A few weeks ago, my friend (and fellow Ferret) Lissa came across a free creative writing conference being held by Tulsa Community College and the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers at OSU-Tulsa.
Rebekah, Lissa, and I all managed to fit it into our schedule and attended Thursday afternoon. We split up, because there were four sessions being run concurrently after the keynote speech (which was hilarious and excellent): Novel, Short Fiction, Poetry, and Memoir.
Rebekah stuck around in the large, open room after the keynote for the Novel session, Lissa headed down the hall to a classroom for the Poetry session – and I traipsed across the street, into the depths of another building, and up six floors to a conference room for the Short Fiction session.
It was wonderful, with two instructors – Josh Parish and Sloan Davis, who worked really well off of each other and led a very interesting, interactive sort of ‘lecture’.
In fact, in the Short Fiction session, we covered plot arcs, including timing and the hows and whys of tension, release, climax, etc., character and building characters – and how to build characters quickly, what is most important/catches the reader quickest – setting, dialogue, emotion, and above all, how everything has to work together to make a story work.
There was lots that worked for all kinds of fiction mediums, and some specific discussion on how to make other forms work as well, but I’ll keep these notes to the short fiction specific thoughts.
I was left with pages of notes, a handful of hand-outs, a list of new books to read (a couple just for story, and more for theory of writing), some new quotes on writing, and a new exercise I think I will be doing more often, because I loved it and it was very interesting.
We were given a handout with a little diagram of one example of a plot-arc – the precise quote was that this was ‘one possible hanger upon which to hang the clothes of a story’, which makes me giggle but also makes a lot of sense.
The particular version we talked about is one often used in television dramas, too, so there was some discussion of examples – ranging from A Christmas Carol to Law & Order and House.
Starting from a solid ground point, and is very quickly knocked from this pedestal – very quickly, particularly in short fiction – by an initial conflict which begins the plot arc and tension rises. Usually spacing out three complications, with light releases of tension interspersed.
The release of tension, of course, is often not a success or a triumph on the part of the protagonist, and, in fact, can be after a failure. Simply a moment to let your reader breathe and take in the newest complications in the plot, before diving in to the next rise of tension.
Getting to Know a Character
Short fiction gives you so very little time that you have to introduce a character, get them out there, and offer your reader a connection to them quickly.
Both Josh and Sloan agreed that in the first two pages of a short story, there are two pieces of information about a character that they must have been given: name and (approximate) age. These give the barest basics of what kind of character we’re getting to know in a story.
So how do we get to know a character in general?
Response/reaction – to a crisis or conflict, what choices do they make?
Intent/world-view – best shown through inner dialogue, how do they think?
Dialogue – word-choices, phrasing, how do they speak, what do they say?
Physicality – describe only what is immediately necessary to the plot/character
The protagonist/story-teller must be an active character, a passive voice as our story-teller is boring and shows us nothing. The character must make choices, and difficult choices, that is what makes the story live for a reader.
The way the character looks at their world tells us about not only the world but also the character, their outlook and their personality.
Dialogue must always accomplish at least two purposes, particularly in a short story. It must say what the character is trying to say, and also tell us something abut the plot, the character, the story, the mystery. Chit-chat happens in real life, not in fiction.
Describing the character, you must give the reader something to build them with, but also, with little space, you need to make everything you add tell us something else about them. Don’t tell us the character is slightly scruffy/unshaven – unless, perhaps it is because he was out late the night before and is slightly hungover, didn’t bother to shave this morning, so he’s scruffy and groggy.
Describe the character by using the space around them, utilise everything that you put into your setting, let it have a meaning to the character, or the plot, or even some symbolism that your readers can pick up on. There’s no room for messing around or extraneous details in a short story.
Readers want to figure out and build the character from what you are showing them in a story, let them, don’t put every bit of character development and design you have into a short story. Readers are curious, allow them to indulge this curiosity.
There are two kinds of writing to work with, as far as your readers are concerned: Curiosity and Suspense. Not suspense strictly, or only, as in a mystery or horror story, but in the larger sense.
Curiosity, for your reader, means that they are wondering where the plot is going, and what the characters are doing. Suspense means that your reader is wondering after the plot right along with the characters, who are also in the dark.
Building Story with Setting
The setting of your story influences how the character, the plot, and the world build themselves and interact in your readers’ minds.
Everything that goes into the story needs to interact and work smoothly (if ever there is a conflict there needs to be a reason, and you need to know what that reason is) from the time period to the locale, the weather, the time of day, and particularly, the tone of the narration we are viewing the world through.
