Episode 19: Risk Management

If you are an investor, you probably know your risk tolerance. For me, I prefer to stick with a long-term investment strategy with lower immediate yields (mainly because I’m young enough to wait). When it comes to writing, however, my tolerance is much higher, and this has gotten me into quite a bit of trouble over the years.

Let me start out by saying that I think every writer should take risks. Break conventions, move past the bounds of formal writing on occasion, throw in a twist at the end, and just have fun with what you’re doing. But—and this is a big one—make sure you are comfortable with the structure of a particular style of writing before you branch out.

When I first began writing poetry, I jumped immediately into the free-for-all mode of versification with staccato angry words (I know I’m not the only one, so no sniggering). Many months went by in that fashion, until I took up with Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. They taught me that form is not anathema to the written word. So, during my romance with the Romantics, I became an apprentice to meter, rhyme, and formalism. And what a great apprenticeship it was. By the time I moved back to the “modern” free verse approach (which is really not modern at all), I found that the former structure taught me how to live without it. I took away the scaffolding, if you will, and found a sturdy building underneath.

When you take any risk in life, I hope that you stop to consider the options, weigh the results, and stick the course. Writing is the same way. Before moving beyond the boundaries, make sure you know where the boundaries are and how they work. I’m not saying you have to spend many months writing with a straitjacket on, but I am saying that becoming familiar with the rules (the norm) helps you to appreciate the risks that you’re taking.

Now that I’ve lectured, let’s take a look at some risks that you might consider:

  • Second person: If you are interested in experimenting with short stories, I’ve found that second person (e.g., “You walk out into the cold air”) can really help you grow as a writer. It’s tough to sustain a second-person narrative, and you really have to think your way through.
  • First person plural: This one may be even more difficult, since your narrators are a collective group, but it’s an interesting challenge that we certainly recommend.
  • Twisted ending: If you’ve seen The Sixth Sense, you know what this is. You set the reader up for an expected outcome, and then rip it away at the last moment. To do this effectively, though, you must make sure that you leave enough clues throughout and revisit them to show how they work the way the reader didn’t expect.

And there are thousands of other risks you could take in every type of writing. Risk in writing is good—especially personal writing, since you have nothing to lose. If you have some risks you’d like to share, leave them in the comments.

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Episode 18: Framed

It’s a writing technique I love to hate and hate to love: the frame. Frames, in general, are often an either/or proposition. Either they enhance your writing with an added layer of wit, or, more often, they get in the way of the main story.

So, what is a frame? The best example I know of (because of my personal bias, of course) is evidenced by the movie The Princess Bride. The main plot of the movie is a fractured fairy tale about Wesley (the Dread Pirate Roberts) saving Princess Buttercup from an unwanted marriage. However, on top of this tale of comedic delight is the added complexity of a grandfather reading the story to his “sick” grandson. This reading part (the frame) encompasses the story and makes the audience take a step back. I would argue that the frame in The Princess Bride works mainly because the story is poking fun at romantic adventures (though ultimately fulfilling the genre’s expectations). The frame reminds us that this is just a fictional account.

Therein lies the danger with frames: they remind the audience that what they are experiencing is art. The frame is still a part of the work itself—albeit on a different level. However, when you make your reader move up a level, this discombobulation also reminds them that there is another frame as well (i.e., the reader’s existence outside the writing).

Frames can be an effective way to get your point across. As with the above movie example, a certain detachment can be important if you have a reason for needing distance (e.g., to undermine the seriousness of the action, to provide insight, to inject humor). In such cases, the frame adds a layer that is arguably necessary for the impact of your writing.

But here’s my advice: avoid frames unless the piece demands it and err on the side of caution. Using my excellent polling resources (read: personal anecdotal non-evidence), I would say that 98% of frames are not needed. Most writers (me included) use frames at some point because 1) it’s different, 2) we are emulating another writer, or 3) it seems “deep.” While all of these are certainly noble justifications, writing should never be subservient to or made to fit a particular form unless the form fits the function.

One of the first short stories I wrote to be workshopped was an interesting (read: overwrought) literary work about the search for meaning on a daily commuter bus. To make it more “artsy,” I added a frame in which the fictional writer of this story within a story was talking to the audience throughout (yes, three frames). Needless to say, the majority of comments suggested that the frames detracted from the main story. The artistry overwhelmed the plot (though the comments were more blunt than that).

Frames are not without merit, and some can be poignant and effective. Most, however, are not. Use them only when the artistry doesn’t destroy the art.

