Instructions

Dramatic fiction scenes have action.  When in-scene writing is the most effective for the story moment, dialogue and action are often used together.  Probably the most common action situations for writers for characters in a scene are eating, traveling as in a car or bus, or just meeting somewhere, situations which tend to be listless to inert.  Yet, to keep the reader oriented as to what’s happening, and to augment the dialogue, the action in the scene has to be presented so the reader’s imagination is holding onto the scene visually and recording progressive–be it minimal or robust– action, and experience the imagery and action in fresh, unique, and significant ways, to support the meaning and story.  Because in scenes where the dialogue is prominent and busy providing conflict, characterization, theme enhancement, etc., the supportative setting and the movement in the scene must be well written to contribute to a great story.  The task is variable from story to story, and success requires practice.

For example, a man and woman are arguing about divorce at a restaurant.  What possibly can a writer do to help the reader visualize setting and action while following the dialogue?  They’re at a dining table sitting down facing each other!

What about: “I picked up my spoon.”  OR  “She picked up her spoon.”?  The scene is already dead.  This sort of writing is never useful for good fiction.  Does it tell the reader anything about the character, the setting?  Does it evoke imagery?   What if, instead, it began: “In the direct chilling draft of the restaurant’s air conditioning vent, the cold metallic touch of my stainless steel soupspoon felt sinister . . . like a weapon.”?

Maybe: “He swallowed.”?  Well, it does have some action that is internal but hardly stimulating to a reader’s imagination.  It is too general for good writing.  What if: “The half chewed steak stuck in his throat until he drank wine directly from the bottle he took from the silver ice bucket on the table.”?  Not great standing alone, but there is action and imagery that might effectively support well-chosen dialogue.

        So, for practice in writing support imagery and action in a scene that primarily depends on dialogue, your assignment is to write this scene from a narrator’s perspective without dialogue or internalization . . . no feelings or thoughts, or subjective opinions of narrator or character . . . just write images and action.  The action should have an arc, including logical progression (placing ladder, climbing, a rung breaks, a fall, injury).  When you’re satisfied your scene is fresh with specifics that stimulate images and story-action momentum, underline specific snippets of images and actions you might use in creating a scene using all the elements needed–dialogue, action, imagery, setting, internalization, stream of consciousness, etc.

Still a little confused?  Look to these examples.  The first will have subjective ideas in red indicating they shouldn’t be in the exercise where only objectivity is the goal.

The expensive yacht cut through the unforgiving sea and I was unsure what the Captain had in mind when he screamed for me to duck.  The bow lurched to the left as the Captain spun the wheel to the right, obviously distraught about something I had no clue about. The boom swung over me as a crouched on deck, barely missing my head.  I didn’t have much confidence in him anyway, and now I had none.

Second, a straightforward objective description of the happening.

The yacht tilted in a rough sea, the mainsail full of the wind on a close haul.  Visibility was poor.  A cargo shipped appeared.  The Captain spun the wheel to the right.  The bow lurched left.  The boom swung across the deck.  The Captain yelled.  The passenger ducked.  The boom cleared over him but hit the mate

Third, the final passage with elements from all examples . . . a passage with mainly dialogue, with the chosen highlights the objective passage in green to show how the scene action is integrated.  When the choice of effective detail is exact, the writer is carrying the reader through the scene with imagery and action and complimenting other techniques of scene development such as dialogue..

“How long you been sailing this thing?” I asked the captain.  The forty-foot yacht was under full sail in a turbulent seaVisibility was miserable.

     “Long enough,” he yelled over the howl of the wind.

     “Maybe we ought to lower the main,” the mate yelled in return.

     That made sense to me, even with my limited knowledge.  We were heeling to port so severely the spreaders on the main mast would at times touch the surface of the ocean.

     “I’d want to go back,” I yelled.

     “To late.  Tides out.”

     Through the mist and haze, a cargo ship loomed a few hundred yards from us.

     “Goddamn,” cried the mate.

     The Captain spun the wheel to the right to avoid a collision.  The yacht pointed into the wind.  The boom whipped across the deckI ducked to keep from getting knocked into the sea.

     “Hard-a-lee,” the Captain yelled too late to give an effective warning.

     The boom hit the mate, frozen with fear . . .

Note how the dialogue and the action are moving . . . interwoven, and parallel.  Both must be interesting and accurate.  The exercise will help you maintain a reader’s interest in the story and will give you practice in techniques that will soon become incorporated in your writing, regardless of genre or style.

EXERCISE 1.  Story one for objective rendering.  Lots of action.

Here’s your first story.  Remember, objective description that effectively provokes imagery and delivers scene action without subjective comment or ideation.  And, of course, no dialogue.

An eight-year-old boy leaves his terminally ill mother and starving younger sister to ride his bike to a store or market where he steals food.  The owner swings a broom knocking the boy off the bike.  The boy sustains a serious head injury.

EXERCISE 2.  Story two for objective rendering.  Limited action (usually more difficult, but still scene momentum and setting should be carried through).

Husband and wife riding in a car.  Mother-in-law in the back seat.  The wife is pregnant with another man’s child, and she wants a divorce.  The wife’s mother-in-law is popping pills.  The husband is driving erratically.  (Here there is little action for facile description.  You can’t use the story line, the pregnancy etc.  Find some action of one or two of the characters to follow through the scene.  Taking the pills, trying to get comfortable, driving hazards, etc.  Make the actions compliment and augment what the scene is about.  Use your imagination.)

Summary: your goals.

