Free writing tips

Lesson 14: Developing a story from factual material.

(c) James George, 28th, April, 2012

A question often asked of writers is: 

Where do you get your ideas from?

I’ve found this question to be much more interesting to non-writers than to writers. Many writers don’t really know, or we don’t actually get our ideas from anywhere outside of the writing experience and its moment by moment discovery. Writing story creates more story etc...

As a development on from what we covered in lesson 13 – below – where we applied a creative writing approach to non-fiction material, in this tutorial we’re going to look at using factual material as a basis for a piece of creative writing. When the piece is developed you may wish to fictionalize events. Much of what we read and perceive as non-fiction contains approximations and/or imaginings of events and conversations anyway, because the writer wasn’t there, or was there but memory has begun to fade. This is a legitimate approach, as without it a non-fiction writer would be able to only write those scenes they know/remember 

When thinking of adapting factual material or developing a story from it there are some key components to this task. 
·         Base material you can grasp (a when, a where, a what, a who)
·         Enough facts to give your story (to be developed) a solid grounding (enough ‘whats’ to give you authenticity
·         Potential in the details for exploration of the unknown and speculative (the why)
·         A strong sensory image to spark your attention (and the reader’s)
·         The ability of part or all of the story developed from the base material to resonate
·         A layer of universality contained within the individual experience of the characters in the specifics of the material

There’s an old writing adage that says:

Write what you know

I don’t think this is meant to be taken in some absolutely literal sense, as you’d then always be confined by the boundaries of what you know/don’t know. If we apply it to the process of developing a piece of creative writing from factual material though it applies, and gives a base for you to explore some related but counter principles.

Write what you don’t understand – come to understand it through writing
Write what disturbs you – what bothers you
Write what you don’t know

This takes you into the territory of meaningful story, as one of the roles of story in our lives is to be a process of finding out, of coming to understand.  
When building story from source information we could lay out the process something like this:

Key elements:
      * Identify your sources
·         * Research, gather information
·         * Expand your approach, calling on various kinds of texts (written, photographic, musical, video etc)
·         * Come up with a starting point
·         * Come up with a perspective (point of view) and discover a voice in your initial writing work
·         * Free yourself to take the story beyond being  reportage, move away from historical and informational base and into story – via character exploration
·         * Avoid being chained to fact (because that’s what really happened)
·         * Look for fresh angles and ways of telling the story (if any elements of it are familiar or very widely known). * This particularly applies if you’re choosing an event of world or national stature which has been well documented
·         * Avoid research-itis. Do enough research to start, but don’t get bogged down in it
      And lastly – give yourself permission to write the story in the first place and paying the story and its characters respect. If you’re unsure you can do this, reconsider whether this is the story for you

Let’s look at a few of these elements:

Identifying sources.

Your sources can be:
      * TV or newspaper/online news items
·         * Snatches of story heard in conversation
·         * Personal experience
·         * An image
·         * A theme
·         * An idea
·         * A flipside of an existing story
·         * A historical character
·         * A historical event
·         * Two pieces of unrelated information or biography or plot/story crashed together
·         * Documentary turned into fictionalised fact, or fiction
·         * Using pre-existing characters and developing story to suit (fan fiction)
When identifying sources I recommend you make a few checks of your base material:
*    * If you can, pick something that hasn’t been already fictionalized
·         * Before beginning writing gather only enough information to enable and empower you to start – you can keep researching while you’re writing
·         * Look for the unusual – either an unusual story – or an unusual angle into a story
·         * Build a sense of character as early as possible – that’s the best way to find resonance – the personal

Information gathering and research.

This is the trickiest part, and results in a lot of projects being thoroughly researched – but not actually written. Context research is probably the most important. Time, place, specific field of enquiry (e.g. a medical background) where the details you use have to be authentic. When researching, look for facts that not only give you authenticity but set up story, give you a view into a world. Keep an eye out for the unusual.

Using other texts

This is also a tricky part of the process, as often other texts carry their own voices. Fictional works are often not the most helpful texts to work from as they come with their own voice. Often non-fiction or non-written texts (other media) to be the most helpful. Photographs and books of photographs are fruitful sources. They present images that give setting and context, but you supply your own voice to them. 

Giving yourself permission

I’m not talking about a legal issue here, though that may be something you confront – depending on your source -  but more of an internal issue. Giving yourself permission to intrude into the lives of characters – even if you change the context/characters/plot elements. This is an important point, as a writer needs to feel free to create a world within a world.

Wally Lamb’s novel The Hour I First Believed takes the Columbine High School massacre as its central incident. This event is seared into the collective American consciousness. He places an entirely fictional character into the very real moment of trauma.

Starting point

Start where you’re first engaged. That could be a point where you can engage with the story behind the story, or a simple insertion point in time. In the London bombing story this could be the mornings of the bombings, or the instant of the bombing. You may need to feel the ramifications of the central event to grapple with it’s meaning to different characters. This has no automatic relation to where the final text will begin. The bombing story would lend itself to several different narrative styles: helical, parallel, flashback.

General story creation principle says begin just before a moment of change in the life of the main character.

The just before is critical. You need to show a before or the reader won’t necessarily know that the moment of change is change. But don’t take forever to set it up.


Think of development (in terms of time) both as going forward and as going back into a point into the past and going forward from there (up to the present). So both backstory and forward story. This is a common cinematic technique.

Taking reportage away from event and into story – via character exploration

This is often the key facet. If people want just news they can read a newspaper. Storytelling is (as much as anything) about making connections. Find resonance in one character’s story, that will resonate with others. Find elements that mirror your own emotional and psychological battles. Why does it matter to you? Why does it intrigue you?

Apply the adage that: What is most personal is also most universal.

We don’t invent: love, loss, guilt, regret, rejection, need for redemption. These are universal elements of the human makeup that we create fictional situations and stories to explore.

Not being chained to fact

When the original source material is fading to the point you no longer see it as a template, but just as a spark, then you’re writing your own story. One of the pitfalls I often see for writers basing their story on a large amount of historical fact and plot (and not just an origination point to get them going) is that they will forego unusual and interesting story development because that’s not how it happened.

You need to get to a point where you have no loyalty to how it happened, because the story has now become about meaning and resonance, not factuality.

Avoiding cliché

There aren’t really clichéd ideas, just clichéd ways of exploring ideas and telling story.

Avoiding research-itis

Draw a line in the sand, where your own research is over. Sometimes dalliance comes dressed as research. Sometimes genuine research becomes your prime passion – more so than the story and its development.

Taking the storytelling control for yourself and away from the source material – so you can drive it

It’s your story now. This touches on the issue of giving yourself permission. That’s why it’s crucial to do so, because you have to live with the consequences of taking control of your version of the story, with confidence, with care, with empathy.

Paying respect

You are a storyteller. Stories need to be told. When the movie Out of the Blue (based on the Aramoana massacre of 1990) was being financed and cast, the locals of Aramoana objected, saying it was still too raw, it was too soon, they wanted the story to stand as reported, the consequences of the event were too personal. This is a difficult issue, and more difficult depending on your chosen source and context.
The objections are very human, and valid, and can’t be argued against. That argument is not the storyteller’s role. However, the consequences of any event are personal. What can we dramatize, and why, and how?

As an example, in the 2005 London bombings there was a strange and tragic case within the wider tragedy of the moment and its aftermath. 

This sad story has several elements that would lend itself to an adaptation, or as a thinking tool to come up with a similar narrative (which would be more of an adaptation than a development).
*   * A haunting central character, full of puzzles and enigmas
·         * A major story to tie it to
·         * A quickly identifiable plot
·         * Potential for building story both before the central incident (backstory) and after
·         * Real human insight and resonance
·         * Physical, emotional and psychological dimensions
* A treatment of this story would require delicacy and respect.

