came into her eyes. She was now "in the room" of the scene, fully present with the emotion that had been eluding her.
The glass pieces remained in the sink all morning--and sun from the window made them sparkle enough to catch the attention of anyone coming into the room--thoroughly demonstrating the emotional shattering the family felt.
This bit of "shown" story released the memory and its potency for Sam. She wrote furiously that week, reworking the scene and expanding the image. She wrote about how it bewildered her, at eight years old, that no one cleaned up the glass. Finally, Sam recalled that she herself had found a small hand broom from under the sink and took on the task.
It became a powerful scene in her memoir because she allowed herself to feel the intimacy and vulnerability of real in-the-moment grief.
She successfully moved the memory from telling to showing.
Show Demonstrates, Tell Describes
Showing is a demonstration of emotion through specific sensory details--sight, sound, smell, texture and temperature, taste. Anton Chekhov reminds us, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Telling backs away from such intensity; it summarizes the feelings from a distance. Showing places the reader squarely in it.
Telling demands reflection, an almost-intellectual assessment of what happened. Showing dies with intellectual language. It relies instead on words revealing externally felt sensations from all five senses.
Telling is usually safer for the writer. It's not as raw. To show well, my student Sam had to be willing to travel fully into the moment and re-experience it. Sam said little about the meaning of the glass left in the sink. Because the "showing" was so accurate, a reader caught immediately why the glass was a strong sign of the family's grief.
Gateways to Emotion
Robert Olen Butler, author of many stories and novels, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream. Butler advises us: To deliver emotion in its purest form, don't dilute it with even the tiniest bit of interpretation or lack of specificity.
Butler proposes that emotion can be shown in five ways. Using these, I was amazed at how effectively they transformed my writing by revealing how to show, not tell.
Here is a checklist for how I've used his terms and ideas in my own writing for an emotional punch.
* Details about sensations inside the body (goosebumps on arm, itchy ear, tight throat)
* Specific gestures or expressions seen in others (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)
* Specific memory from the past
* Fear,anticipation,or a desire projected into the future
* Sense selectivity (when all but one sense goes away during moments of extreme emotion)
Whenever I need to change a scene to more "showing," I will go through Butler's list and ask myself how I can bring in one of these.
Sam used the third one--memory--and the specifics of the broken glass left in the sink.
When my linear brain is over-controlling my writing, it often comes out more "tell" than "show." A great way to break the linear hold is through 10-15 minute freewriting sessions, using writing prompts.
The following exercise shares some of my favorites.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Here are a few of my favorite prompts, adapted from ideas in a wonderful book called Everyday Writing by Midge Raymond. Choose one, set a timer for 10-15 minutes, and go.
You can use these from your own point of view, a character's point of view, or your imaginary reader's. Try to incorporate showing as much as possible, through use of the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.
1. Write about what you're wearing on your feet right now (or not wearing) and why.
2. Write about a time you cheated or lied and what happened.
3. Describe yourself at five years old.
4. Write about an awkward moment.5. Pick two of these words and write about them, in a scene or memory: hay, frost, lipstick, Jell-O, pipe.
Posted by Mary Carroll Moore at 1:35 PM
Friday, July 13, 2012
Three Writers, Three Writing Journeys--How Three First-Time Book Authors Found Their Way to Publishing
Nancy Okerlund, Nancy Wood, and Sylvia Gravrock all have something to celebrate. Their first books have been published, and readers are loving them.
I worked with each of these writers, getting to know their stories intimately, helping them stay the course. It's not easy, and I'm so pleased they chose to keep going. Now they each have a beautiful book to show for it.
Below are some questions I asked them about their writing journeys. Perhaps you will recognize your own journey in their story--and come away encouraged. If you have questions for any of them, please feel free to ask by clicking the link at the end of this article.
When did you begin writing this book, and why was it important to you to write?
Nancy Okerlund (Introverts at Ease: An Insider's Guide to a Great Life on Your Terms, 2010): For years people encouraged me to write, but my response was always that writing for its own sake didn't seem to be in me. If I found something that seemed important to communicate, I might consider writing. Nine years ago I got passionate about being an introvert.