With all that said, should the writer even take risks? More on that next week . . .

Episode 17: Conflict Resolution

The impetus of almost all writing is conflict. With fiction, conflict drives the characters, moves the action, and keeps the reader turning pages. With nonfiction, the conflict usually involves the reader needing to know something that the writer can provide—or presenting a problem that the paper will solve. In a sense, writing presents a knot at the onset, and the writer spends the rest of the piece untying it.

Many books on writing attempt to quantify the types of conflict that can exist (human vs. human, human vs. tuna fish, etc.); however, the main point is that conflict creates a sense of unease in the reader, a disequilibrium that demands to be made right. Typically, when you set out to write something, your idea will inevitably have some sort of ingrained tension, such as:

Story plot: A man fights to save his family against giant marshmallows.

or:

News story topic: Who are the perpetrators responsible for drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa?

You typically won’t need to worry about inventing conflict, since it tends to shake out of the very premise of the piece you’re writing. However, there are some points to keep in mind about conflict.

Initial action: In nonfiction, the initial action is simply setting up the problem that the reader needs to find out the solution for or information about (e.g., test results, news, procedures, tech specs). With fiction, the initial action is what sets the conflict in motion, which can happen even before the story begins. In the novel that I’m currently working on, the initial action involves the main character beginning his journey to see his brother. This happens before the narration begins, but that decision puts him on the road (literally) to everything that happens from there on out.

Building action: Building action simply involves moments of smaller resolution that also contribute to compounding the issue at hand. It is much like a mountain climber finding a ledge on which to rest. She has made it to a waypoint, but this just emphasizes the mountain is still not conquered. This may not be quite as appropriate in most nonfiction, though you can certainly lead the reader to a possible solution and reveal that this solution won’t quite cut it, for example. In fiction, these are often events that provide some clarity (e.g., the detective finds a clue) but also provide either more action or more suspence (e.g., the clue makes his own brother a suspect).

Climax: Once you have strung the reader along, there must finally be a moment of resolution: how the product will solve all the reader’s problems, how the news event turned out (news stories often present the problem and resolution in the first paragraph and then rehash). With fiction, this is the ultimate last stand when the Death Star is finally destroyed and the Emperor is defeated. There may be action after this (living happily or not ever after), but the main tension is resolved.

Just remember: conflict gives your writing shape. Use it to enhance interest in your writing.

Episode 16: Introducing Introductions

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines. If it’s the introductory sentence, it needs to be an engaging line, at least. First, let me say that the introductory sentence does not have to be in a particular style. What I mean is that something simple can be just as useful as something complex. If it’s fiction, for example, this line could certainly work:

He waited on the shore.

Why is he on the shore? What or whom is he waiting for? Who is he? The point is that there’s tension in that line that needs resolution. It’s certainly not complicated, but it gets the job done. On the other hand, an introductory sentence like this could have an impact as well:

Jacob Ester knew that by the time his father got home, the cornfield needed to show progress.

This one is a bit more complex with more information, but the reader can expect a challenge and can wonder if Jacob will finish his task. Either way, an effective introductory sentence, whether in nonfiction or fiction, needs to make an impact on the reader. Let’s take a look first at what you can do in fiction.

Conflict: Fiction is about conflict resolution (more about this next week). One of the best ways to capture the reader’s attention is by introducing the conflict in the first line. You don’t have to state the exact issue at hand, but as you can see with the examples (or even with the line I parodied from A Tale of Two Cities), hinting at the conflict from the onset causes engagement.

Theme: This one can be a bit trickier, but I would recommend introducing your theme (what you as a writer are saying with your story) as quickly as you can. Be subtle, but even in the second example above, there’s a hint of what the story will be about (the power of a father-son relationship). This may mean finishing the first draft of the story and reworking the first sentence once you know the theme, but there’s no shame in that.

Wit: I am definitely a simple-is-better advocate, but there is no one way that is “right” for story intros. Play around with multiple versions of the sentence, try them out with reviewers, and see which one works the best.

Nonfiction is not so dissimilar. You are still introducing a conflict (what the reader needs to know but doesn’t yet or perhaps even a disagreement of opinions for a news story); you are still presenting your theme early on; and you are still trying out various ways to start the article, paper, or essay. Now, certain types of writing have conventions (journal articles have abstracts, for example), but an excellent introductory sentence is still important for getting the reader to actually read. Nonfiction does not mean non-creativity.

What are some of your favorite introductory sentences? Leave them in the comments and tell us why you like them.