1. Write the prescribed descriptive scene totally objectively to discover points of action and imagery that would be useful in a more expanded section with dialogue subjective story telling.

2. Identify and highlight–or underline–succinct details that might be useful to create images and impart the scene action for the reader.

Submit your work if you would like comments.


   Work submissions for Assignment 14: Imagery and Action in Dramatic Scenes with Dialogue

Exercise 14/Story 1

Sujith watched his mother’s belabored breathing turn quiet; in her arms she cradled the bony frame of his baby sister, whose pale eyelids fluttered with thin blue veins. They had finally fallen asleep upon the mat, and Sujith grabbed his chance.

Pushing open the shanty’s rusty door, he fell into the half-light of the alley and yanked his bicycle from the ground. Mounting and turning the pedals in one quick move, he navigated past a mangy cat, a naked child rolling a tin can, a wrinkle-faced woman chewing paan and farther, farther on until at last he arrived at the marketplace.

The market was crowded, loud and hot. Sujith straddled his bike through the narrow aisles, ignoring the elbows and shouts protesting his progress. The stall he sought was located at the far eastern end of the marketplace, owned by a vendor whose left eye was hidden by a patch. A tower of crimson pomegranates and a barrel brimming with young almonds made Sujith’s heart pound hungrily.

Sujith rolled up to the stall and waited alert astride his bike as a woman wearing a lime green sari began to haggle with the fruitseller. The vendor thus distracted, Sujith quickly leaned over, grabbed three pieces of fruit and as many almonds as he could shove into the tattered pouch fastened around his waist.

But before the boy’s hands could return to the handlebars, the vendor turned his face in Sujith’s direction, good eye opened wide. Cursing wildly, the man snatched a thick broom handle from under his cart and swiftly brought it down with a loud crack against Sujith’s skull.

Immediately the boy’s balance was lost. His body and the bicycle fell to the ground with a thud. One of the pomegranates in the boy’s waistsack burst open from the impact, splattering red liquid on the woman’s sandaled feet. His neck was twisted in an odd way and both legs were pinned beneath the bicycle frame. He lay still and small in the dirt. The woman lifted her hands to her mouth in a stifled cry.   

Exercise 14/Story 2

Under ordinary circumstances Lucia would ride shotgun next to her son John, but today Nora contrived to sympathize with Lucia’s health complaints and offered her mother-in-law the more spacious rear seat. The truth was that Nora was dangerously nauseated. She was certain that if she couldn’t see the road directly in front of her, she would vomit all over the leather not to mention the scarf John had given her at Christmas.

It didn’t help that the icy avenue was riddled with potholes and that her husband was navigating them like a pinball wizard.

Nora glanced in the rear view mirror to see if Lucia had dozed off. No such luck. The old bat was struggling to open one of the many vials of homeopathic pellets she insisted would soon remedy her chronic arthritis, vertigo and overall sense of ennui and dissatisfaction with life.

The S-Class thudded in and out of a deep hole and Nora was pitched forward. Her handbag slid off her lap onto the floor and the open bottle in her hand released a fizzy spray of Vichy Catalan onto her coat and trousers.

Nora used her scarf to dab at her clothes. John pointed out that Cerruti did not manufacture with this purpose in mind and Nora quickly bent down, fumbling to find a tissue.

Her stomach began to lurch but she swallowed hard and shut her mouth tight against the pressure rising in her throat. It had only been three weeks since she and Roger had made love at the cottage, yet the signs of morning sickness were already obvious to her. If only she could find a way to file for divorce by February, she and Roger could escape with their secret intact and begin the new life they’d dreamt about for so long.

[Note: My understanding of the assignement is that these two exercises are NOT to include dialogue, which is why I omitted it from both.]

Instructor Response

Hi Victoria.  Nice work.

Exercise 14/Story 1

Sujith watched his mother’s belabored breathing turn quiet; in her arms she cradled the bony frame of his baby sister, whose pale eyelids fluttered with thin blue veins. They had finally fallen asleep upon the mat, and Sujith grabbed his chance.  If you were to write this objectively, it might go like this.  Sujith’s mother’s breathing became quiet as she cradled his emaciated baby sister.  He saw his chance.  Note how the story line intensifies but setting, description, and characterization decreaseYou can practice writing in accordance with your purpose.  Here, you’ve effectively used a subjective approach (highlighted) that helps describe scene, provides imagery, gives characterization, but slows scene action.  Good work.

Pushing open the shanty’s rusty door, he fell into the half-light of the alley and yanked his bicycle from the ground. Mounting and turning the pedals in one quick move, he navigated past a mangy cat, a naked child rolling a tin can, a wrinkle-faced woman chewing paan and farther, farther on until at last he arrived at the marketplace.

The market was crowded, loud and hot. Sujith straddled his bike through the narrow aisles, ignoring the elbows and shouts protesting his progress. The stall he sought was located at the far eastern end of the marketplace, owned by a vendor whose left eye was hidden by a patch. A tower of crimson pomegranates and a barrel brimming with young almonds made Sujith’s heart pound hungrily.  

Avoid passive constructions when not needed as in progressive tenses.  And adverbs a tricky, and “hungrily” doesn’t work.  Here are some ideas.  Notw when you restructure a passive verb construction if often results in an active verb .  Fiction story telling requires action and conflict.

“was crowded”  Noise and heat flooded the crowded market.

“was located”  He located the stall . . .

“was hidden”  . . . a patch hid the vendor’s left eye. 

“hungrily”  inappropriate advebs can bury writing and turn off readers.  What does “heart pound hungrily” mean?  Heart and hunger?  Pound with hunger?  Be careful of word choice, especially adverbs. 