One day I thought to myself, Maybe I could write a book about it. It was a daunting thought, and a book seemed beyond my reach. But the possibility stayed with me and eventually I found your workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, "How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book."
I came through it a changed person: I learned so much I felt like a book-writing insider!
Sylvia Gravrock (Alive in the Storm, 2012): On a whim, in the summer of 2006 I packed up everything I owned and moved from Minnesota to Southern California. Not long after I arrived on my son's doorstep, two characters-Callie and Leo-suddenly took up residence on my shoulders. I could see them clearly, but I couldn't make them talk and couldn't make them go away. Five months later, I turned to an online writing class offered through the UCLA Extension program for help.
I didn't start out with the intent to write a book. I started taking writing classes with express intent to make these characters go away. One online class led to three. Four months later, when I still hadn't succeeded in finding employment in L.A., I took a job back in Minneapolis. I asked my online writing teacher if she could recommend a place in Minnesota where I could continue learning how to write.
She said, "You have one of the best places in the U.S. right there in Minneapolis. It's The Loft Literary Center."
After my move, I began exploring what The Loft had to offer. My characters were now talking up a storm, and I used their story to help me learn the craft of writing. I was fascinated to be learning something new again; and this approach to writing, using islands, fit the way my nonlinear brain functions.
Nancy Wood (Due Date, 2012):I started this book almost six years ago. Before diving into the mystery genre, I had been working on a women's novel that focused on an open adoption and the relationship between the birth mother and the adoptive mother. When I took it to a publishing workshop, I learned how difficult it would be for me to publish this novel through traditional channels. It was a "quiet" novel, and I had no credentials, no MFA, no connections.
My goal had always been to publish commercial fiction. During the workshop, we talked about popular genres; mystery, of course, being one of them. With help from other participants, I ended up with a pitch for a mystery around adoption.
It was important to me to write this book for a few reasons. Though I don't have direct personal experience with adoption, I am fascinated with all the nuances of the complex relationship between a birth mother and an adoptive mother.
Writing a mystery allowed me to continue to explore that relationship, but in a genre that was more marketable. I also wanted to see something that I had written as a published book!
Any advice to first-time book writers?
Sylvia Gravrock: Believe in yourself, your characters, and your ability. Take classes. Most importantly, don't be afraid to mine your deepest, scariest memories and emotions. Because I wrote Alive in the Storm with no intent that anyone else would ever read it, I could be honest with myself. The most common comment I've received since Alive in the Storm was published in May is that the reader feels engulfed in the emotions of the book. That, above all, feels like success to me. I'm overwhelmed with awe and gratitude. Sounds silly, but it's true.
Nancy Wood: Don't give up! Keep writing! My other piece of advice is to read as much as you can in the genre you're writing in. Then re-read, studying how the author created the story. Call it research! I also found that listening to books, rather than reading them, was invaluable. As I listened to books, I often discovered nuances that escaped me when I was reading.
Nancy Okerlund: One resource that had a wonderful impact on me is Brenda Ueland's book If You Want to Write. After I read it I gathered up passages that particularly spoke to me and I still refer to them. She gives me permission to trust myself.
What's it like to have your book out there? What's the reader response so far?
Nancy Okerlund: It's been seven months since my book came out. I'm very happy about it. I see it as a contribution to the growing body of information about the power and beauty and importance of "introvert energy." Reader response has been very positive. Sales have been modest but steady, in this world of online book-buying. (Besides several local bookstores, Introverts at Ease is mainly available from Amazon.)
Nancy Wood: I'm just a few weeks into this, so it's a brand new experience. The Solstice cover artist designed an eye-popping cover that I love seeing on my Amazon page! To top that off, my first Amazon review is a five star one, so I couldn't be happier. I have already connected with a few book bloggers for reviews and interviews. In truth, I feel like I'm walking on a cloud!
Any obstacles you encountered along the way?
Sylvia Gravrock: My biggest obstacle was forging time to write between work and personal commitments. I believed that writing was a "pastime," and as a result it was usually the last thing on my list. Even though it was the activity that gave me greatest pleasure (and still does), it always came in last. I needed a change in attitude.
Nancy Wood: I was my biggest obstacle--procrastination and doubt were my biggest challenges.
