Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 7

Happy Norwegian Independence Day! I grew up in a little town west of Seattle called Poulsbo, a once tiny Norwegian fishing village on Puget Sound full of Scandinavian immigrants who made their living on the water, where, when I was a kid, May 17 and Viking Fest were bigger than the 4th of July!

And on a more somber note, tomorrow,  May 18, is the 39th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State’s Cascade Range. Though my immediate family and I were not directly affected by the eruption—my uncle 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, actually had more ash fall on his car than we did living only 250 miles north and west of the mountain—it is, nevertheless, one of those events I will never forget, the memory of which acts as a continual reminder of how little control we human beings really have over this tiny planet we call home.

And now, on to more storytelling . . .

Strategic Thinking: How Thorough Topic Analysis Can Build a Strong Foundation forstrategic-thinking-1-638 Effective Writing

Have you ever picked up a book or a magazine article that looked interesting, then started to read it only to find the author was more interested in preaching than storytelling? This can happen all too easily if we’re not careful. Most writers have something important to say, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, but it is just as important to think strategically about our subject matter lest we become so immersed in whatever issue we’re tackling that our story gets lost in the argument. Writing can change minds and hearts, just as performance drama can, but beware of biting off more than you can comfortably chew and letting the topic eclipse the story rather than letting the story illuminate the topic.

What Is Strategic Thinking?

Let me give you an example that goes back to my librarian days, when one of my biggest tasks was to help undergraduates create research strategies that would allow them to successfully write a paper or complete another project that would fulfill an assignment on their syllabus.

Librarian: What can I help you with today?

Student: I need to write a five-page paper, and my professor wants us to use four scholarly sources.

Librarian: Okay. I can help you with that. What is your topic?

Student: Pollution.

Librarian: That’s a pretty big topic for only a five-page paper, so let’s try to narrow that down a bit. What is it about pollution that interests you?

Student: Nothing. I just need to write about pollution.

Librarian (trying again): The thing is, entire encyclopedia have been written on this huge, umbrella topic, so you will need to identify some part of the topic that you can address in only five pages. For example . . .

This is where the librarian goes on to help the student think strategically about the topic of pollution, which leads to a subtopic narrow enough for a 5-page research paper:

Laura_Narrowing Topics

Such topic analysis can build a strong foundation for effective writing, and without it, writers can flounder in a mass of too much information. Smaller and narrower can prove more effective and manageable than bigger and broader, allowing the writer to write really well on a very specific topic—or on only one aspect of a much larger topic.

If you ever wonder just how narrow you can go, click into an online university library catalog and look up PhD dissertations. For all that they can provide massive studies, at the core you will find a seemingly insignificant subtopic under one of their discipline’s massive umbrella topics. You will find PhDs are rarely generalists, even within their own discipline. Likewise, those who write popular nonfiction of any length can make their work much more effective using the same strategy. 

Strategic Thinking in Fiction

This same kind of strategic thinking can also help when writing fiction. For example, let’s look at the topic of pollution. Perhaps, like me, you’ve seen the commercial on T.V. in which two young men are pitching their plastic bracelets made from recycled plastics and glass recovered from the Pacific Ocean. These two surfers tell a brief story of how they were on a surfing vacation and discovered just how big plastic pollution is in the ocean and what they are trying to do about it. They are telling their personal story—and it is a compelling one. What other personal story might you write about the same topic?

Of course, fictional and factual writing are not the same thing, but you could still deal with pollution in a fictional story. If I were to write one, it might be about what my city’s efforts to eradicate mosquitoes is doing to our local honey bee and firefly populations. It’s sad, but true, that controlling mosquitoes for the sake of combating the West Nile virus has an adverse effect on other insects. Just as DDT all but ended malaria in certain parts of the world but caused such devastation to the bird populations they stopped spraying it, which only led to an increase in malaria, causing more human deaths. This topic has been tackled widely in both the scientific and popular news literature, but it would also make for good fiction.
For these kinds of topics to work in a story, however, a writer needs to strategically analyze the topic and find the human-interest among the facts. For example, you could write about a farming family’s plight,when their fruit crops decline as the result of the death of their honey bee population. Do your research and get the facts right—that’s first—but then find that human-interest nugget that can bring the huge umbrella topic down not only to a digestible bite but to a story that will catch your readers’ interest. Yes, fiction writers can write about pollution—and any other topic under the sun—if they feel called to do so, but how much more effective a short story, a poem, a song, or even a novel would be if it were about a little girl or boy who asks, Where Have All the Fireflies Gone? 

