Writing Lesson One, Advocate Contest Announcement

What makes a good story? There are, of course, the events of the story itself, but it really does take more than that. Good stories – if you want to tell them to a large audience – take good writing. So, given that we all have some extra time on our hands, let’s explore the art of writing in this three-part lesson airing every Friday until May 8. 

Any and all works created in response to these lessons will be welcome for submission to a writing contest, which will award prizes to the top three selections chosen from a team of Advocate staff. Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry will be accepted with a maximum of 1000 words per entry. Multiple entries are welcome. Further details TBD. 

To begin, we need to consider the four things every story needs:  

  1. Setting: where something takes place (for example: a field, your house, an exotic zoo) 
  1. Characters: who the story is about (for example: a good friend, you, some guy named Joe) 
  1. An inciting incident: a catalyst for change – something that happens to the characters, creating a problem of some sort (for example: a sudden storm, a house fire, Carole Baskin) 
  1. Voice: the uniquely “you” part of the story – every person has a way they speak, a slang or dialect. The way you use language will bring your words alive. An excellent example is the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. Angelou’s heritage and culture shine, as the poem drips with her personality. 

Taking each of these elements into consideration, let’s look at a few questions you can ask yourself: 

Setting questions: 

  1. When and where does the story take place?  
  1. If the “when” is in the distant future or the “where” is on some remote planet three galaxies away, how can you convey those realities to the reader? 
  1. If the “when” is in humanity’s past or the “where” is in a place you’ve never actually been, then you need to do a little research to make your setting as accurate as possible. 
  1. Is there a breeze? Warm or cold?  
  1. What season is it? What is that season like? 

Ex. I live in the Willamette Valley, so I can’t realistically say there’s a blizzard unless I can find conditions under which that would happen. 

  1. What does it smell like?  

Ex. One of my professors at Wilkes University wrote, “Someone nearby was eating an orange.”[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Oranges have such a unique scent that almost every human has experience. It brings the reader directly into the setting through scent memory. This also tells the reader that someone was comfortable enough or hungry enough to eat there. 

Character questions: 

  1. Where were they born? Did they grow up there? 
  1. Have they ever been on an airplane? Where did they go? Why? 
  1. What is their favorite food? What is their least favorite food? Why? 
  1. What is the first book they ever read? 

Inciting incident questions: 

  1. What changed? What were things like before the change? 
  1. Does that change matter to the characters?  

Ex. If your character is lactose intolerant, does the disappearance of all the ice cream in the world really affect them? 

  1. How will your character respond to the change? 
  1. Is that response reasonable or believable? 
  1. If the response seems reasonable/believable to you, how can you make the reader believe it too?  

Voice questions: 

  1. Does your character have a speech defect? A stutter? A lisp?  
  1. How are you going to show this on the page? Remember, there are offensive ways to convey speech impediments that you may want to avoid. 
  1. What dialectical characteristics will your characters have?  

Ex. Do they say “y’all”? Do they drop the final g off of –ing verbs? 

  1. How do you as the writer show your own voice over that of your characters?  

 

This last question brings us to the idea of Point of View, which is the fifth element of storytelling that you’ll need to incorporate into your writing.  

POV: Who is Telling the Story? 

There are three types of POV 

  1. Third person: pronouns they, he, and she. 
  1. Third person can be close in and reflect only the thoughts and opinions of a single character. 
  1. Third person can be close in to multiple characters, each taking their turn at being the POV character, allowing the reader to know the thoughts of the character most important in that moment.  
  1. Third person can be distanced from all characters. Like the narrator in Winnie the Pooh cartoons. 

Ex. “Stella wanted to tell Jimmie about the pregnancy, but she knew he would freak out and disappear from her life again.” 

Benefits: It’s an easy way to write about something that scares you. It gives you distance from uncomfortable subjects. 

Limitations: Often when the third person POV is used, the reader can’t fully feel what the characters feel. It can be distancing. 

  1. First person: pronouns I, me, and my. 
  1. First person POV is all about the protagonist. The reader knows only what the main character knows, feels what the main character feels. 

Ex. “I tried to tell you I was pregnant, but my lunch and a generous portion of my breakfast were coming up my gullet and about to spew.” 

Benefits: You can literally put yourself and your experiences onto the page. It creates a world which readers can experience with you. 

Limitations: When writing in first person POV, you can’t let the reader see anything that happens when the main character is out of the room. 

  1. Second person: pronouns you and your; Many teachers will tell you that it’s not possible to write anything of length and quality in second person POV, but I disagree. An excellent example of a book written in second person is Glue by Constance Ann Fitzgerald. 

Ex. “You walked in the bar to find the woman you loved and took a drink to the face.” 

Benefits: There is an immediacy to the work. The writer is directing the reader and making them feel as though they are part of the scene. 

Limitations: It’s really hard to maintain this type of writing. It becomes very easy to slip into first person POV by accident. 

Assignment: 

  • I want you to come up with an idea that could be story-worthy.  
  • Write as many things as you can about the setting – sounds, smells, weather, temperature, decor, paint colors on walls. 
  • Decide who will be telling the story – determine your POV. 
  • Make your main character. List as many things about them as possible. 
  • Write a little about your character’s life, let them wander around the setting a little while and see what they do on an average day. 
  • Then, decide what you’re going to change to mess with your new character and their setting. 

Next: 

Look back here next week for your second lesson!  

By Sally K LehmanThe first in a three-part series of writing lessons from our very own Copy Editor Sally K Lehman, author of In The Fat and the upcoming The Last Last Fight.