Whether you choose a small moment that intrigues you and develop your piece out of that, or take a large event, writ large on public consciousness and use that to background your piece, there are many factors to consider when going into development. So pay the factual events or sources due respect, and remember you are a storyteller, you tell story so that we can all share in experience and perhaps come to understand.

Lesson 13: How to use Creative Writing techniques in Non-Fiction
17 January, 2012. Posted by James George, 2012 ©
Commonalities between effective fiction and non-fiction.

Effective fiction storytelling should read as if the events could happen, as if the characters (irrespective of specific context) could be people you know, or treat as if you do. If your characters include snakes and other exotica, then their ‘human’ qualities, (for want of a better term,) should be recognizable. It speaks to the classic adage from Ernest Hemingway.

            That which is most personal, is also that which is most universal.

If we can empathize with a character through the issues they confront (or are unable to), or are at least able to understand their drivers within their context, even if we don’t agree with their choices or wouldn’t count them among our friends, then the character has found resonance within us. When Hemingway used this adage he was alluding to bone deep thematic elements that underpin strong storytelling. Love, loss, the search for identity, the need to find and keep family, the search for redemption. These are fundamental principles outside of storytelling, but which find recurring resonance within storytelling. We can get our heads and hearts into what we recognize as part of the universal human condition. Things we can relate to. That’s why we’ll never run out of stories of redemption, or love stories, or family sagas. Because the elements that underpin such stories are part of our psychological and emotional DNA.  

These elements and fundamental themes apply equally to storytelling in fiction and non-fiction. That’s why books such as the following found large audiences.
  •             The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (Fiction)
  •             To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Fiction, but based largely  on factual events and real characters)
  •            Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt (Non-fiction, autobiography, but written with creative writing ‘instincts’ and some fictionalized passages (e.g. dialogue scenes etc adapted from distant memory. )

All three of the books above have succeeded both critically and commercially. The fundamentals of all those stories are similar, and universal. They contain elements such as:
  • Individuals and cultures battling against prejudice
  • The journey from ignorance to understanding
  •  The consequences of selfish, destructive and corrupt actions (what were once known as ‘morality tales.’
  •  How families try to survive through adversity
  •  How characters fight to retain hope even in trying and sometimes tragic circumstances.
In the next two months and ongoing throughout the year in various venues, The Story Bridge will be teaching regular creative writing and Indie Publishing (self-publishing) workshops. Legacy Writing is an opportune meeting place for all the fundamental principles of storytelling, which seep into and underpin both fiction and non-fiction. It is based in non-fiction, but can include segues into fictional creative work (short stories, invented anecdotes, poetry, graphic artwork.) It can be seen as not just a log or chronology of a person’s (or family’s or other group’s) life and times but as an outlet for all their creative expression. 

We’ll be including all the skills a text creator needs, including elements such as:

  • Vernacular voice (telling a story in your own words, with all its vitality, grammatical idiosyncrasies, exotic monologue and dialogue, voice inflections, accents and colloquial axioms.
  • Point of View (POV.) Not all monologues are told in the obvious (and most common) POV of First Person. You can use third person, to get a small firebreak of objectivity between your narrative voice and perspective and the actual events. You could use Second Person, to intensify the immediacy and intimacy. 
  • Characterisation – treating yourself as a character, looking to not just bring out a chronicle of events (though that’s a good starting point) but a sense of your own essence, and that of the times you’re writing about. Taking the reader into your world.
  • Narrative Structure – you might arrange it as a strict chronological narrative (earliest through to latest) or play with time with flashbacks and flash forwards.
  • Dialogue – capturing the nuance and cadence of the spoken voices of the characters in your Legacy story. You, your friends, family. The key thing here is to capture them as you remember, in their real voices, unadorned, honest and sometimes raw.

In upcoming tutorials I’ll look at characterisation, structure and dialogue, but in this installment I want to focus on the first two elements:
  • Voice
  •  Point of View

Voice and Point of View (POV) are intertwined, symbiotic, but not actually the same thing. It is nigh impossible though, to talk about one without touching on the other.

POV is a perspective, a level of (apparent) subjectivity, an angle, a process of seeing and often of justifying.

Voice is the sound, feel, mood, tone in which that perspective is brought out, passage by passage, sentence by sentence.

A couple of carefully chosen words can signify or change the piece’s voice, while remaining in the same POV.
It might help to think of a musician or musical group. The POV is often reflected in (and/or generated by) the particular angle the musician comes from (folk, country, blues etc) which leads to commonalities in themes, fixations, narrative storylines.

If you listen to a whole CD from that musician they might do one track in a major key, the next in a minor key or a combination of major/minor. They might do slow and dreamy, or fast and choppy or staccato. Those are changes in voice.

It has been said about novel writing that an author needs to decide on their POV first, to even get the novel going. This is because any story needs a narrator, or a narrating presence, and needs to establish the relationship between the narrator and the events. In first person the narrator can be:
  1. The protagonist (main viewpoint character) for all of the major story events, or
  2. A witness to the events.
It can be someone whom the events have a major effect on, or an objective observer. In a legacy story the most likely narrator is the central character (the author and/or the author’s stand-in.)

As an example, in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes it is the aging McCourt who writes the book, though the voice is deliberately delivered in present tense, and sketchy, with moments of description jumbled atop of each other. He is writing in a permanent ‘now,’ which is the timeframe the story’s events are happening in, not from a position of reflection looking back from a distance. He summons up the jumble of images and breathless stream-of-consciousness that a young boy thinks and speaks in. This gives intimacy and immediacy. Here is an example from the first couple of pages. 
I wish I could fly up into the clouds. Then I wouldn’t
hear my two brothers, Eugene and Oliver, crying in the
night. My mother says they’re always hungry. She cries in
the night, too. She says four boys is too much for her and
she’d like one little girl all for herself.
Dad is out looking for a job again. Sometimes when he
comes home, he smells of whisky. He sings songs about
poor old Ireland. Mam gets angry and says Ireland can
kiss her arse. He says that’s nice language to use in front
of the children. She says she doesn’t care about the
language, she wants food on the table and not poor old

There is no promise made or implied there that this narrator is going to be objective and an assumption therefore made that they are able to get an understanding of the events, beyond what the character would have had ‘in the moment.’ This is crucial. By ‘capturing’ his narrator in the specific time of the events, he is looking to draw the reader into the specific context, he is looking to draw the reader in there too, thereby cutting off reader objectivity. I would guess that is a deliberate decision by an author who knows how to tell a story. By using present tense and the free and fluid speech of the character (the young Frank McCourt) the author traps the reader in the time, place, voice and worldview of the central characters. Their struggles, their anecdotes, their warmth and kindnesses and cruelties. That immediacy is one of the reasons the book such struck a chord worldwide and garnered a vast audience, because it drew the reader in.

Many people use this present time narrative and chain of quickfire images and dialogue snatches when telling an anecdote as an oral story. It gets attention and focuses the receiver in the moment. You can use past tense as well, if you’re clever and still achieve close to the same effect. We all know someone like this in our circle of family or friends. They are often spoken of as a ‘natural storyteller.’

Another way to write a non-fiction memory is to take a more objective stance, in both POV and voice. You can use either first person or third person to do this. Let’s set up a little piece of narrative and make some adjustments with the POV and Voice. Note how the elements in the story remain the same though the angle through which they’re explored and the emphasis placed on the individual elements within the whole, change.

