Brad uses examples from Star Wars, The Grapes of Wrath, and “Hills Like White Elephants” to talk about structure and inciting events. He points out that these inciting events have three things in common:
1. They happen early in the story—it is the moment that throws the story into action, so it must come soon.
2. They force the character into taking action—in other words, the character can’t just choose to do nothing and keep living life as normal.
3. They illustrate the stakes of the story—what is at risk, what is the worst that can happen, what is the best that can happen?
An inciting event can fail on any of these elements. If they come too late we’ve lost the reader. If they give the character the option to simply do nothing and go on with life as usual then they aren’t compelling. Or if the stakes that they set up are too small there is no tension or risk in the story.
Weekly challenge—Take a look at your current project—and this applies to any genre, any format: novel, short story, screenplay, whatever. Can you identify your inciting event? What is the moment that throws your character into the story? If you can’t identify it, you’ve got a structure problem! If you can identify it, ask yourself three questions about it.
1. Does is come as early as possible in my story?
2. Does it force the character to take action or can my character simply choose to do nothing and life will continue on as normal?
3. What is the worst that can happen as a result of this event? In other words, are the risks high enough?
Our Wise Word this week—
“The inciting incident is how you get (characters) to do something. It’s the doorway through which they can’t return, you know. The story takes care of the rest.”
Donald Miller, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”
And we’re back, with apologies for missing last week’s episode. Unfortunately, a fascinating and informative interview with thriller writer J.E. Fishman didn’t record correctly. Watch for take 2 coming as soon as we get our technical issues worked out!
On this episode, Brad talks about how his technique for writing dialog has changed after taking an intensive screenwriting class.
The technique is based on the assertion that each character must have their own agendas in a conversation and that these agendas must take precedence over anything the writer is trying to accomplish with the scene. Brad also explores the technique of “backwards engineering” the way he writes dialog, treating each character as if they are having a conversation disconnected from the other person and then weaving them together during revision.
Brad uses examples from his own draft of The Giant Life of Emmett Mills, his novel-in-progress, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” which is available here. Brad also mentions Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee as a must-have resource for writers of any genre, media, and level of experience.
Weekly challenge—Read a screenplay. “The Shooting Script Series” is a great place to find reliable versions of them. Also, see if there are any screenplay writing classes offered in your community. It’s a great way to defamiliarize yourself with writing and help you see your own writing in a new way.
Our Wise Word this week…
Mike Rich, screenwriter of Finding Forrester, The Rookie, Secretariat, Radio, among others. He said to always have a story that you are working on that’s just for you, that you never plan to show anyone.
Brad uses the analogy of adverbs as being like adjusting a carburetor on a 1963 Volkswagen Bug. Don’t worry, he keeps it simple!
He also talks about his 3 reasons that an adverb might retain its place on the page during the editing and revision process:
1. I’ve found the most specific, effective verb I can find but it still needs (and I mean REALLY needs!) to be nuanced a little more. This almost never happens. Try a sentence that you think really needs an adverb without it and it will almost always be a better sentence without it.
2. It nuances the verb in a way that undercuts the verb’s meaning, maybe something like “he chuckled derisively.”
3. I am going for a kind of passive, uncertain, mushy feeling–almost like a poetic technique. This is especially useful in dialog!
You guessed it. Open up your current project and search for “ly” words. See if they are flagging you down to point out weak verbs.
Our Wise Word this week…
Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Randy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist turned writer and writing teacher. He is the author of the best-selling book in the Fiction Writing Reference category on Amazon, Fiction Writing for Dummies. You might know him as “The Snowflake Guy” from his very popular method for designing a novel, The Snowflake Method.
- www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com – The free “Snowflake Method” article plus many other great resources from Randy Ingermanson
- Randy’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
- Randy’s Physicist and Geek Suspense Novelist website
Some of the things we discuss in the interview:
How does a theoretical physicist end up teaching fiction writing?