Sujith rolled up to the stall and waited alert astride his bike as a woman wearing a lime green sari began to haggle with the fruitseller. The vendor thus distracted, Sujith quickly leaned over, grabbed three pieces of fruit and as many almonds as he could shove into the tattered pouch fastened around his waist.

But before the boy’s hands could return to the handlebars, the vendor turned his face in Sujith’s direction, good eye opened wide. Cursing wildly, the man snatched a thick broom handle from under his cart and swiftly brought it down with a loud crack against Sujith’s skull.

Immediately Do you need a time transition here?  The action negates need to indicate time passage, and ther writing will be stronger without it.  the boy’s balance was lost. Passive.  Maybe try: The boy lost his bakanace.  His body and the bicycle fell to the ground with a thud. One of the pomegranates in the boy’s waistsack burst open from the impact, splattering red liquid on the woman’s sandaled feet. His neck was twisted in an odd way and both legs were pinned beneath the bicycle frame. He lay still and small in the dirt. The woman lifted her hands to her mouth in a stifled cry.   

Exercise 14/Story 2

Under ordinary circumstances Lucia would ride shotgun next to her son John, but today Nora contrived to sympathize with Lucia’s health complaints and offered her mother-in-law the more spacious rear seat. Nice.  Flows well and informative.  The truth was that Nora was dangerously nauseated. She was certain that if she couldn’t see the road directly in front of her, she would vomit all over the leather not to mention the scarf John had given her at Christmas.

It didn’t help that the icy avenue was riddled with potholes and that her husband was navigating them like a pinball wizard.  Sentence not necessary and stops story and does only a little for characterization. And pinball wizard, I apologize but iy is important, is an author being clever at story-quality expense.  

Nora glanced in the rear view mirror to see if Lucia had dozed off. No such luck. The old bat was struggling to open one of the many vials of homeopathic pellets she insisted would soon remedy her chronic arthritis, vertigo and overall sense of ennui and dissatisfaction with life.  Great.  Informative with action.

The S-Class thudded in and out of a deep hole and Nora was pitched forward. Her handbag slid off her lap onto the floor and the open bottle in her hand released a fizzy spray of Vichy Catalan onto her coat and trousers.

Nora used her scarf to dab at her clothes. John pointed out that Cerruti did not manufacture with this purpose in mind and Nora quickly bent down, fumbling to find a tissue.

Her let us know whose stomach, this could lead to confusion that stops story. stomach began to lurch but she swallowed hard and shut her mouth tight against the pressure rising in her throat. It had only been three weeks since she and Roger had made love at the cottage, yet the signs of morning sickness were already obvious to her. If only she could find a way to file for divorce by February, she and Roger could escape with their secret intact and begin the new life they’d dreamt about for so long.

Nicely done!

  1. I know that passive constructions should be avoided and yet I manage to employ them all the time. Your edits will remind me to avoid them.
    In the driving story, I used the pinball wizard sentence to try to communicate Nora’s dislike for her husband and to evoke the feeling of being jolted carelessly (by him), that he is inattentive to her needs. What would have been a more effective way to do this?
    With thanks
    V

    • This has to do with the creation and use of effective metaphors. That you want to communicate Nora’s dislike for her husband and her feeling of being jolted, using a simile that doesn’t work (and maybe metaphor is not the right way to get these points across)may not be best. Metaphor, for our purpose, is the comparison of two unlike things (A and B) so that the understanding of one or both is enhanced . . . accomplished in tasteful and informative ways. Often metaphors in fiction can be more effective if A and/or B are concrete. The touch of his hand felt like a butterfly wing. A = hand B = butterfly wing. So the metaphor lets us know about the quality of softness in his touch through comparison with the feel of a butterfly wing. (Not great but it’s late at night.) The principles are: A must have some qualities that are applicable to B so that similarities can be discerned resulting in illumination about the objects, and the A and B cannot be too disparate so that no comparison can be made: The touch of his hand felt like a train wreck won’t work. The comparison adds nothing. When you tried to use a metaphor [‘. . . that her husband was navigating them like a pinball wizard], you had multiple purposes and multiple comparisons needed (dislike, jolted, careless, inattentive, pinball, wizard, navigation–that’s a lot” and it really is a little much and comparisons too vague to pick up your meaning. Work on new tries with what you have, but don’t be afraid to go to narration or dialogue, or even internal reflection to get your meaning across. Also ask how important is the idea to the story; how much space should the idea take up; if it is essential, is this the right place to bring it up? You might enjoy searching The Fiction Well using “metaphor” for more info.
      And do you still want to start tutorial in April or would you like assignment earlier? All the best, Bill

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1

 

 

                The bicycle clattered at the boy’s feet. The screen door screeched. Inside, his mother stooped, spiting blood into a hanky. Her head hung low. Her eyes settled on his, then sank.

            Little sister lay crumpled and rasping on the sofa, weak with hunger. He knelt beside her and lipped a silent prayer. Then he ran. The screen door banged shut behind him.

            He clattered down the wooden steps on his bike. They creaked and moaned. He pedaled hard; his cheeks grew red; his breathing rapid. Exhaust fumes scorched his nostrils. He reached the market entrance, stopping near a bushel of peaches. His stomach rumbled.

            The grocer was outside, sweeping his walkway, preparing to close for the day when he noticed the boy rush out of the store, carrying a full sack, his eyes darting. The grocer tightened his grip on the broom. He recognized the boy as the one who stole from him last week.

