Story Recipe

One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.

Here’s roughly what I said:

First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.

Person + goal = character

Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).

Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”

Character + obstacle = conflict

If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.

In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.

We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.

At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.

Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.

Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.

The full recipe looks like this:

  • Who is the main character (person + goal)?
  • What world does he live in?
  • What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
  • How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
  • What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
  • How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
  • How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?

The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.

The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.

What I Learned From Susan Howatch

No one can teach you to read like a writer. It can happen, of course. Once you’ve slaved over thousands and thousands of sentences, trying to get words to click, you develop an eye for quality, the same way a cinematographer recognizes good filmmaking and a contractor good craftsmanship. Ask a writer how to write a good sentence and the odds are he’ll rattle off a half-dozen that amaze him. (Francine Prose turned this into an entire book called Reading Like a Writer. You’ll notice it’s not called “How To Read Like a Writer.”)

I’m starting a new non-sequential series of newsletter issues called “What I Learned From…” I’m cross-posting them here so I can file them more easily. These will not be book reviews. I rarely put down a book these days ready to pass judgment on it (unless I’ve been asked to, of course). I usually jot a few notes to myself, mark the book as read, and move on. But every so often, I notice something a writer did well, something I want to remember. That’s what these issues are for.

Susan Howatch wrote a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. My wife put the first one (Glittering Images) in my hands and promised me that the last one (Book 6) was more than worth reading all four thousand pages of the series. My wife’s taste in books is excellent, as you may know, so I read them all. She was right. The tangled threads of six books ultimately weave together into a satisfying final picture. (That was a very Howatchian sentence, by the way.)

Before you treat this as a recommendation, please note the following. These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.

Alright, on to the writing. Howatch isn’t a great writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her. From Howatch, I learned that sometimes it’s more accurate to tell rather than show, especially when writing in the first person. This sounds bizarre to those of us who are used to hearing the opposite. I’ve always thought “show, don’t tell” meant that you should describe physical sensations and movements instead of thoughts and emotions. A scene written like that might go something like this:

“Where you were last night?” my mother asked without looking up from her knitting.
My fingers tightened around my car keys. “Out with some friends,” I said.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked and clicked.
“Yep, we did.” The keys dug into my palm. “Good night, Mom.”


If Susan Howatch were to tackle this scene, it would look something like this:

“Where were you last night?” my mother asked innocently, never looking up from her knitting. I recognized the half-finished project in her lap. It was the same pattern as the blanket she had knitted for me when I was a child. This blanket was for my new niece, of course, but the significance of her choosing to work on this particular project at this particular time was not lost on me.
My fingers tightened around my car keys as I said carefully, “Out with some friends.” With any luck, she would believe the lie and ask no further questions. My heart sank as I saw that my words had merely confirmed her suspicions.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked reproachfully. They continued to click, like a miniature clock urging me to confess, confess! before it was too late. I longed to tell her everything, to absolve myself of the awful guilt which followed me everywhere and even now hung like a black cloud over the house. But something held me back. Grasping in my mind, I discovered it was the constant and unceasing danger that the truth presented to Cecilia. I could never tell. Never.
It was in that moment I knew I loved her.
I realized I hadn’t replied to my mother’s comment. I adopted my most casual tone and consciously relaxed my grip around the keys. “Yep, we did. Good night, Mom.”


Does the second attempt add anything to the scene that’s missing from the first attempt? Of course. We know that the mother has chosen her knitting carefully. We know that the narrator believes telling the truth would be dangerous. We meet someone named Cecilia. And we are much, much closer to the protagonist’s point of view. Attempt #2 may be overwritten (so many adverbs!), but it’s not unrealistic. We actually do observe, evaluate, and make choices when we’re in the middle of having a conversation with someone. We just do it instantaneously. Teasing out all of those thoughts and judgments can take pages and pages, but it can be very effective if done well. Attempt #1, on the other hand, tries to mimic real time, but that doesn’t make Attempt #2 less real.

So, the lesson: it’s sometimes good to tell, not show, especially if you’re writing in the first person, and commentary can slow scenes down to help you focus on the protagonist’s interior life.

A Man Proposes a Test

I’m working on my laptop at the card table we have set up in our dining room, which wiggles whenever I hit the space bar, and my three-year-old daughter asks what I’m doing. Well, I say, I’m writing a story. Tell me the story, she says, and I crack my mental knuckles, ready to wow her with the complex urban fantasy I’m weaving.

