Recently, I taught a three week series on how objects make great storytelling strategies. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years back for Willamette Writers magazine about the use of objects as plot devices and metaphors.
In 2011 I embarked on one of the harshest undertakings; I placed what I thought was the final draft of my novel in a drawer for one year. Why? Because, as I told others in my most knowledgeable author voice, “A writer needs distance from their material before editing and rewriting.”
While that’s true, the real reason was, the story didn’t work. I thought it worked, it worked in my head, but based on a few shrewd readers it didn’t work in theirs.
During that year–fighting the wicked temptation to tweak pages, chapters and plots–I turned my attention to books on rewriting, in search of a magic key to unlock my manuscript and turn it into a novel, the kind people wanted to read. I took workshops, and reaped too many tips to list. All that matters is that nothing helped, until one day . . . .
I read yet another craft book, and SHAZAM! You know how it feels when something simple smacks you like a Mack truck of a good idea? Well, chapter 14 in the The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray, did that for me. The ‘objects lesson’ taught me to utilize my story objects (often called plot-devices) as shorthand for backstory and eliminate a lot of dense narrative.
“Objects tell your story.” Ray writes. “When you rewrite your novel, you can tighten your story by repeating a single object; car, train, statue, slipper, harpoon, book. There’s a good chance the objects are already there, in your manuscript, waiting to be found, to be selected, to be repeated, to be laid down like neon breadcrumbs in the forest. Readers follow breadcrumbs.”
I began to see the power of storytelling objects everywhere. What’s Lord of the Rings without the ring, Cinderella without glass slippers, The Notebook without the book, or poor little Forest Gump without his box of chocolates?
No glass slippers, no enchanted tale, just a barefoot girl with an unfortunate name who probably does not go from rags to riches and who likely does not find her fella . . . what’s the point?
In Nicholas Spark’s novel The Notebook, that evocative leather bound book literally contains their love story. And that chocolate box on Forest Gump’s lap is a metaphor for the story to come; “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” And oh-boy does that plot device set up and deliver a story.
Though easily overdone, an object that’s well-crafted, or emerges organically from setting or characters can establish a character’s values and thus inform and enhance the story.
In a Willamette Writers Conference screenwriting/storytelling workshop taught by Clark Kohanek, he too touched on the objects lesson. “Think about Die Hard,” Kohanek said, “when Bruce Willis enters with the teddy bear. We immediately know that object defines what’s important to him; family.”
That fuzzy teddy bear represents Willis’s values and reenters the story burnt and dirty, but safe, like him, ready to reunite with what he values so much he’d kill for. That object represents the driving force, and heart of the story because it’s valued by the protagonist.
Eventually, in rewriting my novel, the protagonist, Theo Riley, now has a toy soldier, a stack of blood-stained returned love letters, and a photograph of Korean Orphans. This trinity of objects define him, inform his moral compass and ultimately chart his destiny. These objects give the reader an understanding of Theo on a deeper level. They are backstory shorthand, and explaining it once eliminated pages of narration, because when the reader sees the tin soldier, letters, or pictures (Neon Breadcrumbs), they remember . . . because objects are a writer’s magic keys.
“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’”
– Robert McKee
Can Writers Learn Lessons from Bad Storytelling?
In Fargo speak, YOU BETCHA!
Twenty years ago a magazine editor told me that she admired my writing style because I ‘creatively broke the rules’. Huh? Thankfully, they bought and published that article in a glossy (old school for you younglings) magazine and I got paid. Thing was, when she said ‘broke the rules’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant. That sent me on a LONG journey of learning the rules so I could break them knowingly and with intentional, instead of accidental style.
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” —Jack Kerouac
That being said, there are many writing ‘rules’, but there are none that need ALWAYS be obeyed. As a matter of fact, conforming to rules often stifles artistic endeavor and can destroy an otherwise good story. Freedom, however, comes with responsibility. Any writer can break the ‘rules’, as long as it passes the onerous test of an audience. And (to quote Shakespeare) therein lies the rub.
It’s important to remember some rules of good #storytelling. For example, characters are what they do. Goes to follow that if your character doesn’t DO anything, you’ve got a problem. Story events should ALWAYS influence the character’s behavior, conversely the character’s behavior should impact story events. Actions and reactions produce revelation and insight, culminating in a meaningful emotional experience for the audience. And so on…but you know all that, right?
Now, I love a good book and a good tv-binge because I study storytelling in all genres. My most recent tv-binge, after Stranger Things (which delivers on SO many levels) has been The Last Kingdom. In the Last Kingdom they stuck to some solid storytelling principles, and delivered a historically accurate and captivating drama. Oh, did I forget to mention the bevy of handsome hunky actors who actually have acting chops? Then there’s that….But, after season 4 Ended, and while anxiously awaiting season 3 of Stranger Things (July 2019), we needed to find another mutually acceptable (that’s a husband wife thing) tv-binge.
We settled (after much debate – another husband wife tv watching issue) on Frontier, starring the ever resting on his gorgeousness, JASON MOMOA, (AKA Auquaman) with ZOE BOYLE (Downton Abbey) and ALUN ARMSTRONG (KRULL, and too much British Fabulousness to list).
