Structure, Showing, Description and Setting | Writing Craft Elements

So, here we are! These are the Craft Elements I researched during January and decided to write a post on this week. This is mostly supposed to be a summary of the information I found, not only for myself but for anyone who might be interested. There will be links to other sites, where people explain things better than I can, in each section, and a list of other sources at the end that I also found useful or interesting (and because research is a too good excuse to procrastinate, might as well have a place where it has already been done).

This post is of a more general nature, as I’ll be researching Elements several times and focusing on different aspects each time, depending on my interests/needs. If anyone wants to suggest any, leave a comment!

writing-craft-elements

Story Form and Structure

Stories, like all things, have a shape. This shape is defined by the story’s plot– what happens in it, the sequence of events from the Exposition to the Resolution to everything in between. A story’s structure is also often defined by the story’s genre and form (for example, an epic sci-fi romance novel will naturally be different from a psychological mystery short story).

It’s always important to have in mind, however, that we should always find what works for a specific story, and not try to fit it into a mold that might not fit.

Still, there are elements that most, if not all, people agree should be present in a story. These can be summed up nicely in the Three-Act Structure, which is the simplest structure you can find. Some argue that it’s too simple.

And it’s not hard to see why– a story isn’t just a rise-and-fall sequence. Or, rather, isn’t just one rise-and-fall sequence, at least in a longer work. Before reaching their goal, characters must go through a journey that not only prepares them for it, but also turns them into better people. During the rise, the characters must also fall.

This structure also implies that the Exposition is the beginning of the story, which ignores a favorite literary device of mine, in media res. In fact, I really enjoy non-linear storytelling in general because, when done right, it allows to tell normally overbearing stories in an interesting, refreshing way.

Basically, there are a lot of perspectives on story structure. Some defend Four Acts instead of Three. Not to mention the numerous other structures I obviously missed. Sometimes, I feel a bit overwhelmed by all this, because my ultimate goal is to learn and grow as a writer. However, since I don’t have a guide, the more I read and research the more the different sources seem to clash with each other.

So now, I’m going to create a rule for myself, and to others who feel the same way. Instead of focusing on trying to fit a story into a specific structure, first make sure to define each element.

Define your Beginning, Middle, and End. Figure out the turning points between each part. Then, plan each part as needed. Which, I know, is pretty vague. When I plan my stories, I don’t usually put a lot of detail into it, because I know I’ll deviate from the plan. I’m by no means an expert in these things, which is why I’m going to make a post about Planning nest month.

A concept just occurred to me– throw those structures out the window. Or rather, don’t. Take the structures, study them, understand why they are used. Then, cut them into pieces and mix-and-match their parts to suit your needs. Everything between the Three Acts and the turning points between them becomes a collage, as long as it’s a collage that makes sense not only structurally but also in terms of narrative.

It’s also worth noting that, in a story, there’s an element that dominates the others and, as such, determines the story’s structure. Before anything else, determine which element matters most.

Show and Tell

“Show, don’t Tell” is one of those Writing Maxims that get thrown around and that everyone has to be aware of. But what does it mean, really?

It means that, instead of saying “Alice went to her room and retrieved the book”, you should show it– “Alice left the living room and climbed the old staircase, making sure her feet didn’t land on the noisy steps. She dashed to her room and looked around, finding the leather-bound book on top of her bed. She walked to it and picked it up, securing it firmly against her chest with her hand and arm before dashing back downstairs.”

However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no use for Tell. If the book is important to the story but the process of getting it isn’t, or if she isn’t a central character, then there isn’t a need to show Alice getting the book. If Alice is the story/scene’s POV character, or if she encounters a situation which is critical to the story, then Showing is fundamental.

Showing is what lets readers visualize the story and emerge in it. Telling lets you quickly tell readers important facts without overbearing them. In real life, when you go to, say, a store and want to tell your friend about it, do you describe your journey to the store in detail, even if nothing particularly interesting happens, or do you just skip to the part where you’re already in the store? Use Telling as a connection between scenes that need Showing, and you can even make Telling evocative with just the enough amount of details.

Description

Description is closely tied to “Show, don’t Tell” and, as I’ve mentioned before, I consider it one of my weak spots in writing. (This section focuses on Scene Description. I’m planning on talking about Character Description in the future.)

The reason why I think this is because, one one hand, I feel that sometimes I don’t describe as much as I think I should and, on the other hand, I’m afraid of adding too much detail. I don’t want to come out as bland, but also not as too flowery. I don’t want to stall the plot with too much description. Maybe it’s just me being insecure, since I never recieved feedback on this (though the texts I’ve had reviewed were never much longer than 500 words), but it’s never bad to learn and improve.