            The boy leaped onto his bike, glancing backward, unaware that he headed straight at the grocer. He turned forward too late; the grocer was upon him, swinging the broom like a baseball bat, striking his face. The boy fell backwards. His head thudded on concrete.

            The bicycle lay mangled, the rear wheel spinning. A pool of blood formed at the boy’s head. Groceries lay scattered across the lot. The wheel whined to a stop. Nothing more moved.

 

2

 

            “Gray doesn’t look good on you,” Jennie’s soon-to-be, ex mother-in-law proclaimed from the back seat.

             She rolled her eyes. She wouldn’t have to listen to Fran’s crap much longer. It galled her that she still had to put up with it, but she needed a ride to the doctor and Fran always seemed to be a part of the package wherever Bob was concerned.

             She was pregnant, the result of an ill-conceived affair, but she planned to raise the baby alone. When Bob left, at her request, he told her she would change her mind. She was afraid he might be right. Some days her resolve weakened, but dealing with Fran made her see things clearly again.

            “Take the back road. It’s faster during rush hour,” Fran prattled.

            Bob adjusted his side-view mirror for a third time. He made a right turn, too sharply, jumping the curb.

            “Oh.” Jennie cradled her belly with both hands. “Be careful.”

            “Careful with you’re driving Bobby.” Fran leaned forward between the front seats, her fat head jutting out between them. “Don’t stir the baby.”

            “Sorry. I’m just a little upset, here,” Bob said. The car lurched forward.

            Jenny looked away from them, as if the site of the Starbuck’s store on the corner held a fascinating interest.

            Fran reached for her purse and for a bottle of pills and a can of Pepsi.            

            “You make me nervous,” Fran said to her son. She snapped the can and popped two blue pills into her mouth, and then wiped it with her sleeve. “You should take a few of these. They’ll calm you down.”

            “I don’t want any of your pills, mother.”

            “Take these.” Fran wrapped her hand around his head, forcing the pills into his mouth. He jerked. The car veered to the right, heading straight toward a parked truck. He broke free of his mother’s grip and slammed the brakes. The car screeched to a stop. Fran flew forward toward the windshield but Bob extended his arms and caught her before his arms slammed into the steering wheel. “I caught her like a football,” he thought. He pushed her back into the back. Stunned, she whimpered like a child.

            The seat restraint saved Jennie but squeezed against her stomach. She ripped the belt loose. “Dammit! If anything happened to this baby, I’ll kill you.” She slammed out of the car.  

            “Where are you going?” Bob asked.

            “I’ll call a taxi.” She backed away, from the car. Her eyes glowed with liberation. Bob started out of the car after her, afraid, now, that she would leave him forever.

            “Bobby, don’t leave me,” Fran whined from the back seat.

            Bob paused at the side of the car. With his eyes on Jennie, he dropped the keys on the seat. “Drive yourself home, mama. I’m going with Jennie.”

Instructor Response

Russ—

Impressive work. 

The bicycle clattered at the boy’s feet. The screen door screeched (Is this the right word? Squeal? Shriek? A matter of taste.) Inside, his mother stooped, spiting blood into a hanky. Her head hung low. Her eyes settled on his, then sank. Yes.

Little sister lay crumpled and rasping on the sofa, weak with hunger. He knelt beside her and lipped a silent prayer. Yes. Then he ran. The screen door banged shut behind him.

He clattered down the wooden steps on his bike. They creaked and moaned. He pedaled hard; his cheeks grew red; his breathing rapid. Exhaust fumes scorched his nostrils. He reached the market entrance, stopping near a bushel of peaches. His stomach rumbled.

The grocer was outside, sweeping his walkway, preparing to close for the day when he noticed the boy rush out of the store, carrying a full sack, his eyes darting. The grocer tightened his grip on the broom. He recognized the boy as the one who stole from him last week.

The boy leaped onto his bike, glancing backward, unaware that he headed straight at the grocer. He turned forward too late; the grocer was upon him, swinging the broom like a baseball bat, striking his face. The boy fell backwards. His head thudded on concrete.

The bicycle lay mangled, the rear wheel spinning. A pool of blood formed at the boy’s head. Groceries lay scattered across the lot. The wheel whined to a stop. Nothing more moved

 

2   This is well done too.  This one is the harder, and you’ve done it with good choices.  

“Gray doesn’t look good on you,” Jennie’s soon-to-be, ex mother-in-law proclaimed from the back seat.

 She (you might use either Jennie or ex mother-in-law for the pronoun here, it’s not clear as is unless you think about it.  When you’re revising, look for pronouns with unclear antecedents.  Then upgrade, even if your sense is that using a proper name will clutter the sentence.  Readers will instinctively register unclear pronouns.) rolled her eyes. She wouldn’t have to listen to Fran’s crap much longer. It galled her (Jennie) that she still had to put up with it (clarify), but she needed a ride to the doctor and Fran always seemed to be a part of the package wherever Bob was concerned.  This sentence also has a lot of pronouns and would be better using the name—the first “her” needs to be Jennie, I think.  And maybe the “it” clarified.  If you do this, it will shift the point of view to the narrator, and move it a shade away from character, but I think the clarity is the advantage.

 She was pregnant, the result of an ill-conceived affair, but she planned to raise the baby alone. When Bob left, at her request, he told her she would change her mind. She was afraid he might be right. Some days her resolve weakened, but dealing with Fran made her see things clearly again.

“Take the back road. It’s faster during rush hour,” Fran prattled.