Next time, we’ll look at Aristotle’s Three Unities: Action, Time, and Place.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

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Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 6

The Why? of Your Story

We have reached the 5th of our five Ws of storytelling—the Who? What? When? Where? and Why? of it. I like to call this one the “So what?” To my mind, this is the most important W of all, because without it, there is no reason for anyone to read something. How well crafted a story is matters less, in the end, than why it was written and why it should be read. When I’ve finished reading a story, I want to know why I read it in the first place. There needs to be something that answers the question, “So what?”

Why Writers Write
There are all sorts of reasons behind why writers write. It may well be just for entertainment—and whatever income sales might generate. But even with entertainment, you’ll want to give a reader a reason to pick up your story and not another—and a reason to keep turning the pages. Does it contain a message beyond the obvious? Did you tackle a social issue that means something to you? What readers will benefit from reading your story?

All these questions are addressing the “Why?” of your story. How many times have you finished reading a book, decided you liked it, then a week later couldn’t remember what it was even about? Good storytelling sticks in the mind, even if only long enough for someone to say to a friend, “I loved that book—you should read it, too, because _______ .” You want your readers to be able to fill in the blank.

Why Readers Read
All the reasons for writing mirror why readers read, of course. We read for entertainment, in order to learn something new, in order to increase our knowledge about something in which we already have an interest. Sometimes readers want only to reinforce an opinion they already hold. Sometimes they want someone to change their mind. Sometimes reading another writer’s words can help us to grow personally.

This does not, of course, mean we must always set out to write something “meaningful.” The entertainment factor cannot be underestimated. After fifteen years of higher education that overlapped with thirteen years of working as a college librarian for which I did a lot of research and writing, I rarely pick up a book to read today that is not strictly for entertainment. Escapism is my friend! In my own writing time, I generally write what I like to read, which most often means fictional stories. That being said, I do find my fictional storytelling generally holds some truth, some meaningful nugget, which I hope reaches my audience. That’s the “So what?”

This is, of course the key to writing success: identifying and connecting with our readers’ need to know “Why?”. It helps to keep that in mind when writing, because while we will sometimes simply write stories that we like to read—I certainly do—there is also a better chance of connecting with readers, if we take the time to define our audience for a specific story and tailor our writing to match that audience. Who your intended audience is will dictate what you write and how you write it, the language you use, the vocabulary you utilize, and the detail you invest in your story.

The Final Analysis
However you answer the questions about why and how you write, there are three basic questions to ask yourself about any story you write. You might ask these before you start writing, or you may ask them as you edit, but it is a good idea to address them somewhere in the writing process, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction.

  • What is the point of this particular story?
  • What do I want to accomplish by writing it?
  • What do I want readers to get out of it?

I will often ask these questions before I even start when I am writing nonfiction, as they provide guidance as I go. My fiction, on the other hand, is rarely planned ahead, so I will wait until I am editing a completed draft of a story and allow these questions to guide my editing.  Whenever you ask them, do ask them, because they can truly help you as a writer—not to mention give you guidance when you seek to explain what you have written to a potential reader, agent, or editor.

Next time, we’ll look beyond the 5 Ws to strategic thinking, or how thorough topic analysis can build a strong foundation for effective writing.

__________________________


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

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Jesus Arose!

“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:” (John 11:25, KJV)

Easter empty tomb I felt called this Good Friday to take a short break from the writing thing to address something I came across this week that left me troubled. An article in OneNewsNow.com claims, “A new poll reveals that less than half (46 percent) of the Christians in the United Kingdom believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the world’s sins.”  I have not been able to find a similar poll for the United States, but as a Christian, I find it deeply disturbing that anyone who claims to be a Christian could possibly deny the very foundation of our faith: that Jesus Christ came into this world to sacrifice himself once and for all to save us all from our sins.

