Week twelve study diary – Advanced Creative Writing
At this point we left drama and learned how to apply the techniques from stage play, radio play and film to pieces of fiction.
Exercises were tackled and examples read and critiqued while we considered how much exposition was too much, and the way in which backstory pulls the reader away from the action. Backstory needs to be important to plot to earn its right to be included in fiction, as it does in drama.
There are two kinds of scenes in fiction: dramatic and static. Dramatic scenes are tense and eventful, while static scenes are restful and release tension. Point of view should be carefully controlled in each scene. Showing is more powerful than telling when revealing important aspects of a story. The elements of each scene should be arranged for “maximum economy and meaning”. And each individual scene should have a beginning (an entry point) a middle and an end where action rises and falls before climaxing at the end of the scene where we cut to another scene.
Dramatic techniques such as cut, shot and montage have direct analogies in fiction.
A cut in film is the transition from one scene to the next. Carefully worded and crisply written sentences can produce the same effect in prose.
A shot in film is the uninterrupted flow of imagery. Different types of shot establish different things and the same can be said for fiction.
A long shot is one that establishes setting, time and period. As Gardner says,
“unless you put it there, in vivid, concrete, sensory detail, the reader will not see it.”
A medium shot reveals interactions between characters and setting, and a close up focuses on emotions of characters.
A montage is the juxtaposition of images or scenes and the purpose of it is to create a new reality out of disparate fragments. Ways of producing this effect in prose can be flashbacks, changes in point of view and metaphor. Connecting these threads with an overarching theme or image can pull the strands together in the reader’s mind and create a richer and more layered reality.
Splicing the strands
I was asked to write a short piece from the point of view of two characters and structure it so that we skip from one character to another and back again. See activity 11.7 below. Juxtaposing two points of view in this way causes (or should cause) the reader to expect the characters to converge. The longer the story, and the longer the convergence is delayed, the more effective such cross-cutting is likely to be. If you can ensure the eventual convergence is different to that which the reader expects it will increase tension and be more entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Juxtaposing strands in this way interrupts the linear progression of action and can leave the reader of the precipice as we jump from a crucial point into a different point of view, delaying resolution. However, it is important that all the strands push the main story forward and that subplots are related, in some vital way, to the main plot.
Unlike drama, prose can and should provide “direct access to the interior world” (thoughts, beliefs, emotions) of the protagonist(s). Boorstin says,
“No matter how brilliant the characterisation, a movie can never probe the inner workings of the mind the way a good novel can.”
I would argue that the TV series “Legion” might be the exception to prove the rule here. There are arguments against providing direct access to the interior world, and writers like Hemingway argued that action should be externalised and raw emotions on a page are artless. Maass (21st Century Fiction) argues that,
“to put authentic emotions on a page you must own them.”
Exploring secondary and nuanced emotions is considered more sophisticated and artful than focusing on more common raw emotion.
In 21st century prose it is the character’s experience of their story world, rather than the descriptions of place that filled pages of novels written earlier. The advice is to write from inside the skin of your narrator. Feelings, especially conflicted feelings can bring an otherwise dull description to life and at the same time reveal something about your character. Stories are most effective when external events reflect, reverse and/or magnify the interior world of the character(s). In summary, Maass argues that,
“What’s inside can be turned outward (into action). And what’s happening outwardly has inner meaning.”
A narrator is a fictional construct, an invented character. Jack Hodgins describes voice as two-pronged. The “voice-print” is the writer’s own voice, while the “voice-mask” is the voice “taken on” to represent the way the narrator expresses his/her/them-self.
Being aware of who is telling the story and their voice register (idiom) can enrich a narrative. What sort of language does the narrator use? Voice can indicate gender, profession, class, region and psychological disposition. It is easiest for the reader is you bring the voice to life by focusing mainly or word choice and word order. One or two words repeated on a fairly regular basis can bring a dialect to life without making the prose difficult to read, e.g. the use of didnae to indicate a Scottish character.
There are different kinds of narrator available to writers: first-person narration, third-person limited omniscient, third-person omniscient or involved author, third-person objective or fly-on-the-wall, shifting first-person method, shifting third-person method.
Diversity between characters’ voices enriches a story just as it does with drama. Using a different register (even subtly) for each character helps to bring them to life in the reader’s mind.
The second activity I am sharing this week is one where I was asked to write a 1,000 word story (as usual mine’s part of a story, I still need to work on brevity) with contrast between the narrator’s voice and the voices of other characters, see activity 12.7 below.
