Heart of Storying Telling Talk by Jessica P. Morell at WWCON11

The Heart of Storytelling 
Jessica P. Morrell
Willamette Writers Conference 2011
#WWCON11
  • Poll of audience: 
    • half from out of town
    • 20% for the first time
    • 90% writing fiction
  • Written 5 books for writers
  • Both fiction and memoirs need action and narrative
  • Good writing simmers and brims on the page, slips into the readers brain, involves readers emotionally
  • No emotion in the story, they won’t connect to the characters
  • We don’t want happy readers, we want nervous readers. Threats to characters. The reader keeps turning the page.
  • Take someone out of their comfort zone, and force them to act.
  • Readers want:
    • People read to escape. Some people are looking for positive social changes -- especially science fiction. Talks about society, morals, etc. A way to vision the world in a more positive way. People read for laughs and wit, or for the intellectual challenge, or for puzzles. 
    • Some people read because they want a predictable, safe world that they can return to again and again. Comfortable predictability.
    • People want happy endings because real life doesn’t provide enough happy endings.
    • People want to be surprised, or to see aspects of human life they have never seen before.
    • Suspense, and the arousal that comes with it.
    • People looking for real visible characters and settings.
    • Because society has become so visual, from TV to high def movies to computers, readers need more visual elements in their writing. There should be something on every page.
    • Writers need to be careful not to preach their agends.
  • Connecting to characters
    • It’s safe.
    • It’s a pleasure to connect with them.
    • We want to empathize 
    • We have fictional friends as kids, characters are extensions of that as adults.
  • The way characters see the world, the way their hearts open up, this is what makes characters rich.
  • Anecdotal story about a boy in a small town who goes to the library. He goes to the kids section, sits at a table, and starts reading. Hours later the library closes, but no one notices him,. The boy is missing, and they search the town for him. Hours later, they think to check the library, and the boy is still there reading at the table. 
  • Fiction has power to give meaning to meaningless lives.
    • In fiction, there is cause and effect. There is no randomness, the way there is in real-life.
    • Everything that happens in the story has a cause, some of it is in the backstory, the characters lives before the story.
    • Characters choices and decisions should be made in scenes: they are too important to overlook.
      • choices and decisions affect things. What is the event that makes things happen - that kicks off the whole story? e.g. the story
      • as characters make choices, they are also being threatened. these threats and also different agenda are forces on the character.
    • The most important things happen to characters in action scenes.
    • Most characters will have a single defining moment. These most often happen in an action scene.
    • in screen writing, action is always a physical action: a punch, a gunfight, etc.
    • In fiction, it is less necessary to have physical action, but there needs to be tremendous threat.
    • In the movie Saving Private Ryan... there is the opening action scene where they storm the beach. That’s one form of action. Later in the movie, there is another scene, late in the movie, where the characters are in a village, and one character needs to bring ammunition up the staircase to the rest of his team, or they will die, and he struggles to go up the stairs. it’s an emotional action scene.
    • good action scenes provoke your flight or fight response. your heart should race faster, get your adrenaline pumping, and feel vibrantly alive. 
    • fictional characters are vulnerable: in the kitchen scene in jurassic park, there is a velociraptor against a bunch of kids, who should have been safe.
    • when you are writing action scenes, you are slowing down time. it’s like being in a car accident, where things slow down.
      • but it can’t slow down so much that characters are thinking about the grocery shopping list.
      • the higher the action, the less time characters should have for thoughts, for either introspection or flashbacks.
    • a scene brings characters to a new place. we write in scenes as much as we can, we don’t just summarize. scenes have tension and mood.
    • what in the story is going to have the most dramatic potention?
    • for stories that are around 80k to 90k words...
      • you’ll have at least six big action scenes. sometimes called set pieces.
      • everything is building for a while, setting things up for the set piece.
    • dominant traits that your character has are going to be showcased in the set piece. a risk taker will step over the edge too far, a brave guy will have fights thrown at him. 
    • somewhere in the first 50 pages of your manuscript, there has to be a scene which is a point of no return, and it needs to be showcased.
    • because we’re writers and not directors, we have a bigger challenge to write action scenes. we can’t have stunning visuals and sound effects... we need to do it all with written words.
    • scene: a unit of conflict that is lived through by the character and the reader
      • the character wants something
      • something else stands in their way
      • the character will win or lose
      • most scenes end in disaster
    • sequel: a unit of transition that links scenes. it’s what happens after the big fight, as the characters come to terms with what has happened. their unsaid words. new goals that form as a result of the action. new decisions that result from the action.
    • if possible, there should be 3 reasons for every scene:
      • show protagonist feelings
      • introduce or develop a character
      • add romance or threat to the story
      • always: develop the character, push the story forward.