 Such doubts are not new, of course. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12–14 KJV). Clearly, there is no true Christian faith without a belief in the resurrection of Our Lord. Those who deny Jesus’ resurrection from the dead deny the very essence of our faith and are clearly stating that they are indeed not, by definition, Christian.

Similarly, I find polls from all over that claim self-described Christian people no longer believe in the existence of Satan. The Church of England has actually written him out of their baptismal rite! I personally find that terrifying—and clear evidence that Satan is, indeed, alive and well in the world today. There is a reason that though I am a member of a continuing Anglican church, I now belong to a church of the worldwide Traditional Anglican Communion, which broke with Canterbury back in the late 1970s. I could no longer worship in a church so clearly bent on preaching heresy.

Being nice, being kind to one another is not the essence of Christianity. Rather the essence of Christianity is to believe “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 KJV). Millions of Christians confess this truth clearly at every mass via the Nicene Creed, saying, “And I look for the Resurrection of the dead; And the Life of the world to come.” Christ gave himself for us, a sacrifice once offered, that all believers might someday join him in heaven. This is stated so clearly in Scripture. What makes so many in the contemporary world so resolutely deny this truth—and so clearly reject this hope?

 C. S. Lewis said it best in his Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

As my own priest, Fr. David W. Munn, wrote in an email earlier this week, “Anyone who believes that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead and [did not die] for our sins are not Christians. Any priest who says Satan does not exist is calling Our Lord and the prophets liars.” Amen! Amen!

May Good Friday bring you a renewed spiritual appreciation of Our Lord’s sacrifice, and may your Easter celebration of his rising from the dead bring you new hope and new life.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com 

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 5

Where: Location, Location, Location—It’s Not Just Important for Real Estate!

Where-are-youLocation is more than just a place on a map. It has a real affect on the behavior and attitude of your characters too. The obvious issue is urban vs. suburban vs. rural, and this factor will definitely predominate whether the story takes place in the United States, Europe, or Africa.  But there are other things too, from food preferences to sports to laws, requiring your attention as you write of people in other places.

Scale, or How We Visualize Distances

Distance and transportation access are real issues affecting characters in any story location, but this also includes a very real change in scale, or how people view distances from place to place. For example, back in 1982, I spent eight weeks in a little place in Scotland called Edrom, which was quite rural and surrounded by sheep farms. One day we had the opportunity to attend a concert in Edinburgh. Coming from the Pacific Northwest in the United States, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was less than fifty miles—just over an hour away—but they packed the car as though for an entire day’s outing. Back home, my parents commuted an hour and a half each way to Seattle every day, a commute that included over an hour on a Washington State ferry, so it was difficult for me—who’d grown up in a very large scale area—to relate to the much smaller scale mind-set of the Scots.

Forty-eight miles was a long way to drive in Scotland in those days, but because my family had driven the 3,000 miles coast to coast across America three times back in the 1960s, I knew what real long distances looked like. (These family trips occurred in 1965 and 1966 before the U.S. Interstate system was completed, so we took the much slower U.S. highways most of the way.) My new friends in Scotland couldn’t even imagine those kinds of distances living in a country that was only 874 miles from the extreme southwest tip to the extreme northeast tip. When everything in your country is less than a thousand miles away, you simply don’t have the same perspective on distance as we do here in America, just as people who never leave New York or Washington, D.C., can never really understand how challenging it can be to get from city to city in the fly-over zone, and why we must have cars to get anywhere.

How Big or How High?

If you do live in the fly-over zone in America and have never been to a coast, you can’t know what a big body of water feels like. Yes, you can look at pictures, but pictures and even movies cannot replace knowing personally what it is like to stand on a Pacific or Atlantic beach. There is an immenseness to an ocean that you can’t get from any other body of water. At the same time, someone who only knows the crowded beaches of Atlantic City or Malibu can’t really picture what it’s like to walk along an empty, wild stretch of beach on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula on a rainy day.

