Larry Brooks Hosts Portland Workshop on Story Engineering

Posted: October 25, 2011 in On Writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

Since I’m chairing Larry Brooks’ Workshop on Story Engineering for Oregon Writer’s Colony this coming weekend, I don’t think he’d mind if I share some of his tips for writers.   First, however, a short commercial on the workshop:

Oregon Writer’s Colony brings Larry back to Portland for a special two-day workshop on Saturday, October 29 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, October 30 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to explain and illustrate his approach to structuring fiction, and to underscore its importance in novels and screenplays. Cost is $150 for OWC member, $190 for non-members (includes membership).

Larry is a popular teacher, and his method has intrigued and helped countless writers all over the country, as evidenced by his website Storyfix.com and his frequent blogs on the craft of writing. In fact, he was chosen Numero Uno among the country’s Top Ten Bloggers on writing. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity!

It will be held on Jantzen Beach on Hayden Island. For More info and to register,  Go To:      http://oregonwriterscolony.org/events/8/story-engineering/

Larry’s “Five Creative Flaws”

There are a million ways to cripple a story. Here are five of them in no particular order of toxicity.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being inexperienced (we’ve all been there). Unless it shows up in your story in a way that detracts from it. Or kills it.

1. Proper Names Within Dialogue (Which equates to bad dialogue.)

Listen closely to conversations in your life. Count the number of times somebody uses your name in those audible exchanges. Better yet, how often you use the name of the person you are talking to, either face to face or on the phone. It’ll be a low number. It is likely to be zero. And yet, some writers seem to think this sounds cool when written into dialogue. To wit:

Hey, Bob, good to see you.

You too, Joe. Been well?

Bob, you have no idea.

Well Joe, times are tough.

Rule of thumb: never do this in your dialogue. Never. With experience comes an ear for dialogue. But you can shorten that learning curve dramatically by simply axing out the use of proper names. Unless someone is calling on the phone and opens with, “Is Mary there?”, don’t make this mistake.

2. Chit-Chat

William Goldman, the senior statesman of screenwriting who is also an accomplished novelist, advises us to begin our scenes at the last possible moment. This is huge. Some of the best advice ever, even for novelists. Because implicit within its genius is the assumption – the prerequisite – that the writer completely knows the mission of each and every scene. Read that again, it can change your entire storytelling experience. Skip the pleasantries when two people meet. Avoid the weather talk. The how-have-you-beens. Instead, opt for something like this:

After a few minutes of catching up Laura popped the question she’d come for.

“Are you having an affair with my husband?” she asked.

The first of those two lines can replace many paragraphs of useless chit-chat. Even when said chit-chat demonstrates characterization, without expositional value it’s a useless distraction that eats away at pace. And pace is always important. Characterization when it counts trumps characterization when it doesn’t, every time.

3. Too Much Description of Food

This is more common than you can imagine among newer writers. Meals are described with exquisite detail. Course after course, drenched with spicy, worshipful adjectives. Delicious. Steaming hot. Slathered in a sweet sauce.

The only justification for doing this is when the meal is laced with arsenic. Because – and I’m serious about that analogy – because in such a case it would relate to the story. If it doesn’t relate, skip it. Nobody cares what your hero has for breakfast. It’s not important to know the menu of a meal prepared with love. Ever. Unless, like I said, the meal matters. Which it hardly ever does.

4. Overwritten Sequential Time Fillers

Your hero has had a tough day at work. She comes home to shower and have a glass of wine before driving to the rendezvous point for her blind date that evening, which she’d been unable to stop thinking about all day.

As a writer, you now face a decision: cut to the date, or take us home with her for the shower and the wine and some lengthy pondering of her lonely life. Or better yet, cut straight to the date and cover any prior ground (her bad day at work, the shower and wine) with a short introductory sentence.

Inexperienced writers tend to take us home with her. Have us take a shower with her and ooh and ahh about how good the hot water feels. About the taste of the wine, a hint of cherry, a nice finish.

The more experienced writer cuts straight to the date.

5. Invisible Scene Transitions

Less is more. It really is. Unless we’re talking foreplay, but that’s another blog.

This principle leads us to the best transitional device known to the modern storyteller. The very best way to get from one scene to the next is… to do nothing. Literally. Two words: white space.

Just end a scene cleanly, then skip a couple of lines and jump into the next scene. Which happens when either time or place or point of view changes.

Read that again, too. It’s basic and critical. If you’re jumping to a new chapter this takes care of itself. But chapters are legitimately able to house an untold number of scenes, and if you want to make sure the reader is as aware of the transitions with them as you are, skip a line or two when time or place of POV changes.

And if you can’t wrap your head around it, I’m betting your significant manuscript-reader other can. Because they’re readers, and readers are the victims when these things hit the page.

You can follow Larry’s resources and tips at www.storyfix.com

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