Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review, Part IV: STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks - Practical Principles for Writing

By Chris Mathews

Story engineering, Larry Brooks contends in his book by the same name, must contain milestones, which he defines as the points in the story where new information changes the direction, tension, and stakes of the story(the first plot point, midpoint, and second plot point, he calls “major milestones”).  Here are the milestones he outlines, along with my illustrations of his points using the Little Red Riding Hood story:

1)       The opening scene of the story—the set-up scene(the mother in Little Red Riding Hood, for example, carefully instructing her daughter to stay on the path and not to talk to strangers as she goes to take goodies to her sick grandmother)
2)       A hook (first 20 pages in novel, first 10 pages in screenplay)—the reader is grabbed by a question he/she must know the answer to(Why does the Wolf want to know where Little Red is going?)
3)      First plot point (occurs about ¼ of way into story)—the hero suddenly has a quest and a mission as the antagonist emerges(Little Red meets the manipulative BB Wolf and we see he may have bigger plans in mind—or else why wouldn’t he just eat her?—he could.) Conflict, without which there can be no story, comes into sharp focus here. (This wolf is big and bad and conniving and he is going to get in Red’s way.)
4)      The midpoint (at the exact middle of the story) which shifts the story’s context--probably occurs in Little Red when she gets to her grandma’s and starts to realize there is something a little wrong with this picture.
5)      The second plot point (3/4 of the way through the story)—in Little Red, when Red learns that the wolf is playing the part of Granny(“the better to eat you with”). At this point, the true power of the antagonist is revealed.
6)       The final resolution scene (In Red Riding Hood, this scene occurs when the hunter bursts in and kills the wolf.)

I find Brooks’ outline of structure useful, but too programmed.  Fortunately, he realizes that while screenplays must adhere closely to this structure, these points might be better thought of as principles for the novelist, rather than hard-and-fast rules.

Scene execution and writing voice comprise his final core competencies for the aspiring writer. The most important point he makes about scenes, I believe, is that each scene must move the story forward. All scenes must have a mission. He suggests writing scenes that propel the story forward, ending a scene with a question that drives the reader’s interest on. Brooks spends even less time on writing voice, feeling this competency is way overrated, especially at writing conferences. His watchwords are: keep it simple, and less is more. He favors “essence” over “eloquence.” While he acknowledges the importance of dialogue and feels you can develop an ear for dialogue, writers fail, he maintains, when they don’t get outside themselves in their dialogue.

In Story Engineering Larry Brooks has put together good benchmarks to help writers stand a better chance of being published. His contention is that knowing where you are going as you write is a good thing. Outlining can help strengthen and hold your story together. Intuition can be cultivated. Little Red Riding Hood may not be much of a heroine, by Brooks’ definition, but the story is compelling because the construction of the story holds. Theme is intertwined with character and conflict: listen to your mother, don’t be too naive, there are bad creatures out there. The storytelling of Little Red Riding Hood is tight. Every part fits together and has a purpose that leads forward.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Last Words Can Mean So Much

By Kimberly Johnson

The other day, at lunch, a friend of mine asked me how to write an obituary. We were eating at McAlister’s in Forest Acres. The place was pretty crowded and I wasn’t sure I heard him clearly. He repeated it and chewed on his club sandwich cautiously.  In a split second, a couple thoughts flashed through my mind: “(a) he must be really grief-stricken, and (b) why did he ask me?” To me, an obituary is a highly personal thing. I had to write one for my aunt, for my father and for my grandmother. So, after sipping some lemonade, I said:  “Just write from the heart. The rest will come to you.” My friend slightly persisted, “I want a Homegoing service that reflects the memory of my momma, not the staid stuff from the funeral home. I want the words to mean something.”

Back at work, I stared at my computer screen. Another thought entered my mind: Is there a formal way to write an obituary? That’s a heavy question. And I narrowed my search and found out, yes. Definition: An obituary is a news article that reports the person’s death, personal information and funeral information. Or, it can be the life story of the deceased in the funeral program. Text/layout and design: There are websites that provide templates. There are websites that restate what the funeral home staff explains. There are websites that provide instructions. Here’s one I liked: “Show, rather than tell. Show that the person was charitable by actual examples. Show with interesting stories, rather than telling with just dry facts.” (www. Cultural notes: My friend wants a Homegoing Service. It’s a phrase used in the African American community to celebrate the life and achievements of the deceased.

Alana Baranick, a newspaper obituary writer echoes the same sentiment I encountered, and soon my friend will face: “Summing up a life is an awesome responsibility.” 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

My Biggest Writing Regret

By Sarah Herlong

I‘ve never written a story about my first epic road trip. I remember the route, but not all the fresh insights of seeing this country for the first time. We were just out of college and I had the trip planned to Arizona. With my boyfriend Eric, we pieced together the rest of the trip on the fly. We drove 10-12 hours a day. We were busy stopping at national parks and monuments, and roadside attractions. We were poor, so we stayed at hostels and Motel 6’s along the way. So here is the story of my epic road trip in 394 words.