Next week I shall be concentrating on an assignment to critique other students’ work. The next blog post will be in two weeks’ time.
If you think you would like to study Creative Writing at an advanced level check out the A363 on the Open University website. I recommend both this course and the A215 Creative Writing (Year 2). I have been collecting writing guides as you’ll see from the photo on this post. I recommend any or all of these if you prefer to work solo while developing your craft. I also wrote a beginner’s guide to writing a novel. Part one is available here.
Activity 11.7 - The Two-Faced Doll
‘What do you think?’
Cassandra stared, open-mouthed, as her father followed the curve of the driveway towards their new home. By the time he parked the car behind the removal van, she had decided the house was beautiful. The ivy that her father would later fret about and attempt to poison, leant the brick walls an unexpected fairytale magic. Cassandra could imagine a starry-eyed prince climbing up the vines, hand over hand, destined to finally meet the fair princess.
To the right of the house, apple blossoms that looked at first glance like snowflakes clung to the branches of four trees. She imagined biting into the juicy fruits that autumn would bring.
‘How does Jeanette’s view of religion change over the course of the book … Louise?’
Sniggers echoed around the classroom. Louise’s cheeks burned and she stared at her desk, unwilling to respond.
‘Quiet!’ Mrs Gray shouted. ‘Grow up the lot of you. Louise, are you okay?’
Louise heard her teacher step between desks and move towards the back of the class to where she was desperately trying to disappear. She knew why the other children were laughing at her, that her own mother was a local joke, the religious nut case. She shook her head so hard her jaw ached.
‘I don’t feel well, Miss,’ she whispered as Mrs Gray drew level with her desk.
Mrs Gray nodded and made her way back to the front of the classroom.
‘Ben, same question. How does Jeanette’s view...’
‘It’s really ours?’
‘Absolutely. Try to keep out of the workers’ way until they’re finished though. Then you can explore it properly.’
‘I wish Mum could see this.’ Cassandra squeezed her doll at the waist and wondered whether her mother could see it after all.
Father sighed. His eyes shone for a moment then dulled again. He got out of the car and strode towards the workers, leaving Cassandra trapped by child-proof locks on the back seat. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the heroic stories she held on to as tightly as the knitted doll, she did not wait to be rescued. She clambered over the towering backrest and tumbled onto the front seat.
‘We’re here, Jemma,’ she whispered to the rag doll of two halves. The contrasting torsos and heads were attached to each other by a reversible gown. One was light, sharing Cassandra’s blonde hair and blue eyes, sporting two pink circles for cheeks, while the other was tanned with dark hair and green eyes. Some might say that by thirteen she was too old for dolls, but she wasn’t ready to give up what remained of her mother.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, holding the doll to her ear. ‘Find your other face? But Jemma, it’s right here, below your skirt.
Louise waited until the classroom had emptied before she slouched into her backpack and waddled towards the door. Mrs Gray smiled sympathetically, a cheap gesture as far as Louise was concerned, since she had never intervened to stop the taunts. Even so, Louise nodded her head, letting her black hair fall across emerald eyes before brushing it back with her hand.
Activity 12.7 - Within
I’m in a large room lit with three lamps, not even bright enough to see the whole floor. The ceiling is lost completely to the gloom. I might be staring up at a starless sky. I try the light switch and I’m drowning in pitch blackness thick enough to choke on. Fear grips me. I think of my brother and sisters, waiting for me at home, hungry and alone. I’ve got to go.
‘I tried that as well, sweetheart.’ The voice’s deep, masculine. ‘Are you Samantha?’
Footsteps. He’s coming closer. I spin around and fumble for the door handle, my heart hammering against my ribs. My mouth’s as barren as the packet of dry roasted peanuts I accidentally lifted from Tesco last week instead of ready salted.
I find the door knob, smooth, cold metal. I twist it one way then the other, tugging then pushing, but the door’s locked. I flick the switch again and in the low light I see the man, standing exposed in the centre of the room, on a red and gold rug. He must be forty, at least, balding slightly, but smartly dressed. He reminds me of a salesman.
‘Nope,’ I tell him. ‘And I ain’t your sweetheart.’
He crumples for a minute then he looks up again, a sly smile on his sweaty face.
‘Oh well. I’m pleased to meet you anyway. What brings you here?’
I don’t want to tell him that I was peeking through car windows, searching for forgotten handbags when I noticed the open door of a Victorian town house and decided to try my luck. Instead I say, ‘Front door was open. Thought someone might need help.’
He nods. ‘My sister asked me to pick her up, but I can’t find her.’
