Stickman v. “The Torment of St. Anthony”
On the left, representing Summary, we have Stickman. I am the artist who drew this stickman with a simple drawing program, Paint, found on most computers. There’s not a whole lot you can do with Paint. We’re not talking tubes of Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colors, a set of Kolinsky Sable brushes, and Caravaggio oil-primed linen canvas. We’re talking a mouse dragging a cartoon pencil across a white square. Maybe some of you are good at Paint. I’ll bet that most of you are not.
You’ll notice that Stickman is missing a number of essential body parts. He is flat. Even though he is dangling in the air by his head, you probably find it hard to get worked up about his predicament. You know nothing about Stickman. He does not act, he does not talk, he does not think or feel. You have no emotional investment in what’s happening. His story is missing letters. Maybe you wouldn’t have even guessed that the word below Stickman is “story” if I hadn’t told you. In short, he is boring.
On the right side, representing Scene, we have “The Torment of St. Anthony” by Michelangelo. Anthony, we’ll call him for short, appears to have his body parts intact. However, we can’t help but wonder if he’ll manage to hold on to them much longer. He is being pulled in different directions by a number of incredibly detailed demons. The painting is rich in color and has depth; we can see rocks in the foreground and water, land, and mountains in the background. But never mind the scenery. Anthony has some serious torments and temptations to deal with. Even with the stoic look on his face and the halo, we know that he’s struggling. You can’t help but wonder how this will turn out, Unlike Stickman, Anthony is not boring.
Luckily for us, we will not have to work with either the Paint program or the paint of Michelangelo. We have keyboards, an incredible number of words at our disposal, and all the demons we can dream up.
On Leaving Out the “Hooptedoodle”
For the first few weeks, we will focus on creating vivid, well-written scenes, with lean, precise language—the present action of the story, scenes that propel the story forward. Action, dialogue, forward movement, with as few detours as possible. We will try not to bogged down in exposition that makes us stop at the curb for a while, jiggle the change in our pockets and hum to ourselves, waiting for the light to change and something—anything—to happen.
Let’s try to keep Elmore Leonard’s advice about leaving out the “hooptedoodle” in mind . Of course, writers should take all advice with a grain of salt, especially “rules” that begin with the word “Never.” Nevertheless, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with a number of books on the writing craft and free online resources such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab, as well as the advice offered by writers who have a solid track record. People in any profession are expected to be familiar with the tools and standard operating procedures of their trade. We should take ourselves just as seriously.
Consider, too, the writing that you enjoy reading. How do the authors create an enjoyable experience for you? How do they get out of the way of their writing so that you can disappear into the world they create?
Yes, you’ll find rule-breakers among great writers everywhere. And yes, there are various modes of writing beyond the scene, including exposition, description, summary, reflection, and various types of transitions, and these are indispensable tools that all writers should learn to use skillfully. Summary can be the perfect shorthand for what doesn’t need to spelled out. Readers don’t need you to account for every moment of a character’s life. They want you to write the moments that make them sit up straight and pay attention; they don’t care that your characters got up in the morning and brushed their teeth, showered, and shaved.
Some parts of a story (periods of time) carry much less narrative weight than others; summary can serve as a bridge between scenes that engage readers and move the story forward. It’s important to understand how all these writing modes, including scenes, affect tension in our stories. Without tension, that quality that keeps us turning the page—believing that the writer has interesting things to say (and says them well), wondering what will happen next, and caring what will happen (Stickman? Not so much)—readers will find something else to read or watch, or there’s Facebook, or a number of other distractions.
Here, I’m reminded of my grandfather, stretched out in his recliner by the fire, droning on and on, the word “would” spoken over and over. “Back when I was a young boy we would” and “I remember when I played football in college I would.” Would after would after would, while we sat politely and thought of other things. Until my grandmother stubbed her Marlboro Light in the ashtray and shouted, “Shut up, Ken. Nobody wants to hear those old stories.” Let’s not be Ken.
A Summary of “Scene v. Summary”
Read Like a Writer
As you read sample stories each week, I encourage you to read once for pleasure and a second time as a writer. Print stories and read them with a pen in hand. Get physical with the stories. Draw brackets, circles, arrows, lines. Write notes. Determine tense, point of view and camera length, how far we zoom in and out. Circle recurring images, any detail or phrase you find remarkable.
For example: I wrote many notes on my copy of “Referential” (see link in Readings list below), but what I particularly noticed was the contrast in the two major scenes of the story: the scene that begins seven paragraphs into the story with the mother, her son, and Pete at the visitors’ table, and the long scene at the end of the story with the mother and Pete. In the first scene, I noted description that reveals character (“Perhaps the staff person did not want the scissors near him for a prolonged period and had snipped quickly, then leaped away, then approached again, grabbed and snipped, then jumped back”), dialogue that reveals relationships and the loss of them, and the strange and poetic language of the son that is naked in its honesty and emotionally raw. This is in sharp contrast to the final scene, with its formality, coldness, and lack of intimacy and honesty. Yet this scene also reveals much about the relationship of the characters. The reader sees what the mother does not acknowledge, at least out loud.
