W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Due to an ever increasing workload, W3 will be suspended for the next few months.

D-L Nelson continues to write for Writers Forum, a UK magazine for writers. Visit their website at

You may contact her directly at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr

Friday, July 14, 2006

No. 46 Describing Action


When we think of description we usually think of scenery, weather, the way a place looked. However describing actions is another way of moving the plot forward. In movies the camera pans for the viewer or moves into a close up of the action they want the audience to see, but writers must put the words in print so the reader can focus on the action and then glean the meaning.

Action in this sense does not necessarily mean shoot-‘em-up cop stories or violence in any form. Some can be quite subtle, as having a character reach over and take another character’s hand to show acquiescence after a small argument or sympathy after bad news.

Like anything we write it is the choice of details that give our readers an insight into what is happening. The importance of the action is weighted about how the characters (point of view) react to it or don’t react to it.

We can choose distance or close ups just like a movie camera. A car can pass in the street as someone looks out a window and thinks that it the third time the car has gone by. Or we can be in the car with the driver. The type of car, age, speed, all can give a reader a sense of what is important. If the character draws the drape, rushes to the phone or ignores the car tells the reader what is happening.

A door slam shows anger. If it is so hard that paint flakes off, the mood, is intensified have the handle fall off and still another fact is conveyed either about the condition of the door or the degree of anger of the slammer

Very different is a subtle change of a facial expression: a lip that quivers, an eyebrow that is raised. Often this type of description shows an underlying emotion without the writer having to tell what is being felt.

Sometimes the character assigns words to the action so the reader gets the message loud and clear. Other times the actions tell the reader something that the character hasn’t caught on to. A man who hangs up the phone suddenly when his wife enters the room, but the wife doesn’t see it, lets the reader know he is up to something sneaky. The tension builds waiting for the wife to find out what that is.

Writers don’t necessarily separate descriptions of scenes actions and dialogue, but weave them in and out to help the reader live the writing.


Both are from MY SISTER’S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult. The speaker is the younger daughter, born to provide body parts for her older sister who is suffering from cancer. Mostly the girls get along, but sometimes they fall out as normal sisters will.

1. “A minute later she (the mother) left, and returned with potholders, dishtowels and throw pillows. She placed these at odd distances, all along Kate’s side of the room. ‘Come on,’ she urged, but I did not move. So she came and sat down beside me on my bed. ‘It may be Kate’s pond,’ she said, ‘but these are my lily pads.’ Standing, she jumped on a dishtowel, and from there, onto a pillow. She glanced over her shoulder, until I climbed onto the dishtowel. From the dishtowel to a pillow to a pot holder Jesse had made in first grade, all the way across Kate’s side of the room. Following my mother’s footsteps was the surest way out.”

Note: Kate and her sister had divided their room with a line down the middle and neither sister could enter the other’s territory. The narrator had chosen the side with the toys and had played happily while her sister had no access to her playthings. However, lunchtime came, and the narrator could not cross the line to leave the room. The door was on Kate’s side. The mother comes to the rescue. Notice the props the mother carries: pot holders, dishtowels and pillows and the extra two details that the pot holder was made by her brother in first grade. The mother renames the props lily pads. Not only does the mother put down an acceptable escape room she demonstrates by walking on the newly named lily pads. We get the emotional story in the last sentence. The actions of the mother tells a lot about her attitude toward her daughter. She takes her problem seriously and finds a solution. Because of other things in the book, it is unusual for the mother to do this, so it builds in another aspect to the mother that we haven’t seen before.

2. “In our living room we have a whole shelf devoted to the visual history of our family. Everyone’s baby pictures are there, and some school head shots, and then various photos form vacations and birthdays and holiday. They make me think of notches on a belt or scratches on a prison wall – proof that time has passed that we haven’t all just been swimming in limbo.

“There are double frames, singles 8x10s, 4x6s. They are made of blond wood and inlaid wood and one very fancy glass mosaic. I pick up one of Jesse – he’s about two, in a cowboy costume. Looking at it, you never know what’s coming down the pike.

“There’s Kate with hair and Kate all bald; one of Kate as a baby sitting on Jesse’s lap; one of my mother holding each of them on the edge of a pool. There are pictures of me, too, but not many. I go from infant to about ten years old in one fell swoop.”