I don’t believe him. The wicked glint I’d seen on his face a moment ago, and the fact that he’s waiting for, who is it, Samantha? Samantha probably lured him here by offering him her teenage flesh on some website for paeds. Okay, I have a suspicious mind, but you would too, in my position.
I’m just glad I brought a weapon. I reach for my pocket-knife, but he moves away as my fingers hover near my jacket pocket. A shadowy corner almost hides him but, now I know he’s there, I can see his black silhouette and the hungry eyes that peer at me through the gloom.
I move around the room, keeping my distance from his corner, searching for a key or some tool to open the door. I pull out drawers and find each one empty. My eyes sting, but I don’t cry. I think about it logically. Definitely a honey pot, but what does the owner want from us, from me? I dread finding out.
The door opens and a woman steps in.
‘Don’t let it close,’ the man shouts, too late.
He rushes across the room, making the woman step back. He tries the knob again, but cannot prise the door open.
‘Stay away or I’ll scream,’ she says.
She notices me. ‘What is this?’ she asks, holding her hands towards me like a plea for help.
I shake my head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you know who lives here?’ the man asks.
The woman’s lips shrink behind her teeth and her face wrinkles like a granny’s, although she probably ain’t older than fifty. Fear ages her, and she don’t reply.
I try. ‘Who let you in?’ I ask.
Her eyes dart around. I’m pretty good at reading people. Her body language tells me she’s deciding whether the truth or a lie will be better.
‘I heard a child crying,’ she says. ‘I came in to see if they needed help. Have you seen any little kids?’
‘No. Help me find a key or summat.’
‘I am not turning my back on him,’ she insists.
I point at his corner and he retreats like a dog that’s used to punishment. Rather than pity, I feel only repulsion. My skin crawls.
I don’t expect any one else to arrive. None of us guards the door. When a young, scary dude with short hair and a moustache enters, the only thing that changes is that four, not three, people are trapped. He’s a big man. The paed stays pressed against his corner.
‘I’m looking for Mr Evans,’ the hulk says. ‘Is he here?’
‘You know the owner?’ The woman tries to smile. The effect is less than charming. ‘We seem to be trapped here. Can you ask Mr Evans to let us out?’
The man tries the door. When it doesn’t open, he shunts it with his shoulder, then kicks the handle, trying to break the lock. Frowning, he consults a piece of paper.
‘No phone number.’
The woman pulls a mobile from her pocket. ‘I’ve got no signal. Does anyone have a signal?’
Moustache checks his phone and shakes his head. He pounds on the door with his fists to attract attention. No one comes so he lights a cigarette and sits on an antique armchair. He doesn’t seem worried, as if this is the sort of thing that happens all the time in his world.
‘How about you?’ the woman asks me.
‘Don’t have a phone,’ I admit.
She looks at me as if I’ve told her I’ve got the plague.
‘What about the paed?’
‘The paed?’ The bruiser sits up straighter. I reckon his muscles are rippling beneath his coat.
‘In the corner.’ I point and the balding man steps forward, head bowed. He doesn’t even deny it. I might find that funny at any other time and place.
‘Are you Mr Evans?’
Greaseball shakes his head.
‘Why are you here then?’
‘Which one’s your sister?’
‘Not me,’ I say.
‘I’ve never met him before,’ the woman claims.
‘What’s going on here?’ the hard man asks, and we repeat our lies.
‘Yeah and I’m here to return a lost wallet.’ He chuckles.
‘It’s a honey pot,’ I say, feeling suddenly important, far wiser than all the adults around me. After all, I’d been taking care of my siblings for a year now and still going to school every day. I am important, at least to my family. They need me. ‘Someone or summat brought us here.’
‘Why?’ the woman asks. She’s trembling. ‘I – I didn’t really hear a kid crying. My daughter ran away and I thought maybe...’
‘Why did she run?’ I ask.
Her cheeks redden and I see a short-tempered mum who drinks too much and hits their kid. As I said, I’m good at reading people. It might not be that exactly, but it’s summat similar.
‘She afraid of you?’
The woman nods.
‘And you’re here to meet Samantha. Did you meet her online?’
The greasy man doesn’t admit to anything. He huffs and puffs a little.
‘Mr Evans owes money to the wrong people.’ The moustached man’s eyes confirm I’m right.
‘Hoped to find summat to pawn. Times is hard since Mum left.’ It's best to soften hard truths.
‘Oh you poor thing,’ the woman says.
I step away before she can touch me with her kid-beating mitts.
‘But there ain’t nothing here. It’s like a film set,’ I say.