Tag Archives: structure

Sheila-na-Gig Delivers

And a ship comes home….

 

A Sheila-na-Gig

Just received a cheque for twenty pounds sterling from ‘New Writer Magazine’ who have published my story ‘Sheila-na-Gig’ in their Autumn edition. Okay, so I’m not jacking in the prison job just yet but twenty quid in writing payment is like two grand in normal people’s money. Now, what to blow it on… All suggestions gratefully received.

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Just Kidding!

Jokes! Jokes are a great source of plot ideas. An established writer gave me this tip years ago and it has served me well.

Jokes, you see, are plots in miniature. Stories sealed up and ready to go. You’ve got your beginning, middle, end, your conflict, your characters – flaws and all. All you’ve got to do is flesh it out. Expland on it. Change gender and setting if possible. And no, it doesn’t have to be funny because many jokes (indeed, stories) need an element of tragedy to make comedy (and vice vearsa) and you can just crank up the aspect you want to emphasize.

Here’s a joke that gave me an idea for a short story recently shortlisted for a competition:

“It was Ryan’s funeral and the pallbearers were carrying the casket out from the church. When they bumped into a pillar, one of them heard a moan from inside the coffin. They opened the lid and found Ryan alive. He lived for another ten years before he properly died. Another funeral was held for him and, as the pallbearers were carrying out the coffin, Mrs Ryan shouted “Now, watch out for that pillar!”

OK, it’s the way ya tell ‘em… But the point is that they don’t have to be the funniest jokes – just so long as there is a story in there, a universal truth with which your readers will react and engage. Wordplay/puns won’t work so well, go for the story…

Here’s another one you can chew on for a story idea (it goes down well in the creative writing classes I give in an English prison…)

The defendant knew he didn’t have a prayer of beating the murder rap, so he bribed one of the jurors to find him guilty of manslaughter. The jury was out for days before they finally returned a verdict of manslaughter. Afterward the defendant asked, ‘How come it took you so long?’ the juror said, ‘All the others wanted to acquit’.


So, what’s your story?

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What's the story?

 

Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.

Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.

Structure

A typical story structure might be plotted thus:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

 

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.

That’s all that’s in it.


‘“Damn,” said the Duchess.’

The all important first line…

"Bang!" Grab your readers' attention.

 The titular quote here is attributed to Agatha Christie, though I am unable to identify which of her novels is thus launched. Regardless of its provenance, this line is arresting, or was in its day. “Damn” was a pretty raw word in 1920 or so, rarely uttered in front of ladies, not to mind say by one, and then one of high social standing. So, an opening line such as ‘“Damn,” said the Duchess’ was written to shock, to intrigue, to grab the readers’ attention.

If writing a book, make sure your first line is memorable, striking, the type that will hook and reel in your reader keen to find out more. Follow it by a seductive, pacy set of three chapters. They are also the showpiece you’ll be sending off to agents and publishers so best make sure they’re written to hook.

Some writers write their last chapter first, so they can figure out their plot, and then leave writing those all-important first few pages until last. In fact, the very last piece of writing they’ll do is the first line. Therefore, don’t fret over your opening, get the rest of your work down and come back to it later if necessary.

And, take note that just as your first line should reach out and grab your reader – your final line should linger with your reader for sometime afterwards…

 Can you guess which works gave us the following opening lines?

 

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’

 

I’m writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

 

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

 

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

 

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

 

‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’

 

‘Mother died today.’

 

‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’

 

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’


He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.’

 

‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.’


Life In The Blurbs

Can You Sum Up Your Story On A Pebble?

Blurbs, those wee plot synopses on the back of books, are a great writers’ tool. Firstly, writing a blurb for your yet-to-be-written novel helps you get to the kernel of what it is all about. Secondly, penning such a blurb will prompt you to imagine your novel as a reality and motivate you to keep going and finish what you’ve started.

Also, reading the blurb of a novel that closely resembles your own will help you get to the bones of your own story, structure and theme. Look at how these other works are summed up. Do they concentrate on plot or theme or character? What is the hook? And what is yours?

Remember, a blurb is not a synopsis. Blurbs are short, the shorter the better, maybe a line or two long. Some are even just a few words. You don’t have to condense your story to “Jaws in Space” but do boil it down as much you can. If you had to sell your story on the back of a postage stamp or a pebble, what would you write?

When you’ve crafted your blurb, place it close to your writing place. It will keep you focused on what your book is about – and make sure that point is then evident in the very DNA of every moment of your book.

Finally, when it comes to approaching agents, having a well-written blurb you can include in a cover letter will prove very useful. Your blurb is your elevator pitch. Spend time on it and perfect it.