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Fiction

Introduction

Writing fiction isn’t easy. For some it is intuitive. For others it requires hard work, perseverance, and close attention to form and technique. If you are going to learn to write fiction, you will need to know a few basic principles. These principles include point of view, characterization, plot, and conflict. These principles can be exercised in many different ways. How you choose to exercise them is what will make your story distinctively different from anyone else’s.

Write about a fever.  Write about a headache.  Write about snorting and snuffling your way through the common cold.

You may see these as boring writing prompts.  Who cares, you might ask, about someone who's taking his temperature every other minute?  What's so exciting about popping a couple of Tylenol?  Do I really want to write about snot?   

The purpose of this article is to convince you that illness--even in its most mundane manifestation--is a storyworthy topic, particularly when you are working within the mode of realistic fiction.

Assignment Description and Example Assignment Response

This assignment asks you to craft a story based on personal experience. This is different from literary analysis or research paper assignments which ask you to open with a thesis to continually reference and support. Stories are constructed differently. Successful stories describe events in such a way that readers get to experience the story as if they were directly observing events. Consider the following when drafting, writing, and revising: Place your readers into a significant moment you’ve experienced. Narrow your focus from the start.

Many beginning screenwriters (or even experienced ones, for that matter) have made the mistake of inserting camera instructions in their scripts. At various points, they have included directions to ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT, ANGLE ON, PAN TO, TRACK, EXTREME CLOSE UP, or TILT, or have even tried to dictate where the camera should be placed. Though there might be some exceptions, directors generally despise this. In fact Ken Russell, in his book Directing Film: From Pitch to Premiere, discusses how he uses his “five-page test”

Successful playwriting depends not only on dialogue, but on intelligent plotting, credible characterization, and the ability to develop a theme through 70 to 90 pages of encounters and exchanges (in a full-length play). The pleasures of writing drama can be significant. Writers for the stage can have the satisfying experience of watching an audience hang on every word, laugh at every witticism, and show their appreciation at the play’s end with grateful applause.

Writing for the theater also allows the playwright the advantage of having actors, designers, and a director with whom to collaborate; it’s the rare playwright who hasn’t learned more about his/her play during rehearsals.

To genuinely “speak” is so powerful that few do it. And those who do speak do it rarely. Human beings use dialogue to avoid speaking. Dialogue is the dance we do to avoid the music. It is, in Harold Pinter’s words, “the speech to cover speech.”

Dialogue is one of the tools we have for negotiating what we want and for negotiating our relationships.

To master dramatic dialogue, one must master both the unspoken and the spoken. Playwrights must work both sides of dialogue’s “street.”

Concision—saying more with less—is an undervalued but critical writing skill, especially when writing a screenplay. Part of the reason that concision is so undervalued is that it seems easy but is actually quite difficult and takes skill, intellectual effort and ruthlessness (as a well-known bit of writing advice goes, you must “kill all your darlings”).

If you can eliminate a sentence, a phrase, or even a few words, you probably should. This is especially true in a screenplay, which is a space-bound genre; screenplays typically run approximately 90-120 pages because 1 screenplay page is roughly equal to 1 minute of screen time and most movies run between 90 minutes and two hours.

The best part about writing for the screen is how well prepared even the least experienced screenwriter is at the outset. By the time a person decides to write a film, he/she has likely seen hundreds of movies and has subconsciously absorbed all sorts of “rules”—about genre, character, dialogue, action, suspense, and, all things considered, how to satisfy an audience. There’s a danger here too—that the author will fall into the use of formulas and clichés—but if this pitfall is avoided, the serious screenwriter will discover that he/she already knows a lot about the medium of film and can think cinematically with just a modicum of effort. Of course there are still things to learn.

To state the obvious: everything happens somewhere, sometime. If you don’t make sure that your reader can imagine the where and the when of your story, that poor reader won’t stay with you, no matter how scintillating your plot is. It seems easy to say, “So just provide the details of the place and time,” but it’s a little more complicated than that. Here are a few tips:

When and where are you?

Really, the question is, “When and where are your characters? And what does that have to do with the story you want to tell?”

We tell stories every day of our lives. “What did you do last week?” “What happened with your cousin and that girlfriend of his?” “How did your mom break her leg?” –the answers to these, and a million similar questions that make up our everyday conversations, are stories, narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Usually there’s some kind of static situation at the beginning; then complications happen, with unexpected turns for the better or worse, so that things as they were at the beginning more or less fall apart. But then, because of someone’s ingenuity or good (or bad) luck, everything refashions itself into a brand new state of being, one we might never have imagined.

The art of the short story resides in the heft of details, characters and scenes that must necessarily remain hidden from view, trapped beneath a surface comprised of approximately five thousand words. Let’s say you write a short story in which the protagonist, a woman, drives down a narrow country road that cuts through a fictional town in Connecticut. She is on her way to visit her father, who still lives in the house where she grew up. The woman is fleeing her past, one that includes a recent ex-husband. In the back seat of the car is their three-year-old son.