Note: At first this looks like the description of an ordinary family shelf of photos. However the author adds a few details that make the section emotionally charged. Kate is bald after she has hair. We know from earlier in the book Kate has cancer, the baldness drives it home. The narrator’s reaction is negative. Notches on a belt or prison scratches are not happy comparisons. Swimming in limbo also adds to the negative feelings of the scene. That there are photos of the older sister and brother through out childhood, by nine years are missing from the narrator’s life also shows volumes about the narrator’s place in the family. The narrator also chooses action words in phrases like coming down the pike and one fell swoop in a stationary scene. In a way the setting up of the shelf of pictures is action that went before and gives an insight into the family’s dynamic. The first two children are important, the second is not.


1. Take any book and mark in yellow all action description. That means the non-dialogue, non-scenery description…

2. A man decides to jump out of a plane to prove to himself he has the courage to face his wife’s final illness. He is terrified of heights. Write a description of his actions showing his reluctance as he parks the car at the airport where the jump will take place. Use no dialogue.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

NO 45: Writing about grief


Witnessing real grief is easy. Turn on the news. An Iraqi father holds his dead daughter, a Dafur refugee looks numb as she sits in a camp and tells of the hacking of her family and how she is the only survivor. Anyone who has seen FAHRENHEIT 9/11 remembers the mother of a dead soldier who goes to Washington, DC. A woman attacks her verbally. Then the mother walks toward the White House. Suddenly she bends over in a pain that permeates from the screen into every cell of the watcher.

An example of shown grief can be found in BROADBACK MOUNTAIN. The lover holds a shirt against his body and we know it contains a memory, and we know he regrets not having the courage to go with his lover. The mother, devastated by her own grief, lets him take the clothing away without ever admitting she knows the true relationship between her son and the guest. The pain is there, but it is never spoken. The actions say more than any dialogue.

This pain is what a writer needs to capture, not just for the three-minute newscast but what happens the next day, week, month, however long the character stays with the story. The reader needs to know how the loss is internalized into the character.

This is where showing versus telling comes into play. Writing about grief is one of the hardest things to do because it is so easy to slip into sentimentality that dilutes the pain.

Details show grief. They show how the character is changed by the tragedy whatever it is. Is there rage, a shutdown of emotion, fear, denial or acceptance – all the normal stages according to the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross? The stages make fertile ground for a writer.

We don’t want to tritely run our character through the stages showing a situation for each stage. Having different characters caught in different stages can set up conflict that adds to the drama of your work. A sister who refused to think about her dead brother, a mother who accepts his death because it released him from the pain of AIDS, his father’s anger that his son was gay can all illustrate grief over the same death.

Recovery from grief is not a timed event. A woman that twenty years later is still massaging everything her ex-husband said and did when he walked out is frozen in her grief but is in a different situation from a woman when cleaning the attic comes across some photos from her first marriage that triggers the rage she felt when her husband left her despite having a happy life since then. The way the grief is handled by each tells more about the character than if you said one was depressive and the other optimistic or whatever seemed appropriate.

A writer friend had to kill off a beloved character to develop another. She cried as she wrote the funeral, but she said that it helped write the pain of the fictional person. When I read what she had written, I knew she’d nailed it, despite having the good fortune of never having lost anyone close to her.


1. “Remorse is not nothing. Grief is not useless. It changes the heart of a people. It cautions them to think better, to think in new ways, before they are once again tempted to bomb and beat a people into submission, into ‘freedom.’ It makes them new – and eventually the society with them. One person at a time finally learns to feel. It’s called ‘soul.’

2. Mawmaw goes to the Vietnam War Memorial wall to see her grandson’s name. The memorial is a long black wall with all the names of the soldiers killed arranged chronologically. She was too short to reach it, so someone gets a stepladder so the old woman can climb.

