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Cut to the Core - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Cut to the Core
rhfay and I have been discussing what makes good poetry and fiction. I gave this list of questions regarding how to gauge a story's effectiveness.

* Is the story gratifying to write and to read?
* Does it make sense?
* Does the setting support the action and characters?
* Are the characters interesting, believable people worth spending time with? Do they grow, strive, and/or discover things in the story?
* Do important events happen? Does the plot have some good twists so the action isn't too obvious?
* Is the story "about" something? What does the writer have to say about the theme beyond here-it-is?
* Is there anything fresh and surprising in the story?
* Does the language enhance the story and not distract from it?
* Does the story stick in the reader's mind long-term? Does it make the reader think about things?

If the writing advice you receive is not aimed in those directions, then it is probably bad advice. You don't necessarily have to hit all of those in every story, but the more you do, the more compelling your tale is likely to be.

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Comments
clarionj From: clarionj Date: June 29th, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think I'll print out those questions. As much as we think some of these ideas are ingrained in us, I do think we forget when we're writing and even revising, because we're close to a work and might know what's going on underneath that we didn't quite raise to the surface for readers. Questions help me see what I've written more objectively, I think.

Regarding plot and important events, I think people do have to be careful about judging that. Sometimes nothing happens in outward events and the plot is static, but there is still movement, and often great tension. Interior action, I guess. Most writers would recognize that as plot or events, but I occasionally hear people say, "Nothing happened," in a story in which I'd been sitting on the edge of my seat, lol.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: June 29th, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
In studio, a discussion of one of my stories included this:

-Nothing happens.

-But it happens so well!

:)
clarionj From: clarionj Date: June 29th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hahaha, that's wonderful :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>> I think I'll print out those questions. <<

I'm glad to hear that.

>> As much as we think some of these ideas are ingrained in us, I do think we forget when we're writing and even revising, because we're close to a work and might know what's going on underneath that we didn't quite raise to the surface for readers. <<

I have a very intuitive, free-flowing way of writing. That means that sometimes I miss things that should be included, carry over too much authorial knowledge that gets in the way of this particular story, or get scenes out of sequence. When I do the first read-through to revise before handing the story to my first-reader(s), I often notice those missing bits, and it's usually because I'm running a checklist in my head: Character traits used in solutions? Plot twists present? etc. Then my partner Doug usually catches the excess stuff that needs to be deleted, the places where scenes are out of order, and the "Huh?" points where there is a reason for what I wrote but it's not sufficiently clear to the reader.

>>Regarding plot and important events, I think people do have to be careful about judging that. Sometimes nothing happens in outward events and the plot is static, but there is still movement, and often great tension. Interior action, I guess.<<

The universal rule of storytelling, for which other rules are simply instructions for reaching that destination, is this: The storyteller must provide the audience with a satisfying payoff for the time they invest in the story. Any method of achieving that result is acceptable, as long as it works.

So then, a story can be carried by any of its main elements: plot, setting, characterization, or occasionally theme. If you activate all those and the subsidiary elements and develop them well, you'll probably have a stronger story; but it isn't required. Different people like different types of story in this regard.

Furthermore, there are different types of plot arcs. The shape can be somewhat different, and the focus may be internal or external or emphasize different types of activity. But ultimately, the plot's job is that of a roller-coaster track: to give you a good ride. Most roller-coasters use human psychology, so they tend to build to a climax just like a plot does. But there are ones that just put you through screw turns or hairpins or other crazy stuff.

I've seen one writer, Christie Golden, successfully double-tap the beginning of one story, the end of another, and use hairpins in places that left me clinging to the story by my toenails. You pick up one of her books, the first thing you do is buckle in and hold onto the grab bar for dear life -- because you have no idea what's going to happen, except that it will be a wild ride and absolutely worth while. I've seen another writer, David Weber, tell a double-peak story that had to be split across two books, and a lot of fans were pissed about the "cliffhanger" ... which wasn't a cliff at all, but the necessary valley between the two peaks. So it's possible to build a plot that behaves quite differently than usual, but you have to be very careful with it because readers expect a fairly consistent plot pattern since that's what most (Western) stories use. You have to make sure the payoff is there, and that when people look back at the plot they can understand the shape of it.
jenny_evergreen From: jenny_evergreen Date: June 29th, 2010 01:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
These are awesome. Thank you for sharing them!
browngirl From: browngirl Date: June 29th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well and sensibly said! *makes a note*
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yay!