Third Person – objective voice

Mike grew up in a typical small New Zealand town in the 1950’s. It was a town built around a single industrial plant – the local pulp and paper mill. He had two younger brothers, the twin boys Josh and Tom. His father worked at the mill, and his mother worked part-time as a housekeeper for the town’s doctor, an English immigrant named Dr Stevens. Mike went to Ridge Road primary school, which had a rapidly expanding role of 400, expanding because of the new migrants to the town the saw mill attracted. The most vivid memory Mike has of his childhood is the death by drowning of one of co-pupils at his school, when Mike was seven-years-old.   

That’s objective to the point of being documentary. It reads like an encyclopedia entry. It gets the information across but there is a distancing effect. Distance is handy in the right context, say if you want to remain an uninvolved observer for reasons of fairness. But for tight family scenes you may want to immerse the reader in the world of the text and where it comes from.  

You could explore that material in a third person subjective voice.

It’s the permanent smell of sawdust Mike remembers. It got in all the rooms, even after the windows had been shut and latched. It got in the washing taken in from the clothes line, tinged the tin foil his sandwiches were wrapped in. It even muscled in amid the fizz of the bottle of Coke Mike bought with the extra pocket money his Dad slipped him when his mother wasn’t watching. He’d take the empty bottle back to the store and spend the change on lollies, trying to get through them all, before the number 7 bus arrived and he saw her walking up the street. Her tread slow and heavy from sweeping and dusting and washing for Dr Stevens and her family. Those pale, pasty-faced kids who spoke in posh accents and who’s father didn’t go to work in stained overalls.
He went to work in a new Rover.  
The stink of sawdust even drifted across the water that day the police from Belltown waded into the river in wetsuits. Sawdust, the acid they used to treat the timber, the smoke from the mill’s chimneys. The youngest Tramwell boy had gone missing. Keith was his name. The one whose cheeks bulged with gobstopper, the day after his Dad got paid. His bicycle stood forlorn by the riverside. The dust and stink got on everyone’s coats as they stood in the rain, watching the men in wetsuits pop their heads up out of the river and signal. Mike’s mother gripped his shoulder. He heard her say something, too faint to pick the words. The men carried the small figure wrapped in black tarpaulin, a couple of inches above the water. As the ambulance began to back down the launching ramp, Mike’s mother turned his face away, into the folds of her coat.

You could also go through it in first person. If you do this exercise as a thinking exercise, look for each POV and voice to help you find different angles into the heart of the story. That’s the key, use your writing tools to find what’s beneath the words.

            ‘Don’t you boys even go into that river,’ Mum said, as she stirred the pot. ‘You hear me.’
            My twin brothers Josh and Tom looked up from their toy trucks, then away. Tom looked back again, his lips were trembling.
            ‘You hear me?’ she said, her voice rising. Her knuckles were white. Tom began to cry. Josh leaned back on his heals, staring at him, then at Mum. Dad lowered his newspaper.
            ‘They hear you, Tess,’ said Dad. ‘Leave them be, for Pete’s sake.’
            ‘You didn’t see what I saw,’ said Mum.
            Dad nodded.
Mum had been back and forth to the pots for ages, but hadn’t asked me to set the dinner table. My tummy was grumbling. She leaned on the bench, took the scarf from over her hair and dabbed her eyes with it.
            ‘I know,’ said Dad. It’s a tragedy for sure. But you’re scaring the youngsters.’
            ‘That poor Tramwell boy. I had to shield Mikey’s eyes.’
            ‘You took Mikey there? Christ, Tess. What were you thinking?’
            ‘What was I supposed to do, leave him on his own?’
            Dad looked at me, then reached and ruffled my hair.
            ‘I’m okay,’ I said.
            ‘Good man,’ said Dad.
            He reached into his overalls pocket. It said’ Jim’ on the pocket, though the stitching of the ‘m’ was unraveling, and the J had an oil stain on it. He stood and went to Mum and leaned against her. I looked back at the twins. They had gone back to their trucks.
            Keith Tramwell always sat by the window. Room 14. Mrs Hedges.
            Tomorrow there’d be a rush to claim that spot.  
I’ve used a fiction narrative here, to demonstrate. You can apply the same experiment to non-fiction, from your own experience. It’s important to realize that there are many ways to tell a story, and because it’s personal experience doesn’t mean it has to be in standard first person, or that you have to relate the experience chronologically.

Key points in this tutorial:
  • You have a number of different Points of View at your disposal
  •  You can give some thought to the voice, and change the voice depending on context
  •  When you change the POV or the Voice, you’ll often find different angles and insertion points into the narrative
  • You can be ‘you’ as the observing narrator but focus on bringing out the other characters. In that last example passage above I focused on the mother-father relationship, rather than just Mike’s perspective.

Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes brought out the emotional resonance in the whole cast of characters, didn’t just tell his own story, or recount the chronology of his life. In doing so he explored Hemingway’s adage.

That which is most personal is also most universal.

In the next tutorial I’ll explore this topic further and try out Second Person POV, to give a unique level of immediacy. I’ll also talk about using Omniscient POV, which is a way of becoming the master epic storyteller in your own narrative.

A wise writer learns all the various points of view, realizes voice is a fluid, changeable concept, to give a story a mix of colours and extra richness. 

Click on the following link to find out more about: Indie Publishing workshops (How to publish and promote your own book) and creative writing workshops. (Once the page opens up, scroll down to find the information on the creative writing workshops.)

Lesson 12: How to use Transitions to smooth out kinks in your writing. 
22 August 2011. Posted by James George, 2011 (c)

One subject that often creeps up on students in my classes, is the issue of transitions. Getting a good feel for transitions allows the writer to move between different storytelling modes, and take the reader with them. Think of transitions as bridges between two different modes or two different elements. Those modes could include:

·         - Shifts between characters in a multi-viewpoint story
·         - Shifts in time (flashbacks, flashforwards)
·         - Changes of physical location
·          - Changes in voice (e.g: from omniscient to third person subjective. )

Getting a handle of the transitions between allow the writer to use differing modes, when otherwise they might be afraid to. An example from a recent mentoring session included a shifts from an opening passage in short story that the writer had written in a wide-scope omniscient POV and voice (which was effective) to a more intimate third person subjective. Both paragraphs worked well, that wasn’t the issue, but the problem with the text as written was the sudden jump between two different storytelling modes (and voices). The reader often feels the effect of that jump, or jerk, but doesn’t know why they’ve suddenly bounced out of the fictive world, and reacted to a technique issue.

Here’s an example of this.

Take a walk along the seafront in any summer twilight, with the light paling, the sun more angled, losing the sharp edges of its touch against the skin. You’ll find hundreds of people out now as they always have here, ever since the first settlers stood on the decks of tall ships, looking at this new land. This new country. This new, southern light. Then they wore breeches and high collar jackets or silk and wool and stood sweltering in the sub-tropical heat, now they’re garbed in t-shirts and Nike Air Jordan’s or jandals. The sound of clipped Victorian English now blended with Kiwi-isms, with the patois of American television, with flavours of Eastern Europe, of Turkey and Palestine and India and Korea. The common thread they all share is that this country might just become home for them, their journey’s end. These beaches their beaches. They park their cars and walk or just sit. Cars that were once carriages and wagons with horses standing to, or farm carts with four children and a dog, its tail wagging. Now they’re at the wheel of Volvo’s or Range Rovers, carriages of shiny steel and wraparound lights.

