Monday, August 26

'Portrait of a Love Affair': The Power of Short Stories

"No amount of reading novels will prepare you for writing short stories," said my creative writing lecturer.  

I just couldn't resist the charm of Lorrie Moore's
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I rarely read short stories before starting this course, but I have quickly come to appreciate them and the power they hold.  

Short stories are a fantastic medium for "nailing down a single conviction.  Emotionally" (William Carlos Williams).  

Edgar Allen Poe explained that they have a single mood and "every sentence must build towards it".  

My favourite quote on the topic comes from Lorrie Moore: 
"A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.  A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film."
Basically, short stories are about compressing, condensing and distilling an idea rather than length.  

And this is why I find them so exciting.  Understanding for the first time the power that short story writers hold, I am thrilled to discover that I can wield it, too.  

I'm looking at it as the chance to make a statement or observation, to prove that my perspective is unique and insightful.  My tutor keeps reminding us that no one can tell our story, or even any story in the same way that we would.  

I am in love with little wondrous things, snapshot moments and fleeting images.  Short stories are a beautiful way to fasten upon those tiny things and weave a narrative around them.  
"This is how I see the world."
It's a chance to articulate something I've always felt.  It's a chance to argue my convictions, which is an exciting prospect that I won't be taking for granted anytime soon.  

As I've mulled over my new opportunities for storytelling, I've been nourishing my soul with short stories.  I'm going to include some titles of stories that particularly resonated with me.    Hopefully these will prove how compelling and poignant a short story can be:  

Michael Chabon:
  • Blumenthal on the Air
Nick Earles:
  • Twenty-minute Hero
Hanif Kureishi:
  • Intimacy
Miranda July:
  • The Shared Patio
Etgar Keret:
  • Shoes
Ernest Hemmingway
  • Hills Like White Elephant
Woody Allen
  • Tandoori Ransom

Monday, August 19

Simply Superb Story Starters

A couple of days ago, I posted my DIY Story Idea Generator.  It combines random Places, Characters and Scenarios to inspire creative and engaging story ideas.  

Here's one that Anonymous suggested:
"Some people may find it strange to see a billy goat conducting an orchestra, but at the local stationary store it is a regular occurrence."
I enjoyed this so much, for several reasons.  One, it is wildly imaginative, and two, it would make an eye-catching first sentence for a short story.  

This one-liner has inspired me to take a break from study and try my hand at some imaginative story-starters of my own.  I'm thinking that this hiatus from assignment writing will be good for me, at least if only to let my wonderment have some free-roam.  

Feel free to use any of these story-starters, but hopefully they will inspire you to try your hand at coming up with your own.  

I've skipped the columns, but you can read about the template I suggested in my DIY Story Idea Generator post.  Enjoy.

"It was with many astonished stares and honking horns that commuters of Havisham Road drove past the traffic policeman, perched on the top rung of a ladder by the roadside and playing the euphonium as if it were the most natural thing in the world."  
 "I didn't know that it was possible for a person to have a goldfish's memory, but the night of the axe-murder at Lincoln's Caravan Park was not the best time to find out."   
"When the fire-breathing mouse broke into the secret underground headquarters, it was necessary to commandeer a pair of rollerblades in order to escape to safety."  

Saturday, August 17

DIY Story Idea Generator

I want to share with you a ridiculously simple exercise for coming up with story ideas.  This one was taught to me by my scriptwriting tutor.  I was actually surprised by how well it worked, even though it's so easy to do!  

The DIY Story Idea Generator

Step 1:
  • Fold a blank piece of paper into 3 columns

Step 2:

  • In the 1st column, write a list of at least 5 PLACES that you are familiar with.  
  • For example: a library, an aquarium, Starbucks, New York, Paris etc.  

Step 3:
  • In the 2nd column, write a list of at least 5 CHARACTERS that you like to read about.  
  • For example: a wizard, a bank-robber, a young mother, a film director, a postman etc. 

Step 4:
  • In the 3rd column, write a list of at least 5 SCENARIOS that you find interesting.  
  • For example: unrequited love, a helicopter chase, moving house, a crime-scene investigation, finding a lost puppy etc. 
Step 5:
  • Now all that is left to do is pick 1 thing from each column, and combine them to create a one-sentence story idea.  

Here are some examples:
  • A wizard gets involved with a helicopter chase in New York.
  • A film director finds a lost puppy in Starbucks.
  • A postman conducts a crime-scene investigation in a library.  

Obviously, your lists can be wilder and whackier than mine.  Your only limit is your imagination.  So I encourage you to go nuts with these, and your DIY Story Idea Generator will be a constant source of fun and inspiration.  

Thursday, August 8

Storytelling 101

Budding writers, this is your lucky week. 
First you enjoyed my Guide to Critiquing Short Fiction,  
And now you can read my Storytelling 101!  

Please note:
This particular post is based on my lectures in Scriptwriting.
It focuses on how to FIND and MAKE a great story NOT how to WRITE a great story.  
A separate post later on will tackle the complex, technical world of writing a story.  


The Book Florist's Storytelling 101

1: The Indispensable Guide to Story  

A story has to have:  

  • Who WANT something,
  • Takes ACTION to get it, but
  • They face CONFLICT, which leads to
  • A CLIMAX and ultimately

This structure will guide you through any short story, novel, or script etc. that you plan to write.  It is the ultimate foundation for all good fiction writing.  