We started watching, hopeful that the perilous era of the 1770s in Canada’s fur trading wars would provide some great entertainment. It had a boundless premise; by the late 1700s, French, Scottish and American immigrants have destabilized the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control in the fur trade. The HB company provokes a bloody battle for control of power and wealth, led by (here’s our bad guy) Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) and opposed by the savage (good guy) Declan Harp (Jason Momoa) a rogue and fierce former HB employee. Since hubby and I like #historicalfiction drama that explores aspects of a real history, we decided this could be entertaining, and certainly Armstrong has the serious acting chops to tell the story, right?
SO, the first 4 episodes had some problems, there’s a lot going on there, but we thought, okay, we’ll hang in for the actors. One thing that bugged the heck out of me was the incongruous quotes at the beginning of each episode. RED FLAG! They were from people like Alan Greenspan and Ice T, who, though quotable, have NOTHING to do with the period or the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company, or the Indigenous tribes, or ANYTHING at all to do with the subject matter. It was like some teenager said, ‘Hey, this’ll be cool,’ without any regard for the audience. The quotes were SO incompatible they took me out of the story before it even started.
As a writer, that’s a serious golden rule, and the LAST thing you want to do to your readers and or viewers, NEVER take your audience out of the story.
Anyway, we hung in there UNTIL… in the middle of episode five we hit a wall. Despite the good actors, the potential for a fascinating period drama, our collective eye-rolling during episode 5 did us in. The writing, regarding female interaction with males, had to be done by a team of 13 year old sniggering boys. I could just hear them in the corner of their office/playground giggling and saying, ‘boobies’. In the scene where the lovely actress, #BreanneHill who plays barmaid, Mary endeavors to ‘seduce’ an officer, it was clear no female was involved in the writing of those scenes and others involving men and women interacting. It was sophomoric. We stopped watching.
It didn’t even rise to the level of being disgusting or repulsive or anything remotely like that – that would require skill –
no, it was just stupid, and insulting. And that’s another golden rule you shouldn’t break, NEVER insult the intelligence of your audience.
As Robert McKee says, a writer must have ‘respect, not disdain, for the audience’.
A good #story should make the audience feel emotions in reaction to the story as it unfolds. Every time #Frontier hinted at an emotional connection it then jumped (leaps and bounds) to another #storyline and didn’t return to the one I thought I was going to connect with. For example, the first episode we leave a young Irish girl, Clenna played by Lyla Porter-Follows, stranded by her lover and trapped in an English prison. By the time we return to her in Episode 5, I no longer cared about her or the potential love story. That needed to be set up better to have a pay-off.
Even good #writers can get caught up by a notion or an emotion that disengages them from their audience and results in a story that loses traction or takes an unexpected direction, so it’s vital to stay on alert when writing. The best works connect with the audience and sustain a connection throughout the story.
If a writer falls into the deception that their audience is stupid, incapable of understanding story nuances and that considering them is nothing but an inconvenience, they are as doomed as their story.
Frontier bombs on many fronts, but mostly in its #writing, it fails to do anything truly meaningful, it wants to be a mature gritty, violent #drama, and in some ways it is, but really it’s just a hodgepodge of activity with no heart at its core. A story needs an undeniable truth, and a heart at its center.
Netflix has some GREAT writers and GREAT programming, this just didn’t rise to that level. And though I really want to believe that Jason Mamoa can bring a little more to a story than his powerful presence, he should go get an Indie Film role and prove that he can rise above his screen stealing image and show us if he can ACT. Because when the writing is weak, the actor needs to be that much more skilled.
Anyway, a writer must know the rules to break them successfully. That’s the art, and that art requires skill. In the betrayal of them, an onus of great power is on you as an artist. It’s important to know the rules/guidelines of writing because your audience has expectations and if you let them down, you lose them. If you aren’t familiar with some of the rules out there in the blogosphere, a good place to start is with Stephen King’s top 20 rules of writing.
“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.”– Robert McKee
THANK YOU for letting me rant about bad writing, and hopefully in this rant you can find a few nuggets. If you liked this, please share on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest or wherever you socially media. Thanks for reading. Cheers, Mindy
It’s vital that we, as storytellers, understand what ALL our characters (major and minor) want and need. If you have a cast of passionate characters, passionate about willy-nilly things, a story can get befuddling and difficult. Unless their passion circles the same topic the story wanders off in too many directions and then a reader gets lost.
For example, I recently read a manuscript wherein one character was passionate about rebuilding old cars, another passionate about remodeling kitchens, and a third passionate about going to day spas. Okay, interesting. Unfortunately these three passions never intersected in the story. I suggested to the writer that if all three could meet as a result of vintage cars, remodeling, or at a day spa, then they could bond over that single shared passion, the crime could have something to do with that, and so on. But instead the reader was sent in three different directions, down three separate roads only to wonder why and then quickly get tired of the story.
