6 Writing Tips From John Steinbeck – The Atlantic

6 Writing Tips From John Steinbeck – The Atlantic.

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Writing Exercise 2

This exercise has three parts.

1) Construct an opening scene which is centred around a gathering of people (party, family dinner, office, school classroom, bus etc…) Write this scene with an omniscient third person narrator and try at least two of the following tools available to this narrative voice;

– multiple viewpoints (access to all of the character’ thoughts and perspectives)

– biographical details and summaries of the characters

– historical and/or social background to the event being narrated

– flashbacks

– revelation of future events

-evaluative commentary on characters and events

– tangential discussion

– narratorial intrusions

2) Choose one of the characters from this scene and rewrite the same scene in the first person voice. So this means the character will narrate events in his or her own voice and of course be restricted to his or her own point of view.

3) Choose another character and continue the scene from his or her point of view but using third person limited narrator. So the narrative is restricted to and focused solely thought the consciousness of a single character while still being written in third person.

Try to introduce some conflict in the scene, but without arguments or violence. In literary terms conflict simply means that a character wants something but is having their desire challenged.

Narrative voice 1st and 2nd person

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The 1st person narrative is considered a character written novel, such as “Robinson Crusoe” which is a memoir.

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.

Today the Anglo-American novel has supposedly progressed so that the narrator is now invisible. The third person limited narrative voice is considered in literary circles to be more superior than the first person narrative.

The 1st person narrative is typically written in retrospect and often lacks drama. However there are exceptions to this as seen in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. In this amazing book the first person narrative draws attention to the fact that there is a narrator, her voice is clearly captured and this leads to a sense of intimacy and confession. What is also striking about this book is that the narrator is secretly telling her story on casette tapes for an unknown audience. So the sense of confession is heightened. She even at times addresses the unknown audience

“So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. I am coming to a part  you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out. After all you’ve been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth.”

This paragraph drips with intimacy, the uncovering of facts too terrible for the narrator to narrate but she does so for the benefit of the reader.It gives a sense of the character, she confesses to doing things that the reader won’t like but because she is upfront about this the reader has sympathy for her. The difficulties, or interesting points, of this type of narrative hinge on such issues as authenticity. How much of this confession is true? Is it fabricated? Margaret Atwood address this in the final chapter, a historical meeting 150 years in the future discussing the taped confessions. Political questions are raised, what are the character’s motivations?

You can also write first person in the present tense so the action unfolds as the reader reads the text.

For the most part first person narratives are narrated by the central character. But this is not necessary. A peripheral narrator is also compelling an example of this is in Sherlock Holmes through his sidekick Watson. The peripheral narrator makes Holmes seem more mysterious and the reader can share in Watson’s admiration for him.

“He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. “

Some authors use multiple first person narratives, an example is the Dracula correspondence, or in more modern fiction William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Brett Easton Ellis’ “Rules of Attraction”. The purpose is to capture conflicting points of view and opinions of relationships between the characters. You do have to be careful to catch the idiosyncratic speech patterns of each character. Different points of view can also be used to recount an event such as in John Fowle’s “The Collector”. Here the main character, Frederick, is proved to be an unreliable narrator.

So again the device of multiple characters establishes conflict. There is no point doing this is the recollections are all the same.

Let’s move on to second person narrative. This is rarely used and if it is it’s mostly in experimental texts. Unlike the first person narrative that says “I” the second person says “you”. This is a direct address to the reader which draws the reader into the character by addressing the reader as a character. An example of this is Frederick Bathelme’s Shopgirls

“You watch the pretty salesgirl slide a box of Halston soap onto a low shelf, watch her braid slip off her shoulder, watch like an adolescent as the vent as the neck of her blouse opens slightly – she is twenty, maybe twenty-two, tan and greatly freckled; she wears a dark-blue V-neck blouse without a collar, and her skirt is white cotton, calf length, split up the right side to a point just beneath her thigh…She catches you staring and gives you a perfunctory but knowing smile, and you turn quickly to study the purses on the chrome rack next to where you stand. You are embarrassed.”