“Mawmaw reaches toward the name and slowly struggles up the next step, holding her dress tight against her. She touches the name, running her hand over it, stroking it tentatively, affectionately like feeling a cat’s back. Her chin wobbles, and after a moment, she backs down the ladder silently.”
Bobbie Anne Mason IN COUNTRY

3. “That night in the hotel room, I looked at myself in the mirror for a long time but I didn’t shave off my beard or cut my hair. I kept thinking about Sean under the frozen ground and I had a crushed feeling in my stomach. I decided when my time came I wanted to be burned. I didn’t want to be down there under the ice.”
Michael Connelly THE POET

4. “I’d close my eyes more tightly or increase the flow of the faucet or turn up the radio. I didn’t let myself admit that the only way I might see you, again, was in that last moment when you would be back to gather your footsteps like an armful of brilliant dessert flowers, a consolation prize, you would present to me in return for losing you forever.

5. After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round
Of Ground, or Air,
or Ought A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone

This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow
First-Chill-then Stupor-then the letting go


1. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen and paper and write until the timer goes off starting with the sentence “I never hurt so much as when…”

2. List all the things that happen a week after a funeral, ordinary, related and unrelated.

3. Describe what happens when a man aged 35 goes back to work after her three days of leave for his wife's death in a car accident.

4. Write 50 words describing the reaction of a mother as she listens to a doctor tell her that her child has cancer.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

No: 44 Free-Writing

D-L Nelson will be giving a short story workshop the last weekend in October in Argeles-sur-mer, France. For more information write her at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr


Many writing teachers urge new (and not-so-new writers) to free-write daily. Free-writing comes under other names called practice writing, daily writing, etc., but the concept behind it is the same. Regular writing exercises are for a writer what playing scales are for a musician or hitting balls are for a tennis player or golfer. They warm you up. They help you fine tune your style.

What is free-writing? It is taking a piece of paper or your computer keyboard and you start to write without stopping. You never worry about spelling or editing. You don’t think, “I can’t say that, it will hurt my Aunt Minnie.” You say it. You let it come out.

Even if you freeze you are supposed to go on by repeating your last few words such as:
I went to the store to buy a case of Coke, a case of Coke, a case of Coke
because I loved Coke since i was a kid, a kid, a kid, and my mother only
would let me have three and my brother had the other three and and and
and I often stoled his.

Yes there are mistakes, yes there are repetitions, but the idea is to keep going.

So many times as writers we are stopped by what we feel is safe and correct. We need to get away from that concept in our free-writing. What dedicated free-writers find is that often the free-writing produces the energy that leads to other good writing. Take the free-write about the case of Coke. That led to a short story about sibling rivalry acted out with a brother and sister stealing each other’s treasures in the third person from the point of view of adults.

What if it doesn’t produce anything? So what? Does each piano scale produce a sonata? No, but with enough scale practice the sonata will be played better.


There are two ways to measure free-writes. One is by a timer set for ten minutes. The other is to fill up three pages. Less than that really isn’t enough. More is fine.


Put your pencil/pen/fingers to paper/keyboard and start and don’t stop until the time/pages are filled. Don’t answer the phone, go to the toilet or take a sip of tea.

What if you don’t know how to start?

1. Find a trigger such as emotional phrases: I love…, I hate…, I want…, it pisses me off…, I remember…, I don’t remember…

2. Use a color. I wanted to wear red as child but mother said it clashed with my hair. Work your way through the rainbow. Just think how many writing exercises you can do around different words for purple: lavender, lilac, violet, mauve, purple…

3. Find a sentence in a book, newspaper or magazine and use that as a trigger.

4. Use a piece of conversation that you overheard.

Where should I free write?

Anywhere you want: on a bus, train, airplane. In your kitchen, office. At a café. Sure it is ideal to be locked away with quiet or soft music in the background, but it is more important to do it.

What to do with your free-writing

1. Ignore what you wrote. No one ever needs to make every word written count. We don’t see the canvases that the artists didn’t like. A professor at Simmons College once said that every writer has 250,000 bad words in them. Free-writing gets rid of some.

2. Go get a cup of tea or coffee and come back and reread what you wrote circling something you like.

3. Transfer what you like into a journal for later use or not.

4. Develop what you started.

Most of my blogs at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.com started as a free- writes. I only clean them up slightly before I post them. It warms me up for the day. On the other hand there are free-writes that I will never post because Aunt Minnie would kill me. Either way I am limber enough afterwards to go on to do the writing I need to do for the rest of the day.

Set yourself the goal of free-writing for a month even if you have to lock yourself in a bathroom to do it. By then it will become a habit that you miss. Trust me. I am a free-writer junkie.


