Fiction Workshop Piece

Looking ahead:

This is the last week of Fiction.

I would like you to produce a 3-5 page story, which we will workshop in class on Tuesday Nov. 20th. (there is no class on Thursday).

I will divide you into 3 groups in ‘Groups’ on Blackboard. The Groups will be called Fiction Workshop A, B, or C.

Please post your workshop pieces to your group before midnight on Sunday, Nov 18th. If you fail to post your work on time you will create scheduling problems for the other members of your group, so please post your story on time.

Read, and write 3 paragraphs of comments, on each of your classmates’ stories in your group. Try to compose comments that could help each author improve their work. As usual, don’t let your kindness prevent you from being honest, but don’t let your honesty stop you from being kind.

Fear and Pity:

The most important element of a story is that it evokes emotive response in the reader. Even a short story might evoke several emotions, such as humor, sadness, and horror, in turn.

Hence the most valuable critique we can give to an author concerns the evocative nature of the text. Does the story make the reader pity––and fear for–– the main character as they undergo the tribulations the plot? 

Do we care about the fate of the main character?

Does our fear and pity increase as the story progresses?

Do we empathize with the emotional arc of the main character?

With this in mind we can ask, how effective is this story at making us empathize with the main character(s)?

What helps us empathize?

What stands in the way of our empathy?

What could increase our empathy?

Let is look at what stands in the way of our empathy first, which is probably (mostly) simple sloppy writing. Minor errors disturb the readers’ almost trance-like state, and jerk them out of the dream of the story.

Sloppy writing might include: tense slips, POV slips, poorly-formatted dialogue, convoluted sentences, passive writing, overuse of filters, overuse of adverbs, awkward repetitive constructions, lack of clarity, cliched analogies, dialect…

1: Tense slips: Every writer does this, but the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is that a good writer acts as their own first editor. Read through your draft once expressly for tense shifts. When you find them, fix them.

2: POV slips: same as above. Be your own first editor. Read through expressly for POV slippage.

3: Dialogue: don’t ‘exclaim.’ Don’t modify a dialogue tag with an adverb (…she exclaimed excitedly). Don’t try to hide your use of an adverb by making it into an adjective (…he said confused). A word that modifies a verb is always an adverb, even if the particular word you use is normally used as an adjective. 

4: Convoluted sentences/ passive writing: Favor the underlying structure of ‘subject—verb—object.’

Obviously you’re not writing Dick and Jane, but the underlying structure in:

Dick was amazed at how Jane’s new haircut drew attention to her cheekbones…

Still follows the overall ‘subject-verb-object’ structure of ‘Dick saw Jane,’

‘Jane’s new haircut made Dick notice her cheekbones…’ is not necessarily wrong, but is less direct.

5: Filters are usually redundant sense verbs, such as saw, heard, felt.

‘Dick saw that Jane’s new haircut drew attention to her cheekbones…’

Might be better as:

‘Jane’s new haircut drew attention to her cheekbones…’

Now that Dick is no longer ‘amazed’ he’s no longer the subject of the sentence. The haircut is now the subject of the sentence.

6: Repetitive constructions:

Walking into the classroom, Dick noticed Jane’s haircut. Sitting in the front row, Jane blocked DIck’s view of the teacher. Writing on the blackboard, the teacher could not see Dick pass a message to Jane…

I realize that this is a little heavy-handed, but you can see how beginning three consecutive sentences with the participle can feel awkward. On the other hand, using that construction once might be fine.

7: Cliche’d analogies. You might want to say that …’Dick’s eyes were as blue as the sea,’ but it’s the kind of analogy that draws attention to itself by having been overused since the rosy-fingered dawn of writing (you see what I did there? Actually Homer used ‘rosy fingered dawn’ as a kind of refrain––if Homer used your metaphor it might be time to retire it). 

Even using an analogy that is reminiscent of the cliche can be problematic.

‘Dick’s eyes were as blue as the storm tossed ocean…’ is really no better. Perhaps the problem at the heart of this cliche is that the ocean is many kinds of blue––and many colors that are not blue. It might even be more accurate to call it gray.

‘Dick’s eyes were the color a snow-fed mountain lake on a clear August morning…’ is more specific, but no better really.

Analogies take time and effort. Use the ‘conceit system’ to find a wholly new analogy. Dick’s eyes were not the color of sadness…or perhaps they were.

Analogies take time, so you might want to say that ‘Dick’s eyes were the color of the ocean’ as a slug, which you change later on––but before you hand it in.

8: Dialect: Fun to write, but annoying to read.

‘Bluddy rainin agann anner rannagorra rumbralla…’

might be intriguing, but it’s probably better just to say, “It was raining again so I went to get an umbrella…”

9: Do you have a particular writing gripe? This would be a great moment to share it.