We traveled through 26 states in 15 days. We left Charlotte having been paid by my boyfriend’s mom for making her a sequined Christmas tree skirt. Weird, I know. We sped away from an angry mob in New Orleans, where we saw burned out cars. Stayed in El Paso in a hostel full of cowboys. Then to Tucson where we saw the most beautiful sunset ever amongst the saguaro cacti. Then it was on to the meteor crater. That’s in Arizona along with the little known place called the Grand Canyon. If you have a choice, go to the meteor crater, seriously.

At this point I was faced with driving through the desert at night up into the hills and then over the Hoover Dam. There were lots of white crosses with messages warning about hell that added to the ambience of fear. Then we rounded a curve and there was Vegas laid out beneath us, lighting up the sky. It was breathtaking. We stayed in a Motel 6 off the strip with lots of people clutching briefcases, and wearing desperate looks on their faces.
It was disconcerting.

The next day we drove the length of Nevada, which is all desert. We crossed over the Sierra Nevadas and made our way to San Francisco. We were totally overwhelmed with its beauty, and promptly made our way through the tenderloin district on foot. I looked as tough and mean as I could. Eric did too, but he was wearing a sweater vest, and that look is hard to pull off. We made quite the bizarre pair alongside all the crack heads.

Then to Yellowstone where we made the acquaintance of some menacing buffalo surrounding our car, with us still in it. And we saw a moose minding it’s own business. We went to Thermopolis, a town with an old hot spring spa turned hostel. I remember a scary lady staring out at us from her window, never taking her eyes off us. It was a little Bates Motel. We had to use a payphone to contact the manager to actually let us in, which we were having a considerably hard time doing. This was before cell phones. I swear some places are just built scary, like that’s what the architect had in mind. Then after some more adventures, it was time to go home.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Marion Aldridge is enjoying his retirement career as a writer, blogger, humorist and consultant. His latest book is about coming “unstuck” at any age:  Overcoming Adolescence. It has sold over 20,000 copies.    He has written over 100 articles for magazines ranging from SC Wildlife to Sandlapper to Tennis. Aldridge is married, has two adult daughters and one grandson and was recently awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor. 

Marion's first blog at this site follows.

Writing Non-Fiction Articles and Columns

By Marion Aldridge“Writing Non-Fiction Articles and Columns”
Marion Aldridge
for July 7, 2013, SCWW Blog

“Two types of writers fall short; those who write well about unimportant things, and those who write badly about important things.” Edward Hoagland, Tigers and Ice

Bodies don’t fall out of closets in most non-fiction, which is what I write. Short of corpses, I try to begin my articles, columns or chapters with some startling fact, or a clever, edgy, surprising, or funny phrase or story. Is there an elephant in the room that needs to be named? I like it when my writing provokes an “I can’t believe you said that!” response.

Start with a bang, and then assume that your reader has Attention Deficit Disorder.

Write about your passion. If the subject bores you, pity your poor reader.

Upgrade the verbs and adjectives in your document. If you treat one subject frequently, create your own thesaurus for that topic.

Avoid duplicating words, unless you use repetition for effect. I am utterly predictable in my critique groups. When someone uses the exact expression two times in close proximity, I will circle each instance. If the author returns to the cognates of that term over and over in the course of a manuscript, I believe a writer must find a way to say the same thing differently.

Read. The first time I heard someone declare that though they wanted to write, they did not enjoy reading, I thought that might be the stupidest confession I have ever heard. If you don’t like to read, don’t write.

Be witty. Even in the most serious of novels, odd and quirky events provide texture to the narrative. Entertain. Light and airy is better for most people than dense and intense.

Read what you have written out loud. Revise. Cut. Get to a fifth draft and a sixth draft. Whatever it takes. No short cuts. Composing an article is torturous and tedious work for me. I have served on boards when people would ask me, “Would you write up an account of this meeting? You are a good writer.” Would you ask a painter to sketch a watercolor of the meeting? Would your request that a pianist provide a melody describing the meeting? The person making the request doesn’t understand what they are asking. Writing, for me, is serious business and hard work.

Give the readers some way to respond to your composition with their senses. What in your article can they taste? Or smell? Get them to snap their fingers. That involves sound and touch. Don’t let the reader get bored or go to sleep. Can you add some color, maybe a vivid neon orange, or a subtle violet?

The biggest mistake I see in wannabe writers is thinking they will be the next Emily Dickenson, that when they are dead, someone will come along and find their clever words and finally appreciate the genius that they were. Not gonna happen. It occurred exactly once in history—and that was to Emily Dickenson. Every other writer had to work at the craft. William Shakespeare wrote for profit and on deadline. You are not better than Shakespeare. Hunker down. Write. Practice your profession. We learn to write by writing.