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Short Story Study: Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

At first this reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

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To what extent do screenwriting tips apply to writers of children’s literature?

tl;dr: Storytelling tips on writing for adults absolutely apply when crafting stories for children.

Screenwriting is some of the most dense storytelling there is, along with short stories. There’s a lot more room in an adult novel for meandering, though this varies according to genre. What about modern children’s literature, though? If you read children’s books more than 50-odd years old, you’ll notice a lot more meandering, but modern children’s books are competing with the screen, and must attract the attention of an audience who is used to the tightness of screenwriting. So more than ever, writing for children demands a tight narrative also.

There are a lot of books on storytelling out there, and many of them are written with screenwriters in mind, that is, unless you want to get into the real academic stuff, usually with something like ‘narratology’ in the title.

I’ve read a number of screenwriting books although I have no plans to write a screenplay, and most of them went in one ear and out the other — they were of no actual use when it came down to crafting a story. The three-act theories to me feel intuitively wrong. Advice to make something big happen smack-bang in the middle of the story feels wrong also, because what has the page number got to do with anything?

One day I was looking for a certain book in the library and came across Anatomy Of Story by John Truby, which was beside the book I had looked up on the computer.

(Isn’t that often the way? That’s the main problem with the digitisation of library resources — often it’s the book right next to the one you thought you wanted that you actually want, and you can only learn this by visiting a bricks and mortar library.)

Turns out, script doctor John Truby, like me but more so, is no great fan of the three-act-structure advice dished out to beginning storytellers, precisely because it is advice only applicable to beginners. The truth is, storytelling is a lot more complex than that.

Using notes from a podcast interview Truby did for Curious About Screenwriting Network (because there’s too much in his book to bulletpoint here!), and Cheryl Klein’s book specifically aimed at creators of stories for children, Second Sight, I’m going to think about children’s stories alongside films for adults. This should be pretty easy, since stories for children aren’t all that different from genre fiction and mainstream film. Cheryl Klein agrees about the adult-equalled complexity when it comes to modern children literature:

If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales. There’s a set of German children’s stories called Struwwelpeter about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing with matches. But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last hudnred and fifty years or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries, away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real.

 

my two favourite writing books

my two favourite writing books

First, John Truby on…

WHY MOST WRITERS FAIL

Truby says it’s not what most people think — most people think it’s ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’ when it comes to selling stories. That’s not true in screenwriting (and not true in children’s literature, either). It’s not all about pitching, either. Truby says that the skill of pitching is overrated. Unless you have a track record as a professional nobody will take a pitch seriously. A script with a great story is the only thing that matters. Most writers fail because they don’t know the story techniques professionals use. Most writers have been using the wrong craft all along.

Screenwriting has been dominated by the idea of ‘three-act-structure’. This way of understanding story has its merits, especially for when you’re first starting to write. But this is the only training that most writers get, and is strictly for beginners. The only chance any writer has to succeed as a storyteller worldwide is to learn the techniques that professionals use.

TEN OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNIQUES WRITERS MUST KNOW

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Endings 15: Collected Links

  1. On Endings from The Literary Lab
  2. 10 Nagging Questions Left Open By Disney from io9
  3. Ending Tropes from TV Tropes
  4. Is Huckleberry Finn’s Ending Really Lacking? from Scientific American
  5. What’s the value of a great ending? from Lit Reactor
  6. What are some tips for figuring out the ending to a story? answered by Go Into The Story
  7. A definition of climactic endings from Changing Minds

Endings 14: Advice To Writers

A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

– from The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

 

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

 

Provide an ending worthy of the beginning.

Often it’s helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

– Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke

 

The ending must answer the question you posed at the outset. Does it? Clearly and unequivocally?

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

 

A story, like a sentence, can end in only four ways: with a period, an exclamation point, a questionmark, or an ellipsis…

The needs of your story and your attitude may dictate ending with the feeling of a period, an image or line of dialogue flatly making a declarative statement such as “Life goes on.” “Love conquers all.” “Good triumphs over evil.” “That’s the way life is.” “There’s no place like home.”

An ending can give the effect of an exclamation point if the intent of the work is to stir action or create alarm. Science fiction and horror films may end on a note of “We are not alone!” or “Repent or perish!” Stories of social awareness may end with a passionate tone of “Never again!”, “Rise up and throw off chains of oppression!”, or “Something must be done!”

In a more open-ended approach to structure, you may want to end with the effect of a question mark, and the feeling that uncertainties remain. The final image may pose a question such as “Will the hero Return with the Elixir or will it be forgotten?” An open-ended story may also trail off with the feeling of an ellipsis. Unspoken questions may linger in the air or conflicts may remain unresolved with endings that suggest doubt or ambiguity. “The hero can’t decide between two women, and therefore…”, “Love and art are irreconcilable, so…”, “Life goes on…and on… and on…”, or “She proved she’s not a killer, but…”