What helps us empathize?

1: Flowing musical prose that may almost sound like poetry at times––but not so much that the patterns become repetitive.

Rock and roll; mix and match: vary sentence lengths: long, short, medium; vary constructions: complex sentences with dependent clauses, simple sentences, even passive sentences now and again. Syncopate: your prose can be poetic, but you’re not writing actual poetry, so avoid creating the kind of repetitive rhythm that can be great in a poem, but kills prose. Rule of three’s: Have a sequence of ideas that belong to the same family––but don’t have five.

Have a one-two-three––punch, but don’t do it twice in a row.

2: Draw your ideas from the deepest darkest recesses of your own experience. My old writing teacher used to say write from the basement, not from the porch. Be courageous in what you reveal about yourself through your writing.

If you write a sentence, and then think Ugh! I can’t write that. My readers will think I’m weird… you’ve probably just written something profound, personal, and beautiful, so leave it on the page. There may be limits as to how much you want to shock your readers of course, but be liberal with where you place those limits.

3: Don’t focus on making your characters relatable. Focus instead on making your characters compelling; make them complex, complicated, and conflicted. Make them want things that cannot be had––and don’t just make them want those things, make them yearn for those things. Make them think they will die if they can’t have them.

Think about the mother in Rapunzel. She truly believes she will die if she can’t get rampion from the witch’s garden––even though she knows this desire will doom her and her husband to some terrible fate.

Think about the inner conflict of the father. He is faced with the choice of losing his wife, or his baby, or perhaps even his own life––and yet still he steals the rampion.

4: In dialogue have your characters talk at cross-purposes. Have them misunderstand one another. Have them talk ‘over’ one another. Have them not listen to each other. Have them mislead on another. Give them silences that speak volumes (sorry about the cliche). Make them as silent as a thief on the staircase.

5: You, the writer, need to have good ideas, but your characters don’t need to have good ideas. Give them terrible ideas. Make your reader exclaim (excitedly), “No! Don’t do that! It’s a terrible idea!”

What terrible ideas have characters come up with in fiction?

Little Red Riding Hood


Jack and the Beanstalk


6: Confrontation: Do you have two characters who should not be in the same scene together? Perhaps they will immediately try to strangle one another. If so, then put them in the same scene. Put them in the same room. Put them in bed together. Put them in bed together in the dark, so they don’t recognize one another until the rosy fingers of dawn…etc…etc…

7: Start with an unsolvable problem. Bring your characters together to solve the problem, but instead have them make the problem worse. Bring in a new character to fix things, but instead he makes it still worse. Just because a problem is unsolvable doesn’t mean it can’t get worse. 

Your innocent character might be on death row, due to be executed tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean the execution can’t be moved up to this evening…which is moot, because one of the guards has just placed a cottonmouth snake in your hero’s cell.

This last weekend my wife and I went to a play titled, ‘Cock.’

My wife told me the play was about poultry––this was inaccurate.

The play concerned a love triangle. Love triangles always make good drama because they are an unsolvable problem, although you have to bring in some new ideas, otherwise they can get weary.

In ‘Cock’ the triangle centers (I realize that triangles don’t have centers) around a gay man, named John. John has been in a long-term loving relationship with a man (unnamed) for about ten years. As the play opens John has an affair with a woman (also unnamed).

This cause and existential crisis for John who is now in love with both a man and a woman––and wants to be honest with his existing partner.

Cue the ‘bad idea.’

John’s male partner throws a dinner party for all three members of the love triangle.

It does not begin well, but then it gets worse. It turns out that John’s partner has invited another guest: his father.

So, what elements are in this story?

An unsolvable problem. How can you solve a love triangle…I mean really love it, especially in one evening––one dinner party?

Think of the conflicts that are exposed between the three companions.

The theatrical technique that the director employed is known as Viewpoints, which emphasizes contrasts of movement (kinetic) and voice, in terms of pace, pitch, timbre, and unpredictability.

It’s kind of like improvisational in terms of the movement, but the actors improvise their movements within strict guidelines, leading to frequent near-collisions…plus there are contrasts in terms of the pace of their movements, leading to some actors moving slowly and others quickly and seemingly unpredictably.

How do we write this as narrative text?

Another feature is having characters speak over one another.

How do we write this?

Ellipsis and em-dash.

Ellipsis is used when a line of dialogue trails off.

Em-dash is used when dialogue s cut short, so for character speaking across one another we would use the em-dash.

We can also work with placement of the tags, thus:

I said, “I think we should do this––“

“––why would anyone do that!” Henry threw his hands in the air.