Nathalie Goldberg is one of the strongest proponents of free writing and I recommend WILD MIND and WRITING DOWN THE BONES to every writer. This month’s samples are taken from WILD MIND.

1. “I met a doctor the other night who told me he had always wanted to be a writer…Then I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’ve never met a writer who wanted to be anything else.’”

Notes: Although this isn’t about free-writing, Goldberg touches on the secret that drives writers – they want to write.

“When I walk into a house I see rooms. The only thing I know to do to rooms is to paint the walls white. My friend Rob, who is an interior designer, walks into a house and moves walls, raises the roof and puts in a window where it was solid…I went with Rob to a flea marker. He bought two six-foot high abstract paintings and we brought them home. He hung them on the north wall of his living room. We stood back to look. ‘Just, a minute,’ he said and disappeared. He came back with a can of whitewash and painted a thin coat across the entire canvas of both paintings. I yelled, ‘You can’t do that!’

‘Why not?’ he called back over his shoulder. ‘They’re not Rembrandts.’ I must admit that the paintings looked better.”

Note: What a wonderful example of not being afraid to change things to make them better. And in free-writing, we are at a starting point either to change what we’ve done or leave it alone. It doesn’t matter.

2. “For fifteen years now, at the beginning of every writing workshop, I have repeated the rules for writing practice. So, I will repeat them again here. And I want to say why I repeat them: Because they are the bottom line, the beginning of all writing, the foundation of learning to trust your own mind. Trusting your own mind is essential for writing.”

Note: Her rules include keep your hand writing, below be specific, lose control and don’t think.


Decide if you want to free-write to a time or to number of pages and how, computer or paper. Decide where. Promise yourself that will do it every day for a month even if you have to vary the place or the tools. Do it.

Friday, April 14, 2006

No: 43 The Use of Symbols

D-L Nelson will run a short story writing workshop in Argelès-sur-mer, France, the last weekend in October 2006. Anyone interested in it should contact her at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr.

The use of symbols is one way to increase the depth of your writing. Many a doctoral thesis has been written on symbolism and there are many that still can be written. This newsletter will only skim the surface to plant a seed, the phrase plant a seed being a symbol itself, albeit it trite one. However symbolization is a potent tool in your writing craft kit. The word tool here is also a symbol because is a concrete representation of a something abstract.

Webster defines a symbol as “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially: a visible sign of something invisible.”

Let’s look at two different categories of symbols: “universal” and private.

“Universal” symbols
Symbols that are “universal” or symbols understood by everyone can be tricky. The word universal is in quotes because “universal” symbols break down culturally. This would be a problem if writing is to be read by more than one culture. Anyone who has lived in another country or even read literature from a previous epoch needs a guide to understand what the symbols mean if they recognize they are symbols at all.

Flower symbolism, for example, is culturally based. Chrysanthemums, the national symbol of Japan for a long life are associated with death in France and are used to decorate graves November 1st. However, if a person is writing about France they wouldn't want a French man to give Chrysanthemums to his lover unless he was sending her a very nasty message and if your readership is American the inappropriatness needs to be explained or shown in someway.

Color symbolism is also culturally based. White is the color that symbolizes virginity and purity which is why wedding gowns are white in Western Culture, but Indian women are married in red. Imagine the looks guests would exchange in a small English town if a bride walked down the aisle in a bright red wedding gown.

Freud and Jung both agreed certain symbols reflect the ability of the mind to hold a distinct piece of information, but they never agreed on the commonality of symbols. At a recent art exhibition of masks rife with all types of symbols from feathers, brushes, colors, expression. They werefrom all over the world. However one had horrible pointed teeth teeth, furrowed lines pointed down from the forehead and mouth, horns painted in black. It would probably not pass as a symbol of happiness in any culture.

An apple and snake might not mean a lot to someone who had never heard of Adam and Eve.

Writers, therefore, need to be careful if they use certain cultural symbols. They will have to conjure up something to trigger recognition by the target audience. In using symbols of a culture such as Welsh animal symbols (e.g. a boar for courage) it has to be clear to the reader not familiar with the standing of boars in ancient Welsh cultures. This must be done subtly rather than with sentences such as “watch the boar appear in a chapter 5 and the hero will now do something brave in chapter 6.”