In my last week’s post, I talked about an exercise I learned on planning and writing description. I’d like to complement this with the notion that description is affected by the point-of-view. What would the character notice? What would the character feel? Which details in Alice’s room would let the reader know more about her? How would the description of a richly decorated mansion be affected by the view of a man who never had much, versus of that of the owner? The description must also be vivid and specific.

Description is where “Show, don’t Tell” comes into play. “The house was imposing” may be a description, but it isn’t particularly interesting. “The house had the tendency of making newcomers stare in admiration at its size, some in fear that they would get lost among the rooms behind the countless, large windows” transmits the idea that the house is ‘impressive in size’. Still, it’s always important to not overdo it, like I feel I did with this example.

There are many uses for Description, from setting the story or scene’s atmosphere to highlighting something in particular. It’s also an opportunity to use Symbolism, which I’m planning on talking about in the future.

A question still remains, though– how much Description is enough? Well, it depends on the story and its pace. If you describe in detail during a very action-oriented scene, then the pace will be lost. If you don’t describe at all, then the reader will be lost. What I’ve started doing is just write out the story and later add or expand description where necessary.

Setting

Setting answers the “Where?” and “When?” of your story and is one of its three main elements. Setting influences both plot, since it defines what is possible and expectations for the story, and characters, who, like people, are shaped by the enviornment they live in.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Setting, I’m not even sure how to begin. If I’m writing a short story, chances are that Setting will come naturally once I get an idea of what to write, except for any elements that I feel the need to research. Longer works, however, demand more extensive planning in order for the Setting to feel realistic and alive. Alice may live in a town, but what kind of town? Industrial? Fishing? And in which time period? What exists beyond the town, and how does it influence it?

Building your Setting requires a lot of research, especially when writing stories in other time periods, countries, or worlds. This is important whether the story takes place in a fishing town in the 19th century, Contemporary New York, or a colony in another planet. This also applies to culture and social customs and norms.

But say, imagine you already have all the necessary details for your Setting and want to start writing. How do you introduce Setting?

If I’m adopting a third person POV, I generally start from the general to the specific, the specific being the main character– show the reader the town, then focus on Alice’s actions at the moment. If I’m adopting the main character’s POV, I introduce it through their eyes– if Alice is, say, on the way to school, I’ll describe the town as she walks. And of course, it’s important not to reveal everything in one go. Let the story gradually reveal the Setting, let the Characters and readers explore it.


Other Sources

Story Form and Structure

Eva Deverell, “The Fool’s Journey”, http://www.eadeverell.com/the-fools-journey/

Ingrid Sundberg, “What is Arch Plot and Classic Design”, http://ingridsundberg.com/2013/06/05/what-is-arch-plot-and-classic-design/

Ingrid Sundberg, “Plot vs Structure”, http://ingridsundberg.com/2013/06/17/plot-vs-structure/

Narrative First, “Accurate Story Structure Ain’t Easy”, http://narrativefirst.com/articles/accurate-story-structure-aint-easy

Narrative First, “Four Acts not Three”, http://narrativefirst.com/articles/four-acts-not-three

Narrative First, “Plot Points and the Inciting Incident”, http://narrativefirst.com/articles/plot-points-and-the-inciting-incident

Philip Brewer, “Story Structure in Short Stories”, https://www.philipbrewer.net/story-structure-in-short-stories/

 

Story Board, “That Narrative Structures”, http://www.storyboardthat.com/articles/e/narrative-structures

Janice Hardy, “Form Fitting”, http://blog.janicehardy.com/2010/01/form-fitting.html

 

Show and Tell

Annie Jackson, “Show don’t Tell”, http://anniejacksonbooks.com/show-dont-tell/

Helping Writers Become Authors, “Show and Tell”, http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/show-and-tell/#

Mandy Wallace, “Writers Balancing Show don’t Tell”, http://mandywallace.com/writers-balancing-show-dont-tell/

She’s Novel, “Balance Show don’t Tell”, https://www.shesnovel.com/blog/balance-show-dont-tell/

Writer’s Digest, “Showing and Telling in your Writing”, http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/showing-vs-telling-in-your-writing

Description

Write to Done, “How to Write Better Descriptions”, http://writetodone.com/how-to-write-better-descriptions/

Writer’s Digest, “How to Write Vivid Descriptions”, http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-write-vivid-descriptions

Writing World, “The Art of Description”, http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/description.shtml

Setting

Novel Writing Help, “Building Your Story’s Setting”, http://www.novel-writing-help.com/story-setting.html

 

 

Advertisements

Week 1 Update + Plans for Week 2

So, I’ve reached the end of the first week! It didn’t go as I’d expected, though it wasn’t really a failure, in my mind. Sure, I didn’t do as much as I’d thought I’d do, but that’s a problem I have: I always think I’ll do a lot or in a certain way, but then things end up not going as I had invisioned. Struggles of the idealistic procrastinator, I guess?