Who is narrating? The second person narrative forces us to identify with the main character who is a voyeur. The use of the word “you” does not allow you to keep distance from the character.

Ok that’s it for now. Next time I’ll talk about description and narrative time.

Writing Exercises

Here’s two writing exercises to help you on your way.

– Write a brief character sketch, this can be self-description, a collage of ‘non-literary’ items (such as shopping lists, resume, letters, phone messages, doctors report etc). If you don’t know where to begin choose someone you know.

– Write a paragraph or two of free association under the following headings without trying to link the sections

Please leave a message…

The last word…

Aren’t we glad that the organisers of…

Winter coats…

My mother-in-law drives me crazy…

Narrative voice

Let’s talk narrative voice. This is really important because the narrator determines the tone and the style of your story.

Most of us know about first person and third person narration.

First person narration is when the book is written from a character’s point of view, usually the main character. Generally the reader has access to all their private thoughts such as in “I woke up with a splitting headache.” This point of view is popular with writers and readers because it allows the readers to have intimacy with the character.  Also remember that as a writer it affects how you approach scenes. You can only include things the character would know. So if your bad guy is thinking about pulling out a gun on your main character you can’t include it. It’s also helpful to know that almost everything written in this point of view is considered subjective and unreliable.

But in this post I want to look more closely at third person narration.

Third person narration is not from a charcter’s point of view and usually takes a omniscient stance over the story. As in “She woke up with a splitting headache.” Readers usually assume that the narrator is the author themselves. This point of view allows for a lot of freedom within the story. The narrator is outside of the action and can go anywhere, look into any of the character’s thoughts and can also give character evaluations which are accepted as being reliable and subjective.

While setting up narrative authority is an interesting idea, modern readers are usually sceptical of it. I imagine that this device would be more helpful in fantasy novels or historical novels where lots of world building is necessary.

Third person can also be used in a limited manner. This is called Third person limited. The third person voice narrates from the point of view of one character, this puts the reader in the character’s shoes. A good example is Tim Winton’s “The Riders”. First the reader sees through the main character’s sensory impressions e.g the house he lives in. The focus then narrows in on the main character’s thoughts which are relayed unobtrusively by the narrator. The information that we are given is from the main charcter’s perspective so we are only given information when he receives it too. Previous information, the history, is only given to us when he thinks of it. So why use this instead of first person? Because this gives the feeling of eavesdropping without the character knowing. it is very intimate and gives the impression of honesty.

Another point of view to consider is the third person shifting narrator.. This is where the narrator shifts from one perspective to another so the reader gains multiple point of views with narratorial presence. Third person can also be used climatically. A good example is in Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume”. The third person narrator is at first the “all seeing eye” that knows every detail of 18th Century France. This detailing sets up authority so the reader can trust the narrator to tell the truth, or give impartial judgements. The narrator then focuses in on a character, the mother of the protagonist, and vocalises her point of view, absorbing her voice. So you see the stinking fish market, the poverty, the drudgery she is subjected to. The book continues to switch through multiple points of view.  This is a beautifully written because the main character is repulsive and by writing through this point of view allows the reader to feel the repulsion from other characters and also maintain distance from the main character so that no sympathy arises.

Last but not least for this post is the Objective Narrator. Ernest Hemingway is famous for it. This is the fly on the wall point of view that relies solely on what can be physically be observed. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”  has very minimal description, in fact only just enough to break up the dialogue. This gives the effect of eavesdropping on a conversation. Stories written this way are good for adapting to film.

Next post I’ll go more into depth with first person narrative and also talk about the strange, experimental second person narrator.

Back to Basics! Plot and Character

I’m a mystery writer. Writing is my thing and I expect that a lot of people who read this blog are aspiring writers or are writers. So I thought that I’d post a blog about the basics of writing. A nice refresher for those who are honing the craft and a building block for those starting out.

Let’s begin right at the beginning. What’s a story? Well it’s a series of events. The narrative is the way in which the story is told (this involves things like narrator, location, point of view, organisation of events). The plot involves characters performing actions and the relations between events.  It’s the links between the events that make up the plot.