 Likewise, mountains feel quite different, depending upon what you have experienced. A story set in the Rockies or the Cascades will not read the same as a story set in the Appalachians or the Great Smokey Mountains, where altitude and year-round snow won’t be an issue. I remember when I was a kid, going back east to visit family and driving up into the Appalachians with my aunt and uncle to pick up one of my cousins at summer camp “in the mountains.” We got there, and my sister and I asked, “Where are the mountains?” Believe me, once you’ve crossed the Rockies or stood at the 10,000-foot level of Mount Rainier, every other mountain range, short of the Himalayas, seems small!

Why These Things Matter

The old adage, “Write what you know,” can be good advice when you’re telling a story, because, of course, it cuts out all sorts of necessary research. A simple scene in a restaurant can tell readers a lot about what the author knows about regional preferences. For example, my Southern friends can’t understand why I don’t like seafood, when in fact I do like it very much—when it’s not so spicy it bites back! (I have learned living in southern Mississippi that Cajun cooking is an acquired taste, and I am absolutely certain I will never acquire it!) Our Yankee visitors were sincerely shocked when they came to visit us while we were living in Kentucky and learned they had to drive fifty miles, or at least to the Tennessee state line, before they could buy any alcoholic beverages, since our county was dry. And just try wearing any jersey other than one from the New Orleans Saints’ during the NFL season in my current home town, and see how far you get without odd looks or comments.  These are the details that make a story come alive, but they can also trip up storytellers who decide to stretch the geographic boundaries of their writing without thinking things through.

 Remember, Research Is Your Friend . . .

This does not, of course, mean you need to go live someplace for a time before you can set a story there (though it might be fun), but you do need to be aware of the unique characteristics inherent in any location you select and research accordingly.  Read books—both fiction and nonfiction—set in your location of choice and see how other writers deal with the specifics of a location’s topography and culture. Travel guides, memoirs, autobiographies, or even interviews can help you get a feel for a place through the firsthand experience of others.

 The next time, we’ll look at the “why? or the “so what?” of a story.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 


Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com 

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 4

When: Timing Is Everything

timing-is-everything (1)They say timing is everything, and it certainly is when you’re writing a story. I’m reading a novel right now set in 1982, and oh what technology these characters do not have at their disposal! I’ve mentioned before the Larry D. Sweazy series set in rural North Dakota in the 1960s (see Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books, 2015), when most home phones—if they even had one—were party lines. And remember Sleeepless in Seattle (1993), in which Tom Hanks and his son escort a lady all the way to her gate at SeaTac airport?

I have written about doing research on “ Historical Stuff” (see October 12, 2018) in order give your writing credibility with your readers, but it is more than just whether or not a character needs to find a payphone and a nickel (or a dime or a quarter?) in order to make a phone call. There are also the intangibles, those worldview changes that affect an entire society when something extraordinary happens, whether it’s the invention of the automobile, the Emancipation Proclamation, or 9/11.

Three Examples of Major Worldview Changes

Travel

The ability of the average Joe to move from one place to another has changed so drastically over the years I think we forget the dramatic impact this has had on human society. I’m told by those who visit there that one of biggest surprises in the Holy Land is how close everything is. We read Scripture and imagine hundreds of miles between events, when in reality there are actually only a handful of miles between the locals. But we assume—at least in the U.S.—that everything is farther apart, because when we travel for three days, we might put 1,500 miles on our car!

Even our own view of distance here in the United States changed dramatically as transportation improved. How different it must have been for someone in 1850 contemplating traveling to California by covered wagon than for someone living in the 1870s planning to travel by rail (following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869). Even the changes in motor transportation between the mid-1960s (when my own family traveled by station wagon along U.S. Highways from Philadelphia, PA, to the Pacific Ocean) and today (when we have the vast Interstate network) alters how we think about distance.

 Ask yourself, “Where and when do my characters live, and how big or small is their worldview in light of how easy or how difficult it is to get from place to place?”