Bob adjusted his side-view mirror for a third time (Yes!). He made a right turn, too sharply, jumping the curb.

“Oh.” Jennie cradled her belly with both hands. “Be careful.”

“Careful with you’re driving Bobby.” Fran leaned forward between the front seats, her fat head jutting out between them. “Don’t stir the baby.”

“Sorry. I’m just a little upset, here,” Bob said. The car lurched forward.

Jenny looked away (excellent—keeping visual images in action) from them, as if the site of the Starbuck’s store on the corner held a fascinating interest.

Fran reached for her purse and for a bottle of pills and a can of Pepsi.            

“You make me nervous,” Fran said to her son. She snapped the can and popped two blue pills into her mouth, and then wiped it with her sleeve. “You should take a few of these. They’ll calm you down.”

“I don’t want any of your pills, mother.”

“Take these.” Fran wrapped her hand around his head, forcing the pills into his mouth. He jerked. The car veered to the right, heading straight toward a parked truck. He broke free of his mother’s grip and slammed the brakes. The car screeched to a stop. Fran flew forward toward the windshield but Bob extended his arms and caught her before his arms slammed into the steering wheel. “I caught her like a football,” he thought. (You might use italics for direct thought.  I caught her like a football, he thought.)  This is different than narrator revealing character thought, and the difference is more easily detected, in my thinking, by italic use.  It helps ease comprehension for the most part.   He pushed her back into the back. Stunned, she whimpered like a child.

The seat restraint saved Jennie but squeezed against her stomach. She ripped the belt loose. “Dammit! If anything happened to this baby, I’ll kill you.” She slammed out of the car.  

“Where are you going?” Bob asked.

“I’ll call a taxi.” She backed away, from the car. Her eyes glowed with liberation. Bob started out of the car after her, afraid, now, that she would leave him forever.

“Bobby, don’t leave me,” Fran whined from the back seat.

Bob paused at the side of the car. With his eyes on Jennie, he dropped the keys on the seat. “Drive yourself home, mama. I’m going with Jennie.” Yes.

 

Perfect!  You got the idea and then some.  As you use this skill for your stories, note how the intensity increases, emotional valences are higher, and the pacing is moving right along.  What you’ve created, as you probably know, is difficult to maintain at this level for many pages. The reader is immediately appreciates this energy, but will respond to less intensity as relief.   The idea is to vary story intensity—Shakespeare is probably a good example, especially in the histories and the tragedies.   Variable intensity from time to time emphasizes the value of the high intensity scenes.

 

Thanks for the submission.  And all the best,

Bill Coles

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Metal clangs against metal, un-greased wheels squeak, and rubber beats upon the surface of a road not paved since Roman times. The boy coasts on his bicycle down the hill to the center of town where people meander among cockeyed rows of stands displaying samples from mid sumer’s harvest, home-baked goods, and prize livestock.

The boy tugs the rope that holds a burlap bag draped across his torso, then ensures the opening is wide while he controls the bicycle with his other hand. At the bottom of the hill he’s reached maximum speed, and the clanging of the bicycle parts draws the attention of those nearest his approach. He stretches out his free arm as if to grab hold of something, and focuses his eyes upon his intended target.

A middle aged woman distracted by the boys noisy approach lets go of the pan holding bread loaves, the pan bangs against the table top a few seconds prior to its contents, the loaves rejoin the pan in a disheveled manner as bread crumbs scatter from the table forced by moving air. In one smooth swoop, the woman turns, grabs a broom leaning against the side of her wagon, and pulls the weapon over her shoulder and down upon the crown of the cycling boy, just as he was scraping a row of bread loaves from the tabletop.

Seeming as slow as a cold jar of molasses, the bicycle continued with its natural momentum as the boy succumbed to the force which had acted upon his head. His body bounced and slid a foot or two on the stone pavement like a heavy side of beef, then came to rest in front of the woman’s booth. Activities ceased in the immediate crowd as they all looked in awe upon the boys motionless body. A young man kneeled next to the boy, extended his arm with two fingers outstretched, pointing to a spot just below the boys ear. The young man slowly looked up toward the woman wielding the broom, raised his brow and offered a half smile. The woman was relieved the boy was still alive.

A few of the ladies near the boy gasped and slowly backed away, the young man looked toward them inquiringly, then in the direction of their gaze upon the ground. A pool of thick crimson spread from the boys head, encircling it perfectly. The young man rose and backed away as the pool pursued him. The circle of people around the boy grew larger as if framing it in matte.

Instructor Response

Comments

Very well done.  You’ve successfully achieved an engaging and well written scene—easy to read and comprehend.  I’ll make comments, not to suggest any changes in what you’ve done, but to give thoughts (may seem picky but they will suggest broader application in your writing) to consider.

Metal clangs against metal, un-greased wheels squeak, and rubber beats upon the surface of a road not paved since Roman times.  [I really like the structure of this sentence, and the information it cotains.  Good job.]  The boy coasts on his bicycle down the hill to the center of town where people meander among cockeyed rows of stands displaying samples from mid sumer’s harvest, home-baked goods, and prize livestock.  [Excellent.  I’ve got the picture, and you’ve done it succinctly.]

The boy tugs the rope that holds a burlap bag draped across his torso, then ensures the opening is wide while he controls the bicycle with his other hand. At the bottom of the hill he’s reached maximum speed, and the clanging of the bicycle parts draws the attention of those nearest his approach. He stretches out his free arm as if to grab hold of something, and focuses his eyes upon his intended target. 