Josie wakes from her dream, shocked that she’d fallen asleep in her car, parked beside the palms on Tamaki Drive. Shadows of cyclists wheel past, cold on her skin. She winces at the rumbles of truck engines, the chatter of walkers. The radio is still on.

Smile, though your heart is aching,

Smile, even though it’s breaking…

In the dream she’d been walking home down her street, around familiar corners and berms and alleyways, past the diary where she always stopped to talk to Mrs Pavan and buy cat food, then head home. But the grass had gone from the berms in the dream, burnt to dust, and the dairy’s windows had rough-sawn planks nailed where the windows were. The door was boarded too, and cobwebs hung in the corners, jittering in the cold wind.

She reaches and turns the radio off.

The paragraphs above are written firstly in omniscient  and then in third person subjective. The opening paragraph is a placement paragraph, the equivalent of a wide-angle lens shot in cinema, often used as the introductory shot at a movie’s beginning. The part where the character – Josie – wakes is in third person subjective. The identifying features are:
      Omniscient – the viewpoint is not attached to any one character. Pronounces used are: we, they, you (the collective, not singular). It has a wide range of knowledge, dipping into history then bringing the viewpoint up to date. It has the feel of a human voice, but clearly not the voice of the individual character that follows. It’s the voice of the classical narrator, the storyteller.
      Third person subjective – the viewpoint is character driven and singular. It describes what the character feels and is able to access dreams and other aspects of the character’s interiority. It’s up close and personal whereas omniscient is more a sweep across a wide front.

The main issue is that the jump from wide angle to intimate is too sudden, there’s no bridge. It will jar once, and to do this on a regular basis will just cause the narrative (and the reader’s feel for it) to jerk.

What is missing is a transitional paragraph to link the two different modes (perspectives, voices, styles) together and to smoothen the passage between them.  We want to slowly funnel the narrative perspective down from the general to the particular. Since the last part of the omniscient features wagons and how they’ve been replaced by cars, and the character Josie, wakes in a car, we’ll use the car as the transition’s focusing device.  

Something like:

In one such car, not an expensive European model but a decade-and-a-half old Honda  with a rusting exhaust and an engine that rattles on cold mornings, a woman sits. Her eyes are closed, her hands folded in her lap.

Tree shadows shimmer against the windscreen, a butterfly lands and folds its wings.
A dog barks at a thrown ball, but the woman doesn’t move. A horn blares, a child’s bicycle clatters to the asphalt, but she doesn’t move. Except for her fingers, jittering against the worn denim of her jeans.

Her eyelid flickers.

The butterfly opens its wings and flies away.

On the seat next to the woman sits an envelope, torn open. Fragments of a letter are strewn on the upholstery. A couple of pieces, edges ripped, have fallen between the seats. Her car radio begins to play an old song by Nat King Cole. She doesn’t move, except for her fingers, jittering.

The opening part of that continues in the subjective mode of the omniscient – some presence has to know the car has a rusted exhaust and an engine that rattles. We can’t necessarily see that from the outside, since the car is parked. But after that the subjectivity fades, and the perspective is objective. There’s nothing there that a camera set up at the kerbside couldn’t record. That is third person – limited. The cool, objective narrator that just shows. That allows the feel of the deeply subjective ‘we/you’ of the omniscient voice to leave the reader’s consciousness, replaced by a remote narrator. It neutralizes the perspective and the voice. A knowledgeable ‘someone’ is replaced with the feel of a ‘no-one’, clearing the way for the individual character’s voice to emerge in the next passage.

Here’s the whole sequence with the transition included.

Take a walk along the seafront in any summer twilight, with the light paling, the sun more angled, losing the sharp edges of its touch against the skin. You’ll find hundreds of people out now as they always have here, ever since the first settlers stood on the decks of tall ships, looking at this new land. This new country. This new, southern light. Then they wore breeches and high collar jackets or silk and wool and stood sweltering in the sub-tropical heat, now they’re garbed in t-shirts and Nike Air Jordan’s or jandals. The sound of clipped Victorian English now blended with Kiwi-isms, with the patois of American television, with flavours of Eastern Europe, of Turkey and Palestine and India and Korea. The common thread they all share is that this country might just become home for them, their journey’s end. These beaches their beaches. They park their cars and walk or just sit. Cars that were once carriages and wagons with horses standing to, or farm carts with four children and a dog, its tail wagging. Now they’re at the wheel of Volvo’s or Range Rovers, carriages of shiny steel and wraparound lights.

In one such car, not an expensive European model but a decade-and-a-half old Honda  with a rusting exhaust and an engine that rattles on cold mornings, a woman sits. Her eyes are closed, her hands folded in her lap.

Tree shadows shimmer against the windscreen, a butterfly lands and folds its wings.
A dog barks at a thrown ball, but the woman doesn’t move. A horn blares, a child’s bicycle clatters to the asphalt, but she doesn’t move. Except for her fingers, jittering against the worn denim of her jeans.

Her eyelid flickers.

The butterfly opens its wings and flies away.

On the seat next to the woman sits an envelope, torn open. Fragments of a letter are strewn on the upholstery. A couple of pieces, edges ripped, have fallen between the seats. Her car radio begins to play an old song by Nat King Cole. She doesn’t move, except for her fingers, jittering.
Josie wakes from her dream, shocked that she’d fallen asleep in her car, parked beside the palms on Tamaki Drive. Shadows of cyclists wheel past, cold on her skin. She winces at the rumbles of truck engines, the chatter of walkers. The radio is still on.

Smile, though your heart is aching,

Smile, even though it’s breaking…

In the dream she’d been walking home down her street, around familiar corners and berms and alleyways, past the diary where she always stopped to talk to Mrs Pavan and buy cat food, then head home. But the grass had gone from the berms in the dream, burnt to dust, and the dairy’s windows had rough-sawn planks nailed where the windows were. The door was boarded too, and cobwebs hung in the corners, jittering in the cold wind.

She reaches and turns the radio off.

The transitional passage acts as a bridge, allowing the writer to use two different modes (POV, voice, perspective, feel) while moving smoothly from one to the next. If you have two passages that you think actually work, though don’t work together, ie: there’s too much of a jump from one to the next, consider that the solution might be to insert a transitional bridging passage to aid the reader, to iron out the kinks.

Lesson 11: An introduction to Legacy Writing

30 June 2011. Posted by James George, 2011 (c)

Legacy Writing
This is the age of the witness, the age of testimony in which first-hand accounts, personal experience, life change and evolution are valued, for good or ill, over distanced reflection
    Dr Meg Jensen, Kingston University, London

As writers, and more just as people, we’ve always had a need to leave a trail of ourselves for other to follow. Even if we’re not aware of it. We do so in the things we build (houses, sheds, gardens), in the things we leave (Christmas Cake recipes, our journals, travelogues and records of distinct experiences, photographs, heirlooms) and as impressions in the people around us and those we leave behind (friends, children, grandchildren.)

Songs and fiction stories have filled that role for centuries. Traditional myths, folktales, anecdotes and characterizations. And in our books too. One of the finest forms of preservation is photography, which has the added sense of always being in the now. A photograph is in permanent present tense. Photographs not only capture subject and context but voice. They are in and of their time.

Through The Story Bridge this year, we’ll be holding workshops in a concept we call Legacy Writing, where we become our own folklorists and photographers. Us, not just famous people, but all of us. Our stories are logged like the photograph, in the permanent ‘now.’ The field of Life Writing has been around for years, developing out of the class biography and autobiography, but it has always been from a point in our later life, looking back. So we’re reflecting, analyzing, sometimes justifying. Perhaps even seeking forgiveness. But what were our thoughts and motivations in the moment. The diary and journal has always been the format to capture that part of ourselves, and now social media tools (Facebook, Twitter, Blogging) and forms like digital storytelling and electronic scrapbooking allow us to log those moments and make them available to view.

