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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Story Question Part One

Before I started writing fiction, I'd done a lot of nonfiction writing, especially scientific. I was surprised at how different the two forms were! The main difference I think was this:

In nonfiction writing, you need to put all the facts up front and explain things in a clear and logical progression.

In fiction writing, you must always leave at least one question unanswered.

This principle in fiction must be followed from the micro to the macro level. For example, one thing that drives me nuts and is all too common in unpubbed or self-pubbed manuscripts is reading a description that goes something like this:

Carlotta reached for the pastry and held it against her lips, then pulled it back and shook the powdered sugar off. She dusted the white dust off her black Capris where it had sprinkled. Then she took a bite, and the flaky crust was as good as it had looked. The filling was dark cherry, and its tartness contrasted perfectly with the buttery covering. "This is so good," she said, and she took another bite.

This, to me, is full of unnecessary description and no tension. Unless you need a vicarious sensation because you're on a diet, reading something like this won't do anything. This kind of writing is also characterized by calling something by several different names: for example the powdered sugar is also white dust.

OK, so how would you make a passage like this better?

My first inclination would be to cut this completely. If Carlotta really has to eat that pastry, then you've got to think of a reason why this might be a problem so that the reader wants to know if she does eat it:

she's on a diet
this is the last pastry and she wants to eat it before someone else grabs it
she hasn't eaten anything for two days and this is the only food around
she's in a cooking contest and needs to taste her competitor's wares
and so forth

Even these reasons have to link to a bigger story question: for example she MUST lose ten pounds by next Sunday or she won't get the modeling contract that will allow her access to the hallway so she can investigate Uncle Joe's untimely death. Or whatever.

Don't distract your reader with trivia. Every word should direct itself towards the story question or a sub-question (which can include character development). OK, let me take a stab a making that passage better:

Carlotta eyed the last pastry in the box, then turned to Greg sitting next to her at the conference table.

"Do you want that?" she asked.

Greg squinted. "What?"

The pastry was from that expensive bakery downstairs -- she recognized the box. They made the most delectable confections. Her stomach rumbled.

No. Their presentation was in five minutes. She imagined spraying crumbs while explaining the first graph.

She saw Pam across the table eyeing that pastry, though; she knew it would be gone...

I'm writing this late at night so this isn't great prose, but it's at least better than the first example. This section reveals some character traits and a goal that Carlotta has, as well as establishing a bit more of a setting. In the first example, anyone would have had the same sensation of tasting a pastry. In the second example, specifics are revealed through an action. The story advances.


Ruth Dell said...

Hi Amy

I'm really enjoying your new series of blogs on Story. Thank you for your clear teaching.

I look forward to buying Template as soon as it's available.


Ruth Dell

Sarah Salter said...

Writing has actually changed the way I read. I think we discussed earlier that I've started diagramming the books I read in order to help me learn about structure, format, etc. (Yes, I diagram them. Stop laughing.) Now, as I'm going back and re-reading books that I used to enjoy, I find myself scribbling notes in the margins like, "TMI!" And "Do I really need to know what his office looks like? How does this apply to the overall theme?"

Thanks for these great reminders, Amy!! :-)

By the way, Sadie and I miss you. I hope you're doing well!