Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Favorite Writing Ideas, Part I

Now that I'm coming to the end of my fiction MFA, I thought I'd try to record the most essential lessons I learned.
To start out, here are three ideas about writing that I encountered in my first fiction workshop ever in college. The instructor was Bret Anthony Johnston, a genius and former professional skateboarder. I remember him teaching a few classes about craft. All of a sudden, my ability to structure a story snapped into shape. It was like the opposite of writer's block. These three tips were magic for me. I hope you feel the same way!

Bret's tips:

1.  Give your characters something to want
Desire is at the root of all suspense, and if your character wants something from the very beginning--even just a glass of water--then the reader will stick around to see if they get what they want. 

2.  Light your fuses before you set your bombs off. 
What Bret means by this is that a truly satisfying story--even a surprising one--always has some kind of internal logic. (Also related to Chekhov's famous instruction: If there's a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act of the play, it had better go off by the third.) 

3. Repetition and evolution. 
Short stories are so short that their emotional resonance and even structure is always (one way or another) born from the repetition and evolution of certain thoughts, objects, emotions, anything else. In Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff (one of the best stories in the universe), one main repetition is the main character's jadedness, which comes up first when we hear that he is a savage critic, then when he faces the criminal, and then peels away in the flashback through his life.  The understanding of the character's habits that we gather so quickly, and then the power of the evolution of that feeling, go a long way in making this short-short feel like a novel.  

Other ideas:

Bret had a long list of clich├ęs we were supposed to avoid at all costs in our writing. I know that "rules are meant to be broken," but as a student, I found this sheet indispensable. A few examples:

-Don't begin a story with an alarm clock going off/a character waking up in the morning. 
This is pretty much the #1 most amateur way to begin a story. Who knew?

-Don't write "slice of life" stories. 
As in, a story that merely details everything that happens ordinarily. Focus on times when something changes, when something isn't quite normal.

-Don't describe what a character dreams. 
Not like, "I dream of becoming an actor," but what they actually dream at night. This is usually just a facile shortcut into Major Themes and Desires and Subconscious Yearnings. Better, and more subtle, to have these ideas come through in waking life. Also, don't have a twist at the end that reveals that the whole story was just a dream.

-Don't have the characters be under the influence of alcohol and drugs. 
This is the one I've broken most often. And lots of great works of literature break it too. (For example, every story in everyone's favorite collection, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.) But the idea is that people act irrationally when they're abusing substances, to the point where the story can get away with anything it wants, with no consequences, no character consistency (or, just as important, startling lack of consistency), and therefore no emotional resonance.

-Don't write a story that ends suddenly with the suicide of the main character. 
I totally agree that often people end scenes or stories right when they should have begun. What happens after what you perceive of as the end?

-Don't write a story that centers entirely around a character's conversation with his or her therapist. 
Why? Because you risk writing a blatantly obvious story. And it's been done a lot.

I hope that you find these ideas helpful--or maybe at least interesting!
Next time, advice from Amy Hempel!

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