In this installment I’ll talk about the concept and in the next I’ll talk about some of the facets and writing approaches you can take.

Writing personal monologues has always been popular for various reasons and in various forms:

·    Letters
·    Journals
·    Testimonies
·    Memoir
·    Autobiography
·    Life writing
·    Columns
·    Books of personal experience (travel, trauma)
·    Self-deprecation
·    Self-mythologizing or justification
·    Books to fill in the audience’s knowledge of a public figure
·    Exploration of time and place via personal experience 

Most of these forms (except for columns and books released via serialization) are treated as round ups and reflection, often long after the fact. That in itself adds scope and richness, with the looking back and its associated analysis and reforming being part of the appeal. The books themselves are often put together from personal material such as journals made in the immediate aftermath or even during experience (e.g.: The Diary of a Young Girl, in its original diary form by Anne Frank) but the presiding viewpoint has been looking back from a distance. Much of the power in Anne Frank’s diary is because it is a series of moments forever suspended without a future, without an awareness of what is to come and to be. Most of us will never be in circumstances of such turmoil as Anne Frank, and thankfully so. But we all have our own traumas and also our own moments of joy or fear or fractiousness, where those moments passed.
With the electronic media now available we have an opportunity to record ourselves in the now – a permanent now – in the way we’ve always done using photographs. When viewing a photograph from a different time frame we get the now moment removed from its time, so it functions as a time capsule, with all its associated richness. With the electronic media now available we have an opportunity to record ourselves in the now – a permanent now – in the way we’ve always done using photographs. The flared jeans, family gathered around the fondue set lit by the glow of the lava lamp, catching the subtleties of the orange and brown vinyl wallpaper. Masterpieces of style like the Schwarzenegger shoulders on your 1990 power-suit, the clean lines of the 1980’s mullet that puts Billy Ray Cyrus to shame.

One of the most useful tools with the new electronic media is the ability to link, to show viewpoints, creative works, story forms beyond your own, and ideas beyond your own. Large scale media forms like e-books allow this too. This gives us a unique chance to branch out beyond just our thoughts in biographical form and use the full range of our creativity.

·    Digital stories (images with overlaid music and text)
·    Video (self filmed)
·    Audio clips we make ourselves
·    Linked images to audio and video clips
·    Poetry and Prose with images included

In Legacy Writing, written text lies at the heart of it all. The word. The use of point of view, voice, description, narrative style and structure. Written text is the glue. You don’t have to just use your own voice, or a documentary style. You can create characterizations depending on context, as fiction writers do all the time. We’re talking about a repository for all of you, including your storytelling in all its forms. It is a creative record, not just a chronicle. That’s where the writer and creative artist in your can be given room to flourish.

So a new kind of literacy is developing, using so much more than storytelling in just written text. It’s thinking of all modes of story as a piece of the wider mosaic of narrative. However, writing will always be fundamental to the cause of the writer of personal narrative, and wordsmithing ability and understanding of story structure (for maximum effect) will always be valuable currency, perhaps even more so.

I’ve always believed that good fiction should read as if true and effective creative non-fiction follow the storytelling keys of good fiction. A story has its own internal validity, as an artifact, as an effect or journey, irrespective of factual truth. It should be emotionally true, psychologically true – to reference frame, to character, to context.

So what are the writer’s tools that apply to all fields: (Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, True life monologues, Life Writing.) Here are a few:

·    Voice
·    Characterization
·    Tone (objective, subjective, comedic, satirical, wistful, nostalgic)
·    Ability to use description for maximum effect
·    An eye for sharp detail – that shows and negates the need to tell
·    Ability to maintain and balance plotting elements, tension and release
·    Ability to assemble an effect balance of real-time dialogue and dialogue in narrative summary
·    Transitions
·    Knowing when to enter and when to leave a scene
·    Narrative structure
·    Developing a feel for when to switch tones (from comic to serious) and modes (prose to poetry and also from prose to images and audio, to digital stories)

That’s an introduction and overview of the concept. In the next installment we’ll talk about how to apply specific techniques.

Lesson 10: Point of View - continued
14 May 2011. Posted by James George, 2011 ©

A limited perspective – in Third Person.

In the last lesson I talked about the use of First Person POV. Just to recap, first person offers the appearance of being a story told directly from narrating character to the reader. It’s part of the suspension of disbelief that the agenda of the author is subsumed, and it’s the character speaking directly.

This gives the story:

·    Immediacy

·    Intimacy

·    Deep subjectivity (the narrating character  - and therefore by extension the reader – can’t be outside their head.) Their perspective and understanding may change and grow via the events of the story, and often does, but the character you’ve created can’t be someone else, or more especially, take a neutral perspective.

·    Vernacular voice specific to one character (which may well reflect their times, their culture, their peer group etc)

·    The narrator always has a personal stake in the story. The events of the story need to matter to them
Always remember with writing elements, that a particular element’s strengths can also be its weaknesses, and its weaknesses can also be its strengths. Take the element of deep subjectivity in the list above.


·    Personalizes the narrative –there’s a living, breathing entity in the story and its events that cares what happens


·    The reader is trapped within this perspective,  and can never get a rounded, objective view or another opinion


The weakness above reflects real life. We can’t not be ourselves. A six-year-old child character can only know what they’re capable of knowing – and that innocence and naivety may be what you want to bring out in the story. Or they may be a character with a particular weakness or problem that they can’t shake, that leads them into trouble – and you may want to explore exactly that. Always think of the flipside.

But then sometimes you want to get a very different viewpoint on a story, which brings also a different feel. In that instance you may choose a completely different POV.

The polar opposite of First Person POV is called Third Person Limited. First Person is total immersion in subjectivity. Third Person Limited is the absence of subjectivity. If the voice in First Person is the voice of the narrator then the voice in Third Person Limited is the voice of the world. Think of it in cinematic terms.
Imagine you can only show the elements in a story, without putting any kind of spin –via over use of voice, ie: narrative – on them. How would you still get the feel you wanted. Cinema teaches us this. Most movies don’t have a voiceover narrator (as a novel does, by definition) to tell us how we should feel about what we’re seeing.  The viewer has to come to the feel the film-maker wants simply my making a series of connections, prompted by what the film maker chooses to show in shot, and the way the actors play the scenes. In this manner, the choice of what you show determines the voice. In other words:
                         The choice IS the voice.

A great example of this technique can be found in some of the work of author Cormac McCarthy.

Consider this scene from his novel Cities of the Plains. (Picador, 1998)

        The man pushed through a door at the end of the corridor and held the door and nodded the boy through and then reached and threw the lightswitch. The boy took off his hat. They stood in a room where the recent dead four in number lay on their coolingboards. The boards were trestle up on legs made from plumbing pipe and the dead lay upon them with their hands at their sides and their eyes closed and their necks in dark stained wooden chocks. None of them were covered over but all lay in their clothes as death had found them. They had the look of rumpled travellers resting in an anteroom.  The boy walked along slowly past the tables. The overhead ceiling lights were covered with small wire baskets. The walls were painted green. In the floor a brass drain. Bits of gray mopstring twisted about the castered wheels under the tables.
         The girl to whom he’d sworn his love forever lay on the last table. She lay as the rushcutters had found her that morning in the shallows under the shore willows with the mist rising off the river. Her hair damp and matted. So black. Hung with strands of dead brown weed. Her face so pale. The severed throat gaping bloodlessly. Her good blue dress was twisted about on her body and her stockings were torn. She’d lost her shoes.
         There was no blood for it had all washed away. He reached and touched her cheek.