One way or another, the very ending of a story should announce that it’s all over, like the Warner Bros. cartoon signature line “That’s all, folks”. Oral storytellers in addition to using formulas like “…and they lived happily ever after”, will sometimes end folk tales with a ritual statement like “I’m done, that’s that, and who’ll ease my dry throat with a drink?” Sometimes a final image, such as the hero riding off into the sunset, can sum up the story’s theme in a visual metaphor and let the audience know it’s over. The final image of Unforgiven, a shot of Clint Eastwood’s character leaving his wife’s grave and returning to his house, signals the end of the journey and sums up the story’s theme.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

Related Links

How to write the ending from Joanna Penn

Make Your Ending As Big As Possible from Lydia Sharp

Three Important Rules For Writing Endings from The Write Practice

Endings Shouldn’t Make Your Point from Cockeyed Caravan

 

Endings 13: Advice From Anson Dibell

Don’t dither. Avoid weak, throat-clearing closes, just as you’d avoid throat-clearing, inconclusive openings. Let the ending be the ending, without waffling afterthoughts.

All the subordinate characters possible should be shuffled offstage, their work done, as the ending approaches, to leave the major characters alone in the central spotlight.

Settle the important things—not everything…Just as good openings start in médias res, with something already in progress, good linear endings don’t wait till every bit of the dust has settled.

Most important of all, though: don’t introduce a new plot. Stay with the main plot.

– Anson Dibell, from Plot: Elements of Fiction Writing

Endings 08: Poetry Endings

I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

– Robert Frost

Endings 06: Short Story Endings

In a short story there may or may not be a denouement. In some stories—especially those that are very short—the climactic moment, in which the protagonist undergoes a change, may also be the last moment of the story. What happens to her after that is left to the reader’s imagination. In other stories, the denouement may consist of a sentence, a paragraph, or a brief scene clarifying what happens to the character after she changes.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

One thing about the short story is that it’s kind of an exotic, hothouse version of the “real” story. It does a little more—there’s more compression, of course, but also a higher expectation of shapeliness and some kind of aesthetic closure—a moment where the wires the writer has filled with current get a chance to really cross.

– George Saunders

Related Links:

  1. The Three Endings Of Alice Munro’s Story “Corrie” from Reading The Short Story Blog
  2. Ending A Short Story: Some Thoughts from Literary Lab
  3. Write a satisfying story ending from Writing4Success
  4. from The Writing Show: discussion between Melissa Palladino, Randall Brown, and Paula Berinstein about Short Story Endings

Endings 05: Film Endings

A film where the story is entirely resolved doesn’t exist.

– BILLY WILDER

Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.

– ROBERT MCKEE

On the ending to the Sex and the City movie, from John Truby:

Unfortunately this event left me quite ambivalent. I too wanted the fairy tale ending; boys watch Disney movies too. But emotionally it wasn’t right. It wasn’t earned. Here is a guy who has “jilted” Carrie for the entire TV show, then does it again at the altar, and she takes him back one more time. The writer justifies it through the Miranda subplot with Steve (also fake), with the statement that “You’ve got to forgive.” Well, no, you don’t. If the guy keeps blowing you off and humiliating you time and again in the process, at some point it’s the mark of a mature person to say, “Get the hell out of my life.”

Of course, Carrie’s marriage to Big does set up the inevitable sequel to this blockbuster film. Anyone want to place bets on Big being faithful?

And on the ending of Black Swan:

The end of the dance and the film shows screenwriting as the height of dramatic art. Nina, as the White Swan, runs up the platform to commit suicide and we think she will do it for real since the real has by now melded so completely with art. She jumps. But wait, there’s the mattress. We feel release, victory; she has defeated her demons. And then we’re flipped again. She’s already done the deed, given herself the fatal wound. It’s the act she had to take to get the performance of her life. We plummet. But she knows; “it was perfect.” She’s the perfectionist taken to her logical extreme, given a self-revelation that is at once brimming with truth and utterly without understanding.

Related Links:

  1. Perfectly Happy, Even Without The Happy Endings from Go Into The Story
  2. Movies struggle to find ‘the end’ from the LA Times
  3. The Worst Movie Endings Of 2012
  4. Script Pages From The Shining Reveal Kubrick Had A Different Ending In Mind, from io9
  5. Realistic/Better Movie Endings, Oh Noa
  6. 12 Movies That Filmed Happy Endings You Never Saw from io9
  7. What happens to Disney princesses after their movies end from 22 Words

Endings 04: Picturebook Endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

– @taralazar

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be views as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

– Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

 

THE IDEOLOGY OF ENDINGS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

 

THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.

You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.

He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:

1. PREMATURE ENDINGS

This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.

2. ARBITARY ENDINGS

The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.

3. CLOSED ENDINGS

This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.

The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’

John Truby then offers tips on:

How to Create a Never-ending Story

You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.

In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.

Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.

Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:

1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.

2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.

3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.

4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.

5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.

6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.

Endings 03: Scene Endings

The ending of every scene has to be logical; it can’t cheat the readers. They have eagerly read the scene, worrying about a question. So to play fair with them, the conclusion of your scene has to answer the question posed by the goal in the first place.

So if the question was whether the destroyer would sink the sub, the end of the scene has to answer that question. If the question was whether the woman would get the job, the end of the scene has to tell whether she did or didn’t get the job.

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted.

– Jane Fitch, from 10 Rules For Writers

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