I struggle. Quickly I realize that mythology doesn’t interest her. She wants to hear about the main character (a twelve-year-old girl). What is she like? What is she doing? What happens to her? What is she trying to do and what stands in her way? My daughter wants me to put the story in terms she can understand. And it hits me: I can’t answer the most basic questions about my story.

From now on, I plan to hold all of my stories to what I’ll call the three-year-old test. If I can’t put my story in a form that interests a three-year-old, I don’t understand it yet.

A Man is Beaten by Pulp

As an unabashed disciple of Ray Bradbury and Steven Spielberg, both masters of balancing the timeless and the tasteless, I approve of this message. Partly, I approve because this is the just kind of thing I need to hear, as I am way, way too perfectionistic about my writing.

I’m reminded of something Austin Kleon wrote about his son in Keep Going. When it came to drawing, not only was his son “medium agnostic,” he also didn’t seem to care about the finished product. All of his energy was focused on the verb.

I’ve noticed this same thing about my daughter. If I hand her five sheets of blank paper, she’ll draw five spirals in five different colors and then ask for more sheets.

Back to the article on pulp fiction, the author gives three lessons we can learn from the pulpists.

Write Like You’re Freelance

Artists of all kinds are suspicious of money. (With good reason, in some cases.) Money can inject a healthy amount of work ethic into your writing, however. The list of great books that were written because someone was desperate for a paycheck is endless. The need to sell a story can make you more realistic about what to leave and what to cut, when you need to finish, and who you should be writing for.

Make Your Writing Visceral

This piece of advice goes hand-in-hand with the one above. If you need to get paid, you need to get an audience. And if you need an audience, you need to hook them and reel them without wasting any time. You do that by appealing to their guts. During an interview one time, Darren Doane gave someone the following scenario.

You’re in front of a whiteboard. A guy hands you a marker and says, “In sixty seconds, your family is going to walk through that door. You need to write something on the board that will cause them to have a physical reaction – laughing, crying, whatever. If they don’t react, I’ll shoot all of you.”

The guy who was interviewing Darren said that he’d probably write something dirty, since that would be the easiest way to get a physical reaction. Darren said, “And you’ve just explained ninety percent of movies.”

A little violent for a thought experiment, perhaps, but his point is that this is the situation every artist (writer, musician, filmmaker) finds himself in. The stakes are high, and you have a limited amount of time. Don’t ask your readers to care. Make them care. Hook their guts.

Think Disposable

This is actually a big theme of Austin Kleon’s books, which I get mixed up because I read them back to back. You might think that in order to produce good work, you need to save up for it, but in fact the opposite is true. Good work only comes once you’ve gotten rid of the bad and the mediocre stuff. Produce vast amounts. Discard a little less than you produce. Find the diamonds.

The upshot of all of this is a word of advice to myself: don’t let the pulp writers outdo you. You can write worse stuff faster than they can.

A Man’s Journalistic Writing Advice

Barry Newman started working for the Wall Street Journal when Nixon was president. His book News to Me recounts what he learned over five decades of reporting. Each lesson is coupled with a feature story to showcase the observation or technique. (Newman likes to write stories about people doing unusual – even inhuman – jobs: the men who search for the US-Canada border, people who decode bad handwriting on envelopes, the guy who blasts sewer fat-bergs.)

Though I’ve never done a feature story like the ones Newman writes, I found much of value in this book. Here’s a list of tricks I learned:

Where to get ideas:

  • Look for lonely causes, solo workers, individuals driven by an unusual passion. When you see the press, head in the other direction. Reporters crowded the US-Mexico border to research immigration, so Newman went the other way and did a story about the five guys in charge of the five-thousand-mile US-Canada border.
  • Look for things that make you go “huh?” Cock your head and take another look. Why is the cold tap on the right side of the sink? Why are the titles on the spine of books oriented one way in English and the other way in French?
  • Follow family connections. Your uncle has a friend whose wife is involved with a badminton league? Chase that down.
  • Look out the window. One of the great gifts given to writers is a penchant for looking at the world upside-down. Maybe you’ve passed the same weird sign in your car every day but never bothered to stop and ask the question: “What is a Christian Science Reading Room, anyway?” My apartment complex got a new roof a few weeks back. The whole roofing crew spoke Spanish. Do Mexicans have a monopoly on roofing and construction in Birmingham?
  • One idea will lead to another. A feature writer never has room for everything. Details are dropped that may crop up in the next story.
  • Ask questions without obvious answers. If the reader can guess what the answer will be, you’re asking the wrong question. Bad: Do Multinational Corporations Create Jobs in the Third World? Good: How does that pimento get in the martini olive? Why don’t Seattleites use umbrellas? Where do pounds bury the animals they euthanize?
  • If you know the topic or the direction, start taking notes and gathering clips. When the deadline approaches, you have a backlog to draw from. It reminds me of the strategy (popularized by Ryan Holiday) of gathering materials in folders (or on notecards) that you may have an opportunity to use “someday.”
  • Everything has been written before. There are no new ideas. Newman’s response: Who cares? You can’t do it first, so do it best. Also, don’t stop at the wisecracks. Go deeper. There’s always a story there.
  • Stories are about things that happen to things. Don’t write encyclopedia entries. Write about what happens.