Let’s separate the two paragraphs because they work in different ways.

Elements to note in Paragraph 1

·    The first paragraph is full of very specific detail – almost an overuse of detail (but remember – The choice is the voice)
·    We follow the boy through the narrative but are not given any direct information about how he feels
·    The scene works in real time, we move as the boy moves, in about the length of time it would take to traverse the room and look around
·    The voice is not specifically the boy’s. It’s unlikely he’d be making some of the similes described, as he’s likely very tense and would be focusing on looking for the person he came to find, not making linguistic and visual allusions

Elements to note in Paragraph 2

·    The first sentence is the only time we get a direct emotional connection with the boy and how he feels via the text itself (e.g. the girl to whom he’d sworn his love forever...)
·    That sentence changes everything. It personalizes what we see. The boy’s tragedy becomes the reader’s tragedy
·    That sentence makes what comes after it, and before (when reading back) come together. Look at some of the descriptive echoes (bits of gray mopstring/shore willows/hair damp and matted/dress twisted about on her body). These are all images of threads hanging loose, lifeless.

Note also how the sentence length in the 2nd paragraph changes. The long looping sentences that begin the first paragraph distill down to shorter and shorter sentences where the full stops become more apparent, more pronounced. Almost as a series of hammer blows.

That line … to whom he’d sworn his love forever… is actually Third Person Subjective (which we’ll cover in detail in the next lesson) because it lets us inside the character’s head, which Third Person Limited doesn’t. But the rest is Third Person Limited. Think again of what I said before about thinking of the flipside.
You might think that the most intimate and illuminating way to show what a character is thinking or feeling is to hear their thoughts, or have their emotionality described.

But not necessarily.

In fact it might be best to do the opposite. Remember that storytelling is partly the art of making the reader feel and think, not having the character do it for them. The author’s job often (and especially in Third Person Limited) is to draw the reader into the experience, by describing that experience, then leaving the connections up to them.

Example: you go into someone’s house and see 1) a dog walking leash hanging by the door 2) a dog food bowl 3) dog paw prints 4) dog’s hairs on the carpet – you’ll make the connection that a dog lives in this house. You don’t need to be told, nor in fact do you even need to see the dog itself. You see clues, make connections.

Now imagine you’ve gone to that house to console the dog owner, your friend, who’s just had to have the dog (which you’ve never seen) put down. Think of all those clues again, they’ll take on extra resonance, because of that single piece of subjective knowledge. The leash hanging unused, blowing in the breeze. The paw prints that will soon be washed away forever. That’s using a Limited Perspective –the making of connections goes on in the head and heart of the reader. Not in the text itself.

Pick your clues carefully. Show the ones that add up, or can be loaded with extra resonance with the addition of a snippet of subjective knowledge and/or emotion.

The choice (and the magic) is the voice.

In the next lesson I’ll move forward through Third Person Limited and into Third Person Subjective used with more intensity.

Lesson 9: Point of View
10 April 2011
Posted by James George, 2011 © 

To follow on from my video discussion about Point of View I’m going to focus for the next few lessons on the specifics of POV and how it relates to Voice and the other elements of storytelling.

Finding the right point of view (P.O.V.) and voice is one of the most crucial decisions a writer makes. When we hear people talking about ‘voice’ in a narrative they can mean two things;
  • The overall (or underlying) voice of the writer themselves 
  •  The voice of a narrator of a particular work or even just a scene. The voice in this instance is less the writer’s and more the character’s.

For instance; several different singers can interpret the same song in very different ways. This is because the original music and lyrics the singers hear is then filtered through their own physical  and emotional voice (personal experience etc.) Character P.O.V. has the same effect on a narrative. This effect is most traditionally recognised in first person narratives, but is also present in third person.

It isn’t possible to talk about Point of View without referring in some sense to the issue of voice, as the two facets go hand in hand, but they’re not the same thing. Point of View covers the elements that include;
  • Who is telling this story.
  • How narrow or wide is the perspective that’s telling this story.
  • How free or trapped is the character (and by extension the reader) by and within the Point of View.
  • How pervading is the voice the POV perspective has, ie is it an objective or subjective voice, within the POV.
  • What information is given to the reader, to illuminate the story’s threads, both externally (plot) and internally (character from the inside out, the world beneath the story).
  • What information is kept from the reader. E.g. crucial moments in plot in say a detective story, or subtextual insight in a character study story).
The various kinds of Point of View all treat the elements above in different ways. Let’s look at the different identifiable points of view
  1. First person
  2. second person
  3. third person (subjective)
  4. third person (limited)
  5. third person (camera eye – an extreme form of third person limited)
  6. omniscient
So how do you choose which P.O.V. (and which P.O.V. character) is right for your story?

A few questions to help you determine;
  • What do you want the reader to know? (and/or not know)
  • If there is information you want the reader to know, then the P.O.V. character you choose should know that information, or find it out during the story. Or the reverse (if you want to withhold information from the reader etc…) E.g; in most detective novels the P.O.V. character is the detective or investigator (or coroner in the work of Patricia Cornwell) because the writer wants the P.O.V. character to have the same lack of knowledge (at the outset) of the characters and (potential) culprit as the reader. 
  • What tone do you want the story to have
  •  Are you looking to create a vernacular voice or a voice/P.O.V. specific to a certain time a place.
  • Which character is going to be present during the crucial scenes?If the reader (via the P.O.V. narrator) isn’t present during the story’s crucial scenes they will feel cheated
  • Who has a large stake in the outcome? For the reader to care about the story/plot events, the P.O.V. character should be someone who also cares, as it’s through their eyes that we see the story unfolding
  • Who will be changed, or grow, by/through the story’s events?For a story to have a resolution that leaves the narrative, the characters and the reader further forward than at the start of the story, a change needs to take place; external or internal. In most stories, the P.O.V. narrator then needs to be someone who has grown or been changed by the story’s events or there will be little sense of momentum.
  • What level of flexibility do you, the writer, wish to have to move from one character’s mind to another.
In this workshop I want to focus on one particular POV, First Person. The POV that uses the ‘I’ pronoun to frame the narrative and its perspective.
1) First person

First person is the closest to the way we would normally tell a story verbally, if we were relating an anecdote; A funny thing happened to me on the way to work etc…

Here are some examples of First person narrative. Note how the narrative voice is very much the character’s voice. Several things are happening in these passages; the story/plot is unfolding, or at least being backgrounded. The character(s) are being illuminated or the ‘feel’ of the time and place comes through. Notice also how the diction is specific to character.

I went back to Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there 15 years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and straitlaced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, 15 years before there had been a war going on.

John Knowles
A Separate Peace

The POV example above features a perspective and voice has a sense of authority and perspective. The character mentions looking back into the past, which hints at it being a framing narrative (which we’ll cover in a later workshop) where you sense immediately that this story is going to contain a story in the present, and a longer flashback narrative set in the past (to explain the present). It is a vernacular voice (a voice that feels human, subjective,) but its apparent coolness suggests objectivity. This is in fact a bit of a trick to lull the reader into seeing the character as neutral.

I know what is being said about me and you can take my side or theirs, that’s your own business. It’s my word against Eunice’s and Olivia-Ann’s, and it should be plain enough to anybody with two good eyes which one has their wits about them. I just want the citizens of the USA to know the facts, that’s all.