Naming characters after Roman gods might work if the readers knew Roman mythology. If they didn’t the writing would have to be strong enough to carry it without the knowledge.

None of this means that writers can’t include culturally uncommon symbols if they are used in such a way that the reader will understand what the writer is doing, at some level. The reader that knows the symbol system will get ever a greater understanding of the work.

Private symbols
These are symbols that the writer sets up for him/herself. The only limitation is the writer’s imagination. There are the easy and trite symbols of an expensive car to represent the attainment of wealth (goals). John Grisham, when he stepped out of genre writing of legal thrillers, used the painting of his childhood home as a symbol of something important in the status of his family certainly far less trite than buying a Mercedes.

The symbol must remain constant through out the piece unless the change is clear to the reader. For example, a Mercedes can represent success but if a man loses his wife because his wife cannot support what he had to do to get the Mercedes, then it also becomes a symbol of failure. However, failure is the other side of success and therefore the symbol mutates logically into something that is related to its original meaning strengthening the power of the symbol.

The private symbol must hold on its own merit. Orwell makes good use of Pigs in ANIMAL FARM to represent capitalists.

Be careful however not to over do symbols or be too cunning which will leave a writer open for charges of precious writing.

Many writers have admitted that there are times what critics see symbols in their writing that were put their totally subconsciously. Perhaps that is the best use of symbols possible.

1. The connections (between symbol and object) should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, and be consistent through the whole story. A knife can be a symbol, but it also better be able to cut string. And if it represent cutting free, cutting loose, in the story’s beginning, it better not be used to prop up a bookcase and then forgotten later on.”
Ansen Dibell BEYOND PLOT

2. He especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things, seated on newspapers on the living room floor. Instead of a knife, she used a blade that curved like the row of a Viking ship, sailing to battle in distant seas. The blade was hinged on one end to a narrow wooden base. The steel, more black than silver, lacked a uniform polish, and had a serrated crest, she told Eliot for grating. Each afternoon Mrs. Sen lifted the blade and locked it into place, so that it met the base at an angle. Facing the sharp edge without ever touching it, she took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: Cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients.
Jhumpa Lahiri MRS. SEN

Note: In this story the knife is a tie to Mrs. Sen’s home, her doing things as she would have if she had not been forced to move to Cambridge for her husband’s work. It could also symbolize that she is cut off from her own people but at the same time her following her culinary customs ties her to the people back home.

3. Whan that April with his shoores soote
The droughte of Marche hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smalle fowles maken medlodye
That sleepen all the night with open ye -
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages -
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seekn strange strondes
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martyr for to seeke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.
Chaucer CANTERBURY TALES PROLOGUE Talbot Donaldson edition - regularized spelling - Scott Foresman 1975)

Note: Nature arises in all things in the Spring, as symbolized by April showers and the soft breezes of the zephyr wind, while the still-young Sun has gone halfway into Aries and the birds are kept awake at night by the force of Nature.

1. Take something you’ve written that has no symbolization. Then rewrite using a symbol. Here’s an example: The scene is a funeral of an old man, a real patriarch. People talk about him, food is passed around. Until this point there is no symbolization. Then a chair is added as the symbol. The chair is where he and no one else ever set. He called it his throne. Although there are not enough seats no one has sat in the dead man’s chair until his oldest son goes over and sits down. Everyone gasps, and the wife thinks, the king is dead, long live the king. The chair becomes a symbol of the transfer of power from the father to the son.

2. Look at an object (tree, cup, pencil, lamp, whatever) and create a story using the object as a symbol.

1. Good web site. Dictionary of symbols http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/A/

2. Thanks to Dr. John McLaughlin, a Medievalist, who supplied me the opening lines from the CANTERBURY from his class along with my apology that I didn’t remember the symbolism. However, I can still recite the passage.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

No: 42 Up to Fifty Words to Make A First Impression

Any comments or suggestions please email D-L Nelson at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr

Teachers may borrow from W3 but please give us credit.


Readers often make buying decisions on the first paragraph of a book. Likewise many agents and publishers have said if the beginning doesn’t grab them, they don’t bother reading any further. The first few words of a story are your most important if you want your work read by anyone.