You can think of a story as a painting – the characters are the foreground, while the setting is the background. The background can change the context of the foreground.
Just as with dialogue, the way that the narrator ‘speaks’ to the reader – even if there is no first-person narration – defines even more than it says straightforwardly. And it can say a lot.
Not only what is said, but the choices of words, the emphasis placed on some words by sentence structure, and repetition or repetition of cousin-words, the metaphors used, the length of sentences and paragraphs, all contribute to the way that each scene is created and the way that they mesh together.
The inner dialogue of a character, or in the third-person-specific POV, the way that they are showing us their world – because we only see it through their eyes, we have no perspective other than what they give us and what we can perhaps infer – reflect not only scene and world, but change with the mood of the character. They can reveal a character’s background or problems, and alter from day to day, with their moods.
Settings hold emotions, for the writer, for the character, for the reader. The same room can hold different meanings in different moods, times of day, or, of course, to different characters.
A room can be inviting and warm, comforting, or it can be uncomfortable and grim, entrapping the character.
While setting can be, and often is, very symbolic, for the current stage of the plot and for the character, it is also very often very overdone. If the weather always matches your character’s mood, if rooms are always tailored to be exquisitely uncomfortable for bad things, and incredibly welcoming for the good, then the perfection may have the opposite effect and disturb your readers’ rapport with and belief in the character.
An Exercise in Character and Setting
This was the last thing we did in the session before breaking up (traipsing down six flights of stairs, because the elevators were being slow) and heading back for a bit of poetry reading and the closing of the mini-conference.
I loved this exercise, and already have plans to play with it a little on my own, because not only was it fun, I think it could be very useful both for pure practise and to work on expanding the way I think and the angles I give myself when writing.
I’ll give the steps of the exercise and also what I wrote (and volunteered to read out, with the warning that I write a lot of supernatural fiction, and wound up with a werewolf, after the completion of the exercise) in the way that it was presented to me.
Part 1: Think of a character. Create one. Any character, right now.
Part 2: They pulled up a random image of a lake. (If you Google Image-search ‘lake’ it is currently the top result. Great Gorge Lake, taken by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.) Any random scene/setting will do for this.
Part 3: Describe this setting from the perspective of your random character, in five sentences or less.
My own example from the session:
The way the trees edged up, looming so close on the water, made Aaron think of long trails with his pack.
The choppy, dark water made him wish for one of those hunts. The sky might be clear, the day warm and breezy, but however pleasant the water, it unsettled Aaron.
He knew, theoretically, that fishing was akin to hunting in a way, but it was not a way close enough to soothe his instincts.
Part 4: Now, something you didn’t know while writing the above descriptions. Your character has just pulled up to the lake in their car. In the trunk is the body of their lover, that they have just killed.
Part 5: Describe this setting again, in five sentences or less, without mentioning the body in the trunk. How the character feels about what they’ve done is up to you, you’re just showing how they would describe the same scene knowing that.
My own example from the session was written while there was a lot of discussion going on, but here it is:
Aaron frowned out at the looming trees over the edge of the lake. The bright, clear day and the breeze whipping the water briskly did not clear his mind.
The water was dark, so dark that it hid both the depth of the lake and whatever might be beneath that rough surface.
Isn’t it a fun exercise? (I may be very taken with it. Excuse my enthusiasm, please.)
Of course, I am a naturally descriptive writer – it is one of my strengths, not only in working description into stories, but tailoring it to characters and their moods. I love to play with it, and I’ve always done it, in a way, without thinking, though I have definitely refined it very much over the years.
I was told I did well (and a couple of the other people attending the session asked how I wrote it up so fast – I write for a lot of little challenges, so I think I it was a little easier for me to make myself just go with it than it could have been) and there was a bit of further discussion of the examples all of us volunteers read out before we broke up the session and headed back.
I plan to make up a list of things – including some suggestions that Josh and Sloan gave us – to choose from randomly, and occasionally do an image-search or something, and play with this exercise again.
Their suggestions for things to reimagine the scene with were: the body of the character’s lover, whom the character killed; a bag of stolen money in the trunk; the character’s grandmother’s wedding ring in their pocket.
I’ll add to those as I think of things, and keep a list in the program I use to choose from random things for me.
That’s the end of what I have to share from the wonderful mini-conference, which I hope TCC and OSU-Tulsa hold again! If they do, I will definitely be attending.