So for instance “King died. Queen died.” This is the story.
“King died. Queen died of grief” This is a plot.

So how can this relationships between events be revealed? One way was put forth by ye olde philosopher Aristotle in”Poetics”. It was back in Ancient Greece that writers developed a standard structure of plot.

Here is the basic structure: First the causative situation, then a complication, then the CLIMAX! then  falling action, then denouement.

So take Hamlet as an example.
The causative situation is the death of King Hamlet and the melancholic situation of Prince Hamlet.
The complication is the appearance of the ghost of the former King who wants to avenge his death.
The CLIMAX! is the point where the new King realises that Hamlet knows about the murder thus the King has to kill Hamlet.
Denouement is when everyone dies and order is restored.

Sorry I revealed the ending!

In a mystery/detective story the denouement is where everything is revealed

This can be a good template for the structure of your own narrative.

If you’re looking for a more experimental structure you can link events thematically or via flashbacks.  “I the Divine” dabbles with an experimental structure, the whole book is made up of only first chapters.

You can also choose to have your narrative to be character based, which is more arthouse or literary. Or you can choose to have it plot driven, think Hollywood Blockbusters and airport novels.

Plots for character driven stories usually include the character going on a journey of discovery (this can be a real journey or a mental journey, the point is that it brings about change to the character) . Give the character the right to write their own story. This sounds a bit weird because characters are, you know, not real and all. But if you get to know them they do take on a life of their own. You do know that your character named Katie, a goody-good straight A student who never stays out late and always hands in her assignments on time would never, ever, not even to save her own life, shave her head, while your other character Leo, a high-school drop out with a nicotine addiction would do it in a heart beat. Get to know them then throw them into a situation, just to see what they will do. In realistic fiction characters have the capacity to develop and change. Or at least the capacity to change. So perhaps Katie does discover after all that she will shave her head to save the life of her little sister.

How do you make your characters seem real? Characters need consistency. So if in one chapter they hate ice-cream you can’t have them enjoying a double scoop chocolate ice-cream the next chapter. Unless you want your character to act out of character! This can be a very interesting plot point. Reasons for inconsistencies could be the starting point for a character focused story. A great example of this is Tim Winton’s “The Riders” where the main character’s heavily pregnant wife suddenly leaves him, abandoning her daughter. She gives absolutely no indication why she has left or where she has gone. This is out of character for her because she had previously been so stable and normal.  Why did she do this? Where did she go? Did he know her at all? These questions haunt him and the reader throughout the whole novel.

Another way to make your character more real is to delve into the private lives of your characters. A good way to do this is to record their private thoughts for the reader.

To establish your character provide a little sketch of them when they are introduced. Something like “Mary is a 33 year old single mother living in Tokyo Japan.  She has twinkling brown eyes. Her black hair is neatly held back in a pony tail with an elastic band borrowed from her daughter. She dresses plainly but tastefully. She likes to jog and rob liquor stores in her spare time.” or some such thing. This is also good for minor characters.  Long detailed descriptions were once really popular in 19th century novels but are a bit out-dated these days. Such as this cropped description of Mr Utterson from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. . . . He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theater, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. . . . [I]t was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.”

Modern day novelists rely more on physical appearances to take a quick snap shot of the character, as seen with the character Daffy in Alex Garland’s “The Beach”

“His face was flat like a boxer’s, the nose busted too many times to have any form, and his lower jaw was too large for the top half of his skull. It would have been threatening if not for the body it was attached to. The jaw tapered into a neck so thin it seemed incredible that it supported his head, and his t-shirt hung slackly on coat-hanger shoulders.

Self-description can be a very effective way to build character. In one swoop you can give startling insight on how the character perceives themselves. Tone is absolutely crucial if you use this device.  For a good example checkout psychopath Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho”

““I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip. ”

 

Well hope you enjoyed this blog post and will join me in the future for more writing tips.

Cheers!

ABCiccone.