I'm glad that folks are finding this useful.
tetar From: tetar Date: June 29th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

Questions

Ms. Barrette,

You've demonstrated the value of questions over answers, and guidance over rules. Brava. One can but agree that good writing addresses the considerations you raise.

--Gene Stewart / genestewart.com

genetstewart.blogspot.com
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 06:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Questions

Thank you! I'm glad you found this helpful.

Your Blogspot blog is quite interesting, too.
xjenavivex From: xjenavivex Date: June 29th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
You often give me or point to tools that help improve my craft. Thank you.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

*bow, flourish*

Happy to be of service! This set of generic fiction questions comes out of my background teaching and editing.

A lot of the grading rubrics are just ... bad. They're biased or incomplete or downright sloppy. But it's not really all that difficult to build a good one; there are plenty of good ones out there. Some of them will provide a scale and give examples of what each level of skill delivers in that area. A really good rubric will let even a novice first-reader in a writing class or group read a story with an eye to providing feedback, then check off the parameters on the sheet and add any comments that weren't covered in those sections. It makes the process much easier. That is, if you're actually reading the whole story. If you don't plan to read the whole story, then it's more work because you have to do that in order to fill out the form. I've gotten into fights over that with people who had ought to of known better.

Much of what I do involves some combination of two things: 1) stacking up a mass of data and distilling its core concepts, and/or 2) taking a very close look at things to see exactly how they work, and explaining that.
brianblackberry From: brianblackberry Date: June 29th, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm, I am writing these down and going through them one by one to see where my stuff may be deficient. Hopefully they will help me improve (which I certainly need).
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yay!

I'm happy to hear that. I post fairly often about writing/editing here; you could click those tags in the sidebar for more such material. There are also links to other writers' thoughts on similar topics.
reileen From: reileen Date: June 29th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for this; I'll be printing it out and sticking it on a wall nearby to remind myself. :D I've been working mostly on improving the way I put things together (I am really, really bad with plotting), but this'll help me put that small stuff into perspective.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well...

If you do some digging, you can turn up sample plot arcs, subplot threads, plot motifs and devices, etc. I particularly like the book The Fiction Writer's Silent Partner. Online, consider resources such as:
http://www.books4results.com/samples/SevenStoryPlotPatterns/SevenStoryPlotPatterns.pdf
http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/plots.htm
http://www.archetypewriting.com/muse/generators/plot.htm
http://www.maddogproductions.com/plotomatic.htm
http://www.gkbledsoe.com/articles/process/writing_prompt_generator.html
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePage

A serious step up is the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy which examines major works and tropes.

Now if you are hardcore, I must also recommend the Stith Thompson or Aarne-Thompson Folklore Motif index, which if you are lucky will be in the reference section of your library:
http://www.folklore.bc.ca/Motifindex.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aarne-Thompson_classification_system
AaTh gives about 2500 basic plots. This is arid scholarship ... making it juicy and delicious is the author's job.
reileen From: reileen Date: June 29th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

Oh, thanks so much for this list! I guess I should've thought about searching online, but I didn't think it'd be worth it to go through all the chaff when I own a number of books on writing.

(oh my gods, TVTropes. I was actually on there recently because I was trying to look for other works that did what I was currently doing in a story, and amazingly enough they don't seem to have a specific trope page for "hypnotic/brainwashing drug"! They have one for a brainwashing device and telepathic mind control and other stuff, but...)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

>>Oh, thanks so much for this list! I guess I should've thought about searching online, but I didn't think it'd be worth it to go through all the chaff when I own a number of books on writing.<<

Glad I could help! It took me a few minutes to refine the search to find what I wanted, but I knew it had to be out there.

It's not so much whether one has books on writing, as the right book for the current dilemma.

>> and amazingly enough they don't seem to have a specific trope page for "hypnotic/brainwashing drug"! <<

Huh ... you should suggest that to them. It's a recognizable trope.
reileen From: reileen Date: June 29th, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

It's not so much whether one has books on writing, as the right book for the current dilemma.

Hmm, that's true.

Huh ... you should suggest that to them. It's a recognizable trope.

Yeah, I was surprised. I thought maybe I wasn't looking harder enough, but I couldn't find the page under the "Mind Control" tropes page or the "Drugs" page. I thought it'd be a subset of "Mind Control Devices" but it wasn't there either. So instead I'm simply re-reading my original inspiration for the idea (the main storyline of the manga Gunsmith Cats) and trying to figure out what I can use and what I need to change. I'll probably poke around on the general mind control pages again and see if anyone added drug-related ones in there.
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