What is the snowflake method and why do so many writers find it so effective?
Why is the first step, writing a single sentence description of your story, so important?
What about writers who don’t like to think of writing as a formula or method?
If you could go back in time to talk to the pre-published Randy Ingermanson, what advice would you have for him?
Something new: Are you interested in having your writing workshopped on the show? Send the first few pages to email@example.com and you just might be featured on an upcoming show! Be sure to include some contact info so Brad can get it touch with you about maybe being on the show as part of the discussion.
Weekly challenge: The challenge this week is to head on over to advancedfictionwriting.com and check out Randy’s snowflake method. Then, use step one—coming up with a single sentence for your novel or story—and try to do that for whatever it is that you’re working on right now. It’s a great way to make sure you’re story is focused and compelling, and also to hear what your book is going to sound like as your readers begin to spread word-of-mouth about it. What is the sentence they are going to use to describe what your book is about?
Our Wise Word this week…
Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.
- William Faulkner, interviewed by Lavon Rascoe for The Western Review, Summer 1951)
What is “defamiliarization?” How does it function in our writing? Can it be applied to “big picture” elements like plot and theme? How can we use it to break apart our own familiarity with what we are writing?
These are the questions we tackle in this episode of the show.
Defamiliarization is the technique of making the familiar seem strange so that our readers experience something in a new way, from a new angle, and gain a new understanding of it. The term “defamiliarization” was coined by Russian critic and writer Viktor Schklovsky in his 1925 essay “Art as Technique” in which he explores what distinguishes art from what is not art.
We discuss defamiliarization on three levels:
I – Traditional (or sentence-level) Defamiliarization
Brad uses examples from Schklovsky’s “Art as Technique,” Tolstoy’s “Shame!” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Traditional defamiliarization is describing an object as if we are seeing it for the first time, or an event as if it were happening for the first time. It is making the familiar strange.
II – “Big Picture” Defamiliarization
Brad discusses Don DeLillo’s Mao II in which he explores how writers are like terrorists. It’s an example of defamiliarization, but also holds insights into our responsibility to “wake the world” up from being on auto-pilot.
III – Self-reflective Defamiliarization
As we write our stories, we become familiar with them. Brad discusses techniques we can use to defamiliarize ourselves with our writing so that we can see it in a new way, break it open to new possibilities, and keep it fresh.
Weekly challenge: Try the “letter from a non-POV character” technique. Choose a lesser character in your story—one that is not already sharing their point of view—and write yourself a letter as if it is coming from them to you. Pretend that they’ve heard you are writing the story and they want you to see things from their perspective. Talk about motivations for why they did things, how they felt when certain things happened, moments when they feel like the main POV character is lying—or at least misrepresenting—something. See your story from a new perspective by literally seeing it from a new perspective.
Our Wise Word this week is from Ann Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
Please feel free to join in the discussion by leaving a comment, question, or criticism of today’s show in the comments section below!
We’re talking about glimmers—what they are and how they can fuel our writing—with the wonderfully talented Pam Houston!
Pam Houston is the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat; the novels, Sight Hound and Contents May Have Shifted; and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.
Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.
She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis, teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. And today’s she’s here with us on Inside Creative Writing!
Prior to the interview, Brad shares a piece of audio from one of Pam’s recent readings at UC Berkeley. You can watch the entire reading at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87wWuE28XUk
Some of the questions we explore in our interview:
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of leaving much of the character arc of a story to the reader to construct?
- In your other readings, interviews, and presentations, you often mention glimmers. What are they and what role do they play in your writing?
- What is your process when you’ve had a glimmer? Do you jot it down in a notebook, or is it powerful enough that it stays with you until you write it?
- Do you think glimmers come bundled with a meaning or a purpose? In other words, are we to dig out the meaning inherent within it or are we to imbue it with meaning?
- When you sit down to write a glimmer moment, do you stick to the facts or do you allow yourself to fictionalize the experience if you are drawn in that direction?
