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Looking for Practical Exercises for Your Fiction Writing Class?

14 Aug

If you’re an instructor in a fiction writing class, you probably have moments where you’re trying to explain how good dialogue works—or plot or character building or descriptions of setting—but don’t have the words. Or, if you’re a student, you leave class inspired by something your teacher said, but when you sit down, you can’t make the leap between brilliant classroom insight and the blinking cursor on the computer screen. If this is you, check out the exercises at Read to Write Stories.

Exercises get a bad name because too many ask you to write about something you don’t care about. These exercises, however, help you borrow strategies from great books and use them in your own writing. You’ll find more than 150 exercises based on work by (and interviews with) authors such as Charles Baxter, Aliete de Bodard, Alexander Chee, Natasha Deón, Brian Evenson, Ru Freeman, Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, George Saunders, and Laura van den Berg.

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” —Amanda Eyre Ward

Each exercise contains a short excerpt from a novel or story (and a few essays and memoirs), a discussion of the craft within it, and an exercise for using that craft in your own writing. Interviews focus on the craft challenges the authors faced and overcame. The site is used by dozens of writing classes around the country.

If you want something to carry in your backpack, you can now buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, a collection of all-new exercises based on 40 one-page excerpts from literary writers (Teju Cole), fabulists (Karen Russell), prose stylists (Zadie Smith), cyberpunk authors (William Gibson), crime writers (Joe R. Lansdale), women’s fiction authors (Jennifer Weiner), young adult (Benjamin Alire Sáenz), story writers (Elizabeth McCracken), and straight-up geniuses (Jesmyn Ward).

Poets & Writers named the book one of its “Best Books for Writers.” You can find it at your local bookstore and at Amazon.


How to Write a Great First Sentence

16 May

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was a staff pick at The Paris Review and a highly anticipated book at several prominent websites.

There are few sentences so vexing as the first one. Perhaps the final sentence of a story or novel is just as tough, but at least by then you’ve written a complete thing that has led up to it, and so even if you don’t nail it (which many stories and novels do not), at least you managed to build up enough momentum to carry the reader all that way; they’re getting off the ride, regardless of how it ends. But first sentences can make or break a story. How many of us have flipped to a story in a collection, read the first sentence, thought, “Nah,” and closed the book.

You need those sentences to be great.

But also: a sentence that appears to be trying too hard, no matter how intriguing or beautiful it manages to be (in spite of all that effort, or because of it) will turn off a reader as quickly as a sentence that did not try at all.

The key is to be great without seeming to try.

A great example of a story collection full of first sentences that have the tempting quality of a first drink or bite of cake (of course you will keep eating or drinking), but also the same sneaky nonchalance of liquor and cake, is Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up. You can find the book here.

How the Stories Work

There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:

“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”

One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up). 

It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.

I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.

The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:

“I had a husband.”

In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.

The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:

“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”

As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.

In “Decor,” she starts this way:

“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”

Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?

Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:

“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”

The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some first-sentence strategies, using Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkle as a model:

  1. Play with tone. If you know the sort of story you’re introducing, play around with different styles for a straightforward first sentence. You can be deadpan, witty, angry, or mellow. You can be hiding something from the reader (or yourself) or just throwing it all out there. You can be nervous or bold. What is the narrator’s or main character’s approach to the material? Write a sentence with a style that fits that approach.
  2. Introduce routine. You can use use this old standby: “Every day we did the same thing, until one day…” Or you can use a word like kept, which suggests that something is happening despite someone’s best efforts to stop it.
  3. Play with words that might otherwise go unnoticed. Change a noun to a slightly less usual version of that noun. Do the same thing with verbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean substituting canter for walk; don’t be like a freshman composition student pulling out the old thesaurus to impress a teacher. A word doesn’t need to be a novelty to be unexpected.
  4. Treat the sentence like a joke setup. Try these: “X was so Y that I Z’d.” Or “There was a time when I was so X that Y.” Use the reader’s natural inclination to hear out the joke to get them interested in the story.
  5. Make the sentence personal and physical. Even if you start with something weird and abstract, by the end of the sentence, move to the body. Make the readers feel your story on their skin.
  6. Dig into setting. It can be as simple as simply naming an unusual setting and telling us the kind of story that will take place there: a love story in a donut shop. Or, a matter of life and death in a day-old bread store.

The goal is to introduce your story in a way that draws the reader in. We think of shock as a good approach, but shock often pushes readers back. The sentences in Belly Up are unexpected and also inviting.

Good luck.

How to Lift Your Story Beyond Its Outline

1 May

Tom Hart is the bestselling author of the memoir Rosalie Lightning and founder of the Sequential Arts Workshop. How to Say Everything is his book about the craft of storytelling.