When I realized that the cast of characters in my upcoming novel, all of whom are holocaust survivors, all had the same needs (safety, community, nourishment, etc.) I had to write them with conflicting wants or the story would be boring (remember, wants and needs are VERY different) – some want to remember while others will do anything to forget. Some seek justice while others have lost hope in the jurisdiction of this world. Some seek the truth while others see only lies – and so on. These conflicting desires surrounding the same topic (the holocaust/concentration camp survival) create conflict no matter what else is happening. That tension filled topic is at the core of my story and keeps the spokes of my story-wheel spinning all in the same direction.
So remember, know the wants and needs of your characters and ALWAYS create conflict on every page.
Here’s a great article from K.M. Weiland on The Thing Your Character Wants VS The Thing Your Character Needs.
Last night I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at the University of Washington again, in the Fiction writing class. One young man asked me a question toward the end of the evening that I felt I left unanswered, and it bothered me all night. He asked how a writer can keep from being overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to write a novel and how much there is to learn. I’ve been there!
Anyway, I half way answered before other students chimed in with other great ideas, but I felt I never fully addressed his sincere concern. What I did say was to stay connected to your passion, remember why you wanted to be a writer in the first place, because that part of you can get SO lost in all the work. Have artist/writer’s dates with yourself, I told him. Go to coffee shops or sit on a mountain or go to the beach with a pad and pen and write (old school) because the actual act of writing taps into your subconscious and connects you with your desires, and can connect you to a deeper level of storytelling. I reminded him about what I said early in my talk; that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship and that it’s critical to remember that, and to give yourself some grace. But I didn’t’ get much further than that as it was the end of the evening and we all had to go drive in the snow.
What I’d like to add is this…
By grasping the reality that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship you can lessen the burden of the pursuit of perfection because it’s unachievable for the vast majority of writers, especially in the beginning. You can only learn so much at a time, but keep learning, keep growing, keep expanding your writerly pursuits, knowledge and craft tools, and just get better with every new project, and remember (and cherish) the writing tools (and mentors) that aid you in the journey.
Most importantly, if writing is your passion, keep writing. Find mentors like your instructor, Scott Driscoll. Find your tribe, I wish I had told him that. Find a group of like-minded writers to meet up with every so often, either just for coffee and story talk or to write with. Finding your tribe helps you stay connected. Go to writing conferences. Read great works of literature (however you define them) and get inspired to do the same. Emulate other authors who you admire. Peruse bookstore shelves, read the first sentence of ten best sellers (in your genre) and go sit in the bookstore coffee shop (or wherever you like) and write.
Also, if you love language don’t forget to play with words. I love the sounds and meanings of certain words and try to use them in my writing when I can. Or concepts, like how an object can be metaphor in a story, that’s what I was playing with when I took a break from working on my novel a couple years ago and wrote a 700 word story that won the Writer’s Digest fiction contest. So play with words, who knows where it may lead. Then, if stuck, take a break from what you’re working on and work on something else. If you’re writing a dark, difficult piece, take a break and write something funny. Play with your words, they are your tools.
Write free hand, old school like Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones. Pen and paper. It’s a transformational writing tool that connects you to your work on a deeper level than imagined.
A couple of my favorite writer’s dates with myself are; I love to go to coffee shops where I never go, in different parts of the city or take the ferry over to the islands and go to coffee shops there, and write. The fresh air on the ferry, the water and the change of scene reawakens my writing mind. I also go to art museums and sit on those couches in the middle of the room – where no one really ever sits – and gaze at great paintings, this stirs something inside me to write. Don’t know why, it just does. Last week I went to Portland, stayed in a hotel, wrote till late night, got up early went to the corner café for coffee, wrote for a couple more hours and the went on with an exhilarating day (at the art museum) culminating in a writing session back at the same café where my day started, but this time with wine instead of coffee. I needed the time alone, in the city where my next novel takes place – my story world. I was completely recharged within 24 hours of alone time. Thankfully, I have a wonderful husband who encourages these needs in my life. So whatever your life permits, create writer’s dates (no matter how grand or how small), find companions on this life-long journey of learning, and never forget to restore, inspire and encourage yourself.
What stirs your muse? Figure that out and reconnect with it frequently. For every unique writer there is a unique path. Find yours.
I am teaching The Artists Way for Writers at Edmonds Community College if you’d like to explore this further. Be well, keep writing. Cheers, Mindy
|Whether you’re new to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, or have a shelf filled with years of Morning Pages, our class will reconnect you to your muse. You may be working on a novel, short stories, journaling, or simply wanting to experience enhanced creativity in your life–whatever your goal is, using the tools in Julia Cameron’s bestselling book will help you explore how to engage and invigorate your writing verve.
During our six weeks you will explore the lessons of The Artist’s Way, harnessing your inner creativity, addressing negative beliefs, forming creative allies, making artistic u-turns, blasting through blocks, making writing dates with a muse, letting your imagination play, and creating a contract that honors the writer’s life. We will have two optional writing dates at local coffee shops outside of campus. Prior knowledge of The Writer’s Way not necessary, but you can purchase Cameron’s best selling book here.