Compare the first paragraph or the first sentence of a story to an introduction and the old saw you have thirty seconds to make a good impression. Substitute thirty words for thirty seconds although good opening sentences can be anything from one to fifty words.

So much can be conveyed in a few opening words.

Tone: Serious, humorous, sad, bewildered, melodramatic.

Place: Country, city, inside, outside, type of building, room, etc.

Weather: Hot, cold, rainy, sunny, thunderstorms, snow storms, hail, sleet, etc. This type of opening had lead to the joke about novels starting with “It was a dark and rainy night.” I have a personal dislike of staring any sentence much less a first sentence with the word it. Ditto for there followed by is, are, were.

Theme: Although a writer doesn’t yell, “Hey reader’s, here’s the theme,” often the first words sets it. Sometimes readers don’t even realize there is a theme, even upon finishing a story but if the story is well done, they feel it.

Time: What part of the day it is.

Season: Spring, summer, fall. Weather and season do not always have to match. An unusually warm winter or cold summer can create an entirely different mood and heighten conflict by the contrast.

Sensuality: smells, colors, textures

An opening serves another purpose that is little discussed. If the reader is enthralled, then that is the first step for him or her to develop trust in the writer. Once the trust is established, the author has more leeway to develop side stories, throw in something not quite believable and the reader won’t put the work aside, but will go on to see why it was done and what will be the income.

And after the first sentence, comes the second and the third and the…


1. "On a hot midsummer morning, after over sixteen years of marriage, Jane MacKenzie saw her husband fifty feet away and did not recognize him." 24 words

Notes: Weather, season, time of day and marital length of the heroine and the heroine is named all in 24 words. What makes this memorable is the second part of the sentence that she did not recognize him. Very few people could resist wanting to find out why she didn’t recognize him. The why is the theme and holds the secret of the entire conflict of the book.

2. "It was on a mild, fragrant evening in late September, several weeks after she had moved to Glenkill, Pennsylvania, to begin teaching at the Glenkill Academy for Boys, that Monica Jensen was introduced to Sheila Trask at a crowded reception in the headmaster’s residence." 44 words
Joyce Carol Oates SOLSTICE

Notes: Oates gives us season, weather, place, city, state, event and the two main characters all in one sentence. She also established what Jensen is doing at the school. The entire story involves around Trask’s and Jensen’s relationship, so the relationship is the theme.

3. “Friday January 1st 1960 (New Year’s Day) How on earth can I get rid of David?”
Colleen McCullough ANGEL

Notes: There is no doubt about the time, which alone is not enough to capture our interest, but the following fist person quotation certainly pulls in. Why does the narrator want to get rid of David? Who is David?

4. “I don’t know if that story was picked up the West. I believe some interest was shown in South Africa, but only because rape and murder had been high on the country’s agenda for some time.” 36 words
Minette Walter’s THE DEVIL’s FEATHER

Notes: Here we have the narrator expressing some confusion about what the reader might know but she throws out the possibility that it will be known. Rape and murder define the story as a possible mystery even if the reader had no idea Walter’s was a mystery writer.

5. "The Dream Catcher, an artifact made on the reservations of Native Americans and sold in souvenir shops there for little money, was a circle the size of man’s palm, formed from some pliant wood and then banded with a leather thong." 41 words
Andrew Miller OXYGEN

Note: The dream catcher has little to do with the story, although dreams and aspirations make a major part of this novel. This is a lead-in opening.

6. “Mary, you will regret this.” 5 words
Elizabeth Goudge SCENT OF WATER

Note: By using a quotation Goudge sets up the novel for a change in Mary’s life.

7. “I’m in love with a chickpea named Peter.” 7 words

Note: This was an opening to arise curiosity on the part of a reader


1. Make several lists one each for countries, cities, seasons, types of weather, times of day, moods and tones. Now combine the elements from the different lists and write a sentence that could be the opening of a story or novel.

2. Write and opening sentence for a potential story that is based around weather only. Then repeat it for season, time, place and a sensory experience. Example of a sensory-based sentence: The smell of burning leaves always brought her back to that day no matter how hard she fought against it.

