Story Stew

beef-stew-2

Once you grab the reader using the main story ingredients—character, setting, initial conflict—it is necessary to pull the reader past the Hook and deeper into your story world. To accomplish this, give the character more problems (conflicts) to overcome—I call this stirring the Story Stew.

We all have problems. Characters in novels and stories must have more than their fair share, problems complicated by their own actions (or lack), by their decisions (often times poor choices), and by roadblocks the antagonist puts in front of them, the more and increasingly harder the better.

The complications a character faces needs to be dramatic, the type of conflict that, if unresolved, will destroy them. The impending destruction can be death, great loss (friend, family member, job, validity, integrity, etc.) but should be devastating if not overcome.

The problems the character faces are integral to everything a story must do, that is, keep the reader reading. To do this, a conflict resolved early must be replaced by another, larger problem.

Thickening the Stew

Continuing the stew analogy, once you have introduced the main story ingredients, add items that will enhance the overall flavor. If not careful, the ingredients will fight against each other, and too much of one will taint the outcome. When making a beef stew, you probably do not want to add pineapple unless you have a specific reason, such as experimenting with a dish incorporating Hawaiian flavor. But let’s say you want to make a regular, all-American beef stew: chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, and spices.

A great stew is thickened. If not thickened by roux (a mixture of flour and butter or oil), the end result is a watered down concoction that is not a stew at all, but a soup. It’s all about consistency. A true stew reaches the proper consistency when you can write your name by dripping the sauce from the ladle. Story consistency happens when all ingredients merge into a delicious whole.

Every bite (scene) ideally will include all the stew’s ingredients, each a perfect blend enhancing the overall flavor.

Again using my own story, Nychelle’s Gate, from last week’s blog—because I can state emphatically the motivations of the creator—my hook showed Nychelle (character) stumbling (action) into her parents tent (setting), those who forced her into the elder’s bed against her wishes (conflict).

Stirring the stew involved increasing the tension, showing Nychelle’s reaction, and her decision to act, and thereby, a new conflict.

“How dare you, girl,” her father sneered, his hand raised to strike if needed.

Nychelle dug her toes into the soft earth and pushed herself back against the small table. “I won’t be his fifth wife, the lowest of his shemsha. I won’t be sent off like one of your goats.”

Mother stood behind her father, always dutiful. “He’s the Elder,” she said. “Any woman of the clan would be honored.”

“Honored?” Nychelle laughed, heard and tasted the disgust in her voice. “Then let another have him. He’s vile.”

Her father took a step nearer. He would beat her into submission and drag her, cowering like a child, back to the Elder. That would be the easy part. She glanced around and saw the bone knife used for cutting meat lying on the table. Her hand found the knife without effort; she wheeled toward her father and waved the pale white blade in front of her.

His canted eyes squinted, the black pupils lost in the surrounding blue, his mouth vanishing in yellowed mustache and beard.

Nychelle felt for the table with her free hand, pushed herself to her feet, and crouched like a tiger ready to pounce. “I know how to stick meat,” she said, her words slurred because of the swelling lip. “I have often butchered your beasts.”

“You go way beyond, girl,” he snarled. “I’ll not let a man talk to me like that, and I’ll take a lot less from you.”

He lunged at her.

Each character action, followed immediately by a reaction, pulls the reader further into the story and world created. Simply, one sentence moves to the next, paragraph by paragraph, action and reaction, to the rousing climax.

The four word paragraph, “He lunged at her” is warning of something to come, a promise of continued action. Even though you might not be entranced by this particular type of story (fantasy), the blending and stirring of the necessary ingredients is needed for any story type. As creator, you may take a more leisurely approach, and if done right, can work. The main thing is to show the world and the people solving major problems in their life—deciding what color dress to wear to the prom is not normally enough, in itself, to hold interest.

Events must be happening, and within the story framework, a character facing a dilemma whose resolution is imperative to their well-being. Toss in all the ingredients in proper measure, and the story will work.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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How To Grab The Reader

typewriter and blue birds

Patience is a virtue most people don’t have time to wait for—this is especially true of readers.