I’m saying this because, before I started, I had invisioned making a post dedicated to my reading of the novel, another for the reading of the short stories, and a larger post dedicated to the Writing Craft Element of the week, besides posting the two short stories I wrote using the prompts. I don’t think this is that much of an unnatainable goal, even if it’s a lot of work. The problem is that, as time went by, I came to the conclusion that I had no idea of the actual, concrete things I really wanted to talk about. It’s one thing to say ‘Oh, I’ll read the chapters/stories, then I’ll talk about the themes and narrative structures, and maybe it would be interesting to talk about the work as a whole and the author too, in an introduction. And my own thoughts, like whether I would have done something differently…’ and then just… not knowing how to organize my ideas, or even how to start, and what to do if there’s not much to say, or if I don’t know what to say… I’m a mess, I know.

And the fact that I get distracted doesn’t help. This week I had to decide whether or not I was going to a test (I just decided to take the exam after the end of the second semester, because I had no hopes of passing the test and would end up taking the exam anyway), and on Monday I’m having my German speaking evaluation, and that promises to be an experience, as always. But those are just excuses, really. My real problem is that… I’m not exactly lazy, I’m just one of those people who doesn’t start or do things because they’re afraid of failing. And, deep down, that is my true issue and a problem I will have to struggle with through my entire life.

Anyway, let’s stop focusing on my inner turmoil and start focusing on the things I did achieve.

Week 1 Update

Despite all of the above, I did achieve all the goals I had set!

Novel: Read the first two chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and, so far, I’m enjoying! I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn years ago, so I did some mental comparisons of the two books in terms of their themes. Maybe I’ll write some notes down and research a bit and turn this into a post eventually, because I think it would be an interesting thing to do.

I think one of the reasons why making a post on the book this week was a bust is the fact that I do not really take notes while reading. I know, the horror! What kind of reader, of writer, am I if I don’t take notes?! It’s just that, to me, reading has always been about the story. It’s not that I won’t notice the language, the structure, the style, all the other elements that comprise a piece of literature, how else would I have learned how to write, I just like to read a story and see where it takes me. Having to take notes, I feel, would distract me from that. I think I just have a certain… fear?… that it would make reading a chore rather than an enjoyment. And I do love reading. Family legend has it I thought myself how to read!

Maybe I’ll find a way to make things work. After all, this was just the first week, I’m still getting my bearings!

Short Stories: Read two short stories, “Uma Empresa Espiritual” [A Spiritual Business] and “A Janela da Despensa como Argumento Moral” [The Pantry Window as a Moral Argument], from Contos Outra Vez. This is actually a rereading, because I got this book in 2014 but never really got to read all of the stories, and was hoping to do so this time.

I got this book from my High School History teacher, during, I guess I can call it, the Diploma Ceremony (not really Graduation, because we had already graduated months earlier, this was literally just to give us our diplomas). She gave everyone a gift, and to me she gave this book and wrote a really nice message on the first page. I think she was maybe the only teacher to really express any kind of regard for my writing. She appreciated how concise and organized I was in my answers and how I only wrote down the information that was truly essential, instead of writing disorganized doctorate theses. I think she also took a liking on me because I was a loner and an introvert, she sometimes tried to reach out to me but, at the time, I was in a kind of complicated phase (when am I not, really). I still appreciated it, though. And I still do.

Anyway, for these stories I reflected on the way I wrote short stories. I will talk about that next.

Prompts: The prompts I used were:

  • On her deathbed, your character’s grandmother whispers that your character must go to 24 Mockingbird Drive.   “That’s where it’s buried,” your grandmother says.  “You can’t tell anyone.  Just go.”  Then your character’s father walks into the room, and the old woman falls silent, shooting a warning look at your character.  That’s the last time your character alone with his/her grandmother before she dies.  Following your grandmother’s instructions, your character mentions the conversation to no one, but looks up Mockingbird Drive on a map...
  • Someone must have helped her escape.