Sometimes you discover a pearl of wisdom about writing so great that it forever transforms how you think about craft. I found one recently in How to Say Everything by cartoonist and graphic memoirist Tom Hart. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while and met him at the AWP conference, where I picked up a copy of his book. It’s great, full of practical information meant for graphic storytellers but applicable to narratives of any kind. The part that really struck me was about that feeling you get sometimes when reading a book or manuscript-in-progress, the sense that it’s flat and boring and uninspired. It can be hard to figure out what’s wrong. Hart zeroes in on what might be the problem.

You can get the book as a free download at Hart’s website. (He also teaches some terrific online classes through the Sequential Arts Workshop.)

The Brilliant Idea

It’s in a chapter titled “Shooting the Outline.” Here’s what Hart writes:

My wife Leela and I were trying various episodic TV shows from HBO, and we watched our first episode of Rome. Hundreds of Caesar’s troops on horseback are trading through the woods towards the Capitol. They come to a river. One centurion looks to another and says, “What river are we crossing? It’s the Rubicon, isn’t it?” The troops cross it.

Leela looked at me and scowled, “They’re just shooting the outline!”

You can imagine the dramatic outline of the story here: Caesar makes his decision. The troops prepare. The march starts. They cross the Rubicon, marking the first act of war in Caesar’s civil war.

What’s missing in the producer’s execution is some grace, some evocation of emotion, some decorative element, some genuine grubby humanity.

I love this, in part because it states such a clear, simply truth. Bad writing states the obvious. But “shooting the outline” is more than that. It’s artlessness, the difference between a story and an itinerary. Even in a thriller, nobody actually cares what happens in the story. Instead, they care about the way the thing that happens makes them feel.

It’s an excellent exercise, then, to read through your manuscript-in-progress and ask yourself if any of the lines, especially in dialogue, sound like they could have been copied and pasted from the outline or from an unseen itinerary that your characters are following. If so, take the line out of dialogue. State it as simply as possible. In the HBO show, it would be easy to show an army massed against a river. What’s more important is the human element that Hart talks about. Now that you’ve parked the army on the literal physical edge of a decision, how can you dig into the details of life on that edge to reveal the characters’ hopes and fears?

If you want help with this, pick up a (free, seriously) copy of Hart’s book, where he talks about adorning the outline.

Good luck.

4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?


Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?


Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.


Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.


How to Save Your Darlings, Not Kill Them

26 Feb

Everyone who has taken a writing workshop has, at some point, heard the advice, “Kill your darlings.” A lot of very confident writers have said or supposedly said it: Hemingway, Faulkner and Welty are just a few. Through repetition, the maxim has acquired the solidity of one thing that young writers often desire most: a rule to follow. Sometimes it’s even true. But even more often, you pick up a book you love and see example after example of lines that must have been precious to the author.

–Read the entire essay—with exercises based on work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Gibson, and J. D. Salinger—at the Austin American Statesman.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

How I Learned to Love (and Learn From) My Kids’ Favorite Books

23 Feb

When my wife and I decided to have kids, we felt pretty sure that they would grow to love reading as much as we did. Even before our oldest son was born, he was getting a taste for literature. In bed at night, I read Tom McCarthy’s weird, avant-garde novel REMAINDER aloud to my wife’s pregnant belly. It was our version of playing Mozart. We didn’t expect that it would make our baby a literary genius, but it was a way to talk to him in a language we loved. Sure enough, when the nurses were drying and weighing, the nurse said, “Say something, Dad,” and so I spoke. Xavier turned his head toward me. The nurse nodded. “He recognizes your voice.”

–Read the entire essay about what I’ve learned from my kids’ favorite audiobooks at the wonderful writer Samantha M. Clark’s blog.


You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.


My Book Has a Cover!

30 Jan

One of the things I’ve always admired A Strange Object (beyond the inventive, smart story collections they have published) is the beautiful covers they create for their books. I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. Now it’s official:

The cover was created by Austin-based artist and set designer Lisa Laratta. She actually built the topographical feature in the image. On the back of the book, the image wraps around and continues. It’s a cover that speaks to the explorative nature of the book, investigating the types of fiction that can be written. It also reminds me of the maps my wife and I have used when hiking in New Mexico and the maps I used to pore over when my father went to the local federal office to register his CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) ground; the acres withdrawn from crop production and reserved for grassland had been shaded in by hand with colored pencil by my father. Even though I knew every part of the farm, seeing those same fields from a different perspective made me realize how much there was to discover about it. It’s the same way I feel about reading great fiction in order to expand my skill as a writer.

To learn more about The Writer’s Field Guide and to pre-order the book, click here.



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