Truman Capote
My Side of the Matter

The example above is much more vernacular in appearance. It appears dramatically skewed from one particular character’s perspective, but in fact it’s no more or less reliable in its objectivity than the first example. We can really ‘hear’ the character speaking here, as if they’re right next to us, conspiratorial.

I have watched the river and the sea for a lifetime. I have seen rivers rob soil from the roots of trees until the giants came foundering down. I have watched shores slip and perish, the channels silt and change; what was beach become a swamp and a headland tumble into the sea. An island has eroded in silent pain since my boyhood, and reefs have become islands. Yet the old people used to say, People pass away, but not the land. It remains forever.
Keri Hulme
The Bone People

The example above is still vernacular but much more wide ranging. There’s a sense of depth, philosophical scope. It’s still a put on, a characterisation, but it has a different level of trustworthiness because of its apparent scope and wisdom.
Last spring after Lucius come I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She says It too soon Fonso, I ain’t well. Finally he leave her alone. A week go by he pulling on her arm again.

Alice Walker
The Colour Purple    

I'm paralysed in the cave her hair makes. Then my hands move to feel her slim waist and suddenly I know how she would bend after a shower, twisting her hair into a wet turban, feel the shape her back would make, leaning over. I hear her small voice – long phrases of music and stillness, like an oar balanced in its arc above the water, dripping silver. I hear her voice but not her words, so soft; the noise of her whole body is in my ears. Instead of the dead inhaling my breath with their closeness, I am deafened by the buzzing drone of Michaela’s body, the power lines of blood, blue threads under her skin. Cables of tendons; the forest of bone in her wrists and feet. each time she stops speaking, in each long pause, I renew the pressure of my grasp. I feel her slowly going heavy. How beautiful the blood’s pull towards trust, the warm weight of the sleeper entering her orbit, pulling towards me, fragrant, heavy and still as apples in a bowl. Not the stillness of something broken, but of rest.

Ann Michaels
Fugitive Pieces

The example above is a distinct use of First Person POV, known as Stream of Consciousness. In this style the author is attempting to directly represent the process of how the character relates to the story, second by second, inch by inch.

So what would be your reasons to consider using First person P.O.V.;

You want;
  • the reader to identify with your character from the inside for the world of the story to be filtered through (and potentially poisoned by) the character’s biased perspective
  • to trap the reader in the character’s head, to give their story intimacy and immediacy
  • to explore a specific vernacular voice, which is the character’s voice 
  • the character to address the reader directly or indirectly 
  • to play with language during interior monologue or ‘stream of consciousness’ passages
One assumption often made is that because first person is, by its nature, more personalised that the narrator has to relay the facts and exercise a perception which is accurate. This isn’t so. The first person narrator has no more obligation to be telling the truth (in the context of the events of the story) or for their perceptions to be correct, than a narrator in any other P.O.V.  They may not be. This is what’s known as an ‘unreliable narrator’, a powerful device for upping the stakes in a story. The stakes are raised because not only is the reader now trying to figure out the events of the story (as per normal) but the narrator is actually fighting against them. We’ll explore this particular type of narrator in the next lesson.

So to recap;

POV and Voice are inseparable, but they’re not the same thing. POV is the perspective, the bias. Voice is the sound and feel within that perspective

POV can (and should be used to) direct the reader’s perception. Sometimes you might want to trap the reader in a particular POV, to give them a unique perspective, especially in First Person

Even within the same POV (e.g. first person) there are as many different voices and approaches to voice as there are characters

POV is the writer’s friend, and controlling it can make your writing deeper, sharper, more resonant

In the next lesson I'll explore trapping the reader within subjectivity, via the unreliable first person narrator, and making your story the stronger for it.

James George, 2011 ©

Lesson 8:
In this video installment (below) James talks about Point of View and Voice. What are the concepts behind them. How can the writer use various points of view to power their story. Also, Voice. Is this the writer's voice, the character's voice, the voice of the world?

Lesson 7: James talks about creating plot in fiction writing. How to distinguish from and develop plot from a bare series of events.

Lesson 6: James talks about using character as your way into a story...

Lesson 5. Basic structure and how it relates to plot and story. (c) James George, 2011

In this mini-workshop I want to talk a little bit about structure in its most basic sense. Plot, structure and story are always interlinked, though they’re not the same thing. We’ve touched on structure in the last couple of workshops when talking about a writer making choices of what scene to have next and what they want to achieve in that scene. Whenever you think of basic structure in writing think of three main concepts.

  •  How the scenes in a story fit together
  • The relationship between scenes
  • How to arrange the master facets of your story for maximum effect
There’s a handy thinking tool to consider, using the letters ABDCE

A = Action
B = Background
D = Development
C = Conflict/Climax
E = Ending

Let’s look at the first three steps.

Start with Action. Action is anything that contains movement that creates momentum in the story, momentum within the audience. The action can be external or internal, so don't just think of physical action. It’s the momentum part of that that’s important. Momentum itself can be both external and internal. If you have a growing sense of unease, from what you’re reading or viewing, that’s momentum. If you’re becoming worried about the fate or the psychological and/or emotional state of a character, that’s momentum. If you’re writing a thriller then momentum will often be things moving quickly in an external sense, (e.g. chase scenes, characters put in physical peril) but the point of quick moving scenes should always be to create more tension and raise the level of physical and emotional excitement in the audience. Movement in itself is not the key, it’s what it achieves. I've read plenty of fast moving books that bored me, mostly because the movement was all external and linear and nothing left a lasting impression, a worry, an intrigue, within me. 

Remember that your readers need to buy-in to the characters on some level, to care, to be afraid for them in jeopardy.  That sense of caring, of reader feeling the character’s jeopardy is the crossing point of plot, story, structure. So the action you conceive must work to engage. Examples: 

  • a growing conflict between characters, signalled overtly (argument) or covertly (passive/aggressive behaviour, slights, veiled insults, veiled manipulation) 
  • a growing internal conflict. Could be a woman watching children play in a park, then going through her rooms alone. A variation on both of these themes combined is a six word short story by Ernest Hemingway. 


Think about those six words. They contain plot, character, a sense of conflict, backstory, exposition and most importantly, they get the reader thinking in more than one direction. 

Note that in the ABDCE tool, background comes second. This is important. Give your reader something to get them involved (pieces of character insight, a sense of emotional/psychological/physical jeopardy), before you background them. In this sense I’m thinking of background in terms of exposition = background information you believe the reader needs to be able to form a rounded sense of the story. You and your reader need to know what is, before you explore how it came to be. Set some stakes, identify what is at stake (a relationship, a family, a worldview, a character’s emotional/psychological health) before you do any overt backgrounding. The smartest way to background is to illuminate it in small ‘giveaway’ moments in the present. In the next workshop I’ll talk about how to background place, and character.

The next stage is Development.  In the last workshop we covered how the scene that follows a scene of conflict doesn’t necessarily have to advance the plot, in a linear sense. It can instead develop the story in a vertical sense (work at increasing the depth of understanding of character, of the impact of the plot sense on the characters.) I once heard the American writer Rick Moody describe story development as ‘Complication, complication, complication...’ I’d say that’s a good starting point. Remember, it’s complication, not confusion. We’ll look at the difference (in storytelling terms) in an upcoming workshop. 

For me, character is always a key. The extent to which your characters come alive is the degree to which your story will engage. That applies to all genres.You are a someone, as are you characters, as are your readers. Your story will not be read by robots.

In the next workshop we'll explore exposition and background and look to put some meaningful and momentum-building background in the our stories. 

