Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Quest for Story: #8 -- What Do You Mean by That?

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Pond Bridge)

(This is post number eight in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

It's been a while since our last stop on the quest -- time pressures forced me off schedule last week, and I took part in Alex's 'Genre' blogfest yesterday.

So to catch up, let's review the quest so far: In the first parts, I defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character), and last time, talked about maintaining the middle (the center-point of the plot, where the character faces a increasingly difficult series of mini-crises in their climb towards the finish).

We only have three more stops on this quest, and I think after seeing 'The Beginning' and 'The Middle', you can probably guess what one of them is going to be. 

But let's save that one for its appropriate spot....

Instead, today I want to hit an element that grows out of a simple question:  What is the story about? 

Because a good story has this:


A story's meaning is often not just a single thing, and in a "good story" there are usually several layers.  There's the story's subject, probably some recurring motifs, one or more underlying themes, and perhaps even -- if the author wants to drive home a practical point for the reader to learn from -- a moral.

A compelling plot can hold us riveted, complex and engaging characters can be wonderfully entertaining, and an author's voice can be so silky smooth that we simply lose ourselves in it, but for a truly 'good story,' these elements have to do a little more.  They need to work together to give us something deeper; something that resonates within us and makes us think of that story long after we've finished reading the words.

But here's the tricky part -- often it's out of the author's hands. 

Yes, a writer can be concrete as hell about the subject ("War! Uhhnn! What is it good for?"); intentionally plant some recurring motifs which relate to the subject (death; destroyed buildings; recurring losses of loved ones; repeated bravery in the face of certain death); sculpt the plot to enhance a specific theme ("there are no real winners in war"); and maybe even go so far as to try and give a clear moral ("make peace, not war!"). 

But then a given reader -- who may or may not see all of the elements the author consciously inserted -- can read the story and end up taking their OWN meaning away from it ("Love conquers all!").

Like effective visual arts, compelling creative writing impacts each person differently. A good story requires that each reader brings a little of themselves to it, and in return, each reader gets a little something unique out of it.  The story resonates within them in a special way based on each reader's individual emotions and life experiences.

This is OK, and even desirable, I think. 

A story may begin with the elements of meaning that a skilled author inserted (subject, motif, theme, and moral), but within the reader the story grows to be more than what the writer intended.  A synergistic ignition of emotion happens within the heart and mind of the reader, and they pull a deeper meaning out of it.

And this magical bridging of the gap between what the author intended and what the reader takes away can elevate a piece of fiction into a 'good story'.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Genre Favorite Blogfest!

I'll be back tomorrow with entry #7 the continuing Quest for Story, but for today, I'm taking part in Alex Cavanaugh's Genre Favorites Blogfest!

For this blogfest, we get to name four things:

  • Our favortie genre of Move
  • Our favorite genre of Music
  • Our favorite genre of Books
  • A guilty pleasure from one of the above.
Pretty simple, huh?  Well, you can check out my blogger profile for some specific examples of my favorites from the three genres, but let me summarize here:

Movie:  I like a wide variety of films, but in general, I tend to lean towards science fiction -- "Aliens," "Blade Runner," and many others always come to mind when I think of my favorite movies.

Music: Again, I like a wide variety of music, from Jazz like Miles and Coltrane to the jaw-dropping amazing chicken-pickin' of The Hellecasters, but I definitely lean towards guitar-based music, and my favorite genre is probably Jam Band -- The Dead, Moe, The Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks, and others.

Books:  Well, again -- love a wide variety and can appreciate almost anything if it's written well, but my favorites are Mysteries, and -- again -- Science Fiction. "Dune," "A Stranger in a Strange Land," "A Clockwork Orange," "Fahrenheit 451," "Foundation," all the N-Space Niven novels, and a gazillion others.

Guilty Pleasures: Well, for a movie, I might go with "All That Jazz." It's a great movie based on the life of Bob Fosse, but it's quite a departure for me from the types of movies I generally like.  For music, I could say Supertramp or maybe Sade, both of whom I really enjoy ("Crime of the Century" is a particularly amazing album), but they're quite a bit different from the 'cooler' music I typically like.  As for a book, how about "Interview with a Vampire" by Anne Rice?  I'm no vampire fan in general, and especially dislike the "sexy, dreamy, bad-boy with fangs" variety, but this was a book I actually enjoyed quite a lot.  The sequels went from bad to worse until I finally gave up on reading them, but in this first book of the series, Anne was on the top of her game.