Life in the twenty-first century is hectic, so as a writer you must grab the reader and yank them into your tale, lest they be drawn away by any of a thousand distractions vying for their attention. (I read a study that determined, on average, people check their cell phone over 200 times a day!).

While writing for newspapers, I learned the basic tenets of news and article writing. My edgy, squinty-eyed editor explained that news stories are built as an inverted V, the most important elements listed at the pointed top: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. Fiction writing is much the same.

The beginning of your story or novel (those first few words or couple paragraphs) is called the Hook, and is critical to your success. I refer to it as the “calling” or the “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and pull them deeper into the story.

Entice the reader with excitement at the outset. This is not the place for Backfill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies. There is time for backfill, but gone are the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s technique of spending pages of description prior to getting to the point, and thus forward movement.

Grab the reader by the lapel and force them into your world. Here’s the first paragraph of my short story, Eyes of Destiny.

Kolvett’s stomach recoiled, churning, the mealy bread threatening to lurch onto slick planks as the Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles, Kolvett squinted past white caps at land peaking above the horizon—the shore was the gondrag’s destination, and for whatever reason, him with it. He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.

 This opening paragraph attempts to do several things:

  1. Introduces the character, Kolvett, whose story this is. In most cases, I like the character tag in the first sentence because character is what all stories are about in the end. If the reader cannot associate with the character and does not care what happens to them, they won’t continue reading. Losing a reader is the worst thing for a writer.
  2. Gives the setting and implies an earlier time in history: Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. At this point, time and placement is unknown and will be revealed later in the story.
  3. Sets up a problem: Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles . . . Kolvett is bound and being led somewhere, but does not know where or why—the shore was the gondrag’s destination . . . The use of the word, gondrag, which was earlier described as the Emperor’s war galley indicates the fantasy element of the story.
  4. Mystery: . . . and for whatever reason, him with it. Every story needs an element of mystery, if nothing more than the reader’s question of, What is going to happen?
  5. A promise of something more: He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.

One of the best tools you can use as a writer is adding items in your beginning that start your reader asking questions: Who is Kolvett? Why is he bound? Where is he being taken? Why has he been kept alive, and who are his captors?

Another example from a work in progress, a story entitled Nychelle’s Gate.

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, gasping, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father. “I won’t do it,” she spat out, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. That was not the worst of being “taken,” though, nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there.

Again, the opening paragraph attempts to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduce the main character, Nychelle.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies they are nomadic and have not yet reached the advanced culture of developing towns or cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people that populate the story.
  3. Confrontation by her dialogue, “I won’t do it” shows a problem, and that her parents are at the center of it. This conflict is geared to raise the tension of the scene.
  4. There are other hints within these 64 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy, (she shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there).
  5. It hints at Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the Elder.

There are many ways to start a story—the important element is convincing the reader early on that the time put into reading your story is well spent. To do that, accomplish these five things:

Begin your story with action, “something” happening to your character.
Put your character in a time and place (setting).
Through conflict, show the character’s problem as early as possible.
Hints (foreshadowing) are good.
An element of mystery will draw the reader forward into the next story section.

Take a look at the beginning of a current work in progress to see if you have enticed the reader; if not, rework the piece with the items discussed at the forefront.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Zingers

My wife and I are animal lovers; dogs, cats, and birds are as much a part of our family as the humans. Pained when our pets are injured or not feeling well, we are crushed when they pass.

Years ago we had a dog I had named Nirvana before Linda and I met—we called her Nerd for short. I cuddled and whispered to Nirvana as the poison the vet administered brought about a gentle death and eased her suffering.

A couple weeks later, her ashes were returned to us. Wiping tears we were not ashamed to shed, a letter from the Veterinary Hospital accompanied Nerd’s remains:

We share in your loss of Nirvana.

I have often wondered if the person who wrote the note saw the humor which started us laughing for long minutes despite our grief. Perhaps the note writer thought no more of it than, “We share in your loss of Rex,” or maybe they had studied eastern religion and philosophy, chuckling softly when penning the sentiment that we had all lost Enlightenment.

Regardless of the writer’s intention, that was a zinger—something unexpected and powerful on many levels.