Nancy Okerlund: A series of serious illnesses and deaths in my family disrupted business as usual and at some point I officially let go of my intention to write a book. But my passion about introversion didn't go away. Then in 2007 I launched an electronic newsletter (ezine) called The Introvert Energizer. Every two weeks I'd write a short essay about what was happening in my introvert lab.
I discovered it was a good way to crystallize my thoughts. It wasn't easy. It took the kind of musing, probing, mulling, wondering that introverts are known for. But I was getting grateful and interesting responses from my readers. And the ezine became a powerful structure for me. I felt so responsible to my subscribers that I'd manage to seek out my writing voice enough to meet my deadlines, even when I had to gnash my teeth in the process. I published it every two weeks for two or three years, then shifted into monthly. I continued to get encouragement about the writing. And I also continued to recognize how it kept me in a searching, observant place. And that I'd grown to like this way of writing: brief, self-revealing, informative pieces that almost always surprised me.
How did you land your publishing contract or make the decision to self-publish?
Nancy Wood: I'd finished another rewrite and really felt like I'd done everything I could. The manuscript was as polished and as strong as I could make it. I sent query letters to agents with very little response. I had a few nibbles that didn't go anywhere.
I started looking online and found a marvelous array of Kindle books for $4.99, $3.99, $2.99. $0.99, and even free. I purchased some of them, read them, and was impressed with the whole package, from the cover to the story to the editing. I researched publishers, and found Solstice, a mid-sized publisher with a focus on e-books. I submitted the manuscript following the guidelines on the website, and was delighted 12 weeks later to receive an acceptance email, followed by a contract.
Nancy Okerlund: I chose to self-publish. I spent a year in a class, designed and led by John Eggen, which gave me another important structure, of support and of access to technical information and resources that further normalized producing a book. One of those resources was CreateSpace.com, the company I used to self-publish. I found it remarkable for its customer service, both online and by phone. I regularly had my questions answered skillfully within minutes of contacting them.
What was the biggest turning point in your writing process?
Nancy Okerlund: It was a conversation with an experienced publisher that got me back to my intention to produce a book. He assured me that my collection of short essays could become a book. I didn't believe him overnight. But once I did, I began to relate to the ezines differently and it was almost a pleasure to write an introduction for them. Because I'd published these pieces over five years in plain text email, I'd been minimizing their value as book material. But writing them was not a superficial process. And once I chose to believe the publisher, it felt like a miracle had happened: I'd let go of writing a book and then, years, later, it materialized right before my eyes!
Sylvia Gravrock: By April of 2010 I'd all but given up. Through your coaching, I'd come to see this story as a potential book, but I was hopelessly stuck and blocked. I hadn't written in weeks, and was honestly on the verge of saying, "Well, that was an interesting exercise. Time to leave this work behind and find the next adventure." (I'm a "starter;" I struggle to make myself finishing things.)
In one last effort to see if I would hang up this "writing thing" forever, I packed up my laptop and notebook and sat in a local Dunn Bros coffee shop. Staring blankly out the window and into a frosty spring landscape, I was disturbed by a woman suddenly standing right beside my table.
"What are you working on?" the stranger abruptly asked.
"Um. I'm writing a story ... a book." (Oh dear God, please make her go away.
How rude of her to interrupt my mental block!)
"Really? What's it about?" She set her coffee cup down on the table, not about to move until I answered her.
"Well ... it's about a 10-year-old girl who is abducted, brutally raped, and left for dead." (How quickly can I spit this out so this stranger will just go away?)
"Through the experiences of her own storms and trials, her grandmother realizes she's the only one who can reach her granddaughter and help her navigate the storm she's in to safety." (Whew! I said it. Will you just go away now??)
The stranger dropped her hands upon my table, stared straight into my eyes. "That's exactly what happened to me," she said in a hushed voice. "When will your book be published?"
Alive in the Storm was completed within the year and published as an ebook on May 9, 2012--two years nearly to the day from my encounter with a stranger in a coffee shop. I wrote it for this stranger.
Nancy Wood: When I was working with you, you introduced me to all the elements of a novel, from inner story to outer story. As a reader, I had always been able to sense when these elements formed a cohesive book, but I had never been quite able to translate them into my writing. This was my turning point.