See you next month,
D-L Nelson

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

No 41 Plot and Pacing

If you want to discuss this or any W3 email me at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr


Plotting is the story itself. Pacing is how the writer unravels the story.

First what makes up a good plot? Interesting characters doing either interesting things or placed in interesting situations that tests them is what keeps readers turning pages.

No one wants to read about two university graduates at the top of their class, who get good jobs, marry. They have two perfect children who also get good grades and are always well behaved. The couple stays faithful and in love until they die at age 100 within minutes of each other. Although we might wonder how they do it, what that plot lacks is a lot of C. C stands for Conflicts and Challenges in their lives. That mythical couple would be as boring as a detective with no crime to solve.

Plots can be event, character and/or theme driven as long as there is something that happens that makes readers want to keep reading. Once the plot is in place then pacing comes into play (Okay, I apologize for the alliteration.)

There is no single way to structure your pacing.

The end can be revealed in the beginning and the rest of the story can show how the end was reached. Think of all the COLUMBO programs. We know from the first few scenes who the murderer is, but we watch Peter Falk with his raincoat and “One more question” bring down the guilty party. Some novels start with a prologue that we know at one point will make sense.
For example an old rich woman with servants is waiting for her grandchildren to come to her birthday party. In the first chapter she is a poor girl pushing a cart in Brooklyn. We watch her evolve into that rich old woman. The pacing is how she succeeds and where she fails.

Other times we don’t know how the story ends (unless you are like my friend who reads the last page first). The writer drops hints along the way, and hints are necessary because a reader will be angry if the ending lacks believability. Better that s/he thinks, how clever the writer was to sneak in the clues that I missed. A good example of sneaky clues is the film THE SIXTH SENSE. Although the ending seemed like a surprise, when rethinking different scenes all the clues were there. And in the bonus material on the DVD they tell you where they were.

The writer must decide what to give away and when.

Pacing also involves tension. We need to vary the tension to not exhaust or bore our readers.

One way is with sub plots, making the reader wait to see what happened to character 1 as we follow characterr 2.

In short stories there is usual only one plot, but in a novel we can have several different sub plots intersecting. A master at weaving subplots together is John Irving. I recommend A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY to see how different subplots that might drive you to distraction like the practice of a basketball shot has an oh yes moment at the end of the book.

Also with different story lines in a novel we can pick up one while putting another aside. Think in terms of three interwoven sub plots, A B C. The lines are different lengths to show the amount of space devoted to each subplot does not need to be equal. However, at the end they must all be resolved.


Not all subplots need to be of the same strength giving us A b C


Or we can do stories within stories. Again Irving in the WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP has a separate story about a bear within the novel that is only remotely connected, but the reader gets caught up in that story before going back to the main story.


“Plot is the structure of events within a story and the causal relationship between them. There is no plot without causality.”

“According to Aristotle's Poetics, a plot in literature is "the arrangement of incidents" that (ideally) each follow plausibly from the other. The plot is like the pencil outline that guides the painter's brush. An example of the type of plot which follows these sorts of lines is the linear plot of development to be discerned within the pages of a bildungsroman novel. Aristotle notes that a string of unconnected speeches, no matter how well-executed, will not have as much emotional impact as a series of tightly connected speeches delivered by imperfect speakers.
“The concept of plot and the associated concept of construction of plot, emplotment, has of course developed considerably since Aristotle made these insightful observations. The episodic narrative tradition which Aristotle indicates has systematically been subverted over the intervening years, to the extent that the concept of beginning, middle, end are merely regarded as a conventional device when no other is at hand.
“This is particularly true in the cinematic tradition where the folding and reversal of episodic narrative is now commonplace. Moreover, many writers and film directors, particularly those with a proclivity for the Modernist or other subsequent and derivative movements which emerged during or after the early 20th century, seem more concerned that plot is an encumbrance to their artistic medium than an assistance.
lot of a story will extend beyond the bounds of the story itself.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot (I recommend that you read the entire selection)


Take one of your short stories or a novel and make a file card for each scene. Label it A,B,C etc. for each subplot. If the subplot is minor use a,b,c. Then label it 1-5: 1 for low tension to 5 for high tension. Take graph paper and draw out the plot lines above. Then add the numbers for tension. You will have a visual representation of your work both for plotting and pacing.