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It’s a new year and a lot of people will be starting new pieces of writing. In this video we look at how to start a piece of prose fiction. D.D. Johnston considers the differences between the openings of films and novels, and he explains why starting a story is like placing a lonely hearts advert.
D.D. Johnston discusses James Purdy’s short story “Cutting Edge” as an example of how a seemingly insignificant conflict can make for high drama when it stands for something bigger. In “Cutting Edge” the question of a young man’s beard becomes the symbolic terrain on which an inter-generational battle is fought. The story is about moral values and the future of America, but all of this is left unsaid, lurking below the water – after all, when people argue they rarely refer explicitly to what they’re really arguing about. In this sense, Purdy’s short story can be said to demonstrate Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg principle.” You can read the full story here.
Michael Scott has written novels, films, and plays in a variety of genres for adults and children and teens. He’s learned that it doesn’t much matter what sort of story you’re writing, or for whom your writing it: “A good story is always a journey. It is about the people the hero meets along the way and how they change him or her.” Now that we’re thinking about the themes of stories, it becomes apparent that a character’s journey is inextricably bound with a story’s theme. And since the theme has to be something general and powerful, something universal and impactful, it’s not surprising that there aren’t that many journeys that really matter.
Have a look at this list of fundamental human journeys, and let me know in the comments whether there are any that I’ve missed:
Fundamental human journeys
(simple transitions based on external changes – these are more likely to work in, say, a young adult genre novel than in a literary short story, but often in genre fiction a material transition will be made possible by a psychological transition)
Peril <-> Safety
Single <-> Married
Powerless <-> Powerful
Poor <-> Rich
Obscure <-> Famous
Picked on <-> Popular
Not seizing the day <-> Seizing the day
Isolation <-> Human connection
Love <-> Loss
Despair <-> Hope
Obliviousness <-> Awareness of mortality
Innocence <-> Loss of innocence
Inhibition <-> Boldness
Desire <-> Contentment
Self-doubt <-> Self-acceptance
No sense of sublime <-> Sense of the sublime
Search for meaning <-> Accepting meaninglessness
Fear <-> Acceptance of death
Faith <-> Lack of faith
Edward Albee observed that there are only two things to write about: life and death. He was right, of course, but in life the only thing that really matters is love.