A middle aged woman distracted by the boys noisy approach lets go of the pan holding bread loaves, the pan bangs against the table top a few seconds prior to its contents, the loaves rejoin [wrong word] the pan in a disheveled manner as bread crumbs scatter from the table forced by moving air. [Way overwritten.  Especially when the prose is so pinpoint in the rest of the writing.]   [In genera;, this sentence doesn’t work.  What happens to the bread takes too much time and too many words to tell.  There are too many ideas for one sentence.  And some of the word choice is writerly, that is it feels as if the author is straining to sound erudite.  In one smooth swoop, the woman turns, grabs  grabbed a broom leaning against the side of her wagon, and pulls  pulled the weapon [not a useful word for the action being delivered.}  over her shoulder and down upon the crown of the cycling boy, just as he was scraping a row of bread loaves from the tabletop.  [This is too much too.  I like the action and imagery but the excess words in your sentence are not specific enough to be needed and give a sense of writing to fill the page.  Here is what, in essence, seems to be needed.  The woman grabs a broom and hits the boy riding the bicycle on the head as he scrapes a row of bread from the tabletop.  Even more basic: woman hits boy on head stealing bread.

Seeming as slow as a cold jar of molasses,[This is cliche—the molasses simile—and also the idea seems out of place.  Start here maybe–>:  The bicycle continued with its natural momentum as the boy succumbed to the force which had acted upon his head.to the blow. His body bounced and slid a foot or two on the stone pavement like a heavy side of beef,[wrong metaphor, the image isn’t right] then came to rest in front of the woman’s booth. Activities ceased in the immediate crowd as they all looked in awe upon the boys motionless body. A young man kneeled next to the boy, extended his arm with two fingers outstretched, pointing to a spot just below the boys ear. The young man slowly looked up toward the woman wielding the broom, raised his brow and offered a half smile. The woman was relieved the boy was still alive. 

A few of the ladies near the boy gasped and slowly backed away, the young man looked toward them inquiringly, then in the direction of their gaze upon the ground. A pool of thick crimson spread from the boys head, encircling it perfectly.[Really?  Perfectly?  In truth, it is impossible to form a perfect circle, there are always imperfections, and the nice idea of a circle (a great idea in that it provides an image very useful to keep the reader engaged) doesn’t need modifiers] is lost.  Blood seeping from a wound on a floor probably uneven on the surface and not exactly flat and congealing at different rates is hart=d to imagine in a circle.  So why use “perfect”?  It is not needed and if something is needed, use a better word.  The young man rose and backed away as the pool pursued him. [I didn’t get this on first read.  Pursue is not the right word for a pool.] The circle of people around the boy grew larger as if framing it in matte. [A disruptive and unnecessary simile.  Circle growing larger might work, but I think is not needed, but idea of a matte is too far away ((unrelated) from the imagery to be useful.

In summary:

1.  Watch metaphors.  They are tricky to use successfully and should be used sparingly.  Be sure they are specific for purpose there in the writing.  Go to The Fiction Well (on website) and search “metaphor” for lots of varied ideas. 

2. Avoid cliché.  [You don’t do this often, but even occasionally weakens the writing.]

3.  Be sure modifiers work for your story.  Keep them specific and effective.  “perfect” circle is an example of a less than perfect choice.

4. Strive for succinct prose.  Be careful of stray or off-the-mark ideas.  I’ve indicated where I thought this was occurring.

Great work.  You are an excellent writer.  Continue to dedicate yourself to the pleasures of being a writer.  You will please many readers, and you’ll find a sense of accomplishment that few other endeavors can generate.

All the best,

WHC

  1. Thank you so much. Your advice is very helpful. It brought attention to much that I had not noticed in my writing previously. Looking at it now, I wholeheartedly agree with your criticism.

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Exercise 1

 

The little boy’s desperation of hunger has driven him over the edge. His terminally ill mother and starving younger sister were facing his very dilemma. He jumped on his bike, for a fast ride around the block to reach the grocery store. He entered the shop looking around him, left and right. In a flash, he grabbed a loaf of bread and a packet of cheese, and off the door he ran out in such a speed. The owner was right outside, sweeping away the fallen leaves when he spotted him. Quickly he held up his broom to stop the little thief. When he knocked him off his bike, he stumbled across the carts and ended up kissing the ground. He was knocked unconscious. The blood was covering his hair, and leaking everywhere. 

 

Exercise 2

 

“How long will it take us to arrive to this lawyer of yours? I’ve been sitting in this car for two hours. My legs are num, and I am tired.” She furiously expressed while her baby was moving constantly inside her belly. She was not at all comfortable.

“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you cheated on me. You’re the one who asked for the divorce. Didn‘t you? ” He firmly replied while staring in her direction, angry with her for carrying a child that was not his own.

“Watch out for the road ahead. If you continue to drive like a mad man, we are all going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere.” The mother-in law nervously said, as she sat in the back seat popping her colored pills, hoping for the ride to end and quickly. 

 

Best,

Ramona

Instructor Response

Ramona—

 

Nicely done.  You have the heart of a writer.  I’ll use each of the exercises to illustrate major points about fiction writing: story structure, thoughts about dialogue.  I’ll make a few comments in your manuscript about a few other points.  You’re on the right track and I hope these ideas are useful.  Be sure to practice as often as you can.