Lesson 4. Plot Development - Does something have to advance the action line of a story to be considered plot? (c) James George, 2010 
In the last lesson we looked at working up an opening scene that would subtly signal several of the key story elements.
 ·  Who
·  What
·  When
·  Where
·  Why
To expand:
·         Who - Character
·         What - Plot
·         When - Setting – time
·         Where - Setting – place
·         Why is harder to define: It’s partly plot, partly subtext, partly the search in a story for meaning and significance
In the sample we looked at [in lesson 3] I set up a small group of characters. A male/female couple, their son, and someone (yet to be identified) who was ringing the male character on his cell phone.
The scene ended like this:

His phone beeps.
Call waiting.
He taps the screen, and the number of the waiting caller comes up. The lettering stark, sharp in the growing gloom of the car. He stares at it a long time. It rings off.
‘Are you still there?’ he says to Leslie.
‘Yes. The phone was beeping. Was that me or you?’
‘Must’ve been you.’
The phone beeps again.
Call waiting.
‘Do you need to lie?’ says Leslie. ‘Can’t you at least be honest? Do have any guts at all?’
Call waiting.
Leslie flicks off the pot. She turns to see Joshua standing by the table, leaning against it. He holds a brown folder in his hands.
‘I guess you don’t,’ says Leslie and hits the end call button. She leans against the stove for a moment, the heat from the fading element rising against her face.
The phone rings again. She lets it ring. Then again.
She turns to see the folder hit the floor. Papers spill across the tiles. Joshua runs down the hallway, out of sight. She hears his bedroom door slam.

When considering what to do next the temptation always is to carry straight on with the plot from there, and often, rush to identify who the caller (on Call Waiting) is. But stop. Don’t always go to the most obvious next step. Also, remember to pick your moments for revelation. You have a whole story to work with.
There are a few things we should think about when constructing plot.
Firstly, my basic summation of the concept and process of plot, as covered in the last lesson.
   A determined, controlled sequence of events that, shows conflict and growing tension (both internally and externally driven), gives character insight, keeps descriptive momentum going, brings surprise, reversals and moments of victory, and moves towards a resolution that has resonance and insight.
There are a few things to consider when weighing up next steps.

1)      Any piece of plot can start from any place in the timeline of your characters’ lives and experience. The next piece of story doesn’t have to be the next chronological moment in time.
2)      Keep causality in mind. Motivations and/or actions that influence and drive other actions, events that provoke a reaction. Things that call for decisions which then have recriminations and consequences (even if the character doesn’t actually make a decision.)
3)      Exposition (background information) can sometimes be turned into plot
4)      Development goes in more than one direction, what I’ll call linear  (something happens which causes something else to happen which causes...etc) and what I’ll call vertical (a scene might not advance the momentum but is still tied into causality by its effect on the main plot – e.g. a moment of seemingly minor story that actually functions to give character insight.)
5)      There’s a workable limit (entirely subjective) as to how many things (characters, plotlines, bits of background) readers/viewers are comfortable holding in their consciousness (especially early on) before their eyes start to glaze over and they think of doing something else
6)      One of the most effective tools in plotting is to make use of subtle symbolism and imagery to add to a story’s depth and show what’s at stake

In this mini-lesson I’m going to start with number 6. We can craft scenes that work on the vertical axis, and involve using symbolism and imagery to add layering and hint at character depth.
So a possible follow-up scene to our opening scene could go like this.

The rain tracks across the windscreen. She flicks the wipers and arches of clear view appear and disappear. A line of cars. A stop sign. She looks to the passenger seat where Joshua sits staring out the far window. He has an orange backpack at his feet, a graphic of a smiling tiger crumpled within the fabric’s folds.  
‘Hey,’ she says.
He doesn’t answer.
He reaches up and rubs his thumb across the window. She looks past him to where his face hangs faint in the glass. A truck rumbles past. The window shakes, dissolving his image.
‘Why do you have to shout?’ he says to trembling glass.
She takes a long breath, looks back out at the road.
‘Look,’ she says. ‘I know it’s been a little tense lately.’
‘Why do you have to shout all the time?’
A horn beeps. She pulls away.
The school’s entrance looms. The car’s hardly stopped when he’s out the door, walking up the path, adjusting the backpack’s strap and pulling up his hood. He pulls hard at it, skewing his raincoat and hood.
She watches him for a moment, until he vanishes amid the blur of children and school bags and backpacks.

The piece of story above doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, i.e. it doesn’t reveal answers to any of the questions. Who is the caller? What are Nathan and Leslie going to do now – about their disagreement?
Instead of working on advancing the plotline, it works on the relationship line, showing the effect of the what on the who. The effect of the plot events on the characters. Namely, the effects of Leslie and Nathan’s (deteriorating) relationship on their son, Joshua. Joshua’s line ‘Why do you have to shout all the time?’ tells the reader that the relationship has been deteriorating for a while, allowing the author not to have to overtly tell that in narrative description. It allows the author to start the story in the midst of a growing conflict, not have to start without conflict and slowly build into it.
In plotting and in story structure always bear in mind the relationship between scenes. How one scene relates to another. The scene above is effective only because of its relationship to the scene before it. When you think of relationships between scenes it helps you to realise that not all scenes need to advance the plot in clearly definable terms. Some scenes might be all about character, even if done almost entirely in symbolism.  For example, the second scene in our story might be something like this.

Joshua walks across the spread of wet leaves, making sure not to step on the cracks in the concrete of the path. Somewhere a burglar alarm wails. Loud music comes from a window. He startles. He stops at an intersection where a large truck turns in a wide circle, smoke rising from an exhaust. The wind of the passing truck splashes wet leaves against his legs.

That scene does little to progress the plot  - in terms of action. Nor does it show directly how Nathan and Leslie’s conflict is spilling over into the relationship between Joshua and his parents – you’d need to signal that in another scene. This scene is all about symbolism, about isolating Joshua as someone small surrounded with larger forces that impact upon him. Look at each of the elements: cracks in the path ahead, alarms going off, smoke that clouds vision, they’re all symbols of trouble – in this context. This is a technique very common in cinema and television, where the storycrafters have mood music and lighting to aid the setting of atmosphere. It’s especially useful in transitional scenes – joining scenes between set pieces with action or dialogue etc. The opening scene in the kitchen and the simultaneous scene in Nathan’s car are two separate set pieces fused together. If the next scene was set in Nathan’s or Leslie’s office (with setting description, other characters, dialogue) then they would be set-pieces. Transitional scenes with Joshua walking alone act as a kind of glue between set pieces and give character insight – through metaphor.
When you use this type of symbolic scene that key is that you must not overtly speak to the psychological and emotional heart of the scene.  E.g., don’t do this:

Joshua walks forgotten and alone across the spread of wet leaves, making sure not to step on the cracks in the concrete of the path. Somewhere a burglar alarm wails. Loud music comes from a window. He startles, both sounds reminding him of the fear he feels. The fear that his parents are arguing, that they’re going to break up. He stops at an intersection where a large truck turns in a wide circle, smoke rising from an exhaust. The wind of the passing truck splashes wet leaves against his legs, as if a trail of tears.

So when you think of your first steps in setting up a plot, think of these elements.
·         Establish current reality/normality
·         Introduce conflict – it doesn’t have to be the first moment of conflict in the characters’ relationship, just the first moment you choose to show
·         Hint at unknowns/questions to hover above and around the story
·         Show the effect of the conflict on the core characters
·         Use metaphor and symbolism, especially in transitional scenes
·         Don’t rush to answer questions
·         Avoid overt explanations
·         Think of plot in both horizontal terms (a series of events and actions) and vertical (the effects on characters) and don’t fixate on just one axis.  

In the next lesson we’ll talk about further development.