Credit

Try to imagine life without a credit card. I know there are a lot of Americans today who still don’t use credit cards for various reasons, but according to Gallup, that’s only 29 percent of us. The rest average 3.7 cards each. How will life be different for your characters if none of them have credit? If you are writing a story that takes place at a time when credit might be limited to the local general store, then your characters’ spending habits are going to be a whole lot different from today. And faced with an emergency, without credit, what can they do? What will their attitude be?

The Sanctity of Life

This is a significant issue, depending upon a story’s location and time, and a character’s view of this issue can prove a major part of your story. Does your story take place in ancient Rome, when people died by the hundreds of thousands in the various games? Does it take place in China, where until the 2015 abolishment of their one-child per family policy, untold numbers of girl babies were exposed? Are you writing about gunfighters and bank robbers in America’s wild, wild west?

This issue is a particularly timely one here in the United States, as attitudes ebb and flow concerning abortion and euthanasia. If you touch on either of these subjects, you have to be really aware of the prevailing attitude within the decade in which your story takes place. In the 1982 story I mentioned above, An Accidental Life (Pamela Binnings Ewen, B&H Publishing Group, 2015), a district attorney is prosecuting an abortionist, who is charged with second degree murder in the death of an infant who survived an abortion, only to be put aside to die. This act would have been outrageous at the time of the story, only nine years after Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in the United States, and even when Ewen published this book in 2015, readers might have still been shocked by the plot. But today, a number of states are passing laws legalizing infanticide.  How things have changed since the decade following Roe v. Wade—and how quickly they have escalated in just the past five years.

 And it’s not just about Roman, Chinese, or American law—the details of which you do need to get right for your story to be believable. It is also about social norms and attitudes. Times do change—sometimes radically—for example when even a handful of years ago a group of American lawmakers cheering infanticide would have been inconceivable.

Know the Time of Your Story

 This is why it is critical to know the time of your story well—and how it affects the cultural and social attitudes of your characters. As I’ve said before: read, read, READ! You may be writing fiction, but if you are dealing with a specific period in history—even recent history—you need to read primary documents published during the period in which your story is set. Head to the library or the Internet to find newspapers, popular magazines, and books published in the time frame that interests you. Ask yourself, “What are the critical issues of the period?” and “What were the prevailing attitudes of the people living in the kind of community about which I am writing?”

 When the average life-expectancy is nearing 80, people behave quite differently than they do when it is only 40. When most people never leave their hometown, their attitudes will generally be provincial rather than global. If your characters live in a time where most people never go beyond the eighth grade, they will not see the same world as those living at a time in which college is the norm. If you want your characters to be “real” to your readers, you owe it to them to put your characters in the right mind-set for the time period in which they live.

Next time we’ll look at location, and how it can affect your story.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Developing the What? of Your Story

What is your story? - Comic book style phrase on abstract background.The “What?” of your story is the plot.  What happens to your characters? What do they do? What adventures do they have?  What is the action of the story? The Three Little Pigs provides some pretty funny characters, but there is no plot until the Big Bad Wolf comes calling. A hike through the woods can be beautiful, but it’s not much of a story unless . . . one of the teens in the party steps off the trail and gets lost . . . a late/early winter storm strands your characters in the wilderness . . . a mamma bear takes exception to your characters getting between her and her cubs . . . a dead body riddled with bullets is found at the base of a cliff. Setting and characters are important, of course, but they are not the thing that prompts your readers to keep turning the page.

 It is the plot—the action—that drives the story. Whether it’s a romance, a mystery, an adventure, a comedy of errors, a space epic, or a western—whatever the genre—the plot is the story.

To Outline or Not to Outline, That Is the Question.

Using an outline to write a story is an age-old trick to help writers get started and stay on track, but an outline it not an absolute necessity. Some writers can’t write without an outline, and some never use one. This is another one of those “it depends” topics. For me, an outline is a useful tool when (1) I have an assignment to write about a certain topic, and I don’t want to miss something I was supposed to include; or (2) I have a specific and firm number of words and/or pages to write.