2: Coming up with Ideas

Here are some weird and wonderful ideas that can help you with the arduous process of coming up with your story ideas.  Remember to have pen and paper on you at all times so if inspiration strikes, you're prepared.

  • Eavesdrop on conversations: on public transport, at the park...
  • Newspaper headlines
  • Personal experience: your passions are the best guide to powerful storytelling
  • True stories / historical events
  • Keep a visual diary: (Pintrest is a good way to pin-down visual stimuli)
  • Construct mind-maps 
  • Read and research!!!

3: Things to Think About

My Scriptwriting lecturer asked us to ponder the following things.  They vary from guidelines for writing to concepts to dwell on and be inspired by.  Many of these are things I'd never considered before, but have since broadened my imagination and awareness.  

Three Questions to Ask Yourself about Values:

Answering these questions will help you to identify the personal values that you hold.  It is useful to know these as your values will always inform and appear in your writing.  
  • What is worth living for?
  • What is worth dying for?
  • What is not worth pursuing?

Imagination is memory used in a new, different way.  

No one sees the world the same way you do, or has had the same experiences, feelings, and thoughts that you have.  Therefore, your memory is an amazing and unique way to fuel your imagination!  

Know the rules of writing so that you can begin to break them!

Everyone - EVERYONE - has a story.  

4: The Three-Part Story Structure Guide

This Three-Part story structure guide is a brilliant tool to use when trying to figure out what to include in your story and where to put it.  This particular guide was tailored towards scriptwriting for short and feature films, but nevertheless, it's a failsafe guide for any story.  This is a simplified version as the original is very heavy reading!

Act One:
  • Introduce the hero
  • Establish the setting
  • Establish the relationships between the characters
  • Introduce the situation
  • Introduce the outer motivation for the hero (their goal)
  • Introduce the conflict
Act Two:

Hurdles, suspense, conflict, obstacles, pace, character development, character revelations; heroes facing ongoing complications in trying to reach their goal

Act Three:

  • Resolve the outer motivation and conflict for the hero
  • Tie up all the loose ends

5: Recommended Reading

Here are some books and texts that have been recommended to scriptwriting students as valuable resources.  
  • The Hero's Journey by Christopher Vogler
This formula for character and storytelling was the basis for some of the most amazing and memorable stories.  Think Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.   
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • My Story can Beat Up your Story  by Jeffrey Schechter

Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for my upcoming post on Writing a Story.  

Tuesday, August 6

The Art of Critiquing Short Fiction

One of my Creative Writing units this semester has a strong focus on critiquing.  It's an art that I'm far from perfecting, but at least I feel like I'm getting the hang of it at last.  I have so many notes on how to write a good critique, that I thought it would be worth sharing with you.  

The Book Florist's Guide to Critiquing Short Fiction

PART 1: Getting Started and Structure

1.  Be a reader.  

Start with your role as a reader and observe your responses to the story in order to identify what caused them.  

2.  Identify the author's goals.  

Your critique should be aimed at helping the author achieve their goal.  Anything that doesn't relate to the author's goal is irrelevant.  EXAMPLE: if the story is a romance, recommending the author to include a T-Rex crashing into a building is very misguided.  

3.  Start with things that 'worked well', with specific examples.

Three examples of things that worked well is the general rule-of-thumb for a short story critique.  And make sure to include specific examples from the text.  

4.  Identify areas for improvement, with specific suggestions.

Three areas for improvement is the general rule-of-thumb for a short story critique.  Same as before, make sure to include specific examples from the text.  I'll again emphasise how important it is that your suggestions for improvement relate to the author's goals.  

5.  List a similar author.  

Using a similar author as an example can be very effective, if you can think of one!

PART 2: What to talk about in a critique

These points come from a critiquing guidelines handed out by my Creative Writing tutor.  You'll find that certain points are more relevant for you to focus on than others, all depending on the particular story.  

0.  Short story essentials check list.  

Does it start with action and conflict?  Does it have a hook to lure the reader in?  Is there a character to love (or hate)?  Is there an interesting setting?  Does it avoid cliché?  Melodrama?  Overwriting?  

1.  Plot

Does the character have obstacles to overcome?  Do these obstacles create tension?  How is the story paced?  Is the conclusion satisfying?

2.  Character

Do the characters develop over the course of the story?  Are they plausible and consistent?  What is at stake for them?  Do we care as readers and why?  What is revealed about them through dialogue?  

3.  Voice / Style

What kinds of recurring stylistic techniques do you notice?  What about sentence and paragraph structure, and the balance between dialogue and description?  

4.  Theme

What themes does the story explore?  Is the treatment of these themes effective?  Is it subtle, overbearing, or original?  And why?  

5.  Setting

How is the setting revealed?  Why is it important?  Does the author use the setting to draw the characters, and if so, how?  Is the description of the setting original and interesting?  

6.  Language

Is the language fresh and engaging?  Is it precise or too wordy?  What about metaphors, similes, symbols etc. used by the author?  Are they under or over-written?  How do they contribute to the story's themes?  Are they consistent?  

I'm hoping that this can give you a hand as your simple and snappy critiquing guide.  Thanks for reading.