Reporting:

  • I’ve heard many writers and reporters and workers of all stripes say that the kids need to learn to leave their desks and get out in the world. Newman agrees. He often leaves the office to hunt down a story before he even knows what the story will look like. He tells his editors he’s leaving and that he’ll let them know when he gets back whether he found a story. (Such freedom would be nice, wouldn’t it?)
  • On the other hand, a proposal can be a cool cloth to a sweating editor’s brow. Newman’s advice is to do enough research to justify the trip, but don’t write the story till you get back. (He has a good example of a proposal on page 91. It has all the information one could glean from the phone or the internet, but no scenes, word-pictures, or live quotes.)
  • Gather string. Take time. One tidbit may take years to merge with another and create a story. Quite a lot of a writer’s time is spent waiting and taking notes (physical and mental). Observation is work.
  • To circumvent PR reps, go to lesser competitors, yesterday’s heroes, and unrecognized experts. Thanks to Amazon’s PR, Newman couldn’t talk to IMDb about cinematic goof-ups, but its “pipsqueak rival,” Movie Mistakes, was only too happy to chat.
  • Accidents take effort. Be in the right place and wait for the right time. This ties in with a key tenet of reporting: why now? You might have all sorts of ideas to write about (I know I do), but you need an angle. Newman calls it a vehicle that your story can ride. It’s some specific person, situation, or place that metonymizes an entire cultural trend. (That said, remember the specific. More on that further down.)
  • Every story needs pictures. Not photos, necessarily, but word-pictures. When you read Newman’s stories, you notice that almost every one of them starts and ends with a description of a person doing something. You get a picture in your mind right away. Short story writers, make a note.
  • When doing street interviews, find people who stay put. Don’t chase them down, notebook in hand. Approach folks at park benches, stadia, bars, parking lots, hotel lobbies, movie lines, bus stops. Also, find people who want to talk. Don’t ask Joe Briefcase about fracking. Ask the protestors at an anti-fracking march. Ask people in line for the natural history museum about their views on cloning mammoths.
  • In interviews, people always say what they think you want to hear. The best stuff comes when they think the interview’s over. Find dialogue and you will find a scene.
  • Find talkative, unimportant people who feel ignored and have lots of time. Find people who work or live parallel to the rich and famous. And don’t make them out to be emblematic of a group, even if they are members of that group. They are themselves, and that’s what makes them interesting. Avoid pickle barrels. Find the one and only.
  • Find contrasts. An old journalism adage says, “Get the other side.” When you pair up the opposition, both sides show their colors a little more.

Some great practical advice:

  • Newman’s notebook is a National 1 Subject, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease (R) Paper, 80 sheets. He has over 700 of them lined up on shelves in his office. Their chief assets are they lay flat and have a hard back cover that provides a portable writing surface. He uses a BIC (R) Cristal Easy Glide Bold 1.6mm, unless the temperature’s below-zero, in which case he carries a pencil and a sharpener.
  • Plan ahead. Bring cash. Don’t waste time. Your objectives are efficiency and security.
  • Get a great lede, or your reader will move on. Put your best stuff up front, even if it’s not the main point of the story. (Yet another lesson for short story writers.) Take a look at this opener: “Before he pulled the trigger, before the car chase, before the cops ran him down and threw him in jail, Jim Stevenson had a calm look at the Texas penal code, and judged that it would permit radical measures in defense of a piping plover.” Don’t you want to read that story?
  • Find a nut, a kernel, a peg. Somehow, you have to convince an editor that your story needs to run now. Relevance often feels forced, but hunting for the right nut can strength your reporting. It doesn’t have to be political at all. It just has to tie your story to the here and now. The nut is not the story, either, so Newman likes to end his nut-graf on a note of expectation, not finality, so that the reader won’t bow out early. The challenge is to stick with the formula (lede, nut, quote, to-be-sure, history, etc.), but weave a storyline through it from beginning to end, so the reader keeps reading.
  • Indexing – a great idea. Newman indexes all his interview notes, research, books, clippings, press releases, academic studies, and scribbles, then groups them according to topic. Related ideas and observations coalesce into paragraphs. No stone is unturned. The process of going through each note line by line reveals the shape of the story and unearths connections that were invisible before.
  • Last, keep it short. The secret, Newman says, to short writing is long reporting. Know your stuff so you can leave it out.