(1) When you don’t want to leave anything out:

When I was in school, I almost always used an outline to make sure I covered the material I was researching thoroughly. From my first college paper back in the dark ages, when I was pounding out papers on a typewriter, to my twenty-first century master’s thesis composed on a computer—and all those essay exams I wrote long-hand in between—I used this writing technique. I still will use an outline when I’m writing nonfiction for the same reason. I generally don’t actually use a formal outline, but I do make a list of points I wanted to cover, move them around until I feel they are in a logical, linear order, and then sort my research into the appropriate sections. It is a way for me to check off each subtopic and make certain I use all the resources I want to use in the proper place.

(2) When you have a firm page/word count:

Today, I’ll use outlines when I ghost write short stories, because if I am assigned to write a complete story in 4,000 or 6,000, or 10,000 words, I need to figure out ahead of time what scenes I’ll need in order to tell the entire story. Again, I don’t do a formal outline, but I will do a list of needed scenes, note what has to happen in each, who needs to appear when, and through whose point of view the scene should be told. Then once I have the number of scenes, I can get a general idea of how long each scene needs to be to reach the final word count.

I don’t, however, use any kind of outline for a novel. For me, that’s the joy of writing book-length fiction. I start with a general idea of a plot, create the characters, set them up, and then just let them go. For me, part of the adventure of writing book-length fiction is that I can create the scene, place the characters, then sit back and watch what happens as I write. Sometimes, I end up with a 60-page novella and sometimes a 400-page epic. It just depends on how the story unfolds—and how long my characters want to play in my story.

Plays and screenplays—the ultimate outline:

 Drama—whether a full-length stage play, a one-act, a television script, or a screenplay—is particularly wedded to a certain number of pages, making a loose outline imperative for me as a writer.  The general rule for script writing is, on average, one page of a script equals one minute on stage. This is, of course, a very general rule, because how long a page takes depends entirely upon how much action is required. A page of straight dialogue will generally take about a minute to run, but other issues, such as conflict, choreography, laughter, romance, etc., can change everything.

 Again, when I’m writing plays or screenplays, I don’t do a formal outline but rather think in terms of the acts and scenes needed to tell the story in an effective way. Come to think of it, what I’m really doing is what in the movie business is called creating a storyboard. I am certain my background in theater—my first fiction writing was a full-length play script—is what has me always thinking about story in terms of scenes and dialogue. This has always made it pretty easy for me to write effective dialogue in my fiction, but it did make moving from brief “stage directions” to narrative prose a challenge when I first started writing novels.

Focusing on the Plot

 I am currently in the middle of turning one of my novels into a screenplay, and boy has this exercise given me a new appreciation for those screenwriters who take on book adaptations! The decisions about which scenes must be included and which can be cut are sometimes agonizing—after all, they were all necessary to the original story when I wrote it!—but this exercise has also given me incredible insight into what makes a scene truly essential to the plot of a story, and how clearly narration should be kept to a minimum. “Show, don’t tell” is a lot easier in a play, because unless you create a narrator as a character (think of musicals like Once Upon a Mattress or Into the Woods), the plot is completely defined by dialogue and action, leaving all descriptive narration up to the scenic designer and costumer.

 This move from prose to play script is an exercise you might want to explore, if you have, for example, a long story you need to cut for a contest or magazine submission. Try rewriting it as a play script, cutting your page count in half as you do so. The scene analysis required by this exercise will help you to really focus on the plot—the core of your story—allowing you to see which scenes really are essential in order to tell the story, and which might actually prove superfluous.

Next time, we’ll look at the “When” of a story and the details that put it in its place.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

storytelling · writing tips

WRITING THE STORY, PART 2 (continued)

More “Who”: Secondary Characters

"WHO?" Vector Overlapping Letters IconWhile you have to pay special attention to your primary characters, secondary characters are equally important to a story. If you’re not certain of what I mean, pull out a DVD of a movie you think is particularly good, watch the movie, then study the credits at the end of the film. (For this exercise, you will probably need to watch something produced since the mid-1970s, because earlier films did not include every Tom, Dick, and Sally in the credits.) As you watch the credits run, note the characters identified only by the role they played: “Boy on the Bus,” “Checkout Girl,” “Dog Groomer,” “Man on the Corner.” Think about these characters for a moment and try to picture what they contributed to the story. Did an interaction with this “extra” character tell you anything about the main characters? Did their actions contribute to the plot? Was it important that your high-paid lawyer put some money into that scruffy guy’s cup, or did he just brush the beggar off? How did this interaction contribute to your understanding of this major character and the story?