What would you do differently, based on what you know now about book writing?
Sylvia Gravrock: I'm working on my second novel now. I've learned a lot but feel like I'm a novice all over again. This time, I'm using exercises from Your Book Starts Here and taking more writing classes with the intent for this book to not take five years and ten revisions. If it's possible, I'm being more methodical in my randomness.
Nancy Wood: I have always been a writer who needs to write from beginning to end. I need to know what I am writing about ahead of time. I need to know where the story is going and where to plant the clues. That hasn't changed. What has changed is how I approach each scene. I try to think of the inner and outer story as I write.
Anything else you'd like to share with writers?
Nancy Okerlund: While we're socialized to believe the value of published work is in sales volume, my encouragement to other writers who are considering or in the process of creating a book is to trust that our voices join a conversation about life that reaches deep into our collective heart.
To check out any of these books, click on the title below
Alive in the Storm by Sylvia Gravrock
Due Date by Nancy Wood
Introverts at Ease by Nancy Okerlund
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. Think of a question you'd like to ask one or all of these writers. Post it below.
Posted by Mary Carroll Moore at 6:26 PM
Friday, July 6, 2012
When Nothing Is Happening . . .Why We Shy Away from Writing Good Conflict and What We Can Do about It
Many people shy away from writing good conflict into their books. Either they avoid the external side of conflict by keeping events low risk, or they don't let the characters grow through internal realizations.
Unless you have both external and internal conflict in your story, you won't build enough tension to capture and hold the reader. And not enough tension usually means a "Thanks but not for us" letter from the publisher or agent you're hoping to charm.
This was verified for me years ago in a writing workshop taught by the editor of a famous literary journal. Two elements stood out for me.
This editor received over 400 submissions each week. (I can imagine that number has gone way up now.) He commented on the stories and essays; accepted manuscripts ran a challenging gauntlet.
Then he said this: "Ninety percent of these submissions got rejected because nothing happened in the story." That surprised me.
We discussed why. Not enough good conflict, he said. Or there was good internal conflict within the characters or narrator, but this conflict was not externalized. So it was impossible to engage the reader.
The writers, he said, needed to raise the stakes.
Raising the Stakes
A great way to raise the stakes in your story is to ask yourself two simple questions:
Who is this person fighting?
What are they fighting for?
In other words: What do they want, and what stands in their way of getting it?
In fiction and memoir, characters want things. A story is about the struggle to get this desire. It could be the desire for freedom, to avenge a wrong, to secure a mate. To make the story interesting, there must be a challenge. If the desire is met without challenge, there is no good conflict.
What about nonfiction? This editor received many nonfiction pieces. In nonfiction, there is conflict in the reader. The writing must create a need in the reader, and a learning curve to satisfy that need. A reader picks up your story because she has a question, a desire to learn something, for instance. So the conflict presented in nonfiction is the effort to change or learn.
How do you raise the stakes? Listen to John Truby, Hollywood screenwriting guru, who asks: Who fights whom for what?
If you can't answer the "whom" (the obstacle) or the "what" (the desired result), you don't have a good conflict.
Using the Storyboard W to Raise the Stakes
Storyboards are used by many publishers to check out this question. If the stakes are high enough, when the story is mapped on a storyboard, you can see it immediately.
I use storyboards for all my books--fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I love the way they instantly tell me where my story slumps.
(If you haven't yet seen my short video on storyboarding, check it out (click here) before you read on. It'll explain a lot about the W and how to use it to raise the stakes in your story.)
One of my students, Matt, was working on his storyboard in class. Matt was writing a thriller. Despite a compelling plot idea, we could both see that Matt's storyboard fell flat. We doublechecked each of his major plot points (the five points of the W structure of his storyboard), but only the first (triggering) event in chapter 1 had enough conflict.
Act 2 was disturbingly peaceful for a suspense novel, causing the middle of Matt's book to really sag.
I suggested that Matt list the name of every major and minor player in one column. Next to each person's name, Matt would write down who this person was fighting and what they were fighting for, using John Truby's question.
It was surprisingly hard! Matt could answer these questions only about his villain, his favorite character in the book. All the other characters, including the protagonist, came up blank.