 

______________________________________

Exercise 1

 

A delightful story.  I want you to be aware of aspects of storytelling in fiction.  Great stories engage the reader by bringing them into the story action and momentum.  And stories are about characters and the characters need to be carefully hewn so the reader cares about them (you’re already doing this) and in the story (and in scenes) there needs to be something in the character that changes, some sort of understanding about themselves or the world.   Doesn’t have to be momentous, it just needs to change.  (You’ve also done this naturally, but need to think about it more.)  And the reader needs to know the change so the reader also sees the world a differently after reading the story; the world for them will never be exactly the same again.  So the trick is to characterize with desires and emotions in conflict that move the plot in interesting and revealing ways (in literary fiction).  Most contemporary short stories don’t attempt to engage, entertain or enlighten readers as effects of reading the story.  Most contemporary stories a simply descriptions of people and events, real or imagined, and they rarely succeed as a great story.

                So, if you want to go this route, what opportunities can we find for you to develop?  First, you have four characters: boy, sister, mother, owner.  Your story is: Boy desires to find food for his starving family.  Steals bread and cheese from store.  Owner knocks boy off bicycle with broom.  Boy unconscious and bleeding.  Even with the challenging limitations of space in this assignment, here are things you might explore.

                Lets assume you want the boy to be the major character.  A major character is the one that you want the reader to care about.  And a major character will have some change occur.  The most effective changes are inside the character, not just external fatalistic happenings (although you’ve got to have external plot progression in almost every story while the character is evolving.)  Is there a way to develop the character with emotions?  What if the mother is starving and he loves her very much and knows he must find food.  They have no money.  But the sister has given herself sexually to the landlord for a dollar to help her mother.  The boy takes the money to go buy food for mother.  On the way he sees a pocket knife in a pawnshop window.  He’s always wanted a knife and this is a beautiful one.  He pauses and deliberates.  He has always been honest.  But he’s never had this opportunity before . . . a knife for a dollar.  He could buy the knife and steal the food for his mother.  Afterall, the store wouldn’t miss a little bread and cheese.  He buys the knife, steals the bread and cheese but as he is riding away, the owner jams his broomsticks in the spokes of the bike and the boy is thrown to the ground unconscious and bleeding.  (to be continued).

                I’m not suggesting this is what you should do.  But see how the story is being developed?  There has been conflict within the boy.  Buy the knife or not?  Should he steal? What about using his sister’s money for the knife?  And he does the wrong thing.  He satisfies his own greed, betrays his sister, threatens his mother’s survival, and becomes a thief.  Note what we know about the boy and his family.  He loves his mother.  His sister sells herself to keep her mother alive.  The boy is greedy.  The boy discovers and ignores his dishonesty.  (Also, we know the boy is desperate from hunger.  Would it be more intense if he were desperate about the impending last breath of his mother, and desperate to regain the tarnished reputation of his sister, maybe?)  See how as an author we engage a reader in the character and the character’s problems.  And the character strengths (saving mother and sister) and weaknesses (greed, stealing) are now driving the plot for the reader.  It’s what good storytelling in fiction is all about (and few modern literary fiction authors seem to care or be able to create such stories, instead depending on descriptive narrative of events to create story movement and suspense). 

                Here’s an example of a story and an explanation of motives.  (See this essay.)

 

Here is a story that has lasted for hundreds of years. It will serve as an example to clarify the meaning of character-based story.

Once upon a time, in a village near the deep dark woods, Little Red Riding Hood wanted to take Grandma, who was very ill, a basket of goodies. She would have to walk through the woods for half an hour to get to Grandma’s house, which was in another village. ‘Be careful,’ her mother said. ‘Go straight on the path and do not talk to strangers.’ So Little Red goes into the woods and meets a wolf who wants to eat her but can’t because there is a woodsman nearby. The wolf asks her where she’s going, whom she will visit, and where. Red tells all. The wolf runs off and Red continues her journey, leaving the path to chase butterflies, and pick bluebells, and dip her toe in a cold refreshing stream. When she gets to Grandma’s house, the wolf has already arrived because she failed to heed her mother’s warning about staying on the path. He imitated Red’s voice to gain entrance, and he devoured Grandma. Then he dressed in her night clothes and crawled in bed under the covers. Little Red arrives. He tells Little Red to come in. As the wolf exposes himself little by little, Red listens to his smooth talk when she asks him about his big eyes, hairy arms and big teeth. Unsuspecting, she gets in bed and he devours her.

What has held this story in the collective consciousness of humans for centuries? First, it carries three significant messages. Listen to your parents. Innocence and naïveté can cause irreversible harm. Don’t trust a wolf in grandma’s clothing . . . you can get devoured. There is also the effective metaphor of the wolf for a child predator. But the significance of the story is mainly carried by the narrative story structure. Little Red is a character-based story. The plot moves forward because of Red’s human characteristics — especially her human foibles: she holds onto her childhood innocence, and she disobeys her mother.

This story could be framed as genre fiction. It could still be interesting, but it might not be as lasting because of the structure. Here is a possibility.

Red Riding Hood is kidnapped from the woods near her house. A few hours later some bones and scraps of skin are found at her grandmother’s house a mile away. The police are called and discover from the gray hairs trapped in grandma’s hand-woven throw rug that the wolf did it. The wolf escapes. Red’s mother grieves.

This version is a statement of happenings. Red is a part of the plot, but she is not driving the plot with her disobeying her mother and her wallowing in her innocence . . . and also the author would lose the effectiveness of the wolf metaphor when the story moves from fantasy to a more reality-based police procedural.

Here is another genre framework for the story. An action-adventure genre story. Something like this.