Figure out how the story is structured, how much weight is given to exposition, summary, scene, and other story elements. Jot down your reactions, anything at all that you notice. Where do scenes begin and end? Where are the scenes in time? Present action or in the past?
Think about the reasons the writer chose to expand this particular part of the story into a scene, why that point in the story rated the scene treatment. What is accomplished in the scene? Is character revealed? Does the plot move forward? What is the writer doing, and how do you respond?
Reading stories with a critical eye and a good pen will help you become better at assessing and revising your own work. Reading stories in journals online will also give you a good sense of what is being published now and the aesthetics of different journals. Some journals will disappoint you. Some journals will be a delight, issue after issue. There’s only one way to find out.
Tell yourself it’s homework and reading will make you smarter. Or read with the simple joy you experienced as a kid reading under the covers with a flashlight. Whatever works. But read.
- Lorrie Moore “Referential”
- Emma Pattee “The Hard Years”
- Pete Fromm, “Watch me”
- Damon Barta, “Flight Path”
- Or read stories in your particular genre. Just be sure to read them once for pleasure, then as a writer.
- Lorrie Moore took her cue for “Referential” from a Nabokov story, asking “what if” at points in “Signs and Symbols.” Read the interview that follows the story. You can try this, too. One possibility: Create characters (who may have their own issues with each other) dealing with a difficult family member who is about to be incarcerated or hospitalized. Imagine possible scenes.
- Emma Pattee took a cue from a childhood memory. She says at the end of her story: “The inspiration for it was actually this memory I have of when I was a little kid and my best friend asked my mom a question: she asked if she and my dad had ever done x, y, or z. And my mom said, ‘When you’ve been married as long as we have, there’s nothing you haven’t done to each other.’” Is there a particular image or phrase that has haunted you? Develop it into a scene.
- The parent-adult child scene in “Watch Me” is definitely unexpected. Nothing routine about that at all. The final scene is loaded with tension. Make one of your parent/adult child characters a respectable sort, the other, well, not so much. Surprise your reader with a scene using these two characters.
- The World Book salesman in “Flight Path” talks about selling products, vacuum cleaners and encyclopedia books, in terms of selling stories to people with certain dreams. Write a scene in which one character tries to sell a product or service to someone. Remember that the salesperson is not just selling a product, but fulfillment of a dream. Try to make both characters, and whatever is being sold, as vivid as possible. Draw out the tension.
How to Overcome the Blank Screen and Get the Ball Rolling
If your writing practices and routines are starting to feel stale, try new approaches. You might enjoy reading how other writers gather ideas and kickstart their stories. For example, in a Paris Review interview, Ray Bradbury talks about writing lists of nouns and then writing “little pensées” about them. Paris Review interviews link:
Picture your characters and write about them: something about their backgrounds, their desires, their relationships with each other, their strengths and flaws—anything that makes them come alive for you—and what they will do in this scene. Try getting outside your narrator head and inside their heads, too. Think their thoughts, and talk through their mouths. Walk around in their bodies. How do they move?
Many stories are based more on a “disruption” than the “conflict” so often talked about in books on fiction techniques. A person arrives, or an incident occurs, that disrupts the day-to-day life of the character. Brainstorm a character (or a couple) from a photo or a name pulled from the phonebook (or the name of anyone you don’t know), then throw that character a major curveball.
Talk to yourself, via the keyboard, about what you want to happen in your scene: how it will reveal character and move the story forward. Visualize the scene. Rough it out in a sketchy, outline-y, conversational sort of way. Basically, give yourself some raw material to work with. It’s easier to hang a hat (or halo and flying demons) on a stickman than an invisible man.
A Few Tips
If you use precise nouns and verbs, you won’t have much need for adjectives and adverbs.
Dialogue tags are necessary to indicate who is speaking. They’re for clarity only, so keep them simple. Rarely is more than a simple “said” necessary. If it’s obvious who is speaking, don’t bother with them. On the other hand, don’t make your reader retrace lines, saying: “Jack, Jill, Jack, Jill, Jack, Jill—OK, I guess Jack probably says this line.” That stops a story dead in its tracks. Don’t want to use a lot of “saids”? Show the character who is talking. For example: Jill grabbed the pail out of Jack’s hand and turned toward the hill. “I can fetch my own water, thank you.”
Don’t forget to ground your characters. No disembodied voices bobbing in space, please. We should see where they are and what they’re doing. Just a few details to establish setting should do the trick, as well as brief descriptions—glimpses, really, a precise, telling detail or two—of your characters’ physicality: what they look like, how they move, what and who they touch, how they handle objects. Characters are more than voices. Give them bodies and animate them in ways that reveal who they are. Give them a world to live in.
One space after periods. Always.