      • [like permaculture, everything should have 3 purposes]
      • if it doesn’t move the story forward, it doesn’t belong.
    • your protagonist is going to change...
    • the antagonist is the push that forces the protganist to change. they don’t have to be a villain to do that. 
    • the protagonist wants something. a goal is not a goal until it is concrete and meaningful enough for the character to take action to get it.
    • conflict: engine of fiction. stories without conflict are not stories.
    • goal choice + conflict = character must take action and make decisions.
    • disasters are at the ends of scenes because they are hooks.
      • they intrigue our imagination. “what’s going to happen next? how is that going to affect so and so?”
      • and you can have a reverse disaster: “and alice knew that everything was so perfect, nothing bad could ever happen again.”
  • structure of scenes
    • made up of action and reaction
    • can have only one character: climbing a mountain.
    • if you have a lot of scenes with one character thinking about things, that’s not a scene, it’s an introspection.
    • you need to mix it up. as much as possible have more than one character in a scene, especially action scenes.
    • there are limited countered examples: the character has to cut off their arm to survive, the movie castaway.
    • love-making is an action scene.
    • you need to set things up ahead of time:
      • if it is going to rain in a scene, there should be clouds ahead of time.
    • don’t summarize. stay in the moment.
    • develop character or advance the plot.
  • suspense and tension are not the same thing:
    • tension is like really bad humidity. it penetrates everything and frays your nerves. it’s an undercurrent of unease. you try to get tension in all your scenes, especially action scenes.
    • suspense is knowing something is going to happen, and waiting for it to happen. we create suspense by delaying answers.
    • an action scene is a release of suspense: it’s a catharsis.
    • if they are too fast-paced, the reader gets lost.
    • too slow, the reader gets bored.
    • too over the top, and it’s not believable. 
    • Hollywood action scenes are not good examples for books: they are just visual, over the top eye candy, and the viewer doesn’t have time to think about the unplausibility.
    • But when writing, the reader has time to think about the details: “But wait! I don’t think they can jump 40 feet across buildings!”
    • Everything you write in the action scene has to have an emotional purpose. It can’t have details just for the sake of details: we don’t need to know she is wearing a pink shirt, unless later that shirt is going to be stained in blood.
    • the stakes have to justify the action.
    • if the heroine knows judo, we have to know way ahead of time that they know judo: an earlier scene shows her coming out of judo class.
    • if characters have a lot of skills, and they don’t use them, that has to be justified.
  • pacing
    • if the action scene is really fast paced, then the scenes below should be slower, and connect us more to the character, to create more of a rollercoaster ride.
    • the writing itself should get tighter and tighter, even working with sentence fragments if needed
    • ticking timebombs are important in fiction. e.g. the villain is killing girls at certain intervals, and it is a race against time to find him.
    • in action scenes, we don’t channel surf. we stick with one viewpoint.
    • choreographer:
      • the number of bullets in the clip, where the gun lands when it gets knocked out of their hand, everything has to be thought through. 
    • there’s not a lot of internal dialogue.
    • external dialogue can’t be speeches.
    • it can be interrupted.
    • action to break up dialogue, and dialogue to break up action.
    • the shorter the segments are, the faster the perceived pace.
    • don’t interrupt the action: there’s no introspection on where the perfume was made in the middle of a love scene.
    • real people get tired. sword fighters get tired. they can’t go on for pages and pages of sword fighting. even in the princess bride, they get tired and take a break.
    • you can’t have too many action scenes all squished together. they need to be interspersed with character building and discovery.
    • all the action scenes have to matter: they serve a greater purpose than other scenes.
    • when possible, use humor: characters have witty little barbs, it helps break up the tension, keeps the action more enjoyable.
    • action can be non-violent.
  • In workshop exercise:
    • write a prompt for an action scene. example: man gets lost in cave.
    • then fill in worksheet:
      • scene purpose: what prompted the action, why do you need the scene
      • scene goal: what is the protagonist is trying to achieve
      • scene action: who, what stands in protagonist’s path
      • internal response: key emotions, emotional reversal within protagonist
      • how the scene develops character or pushes the plot forward
      • result: what has changed or learned by the action in the scene. what were the consequences.
  • Q & A:
    • I have a demon with a really different viewpoint. How do I handle it?
      • Don’t do it in the action scene. Do it before. Maybe even an excerpt in italics to differentiate it.
    • How to do a car chase?
      • Make it realistic. It can’t go on and on.
      • Lots of verbs, but don’t repeat verbs,
      • Besides the chase itself, make sure there are other barriers: the apple carts, wet pavement, and babystroller across the street.
      • Character has to make moral chase: do they run down the baby?
      • short paragraphs!
Post a Comment