As we talked, I realized that Matt liked these characters way too much. He wasn't letting them get into trouble--or grow! So he had no external conflict or internal conflict either.
I took a different tack. I asked Matt to scan the character list and begin pairing up characters as dance partners. Then imagine these two people having a conversation. What argument could evolve? The goal was to leak out tiny moments of conflict.
This exercise really worked. Conflicts started coming fast as Matt visualized these players tangling with each other as they danced a tango.
Externalize the Action
By asking Matt to create an external action--a dance--it became easier for him to imagine dilemma. This is because it's hard for the mind to sense dilemma if it's not dramatized, or made external. We learn about characters by watching them move around their worlds.
Dilemma is rarely believable if it's passive--thought about, talked about, put in letters or emails, or discussed on the phone--without any active outer risk.
As you externalize the action in your book, you can complicate dilemma beautifully. You can see if there are any characters who are stalled between what they want and what they think they should have.
A great example of this is Ann Patchett's award-winning novel Bel Canto, whose main character is a Japanese businessman who loves opera. For his birthday, he and other elite guests are invited to a private villa where a famous opera singer will entertain them. The businessman is more than a little in love with this opera singer, but his desire to get closer to her is not something that can be realized unless some outside event happens, a dilemma that will force change--in this case a terrorist take-over of the villa during the recital. Once the businessman and the opera singer are trapped, more action gets externalized. He sees the opera singer every day, in difficult situations. Emotions begin to play out, because desires are spoken aloud. This is typical during trauma--witness the deep friendships and sudden romances of wartime.
Patchett took characters who were safe in unexpressed interior worlds and forced them into a dilemma in the outer world. If she hadn't, there would be no story.
What about Conflict in Nonfiction Writing?
My student Carol is writing a self-help book for women who do too much. Carol's ideal reader is a generous soul, a people-pleaser who spends her days doing for others. Carol was like this too, and that's why she is motivated to write this book.
Carol's book contains some great anecdotes, as most modern self-help books do. For Carol's triggering event, she chose an embarrassing and true story of one of her clients who got "caught" tending to herself instead of a sick friend. The shame that resulted caused the woman to completely turn her back on her own needs for many weeks, until she got sick herself. Act 1 contained a series of stories like this, as well as good information about the mindset of people pleasers.
In Act 2, Carol's book slumped. She only had low-key scenes with little external action. It was pretty easy to build the rising action--stories about women who would simply sneak away by themselves to get some peace and privacy, hiding with a good book and glass of lemonade in their bedrooms. But the falling action, which brought us to a bigger turning point, was more difficult.
I suggested Carol look for stories that showed a woman about to burst from being too contained for too long. Yes, the first story showed someone getting sick. Did Carol know of anything worse that had happened when needs were really repressed?
Carol thought of a story of her own: a serious confrontation with a neighbor, who called Carol for a committee favor on a morning when Carol's son was suspended from school.
She remembered how she blew up at the woman. Although it was embarrassing, it beautifully demonstrated what happens when two desires clash--the desire to maintain the aura of being everyone's helper with the extreme need for privacy to cope with personal pain. When desires clash, there is surprise, drama, action.
Carol's willingness to include this "island" made a big difference in the overall depth and credibility of her book.
If you're in a similar situation, take a clue from Carol's story. Don't feel your conflict has to be highly shocking to be effective. It just has to be unexpected.
"The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish," says writer Terry Southern, a screenwriter who worked on films such as Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove. Shock is "a worn-out word," wrote Southern, but astonishment always makes for good literature.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. Make a list of potential conflicts that could be brought out in your book. What kinds of trouble could people get themselves into? If you’re writing fiction or memoir, list desires and difficulties for each of your main characters. For nonfiction, make a list of possible problems that readers might encounter and how your book solves or addresses them.
2. Pick one problem and write about it. See if you can create a scene where the person faces this problem.
3. Now spend a few minutes with your writing notebook. Ask yourself how the conflict writing felt—did you notice anything in your own body as you wrote? Tense shoulders? Headache? Put those sensations into your characters.
Posted by Mary Carroll Moore at 4:31 PM