I once edited a story about a princess, and one of the things that struck me while reading it was how empty the castle was. The princess had only one lady-in-waiting; no one brought her bath water, no one laid her fire, the halls were empty as she moved from her rooms to the front door and stepped into a waiting carriage. No one accompanied her into the city on her errand—not a lady-in-waiting or a groom. The story felt empty because while the writer had done well in developing her main characters, she’d skipped the “extras”—those characters that add reality to a story, not necessarily by something they say or do but rather by just being there, helping to define the time, the place, the action, and the behavior of your main characters.

 How Many, and How to Keep Track of All of Them?

There is no set number of characters or “extras” required for a story, of course. The entire story might contain only one little boy in a sand box. It might be a cast of thousands in a space opera. The number that is “right” is the number it takes to tell your story—not one more or one less. And every one of them, like every object or action, must contribute to the story, even if only to point out a main character’s personality or set the mood for a scene.

The trick, if you’re like me, is keeping track of all those characters you write about, what they look like, and how they are related to one another. For this, I always create a “cast list” for my stories. I probably started doing this because my writing began in theater, but for me, keeping a separate file open as I write that contains a cast list is critical to keeping the characters in my stories straight in my head. It also works as a time-saving reference as I write.

Here’s an excerpt from my Cat & Mac Mysteries cast of characters:

Catherine (“Cat”) O’Sullivan (28): (pure and clean; descendant of the black/hawk-eyed one); a shapeshifter (black cat); an artist/gallery manager; born on the Queen Charlotte Islands to a Haida mother and white father; her aunt, cousin, grandmother, and great-grandmother are all shapeshifters. [green eyes; black hair]

Cahal (Mac) MacAlastair (33): (from “Cathal,” meaning “a great warrior”; son of Alastair, meaning “defender of the people”) homicide detective who’s burning out fast [hazel/brown eyes; dark brown hair]

Charlie Chang’s China Buffet

Aunt Charlotte (Trimble) Owens (shapeshifter – owl), Uncle Jack Owens (non-shifter, white): Owners of Dreamscape Gallery; Cat moved in with them as a child so Charlotte could help her to live with her shape-shifting nature; lived with them throughout her university years before going to work for them at Dreamscape.

Lucy: Cat’s cousin (also a shapeshifter – black bird); lives with husband in Nanaimo

Tommy: Lucy’s brother (not a shapeshifter); brilliant computer geek who created Dreamscape Gallery’s extensive security system

Náan: Cat’s grandmother; shapeshifter (cougar or lynx)

Tina (Trimble) O’Sullivan: Cat’s mom; Haida; an art teacher (doesn’t shift)

Mike O’Sullivan: Cat’s dad; a white teacher who, like Cat’s Uncle Jack, paid back his student loans by teaching in a Haida village school in the Queen Charlotte Islands, fell in love, and stayed

Mike, Jr., Carl, Matt: Cat’s older brothers; none are shapeshifters

Notice that I give more information for my main characters, including eye and hair color, so when I get to Episode 6 or 7, my green-eyed heroine won’t suddenly have brown eyes. I also threw in Charlie Chang’s China Buffet, a fictional restaurant I put in Seattle’s International District because I knew my characters would eat from there often, and I didn’t want the restaurant changing names along the way.

So try creating a cast list—and don’t forget to add every new character as they first appear in your story. You may be surprised by a seemingly incidental character from Chapter 1 who suddenly pops up again in Chapter 12—and how much time you’ll save when you can simply go to your cast list to find out what his name is.

Next time, we’ll look at developing plots and ask the age-old writer’s question, “To outline or not to outline?”


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 


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