First off, I managed to write, in total, 3123 words! 1846 in the first one, 1277 in the second. The reason I won’t post the stories right now is because they still need a heavy dose of editing.

I wrote them after reading the short stories, so a thing I noticed is that both my short stories have sort of open endings. I could continue the first one for the length of another story, while the other has the potential to become something longer, like a novella or a series. The ones in the collection, however, are very self contained, they have a very defined ending. This is something I had noticed in the past, and I’m not really sure how it started, or even if I have been always just writing like this. Of course, it could just be, at least in the case of the first story, that I just didn’t end them (I did have trouble coming up with what my character would find in Mockingbird Drive, so the end can be seen as a sort of cop out). This is something that I will keep an eye on as the month progresses.

Craft Book: A Field Guide to Your Imagination is not exactly a craft book, but I’m still using it because I feel like it speaks about an important topic (plus it’s free). It isn’t divided into chapters, but I did do the first two exercises. I’ve always considered my imagination one of the most important parts of me, because it’s what lets me escape and, as I grew, it helped me visualize situations and put myself into other people’s shoes. I do think that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my imagination and the way I’ve learned to use it.

What really got to me was the second exercise, because it envolved changing a part of my past and imagining how my life would have been. I think about my past a lot. Not because something especially traumatizing happened or anything like that, it’s just… I think it’s not about what happened, but about what didn’t. I feel like, I don’t know, I guess I just always felt that I never had as many experiences as other kids had? That I missed out on something? Not material things, because it rarely was about the material things. Just experiences. Like how everyone who’s a somebody has read Harry Potter and I’m in the sidelines. And I know I can read it now, but it won’t be the same thing. And then I think about how this says something or two about my family, because, come on, this is the girl who thought herself to read, didn’t it ever occur to anyone that I might like reading about magic and wizards and all that? And what if all of this is just me overanalizing things, because if there’s something I’m good at it’s overanalizing, a downside to my imagination.

Craft Element: Since I don’t have access to fancy, expensive writing books (I’ll search in the library, but I’m waiting until February because that when I start classes), I had to scour the internet on anything I could find on Story Form and Structure. Maybe I’ll still make a general post about it in the future, at least as a summary on the topic.

In truth, I’ve already searched and read about this topic throughout the years. I know about the Three Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, the whole lot, but the main point that has always stuck with me is that, in the end, what really matters is what works for a given story. One shouldn’t try to bend a story to fit a structure, although it’s alright to plan according to one. What’s important is to find what will work for you, maybe even bend the structure to fit what you want to do. Maybe you want to start the story in the middle, maybe not every step of the Hero’s Journey (or another structure) is necessary. What you need is a Beginning for exposition, a Middle for all you action and build up, and an End for the resolution. The best part is that I already do this instinctively, whether I’m writing an answer on a test or a story.

Plans for Week 2

I won’t be changing any of my goals for this week, though I will reflect on how I will update my blog– pursue the idea of multiple posts on each subject, or just one post at the end of the week. If I decide on the first option, I’ll need to think about what kind of content I will include on each post and how to organize things. If I decide on the second, then I suppose it will be like this one (though, hopefully, at least slightly less melodramatic). In that case, I’m actually considering making more frequent updates, so as to not overload one post with all of my thoughts. I’m also going to consider making myself a schedule to follow, instead of just slacking off and then scraping for excuses for why I didn’t do what I had set out to do.

I’ve also decided that I’ll save posting the short stories for another time, once I’ve had the oportunity to edit them (maybe I’ll even take care of that during Camp NaNo in April). This might also have the positive side effect of me having content to schedule to publish when I’m not around, thus guaranteeing that the blog isn’t abandoned for long stretches of time (which I’m supposing will happen around the end of August/beginning of September).

As a reminder, this week I will be searching about Show and Tell. This is one of those elemental aspects that I sometimes need to remind myself of. I think my major problem when it comes to writing comes from Description, which I will be focusing on next week, but I feel that Show and Tell is already related to this. I think my fear of being over descriptive and the fact that I always want to move the plot forward makes me lose sight of this maxim, though I do always strive to Show, and Tell when appropriate. I hope this week will finally crystallize this topic in my mind.

And so begins the week! I’m going to try and write the End of Week post sooner, because I’m posting it a bit too late for my taste. But hey, I’m still figuring things out and struggling with the beast of Procrastination. Maybe I’ll be able to situate myself with the stars and start navigating more smoothly this week.