- If you could go back in time, what advice would you give the pre-published Pam Houston?
After the interview Brad explores some of the reasons glimmer writing is effective even if we are not writing creative nonfiction or fiction that closely mirrors our own lives.
Weekly challenge: Write a glimmer. Don’t ask yourself if it can be used in whatever it is you are working on now or not. This week, see the world as trying to get your attention in some way—big or small—and write about how it did that.
Our Wise Word this week is from Ernest Hemingway and was shared by listener Suddenly Jamie. Follow Jamie on Twitter at https://twitter.com/suddenlyjamie and check out her website at http://www.suddenlymarketing.com/.
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Thanks, Jamie, for sharing this with us via our message line at 541-952-2406.
Next week! We’ll be talking about defamiliarization. It’s one of the most powerful writing techniques we have available to us and, even if you are already familiar with it, we’re going to be approaching it from an angle that might be a new perspective for you. I hope you’ll join us!
We discuss getting the most out of the writing perspectives of writers and teachers who approach writing from a different perspective than we do and take a deeper look at mise-en-scene through an example from Brad’s writing.
Our Wiseword today comes from listener Colin McLung:
“I recently listened to an interview with Chris Bohjalian about his book the The Night Strangers. An insight he provided for writers was to begin the next day one page back and edit it before beginning on the blank page. I thought this was an interesting approach since it allows for the writer to get into the flow again but does not bog the writer down in the “editing” process for too long. In a way it puts your mind in that deep state of concentration and then lets up (kind of like a good mental stretch before the run).”
Colin also shared a technique he uses to keep himself motivated to sit down to write every day. Check out the podcast for his “tap dance” method which is also this week’s Weekly Challenge!
Next week: Pam Houston! She is the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat; the novels, Sight Hound and Contents May Have Shifted; and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.
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Alan Heathcock, award-winning author of VOLT, discusses some of his “27 Tenets of Fiction Writing.”
Alan Heathcock is a Chicago boy who eventually made his way to Idaho where he now teaches fiction writing at Boise State University. His first collection of short fiction, VOLT, was published with Graywolf Press in 2011 to wide acclaim. It was selected as an Editor’s Pick for The New York Times Book Review and The Oxford American, was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and many critics and magazines have called it one of the best books of 2011, including Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, and GQ. Alan has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho.
The following are just the show notes that go along with the audio podcast. Click the LISTEN NOW button above to hear the show!
|Important Links:- Alan’s book, VOLT from Graywolf Press- A PDF of the “27 Tenets of Fiction Writing”
- Follow Alan Heathcock on Twitter at @alanheathcock
- On Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alan.heathcock
- Alan Heathcock’s official website: www.AlanHeathcock.com
Alan and Brad discuss his “27 Tenets of Writing Fiction,” a document he composed for his writing students after he finished writing VOLT. Some of the tenets that they go into detail about are:
#4 – Enable your character to change, despite their flaw, and through trial, to understand a profound truth of the world. Figure out the profound truths of the world.
#12 – Invent settings that are interesting and peculiar, or find something interesting and peculiar in settings that are banal. All settings are metaphoric reflections of your character’s interior.
#20 – No short cuts. Think of the most demanding ways to accomplish what you want and do those things. It will save you time in the end.
#25 – Don’t work around other people. Other people will make you self-conscious. Find some place you can be alone. Be alone.
Alan also talks about what piece of advice he would give himself as a pre-published author and discusses some of the projects he is currently working on–including a novel, several film adaptations, another soon-to-be-published short story, and his intentions to write a stage play.
Our Wiseword advice comes from listener Sergio in Los Angeles who shares something from Neil Gaiman on finding our own voices. Listen to the podcast to hear this great piece of advice!