Red decides to go to Grandma’s house for a visit. In the deep dark forest she meets a woodsman. The woodsman is tracking a wolf that has eaten two children in the last two weeks. Red wants to help find the culprit. The woodsman agrees and sends her out as a decoy. The wolf tries to attack Red, but she stabs him with a knife the woodsman has given her. The wolf runs away, but the woodsman is able to follow the trail of blood. He finds the wolf near Grandma’s house, and after a life-threatening duel, the wolf is killed. Red falls in love.

In this story, again, all that happens in the plot is circumstantial. Who Red really is makes little difference. What she says, thinks, or wants would be irrelevant to the story. The same story could be written with Pinocchio as the major character.

To drive home the point, an author could restructure so that Red’s decisions do drive the plot to become more character-based again, but in another way. And the story gains meaning.

Red Riding Hood’s grandma, who lives in another village, is very rich and has a new dress, a box of Swiss chocolates, and bath oil waiting for Red Riding Hood for her birthday party the following week. But Red wants her presents now, even though her mother tells her to wait until her father can go with Red through the woods, which can be very dangerous. But Red goes anyway to get her presents early, meets the wolf in the forest, and is devoured.

Red is back driving the plot again, and there is significant meaning related to Red’s human attributes. Greed and impatience can be disastrous. The writer seeking to write great literary fiction can take two important points from Red Riding Hood story: Structure the story to display what it means to be human through character-based plot, and make the story significant. In Red’s case, the significance is partially related to the dire consequences of getting eaten by a wolf after Red’s seemingly almost innocuous actions.

 

Your story moves along nicely.  Possible changes are in red.

 

The little boy’s desperation of hunger has driven him over the edge. His terminally ill mother and starving younger sister were facing his very dilemma. He jumped on his bike, for a fast ride around the block to reach the grocery store. He entered the shop looking around him, left and right. In a flash, he grabbed a loaf of bread and a packet of cheese, and off the door he ran out in such a speed. The owner was right outside, sweeping away the fallen leaves when he spotted him.  (These two sentences are nicely done, the reader can see the action well.)  Quickly he held up his broom to stop the little thief. When he knocked him off his bike, he stumbled across the carts and ended up kissing the ground. He was knocked unconscious. The blood was covering his hair, and leaking everywhere.  Be sure when you use a pronoun, the antecedent is unquestionably clear to the reader.  Here, there may be an instant of confusion as to whether the “he” is boy or owner.  You can structure this to make it clear and use a noun or name.

 

______________________________________

Exercise 2

 

Lot’s of interesting things going on here.  Good work.  I’ll make suggestions on dialogue, not so much as criticism for what you’ve done, but to help you create dialogue that works for you in the future.

 

“How long will it take us to arrive to this lawyer of yours? I’ve been sitting in this car for two hours. My legs are num, and I am tired.” She furiously expressed while her baby was moving constantly inside her belly. She was not at all comfortable.

“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you cheated on me. You’re the one who asked for the divorce. Didn‘t you? ” He firmly replied while staring in her direction, angry with her for carrying a child that was not his own.

“Watch out for the road ahead. If you continue to drive like a mad man, we are all going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere.” The mother-in law nervously said, as she sat in the back seat popping her colored pills, hoping for the ride to end and quickly. 

 

In fiction, dialogue must work for the story.  It never sounds the way people really talk, but paradoxically, it must sound to the reader the way people talk in the accepted story world.  (You can find purposes for dialogue in fiction here, and also here.)   The major point now is exposition (background to the main conflict is introduced) can almost never be effective in dialogue.  Exposition should be delivered through narrative, internalization, setting, etc.  Expostion in fiction dialogue makes the dialogue less credible, is too wordy, stops the flow of the story movement, and will not entertain a reader.  So in your dialogue, I’ll point out exposition (in green).

 

Watch out for the road ahead. If you continue to drive like a mad man, we are all going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere.

 

The purpose of this dialogue is to reveal the mother-in-law’s apprhension about the son-in-law’s driving.  Experiment.  Something like”  “My God, we’re going to die!”  And get the other ideas of road ahead, mad man, dead in a ditch expressed in a different way out of dialogue.

 

Perhaps you should have thought of that before you cheated on me. You’re the one who asked for the divorce. Didn‘t you?

 

The emotion of this dialogue is angry and intense.  The exposition isn’t realistic and is not effective in dialogue.  Actually, almost the entire segment is exposition.  Find a purpose, maybe,  Experiment.  Something like.  “You cheater.”    Or  “Why didin’t you think before you went whoring around.”   See the syntax and the single-idea construction and the absence of backstory in the dialogue even thought it is essential to be delivered somewhere else?

 

“How long will it take us to arrive to this lawyer of yours? I’ve been sitting in this car for two hours. My legs are num, and I am tired.”

 

For fiction dialogue you might try:  “When will we get there?  I’m tired of sitting.”   It all has to do with this basic question:  Would the character really say what’s in the dialogue in the way it’s said considering the immediate emotional valence of the scene, the character’s thinking, emotions, experiences, and worldview at the time of the utterance?  It’s not easy but it is essential for good fiction and storytelling.

 

Thanks for the submission and all the best in your writing!

Bill Coles

1.30.14

  1. Thank you so much for your literary generosity and time. Your notes and advice will without a doubt be my resourceful guide, in which I intend to use very creatively to best improve my writing. I have come to realize, that the word structure in literary fiction is very crucial, nonetheless the emotional foundation that plays a major part in a great storytelling, but with your inspiring insight and my persistence to become a good writer, I will do my best to capture all the necessary skills that would help me deliver the fictional masterpiece I crave.

    Thank you!
    Best,
    Ramona

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