Thanks for stopping by, and I encourage you to check out Alex's BLOG to see all the other participants of this blogfest -- visit as many of them as you can!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Quest for Story: #7 -- Stuck in the Middle with You

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Sunset Headstones)

(This is post #7 in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

To recap our quest so far: I've defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), and mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character).

But now, frankly, I'm not sure I can go on with the quest.

I can't think of what direction to go next.  I've run out of ideas, hit a brick wall, and everything I try seems to be falling short.  Nothing is working, and everything seems to oppose me.  At this point, it looks like the quest may have to be called off, and that I may be doomed to fail.

Know where I'm at?

The Middle

Every good story needs one. 

We've had a beginning, and at some point, we'll (hopefully) have an ending, but there has to be a separation between the two.  There has to be the point where the conflict and tension seem insurmountable. For now, we're there -- stuck at the lowest point.

The darkest hour.  Where things look their gravest.

The point in the story where a character hits rock bottom, and where the reader thinks the story might -- just maybe -- end in disaster for the character with the failure of all he was trying to obtain.

Of course, some stories do end this way.  But then, with these dark stories, their middle is usually the point at which it looks like the character will succeed, where they're riding high, and everything seems to be going their way.  With these tragic anti-stories, the middle of the plot is many times essentially just the mirror image of the traditional story's low-point middle.

The length of a story's middle-section varies, but it's typically the bulk of the story.  Using the well-known three-act structure, the beginning takes about 1/4 of the story, the ending takes another 1/4, and the middle takes 1/2 -- as much as the beginning and ending combined.  In a novel-length story, the middle can have a whole series of mini-crises and resolutions, all continuing to build tension and drama, and raising the stakes, until -- at the peak (or pit depending on how you picture the story arc), the whole plot looks like it might end with disaster. 

But it (usually) doesn't.  Somehow, through some last tiny bit of inner strength, the main character breaks through the wall, overcomes the crisis, or realizes the key piece of information that crystallizes everything, and gains new energy to charge on to the final climax. 

But the story's not over -- not by a long shot.  Just because the main character has climbed out of the pit of despair doesn't mean he's done with his quest.  The final conflict of the plot still needs to be faced, but now, with the character having made it through the challenges of the middle, the ending been unleashed and the story is racing towards it at full speed.

And we'll talk about it more in the next installment of this quest...

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Quest for Story: #6 -- A Time and a Place

(Photo by Chris J. Fries -- 2012: Reflections)
(This is post #6 in a quest to define what creates "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

In the first half of this series, we defined the three key elements that I believe must be present to create a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice.  Then we added in a few more details which elevates a story -- an effective beginning and emotionally compelling conflict.

For the second half of our quest, we will  continue fleshing out the elements of character, plot, and voice.  Today we cover an element that can have either a huge impact or virtually none, depending on the story.  The key is to know how much a given story needs.

Try to imagine Frank Herbert's Dune set anywhere else than on the desert planet Arrakis.  Or Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath taking place at some time other than the Great Depression. Think Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep would work as well if Phillip Marlow was a private investigator anywhere other than Los Angeles in the 1930's?  How important are the creatures and landmarks of Middle-Earth to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?

All these novels succeed in part because of another important element of a good story:


Setting is the "when" and "where" of a story.  For some stories, setting is almost insignificant. Just enough information is needed to ground the plot.  For others, it is a vital element, so much so that the setting 'becomes a character in itself', to use the old adage.  At this level, the setting affects the plot and the other characters, and the plot leads to change and consequences for the setting.

Some of the need for setting is driven by genre -- science fiction and fantasy typically requires more time establishing the setting.  The more alien the universe, the more groundwork a writer has to do to get the reader to understand that world.  But even within those genres, some stories will still really only need the level of  "modern day in a big city somewhere" setting to be entirely effective.

I think the secret is to know what's right for a given story, and for me that's driven by two things:  I want to describe the parts of the setting that are critical for the plot, and the elements that a character's POV would see, when they impact that character.  And the level of impact helps guide how much effort to put into it. 

