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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