Make it Fascinating, Part 2

Post Date: November 22nd, 2009

“Creative writing classes require scrupulous attention to a range of textual clues: stray connotations, sound, textures, and all other extra-denotative factors. Students learn to approach the craft of writing as if it were sculpture, where language becomes concretized.”

— Chad Davidson and Gregory Fraser, “Out of the Margins: The Expanding Role of Creative Writing in Today’s College Curriculum.” The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42 Number 3

Word Count for the Novel: 118,031 (1049 words added)
Page Count for the Novel: 443

What can I say? I had to add a new scene. Sometimes ghosts show up and you must write them in.

In my last post, I explored how Graham Greene harnessed scene and Lisa See, summary. With the guiding principle “make it fascinating,” a writer can also alternate between scene and summary in a hybrid paragraph, such as this character description of Albert in Eudora Welty’s story, “The Key.”

“He looked home-made, as though his wife had self-consciously knitted or somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone at night. He had a shock of very fine sunburned yellow hair. He was too shy for this world, you could see. His hands were like cardboard, he held his hat so still; and yet how softly his eyes fell upon its crown, moving dreamily and yet with dread over its brown surface! He was smaller than his wife. His suit was brown, too, and he wore it neatly and carefully, as though he were murmuring, “Don’t look—no need to look—I am effaced.” But you have seen that expression too in silent children, who will tell you what they dreamed the night before in sudden, almost hilarious, bursts of confidence.”

The first detail is metaphor: the man is equal to knitting, a wifely project of rough, homespun stuff. Who is the narrative voice giving us this equation? We don’t know, but we’re being told the man is “home-made.” He is pinned by this summative adjective and then the evidence follows immediately with an original metaphor. Then Welty snaps a direct shot of Albert, drawing us into the more objective camerawork with “a shock of very fine sunburned yellow hair.” Summary becomes scene, and then summary: we’re right back with the narrator who says, “He was too shy for this world, you could see.” By calling out to the reader, the narrator softens the blow of the generalization. We realize someone is in charge here but we aren’t repulsed by something as clunky as “He was a very shy man.” The narrator retreats behind a simile—the hands like cardboard—and resurges with “how softly his eyes fell…,” ending in an exclamation point. The narrator is carried away with emotion for her character, and this raises a reader’s interest. Back to the facts—Albert’s size relative to his wife, the color of his suit—but blending into summary again with two adjectives and then a speculation about his supposed speech. The narrator gives her mute character voice: “I am effaced,” as if he might generalize about himself. Then the analogy of the “silent children” appears, a comparison anyone can understand, and now we are standing back alongside the speaker contemplating the man through the pitying, analytical lens.

An excellent writing exercise is to try a character sketch following exactly her alternating pattern. As we get to know our own characters, we’re given to frequent generalization, a normal part of the drafting process. Might as well weave it in—you can always remove it later if it clunks—but weave it in with the goal of making it sing as loudly as sensory, action-packed scene detail.

Readers demand a lot. In between texting and twittering and general delusions of multitasking efficiency, we squirm at being told what to do and what to believe. If the writer chooses a telling voice, he must make it compelling. She has to bring the hard evidence, Law & Order style, somewhere on pages preceding or following. Authoritative tone and rich diction usually aren’t enough; I love it in Dickens and Austen, but if someone calls a story modern, I assume it will have the clout of forensic files and the whiff of TMZ—too much of train wreck to turn my eyes away.

Time to summarize about summary. Here’s a writer’s checklist from these last two posts of strategies that keep our summary significant:

• Is the subject intriguing?
• Is the summary chockfull of evidence (specificity)?
• Is the summary figurative?
• Does the summary address the readers’ need to be told something?
• Is the summary well-timed?
• Does the summary explore a universal truth?
• Is sensory description close at hand?

If you can’t meet most of this checklist, write the scene in the moment and see what trouble your characters get into.

In my next post, I’ll give a sample of how I revise to keep summary from being dull generalization that muddies the story.

Works Cited

Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Florida. 1994. p.30.

Writing Goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words for the novel and a complete fourth draft ready by the AWP Award Series deadline. I’m also reviewing copy edits for the next NCTE book in my differentiated instruction series, Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach, forthcoming in 2010.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts

• Pretend you are making a movie. Your words are like the camera, and they must capture everything you see. You are watching two people argue over something or a scene where a woman’s purse is snatched on a busy street. Describe what happens: what the people do and what they people say. Describe the setting and what the camera sees. The only thing you can’t describe is what is going on inside the characters’ heads.
• Now rewrite the scene from the point of view of one of the people who is telling us what really happened.
• Then write the scene from the point of view of the other person who is also telling us what really happened.
• Which version do you like better? Why?

Secondary and Adult Prompts

• Write a scene where two people are fighting. Write the scene three different ways: from third person objective (fly on the wall, film camera perspective), then from third-person limited (through the lens of one character), then from omniscient (through the lens of both characters and with any other editorial commentary that the godlike narrator chooses to comment). Which scene works the best? In other words, whose story is this, and why?
• Examine a piece of writing you’ve done. Highlight in yellow all the places where you show what happened: sensory description, dialogue, details, facts, and examples. Then highlight in blue all the places where you tell what happened: adjectives, adverbs, abstract nouns, generalizations, and opinion. Does your writing tend to be more showing or telling?

1 Comment

  1. bobmust says:

    If I remember, I’m going to refer to these two posts in a future blog of mine, Lyn. Besides personality, the ability to tell a fascinating story is crucial to any sort of writing, whether a news bulletin or a short story. And it CAN be learned – it’s not just one of those God-given things.