Our Weekly Challenge comes out of our conversation with Al:
Go to a place where there is water—a lakeside, a pond, a river, or some other natural area. First, describe the scene as you experience it using compelling details and description. Then put yourself in the place of someone who has just received news that someone you are close to has drowned. Now describe the scene again through that perspective—how would it appear different? What things do you notice now? How does your prose change to reflect your mood and perspective?
Next week: A Loose Ends episode! We’re starting to get some listener questions piling up that we’ll address, as well as touch on a few topics we’ve covered in previous shows that Brad feels like he left some gaps in go into them in a little more detail using more concrete examples. That means it’s a perfect time to get your voice on the show by calling our message line at 541-952-2406 and leaving a question or comment for the show. You can find that number on the website at the Talk To Us link, too.
Mise-en-scène is a fundamental technique of film-making that, when we adapt it to our writing, will help our descriptions and settings resonate more deeply with our theme, more fully develop our characters, and create a better sense of mood in our scenes.
Haven’t we all heard the advice to “make every word count” or that “every word, every sentence, should be doing some work in our writing?” While it is great advice—and will dramatically improve our fiction if we follow it—what exactly does it mean? How do we make it happen? The film-maker’s technique of Mise-en-scène is a great way to take the abstract concept of “making every word count” and make it concrete.
What follows are just the “show notes” that go along with the audio podcast (link above) to use as reference material.
In film, image is everything. Film-makers must use every element of a scene to communicate that scene’s purpose, meaning, and mood. Nothing is left to chance. Mise-en-scène means, literally, “put in the scene” and it takes into account everything that appears in the shot:
Composition—Is the shot a close-up, far away, or somewhere in the middle? Is it straight on, overhead, or looking up at the action?
Sets—Where is the best place for a scene to take place?
Props—What are the characters holding, interacting with, moving around the settting? What’s in the background?
Actors—Who plays which part? Do they “fit” the role or are they miscast?
Costumes—What are the characters wearing? How do their clothes affect the way we understand them and their world?
Lighting—Is the shot bright (high key), dark (low-key), somewhere in the middle? Are there shadows? What direction does the light come from?
Movies have gigantic staffs, but we are everything when it comes to our writing. We are the director who decides how to compose the shot. We are the lighting designer who decides how bright the afternoon is, how dark the night is. We are the set designer who builds the buildings, homes, businesses, parks, mountain ranges, even other planets! We are the prop person who must find the things our characters have in their homes, carry around with them, and interact with. We are the costume designers who pick out the clothes for our characters and everyone they meet. And we are the casting company who provides the perfect actor for the part. Feeling overwhelmed?
Key points to incorporating mise-en-scène into our writing…
- Mise-en-scène is best left for revision. When you’re drafting, just get the ideas down on paper. When you rewrite, make sure everything in your scene supports your theme, character development and plot.
- Have you included a description or element simply because it is cool? Cool isn’t enough! Consider how you can change it so that it resonates with what you are trying to accomplish in the scene.
- Beware the cliché! This technique can lure us into them. Rid them from your writing and consider using Reversals (see Episode 3: Sparking Your Creativity) to turn a tired cliché into a vibrant element.
- Be careful that you are not too heavy-handed. Set up elements of mise-en-scène before they “mean something” so that they don’t seem forced.
This week’s Wiseword is from Ayn Rand:
A good novel is an indivisible sum; every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization.
(1) Go watch a favorite movie—one you’ve seen a thousand times—and pick an important scene in the film. Watch it a few times and pay attention to how the camera shots are composed, how the scene is lit, what items are in the background, what the setting is, and what the actors are wearing. See if you can find ways that the film-maker is being intentional about these things. Then (2) examine a scene in whatever you are writing now and look at it as if you are turning it into a movie. How would you shoot it? What mise-en-scène elements would you bring to it to make it resonate on every level of production? Consider working some of these ideas into your written scene.
Next week: An interview with author Alan Heathcock. Alan’s collection of stories, VOLT, was a “Best Book 2011″ selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. Heathcock has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University. I hope you’ll tune in! It’s going to be great!