Lucky you! By chance, I pulled two blog spots this week!
Yesterday I talked about paring down your words to the bone – which is a message, when boiled down, is simply put as- “get to the point.”
Sometimes it’s tough to do that. It can be difficult to know what’s important to you and what’s important to your story.
Like many other writers, I received a boatload of writing books this holiday season (what do you get a writer? A book on writing of course!) I’m in the midst of reading Structuring Your Novel – Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by K.M. Weiland and I came across this bit of brilliance:
“A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not “World War II began”! It’s “Hitler. Invaded. Poland.””
Character. Action. Setting. That’s what’s important to a story and that’s what you need to work on. Forget about background story (unless you can make it full of Character. Action. and Setting. *WHILE* advancing the plot.) Forget about moral conundrums or even introducing absolutely everyone at the party. Sometimes Doorman #2 is simply Doorman #2. Move on to what’s important.
As a technical writer, I was taught to avoid action unless it was a command – “Hit DELETE and exit the program.” As a memoir writer, I often struggle with action. I can clearly see what is going on in my scene – shouldn’t it be obvious to the reader? I tend to be more of a cerebral thinker, focusing on my thoughts as opposed to what is going on and where.
In short, my actions and settings sometimes suck.
But pick up any (good) book and just read for a few minutes, you’ll start to see how important all of these ingredients are as they work together to form the story. Consider this example from The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout:
“Come daylight Vester got up and dressed and went to the stable to feed the stock and saddle his horse. Line got u pad dressed and started a fire in the stove and went to the outhouse. On return she emptied the buckets and waked the girls and standing in mud made corn dodgers. All she has left was fornmean. Which she mixed with water until it was too thick to run, then fried. She made extra, enough for herself and the girls later. Vester came in and she used the last of her sorghum molasses on his dodgers and the last of her coffee, which was rye parched brown, for two cups for him. He guaranteed again he’d be home by dark. Loup was sixteen miles north and east of their claim. He tried to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned her face away from him.”
This passage has it all, Character. Action. Setting. But, and here’s what makes excellent writing stand out, the author has presented each aspect in a way that moves the plot forward.
The character in scene is a frontier woman who is going mad. By using so many “ands” in the description we are forced to endure this woman’s never ending monotony. We see how she sacrifices herself for her children and husband, my God, she even gives this man the last of her coffee. She must really love him, but yet she turns her face from him. Clearly something is not right.
In that short passage by fully exposing and emphasizing the character, action, and setting (can’t you just see that pathetic coffee) we get a real feel for what’s going on. The descriptions all add to the continuation of the story line.
So here’s what you (and I) need to do.
Get an index card and on it write “Character. Action. Setting” and then put it on your desk where you can see it.
Next take a passage you’ve already written and see where it might be lacking in these 3 areas. Either revise it or write a new one and then take a step back and compare it to the first.
I’m willing to bet that you’ll see an improvement.
Looking forward to hearing about your experiences.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.