 

A Man Chips Away

In looking for commonplace books available online for free, I came across a volume by H. Rider Haggard in which he chronicles his first year of farming the family plot of land. No great agricultural insights will be unearthed in his book, Haggard admits. He is really interested in the experience of learning to farm.

I would like to do the same thing on my blog. I rarely post updates about my writing because it feels like Monday morning quarterbacking. Why write about writing when writing itself needs to be done? I have a deathly fear of being one of those people who talk rather than do. But, thinking about it, I realize that, in my case, a little bit of self-reflection could be a kind of tonic that may actually strengthen my writing constitution.

All that to say, I have been chipping away at a middle-grade novel set in Philadelphia that I call “FB” for short. (I haven’t thought up a title I’m happy with.) I’ve finished a complete first draft of FB, which, though a horrendous, mutant mess, does have good bones. My main challenge over the next few months will be moving through that manuscript chapter by chapter, nipping and tucking. The task daunts me. But there are moments when I forget to be daunted and enjoy myself.

A Man is Not Planning to Move to LA or NYC

My latest article for Frame.io went up on their blog on Monday. It’s about why aspiring TV and features editors should move to Los Angeles or New York (or London). Writing for a business is a tricky business, since you have to remain more or less objective, which means you may have to lean away from your own bias. My name is under the article’s title, but if you asked me my opinion on the same question in person, I’d have a much more qualified answer. Here’s part of that answer.

I aspire to write (yea, even direct) feature films. Yet I have no plans to move to New York or LA (or London). Where do I get off telling others that’s what they have to do? For one thing, the article I wrote is specifically directed at editors, not writers or directors. Editors are not high on the filmmaking totem pole. They bow to the needs of the production (despite the fact that the editor has more control over the finished film than anyone else involved except the director). Unlike writers, who also bend the knee, editors are almost always on-site with the director. No months of working in isolation for them. (Where the post-production is, there the editors will gather…) Some of the pros we interviewed for the article admitted that new tools are changing things (Frame.io!) and that sometimes a small-town editor gets to cut a big film (see John Gilbert). But, as a general rule (for now), editors need to be physically present with the rest of the team.

Writers have a better chance of working off-location than editors. A screenwriter can spend months working alone before he needs to meet with the director. And screenplays are easier to email than full-res video files. Since writing is my strong suit, I’m hoping I can make non-LA writing work for me. On their excellent podcast, Scriptnotes, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have urged their listeners countless times to move to LA if they want to pursue screenwriting. Their reasons make sense. And yet, the fact of it is that those reasons only apply to people who want to make screenwriting (and nothing else) their full-time job. There are lots of people who don’t live in LA who have written movies (novelists, journalists, playwrights, teachers, even filmmakers) and plenty of screenwriters who left LA after a while to pursue other interests. Writing travels well.

What about directing? Don’t you need to be LA-based to get that next directing gig? Yeah, probably. But who wants that? Frankly, most of the films coming out of the big-time movie studios these days bore me. They leave a sour taste in my mouth. Why would I want to make movies like that? The most interesting movies right now are labors of love from people outside the studio system, who then get courted and admitted into that inner circle. I would much rather make a small film on a shoestring budget and my own terms than spend a decade scratching my way to the top of the Hollywood heap and be rewarded with a job directing Avengers XIV.

Though I would love to write movies and direct them, it’s not my highest priority. People who live in LA admit that it sucks, especially if you don’t have a big income. The traffic is a nightmare. The industry is petty and immature. And it’s far away from most of my relatives (and my wife’s). I don’t want to raise a family in that environment. I’d rather raise them somewhere where we can live close to our church and school and get to know our neighbors. Somewhere that’s not covered by smog eighty percent of the time. I’d rather make an impact in a small, insignificant place than no impact at all. Raising a healthy, godly, mature family in a thriving church is a bigger priority for me than working as a full-time screenwriter (or editor, or director).

I believe that it’s possible to write and make films without living in LA/NYC/London. It’s hard, but possible, especially these days. If you want to edit big-budget features or mainstream TV shows, you should move to one of the Big Three. But if you’re willing to be a Hollywood outsider – and see a lot less money – you can live anywhere and still make movies. And your movies might be better for it.