07/23/2015 by Stephen Silke
This summer, I attended Squaw Valley Community of Writers near California’s Lake Tahoe. Novelist and screenwriter Diana Wagman author of Life #6 left us with some craft tips that I did not want to forget. Here are a few of them:
A chapter should arc like a book.
So often in the first draft of a novel chapter, narrative arc is the last thing I think about. But Wagman’s advice makes a lot of sense. Enouement, énouement, énouement, then denouement. We complicate the chapter until apotheosis and then create some falling action or release. If we can do that and repeat it consistently, chapter by chapter then it would follow that the entire book would be captivating.
Whatever is the most important part of your sentence should end your sentence.
This advice, of course, was in response to the short story we were discussing, but Wagman’s comment is helpful. The last thought in a sentence is the last thought that will sit in your reader’s mind. Here is an example from my favorite writer David Foster Wallace, in his novel Infinite Jest (which of these is better?): 1)”One reason the E.T.A. administration and staff unofficially permit Eschaton to absorb students’ attention and commitment might be that the game’s devotees tend to develop terrific lobs.”, or 2)”One reason the E.T.A. administration and staff unofficially permit Eschaton to absorb students’ attention and commitment might be the terrific lobs that the game’s devotees tend to develop.” Number one is how David Foster Wallace wrote it, I’ll assume the point is made.
Remember the rule of threes, that items should be repeated three times in a short story.
The third iteration is the payoff. Famous examples of this in literature are in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, or the archetypal story structure of beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, it’s hard to refute the power of the now cliche “veni, vidi, vici,” or the rhetorical flourish inherent in “friends, Romans, countrymen.” In our fiction workshop, Wagman encouraged the story writer to deploy a third use of a symbol that was mentioned twice prior in the story. Its third use was an effective payoff and drew attention to itself, but didn’t beat the reader over the head–to me it seemed like sound advice.
Don’t get up from the computer until you know what you’re going to write about the next day.
This is a practice made most well known by Ernest Hemingway. He would write early in the morning and wouldn’t stop until he knew where the piece was going next. Now, if only I knew what to write about so as to avoid throwing away all my mis-starts.
Dialogue in fiction should really be an accent. It should forward the plot and tell you things you can’t learn any other way.
I wholeheartedly endorse this tip, having read too much fiction that drops exposition on the reader through dialogue, or that pummels the reader with extraneous back and forths that does nothing much in the way of story or plot. If you love dropping page after page of dialogue on the reader, why not be a playwright or a screenwriter? Those disciplines depend mostly upon characters’ speeches. The advantage of fiction is that its natural habitat is in the consciousness of the characters, and the author can do the main work of the story in describing characters’ thoughts for the reader. And as readers we don’t want to know what happens, so much as we want to know what the characters think about what happens–that is the extra dimension we read for.
Writing seems to be the only art form where people don’t practice. I think you need practice, which means a little writing every day.
Writers write, right? Wagman guilts me into practicing more and challenges me not to be happy with my first meager offerings on the page. Instead, writing is a continual process, not a one time occurence. I’ll end this little section with one my favorite quotes from the artist Banksy: “All artists will willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?”
Do you agree or disagree with any of Wagman’s tips? I’d love to hear what you think.