World-building can be fun, but I think many writers can overdo it.  Perhaps they're familiar with that 'setting as character' line (and hasn't every high school English teacher rolled it out?), and so that's what they aspire to.  In every story, regardless of how important the setting really is, they'll have sweeping depictions of the landscape and the weather; rigorous establishment of historic timelines; and detailed descriptions of every item of flora and fauna.

Personally, I think setting is important (or I wouldn't be making this post), but I also tend to lean towards the 'less is more' school of thought when it comes to description and setting.  I'd just rather not risk having my readers bogged down in extraneous detail.  I also don't want them gawking at the scenery when I'm trying to get them attached to my characters or working to advance the plot.

I think setting is like Thanksgiving turkey -- just the right amount really adds to the holiday, and in the hands of a skillful cook (like my lovely wife), it can be a mouth-watering treat that I can look forward to all year.  But left to a shakier chef it can come out dry and bland, and too much of it always leaves me snoozing on the couch in a tryptophan-induced coma.

So how important is setting to you?  Is it a vital element of your own Good Story Quest?

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Pause in the Quest: September Goals

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Sunset Peony)

For this post, I'm taking a brief pause in my Quest for Story series.  It will return with part six in my next post on Wednesday or Thursday, but since this is my first post for September, it also means that the sun has set on August.

So for this post, I want to review my August writing goals and make new ones for this month.

Here are the ten goals I posted back at the beginning of August with their month-end results and grades:

1.  Give my short story “Too Quiet” a final once-over and resubmit.  Completed and submitted (result pending) -- 10 out of 10 points.

2.  Finish the editing of the revised “Waiting Backstage” short story and resubmit.  Completed and submitted (result pending) -- 10 out of 10.

3.  Complete the requested revision of “Apologies” and resubmit.  Story revised and edited, but cannot resubmit yet because publication which requested it is temporarily closed for submissions -- I'll call it 8 out of 10.

4.  Write at least one new short story or flash piece and submit.  New concept created and outlined, and the story has been started, but not yet finished -- so maybe 5 out of 10.

5.  Create at least one micro flash piece and submit.  Actually, three were written and submitted (and I've already received rejections back on them) -- 10 out of 10.

6.  Finish the outline for the revision of my WIP novel, and revise at least the first chapter.  Some work done on the outline, but nowhere near finished, and not many chapter revisions made -- Call it only 2 out of 10.

7.  Complete the post for Nicole’s Olympic Blog Relay and submit to her for posting on August 6th.  Yep, did this -- 10 out of 10.

8.  Vote on each entry in DL’s WRiTE CLUB 2012 competition (twice per week).  I've voted on every one (and they've expanded to three each week), with long posts offered as feedback like I'd want to hear -- 10 out of 10.

9.  Add a new post on this blog at least once each week (preferably twice).  Posted twice each week in August -- 10 out of 10.

10. Read and comment on at least ten blogs I follow each week.  I've commented on way over 10 blogs each week, so this is definitely 10 out of 10.

So all together, this adds up to 84 out of 100 -- a solid "B" if I'm grading it.  Not perfect, but solid.  However, I am  a little disappointed that more new writing wasn't done.  Items 4, 5, and 6 were the goals that focused on this and I only made 17 out of 30 in these, a clear FAIL.  So this month I plan to emphasize this area a little more in my goals.

With that in mind, here are my writing goals for September:

1.  Finish the short story I began in August and submit.
2.  Come up with at least five other new story ideas.
3.  Create story outlines for at least two of those ideas.
4.  Write and submit at least one story from those outlines.
5.  Write and submit at least one piece of micro-fiction.
6.  Complete the overall outline revision for my WIP novel.
7.  Revise at least the first chapter of my WIP novel.
8.  Vote on each entry in DL's WRiTE Club 2012 competition.
9.  Take part in Alex Cavanaugh's Genre Favorites blogfest on September 17th
10.  Finish my Quest for Story blog series, posting preferably twice a week.

Because I only want ten goals, I haven't included one about visiting and commenting on at least 10 blogs a week, but that is something I will also certainly try to do. I'm also going to submit the re-written "Apologies" as soon as the publication reopens for submissions, but I didn't make that a specific goal.

So with this new set of goals for September, I'm hoping to get some solid writing done.  Wish me luck!