I saw Kurt Vonnegut interviewed once, and he said when he sat down to write, his goal was to write one joke—one zinger—each day.

The thing about zingers—a line that shocks, intrigues, or humors—is they need to flow organically from the prose; otherwise, they seem forced or added as an after-thought, and will conjure rolling eyes and deep sighs.

The way to make zingers possess an organic feel is to have the thought, the word, or the actions derive from the characters and the plot.

The other thing about zingers is they need to be administered sparingly. Vonnegut was an exception, as was Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because their stories are parody. Other types of stories require less zingers (in number, not in power), and should be used only when appropriate and natural—infrequency adds to the surprise and makes each unique.

A zinger causes a strong emotion, and if done well, enhances the reader’s bond to your tale.

Imagine a hysterical woman telling her husband something terrible happened; after long moments, he still doesn’t know what she is upset about. He slaps her. Unexpected action-zingers can impart something about the characters and their relationship to each other.

Think about movies you have seen: the zinger at the end of The Usual Suspects is the identity of the here-to-for unknown antagonist; the classic last line of Casablanca surprises by being down-played between the two characters, Rick and the French Captain, Louie. In literature, O. Henry is known for his zinger endings. Surely others come to mind, a shocking instance that prompts memory and emotion long after.

A good place for a zinger, if not at the end of the story, is at the end of a chapter. A zinger will add to a cliff-hanger most admirably.

I find zingers usually appear in my first draft, the heated time when blood is rushing, fingers are dancing across the keys, and creation is fresh and vibrant. Often while reading the first draft, I see a phrase, piece of dialogue, or an action that jumps out and requires zinger status. There are times I have to massage the sentence to illustrate exactly what I want to say, but the kernel begins in the first draft. The difficulty is to make the zinger a natural outcropping of a scene. If not natural with a kind of it must be here surety, out it goes, added to my snippet file.

I can’t force a zinger. If something is lacking in a scene, a zinger won’t fix it because whatever is wrong lies in the foundation—a zinger is like a fine stained glass window whose placement dramatically adds to the aura of a house, a sparkle to the drab.

When you’re reading, watch for zingers—those moments when you stop, shake your head, and say, “wow.” They’re there, and you’ll know when you see them. Look at your own writing and see what jumps out at you, the dialogue or action that convinces you that, indeed, you are a writer.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fueling the Labor

fall colors
Labor Day weekend proves an excellent time to review the year’s writing journey. Two-thirds through the year is the perfect time to pull out the list of writing goals you set at that other good time for reflection, New Years.

What, you didn’t write down your goals? Writing down goals is a must for all writers. How else will you know if you are succeeding in your quest to become a better wordsmith? Writing down goals makes them real, tangible, and something to cross off when completed. I love that last part as it opens a door into a new story idea I’ve been mulling over, or the next item on the list.

For a writer, reflection requires an analytic mind; it is not the time for emotion. Push negative thoughts of how much you did not accomplish from your mind, and focus on what you completed. Only two short stories and not the six you planned? Good news: there are four months remaining to reach that goal. Without the goal written down in the first place, and thereby entrenched in your subconscious, you may not have completed two stories.

Your novel slugs along and vanquished the excitement when you first started? It’s okay. Now is the time to regain focus. Reread the book with the eye on adding conflict where the story lags; read a How-To book on how to increase tension—reading books on how to improve skills catapults me into my own writing.

Review your list of goals to identify not only what you have accomplished and what you want to accomplish, but also to determine what is still relevant. Ideas noted nine months ago may seem stale or need more time to germinate, and that’s okay. New possibilities may have opened up and taken precedence over other once highly-thought-of goals, and that’s okay too. Writing is adaptation, revision, and review (not necessarily in that order), but the most important aspect is forward movement—even if it’s not what you previously had in mind.

A word of caution: do not make your list so long and bulky that even while writing it, you know you are not going to finish the majority of them. Make a list of items that are achievable and within your grasp—you can always add more when you finish all the items listed!

Labor Day can be a time of rejuvenation when things are possible again. Take an hour and review what you want to accomplish over the next four months; it will get you back on track to being the writer you want to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick