Tag Archives: narrative

Poetics Serendipity: Fiction Lies

8:30 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to The Mamas and The Papas singing Dancing Bear — a lesser known, beautiful song


Hello, all. When talking with writers, I have noticed a squeamishness about altering facts, if the story concerns them in any way.  When you recount a story to someone, do you always tell the whole truth and nothing but? How about if the story reflects you in a less than rosy light. Do you shade the details a touch? Do you think that because an autobiography is written by the person it’s about that the writer tells the truth through the entire volume? Uh huh.

When you use real events as a basis for your writing, remember: Fiction lies. Here are some strategies to help you tinker with an old and/or true story so as to make it your own new piece of fiction. While simple, even obvious, when you are rearranging your own history, or that of someone you know, you might not think about all you can do to make the event a piece of fiction rather than a piece of real life.

1.    Change the names of your characters to enhance the identities of characters and/or to protect the identities of human beings. Names need to fit.
2.    Change the setting to a room or locale more appropriate for the events. The real story happened in a grocery store. In your plot, a bar makes more sense. Okay, make it a bar.
3.    Change the point of view.  Narrate the piece from the third-person. Or tell the events in the first person from the point of view of someone else on the scene. The real event was yours. That doesn’t mean someone else can’t tell the story. After all, you aren’t in your novel, right?
4.    Invent details of setting or appearance of characters that will vivify the writing.  Add the names of products and streets, for instance. Details put a reader in the story, but don’t use details for their own sake. If a car races by, in a scene, what do you want the reader’s impression to be? That it is green, that it is a Mustang, that it is a green Mustang, or that it is a car?
5.    Invent events that credibly develop from the situation. This is where the Then What? exercise is helpful.
6.    Invent believable dialogue for your characters. Whether there was dialogue originally is irrelevant. If you need a conversation to move the story or provide exposition, then write dialogue.
7.    Leave out what does not contribute to the effect of the piece. Not everything that occurred in the real story has to be in the new story.

To amuse you and give you some more to chew on, I have Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, by Mark Twain. You do not need to read the critique itself, unless you are curious, but the 18 rules that precede it are excellent. How can you resist:

Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them.

Rule 3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

I love Rule 3 and the last seven.

See you tomorrow for the roundup; Tuesday for our next narrative prompt; and Thursday for more narrative natter.

Happy writing, everyone.


Posted by on 13/11/2014 in writing


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Poem Tryouts: Rashomon

8:14 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Run by Snow Patrol

Hello, everyone. Another gorgeous day outside. There are rumours of an early snowstorm in the Midwest which will bring our temperatures plunging by midweek. As long as the sun shines. Hey, NaNoWriMo-ers! You should still be in fairly full throttle, so let’s see what we can find to help you along. You can apply today’s exercise to your plot, or use it to stretch. Poets, think of this as a possibility for a dialogue poem, or a counterpoint poem.

We’re going to play Rashomon today. For those who don’t know the story, it appeared as a Japanese film known for a plot device which involves various characters providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident. If you are interested in more [I think it will make the exercise clearer], I have included a link to the least confusing plot summary. We are going to have two possibilities to work with:

1] Think of an incident that involves other people being around, as participants and witnesses. Have each of them tell their view of what happened. You will need to know who each person is, at least as far as occupation, and how they are involved. The incident can be from your life, the news, or made up.

2] Alternatively, have one person recount an incident to five different people. You will need to know who the people are and their relationship to the speaker. Think about it: do you tell a story the same way to your partner, your best friend, your mother, a reporter, a policeman, your employer?

This gives you a chance to play with voice, as well as point of view. Have fun with this when you decide how to structure the piece, whether narrative or poetry. In terms of a poem, you may certainly cut the number of people involved.

Wow! Short. So rare. I will see you Thursday for more on narrative writing; Friday for the roundup; and next Tuesday for another of my narrative prompts.

Happy writing, all.


Posted by on 11/11/2014 in exercises, poetry, writing


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Poetics Serendipity: NaNoWriMo I

8:23 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Pentatonix singing Say Something

Hello, all. Today I am going to talk to you for a bit on some random considerations to do with plot and then provide a couple of links to things NaNoWriMo. Some of the musings will seem basic, yet if you were to look at your own story, or another participant’s would you really be surprised to not find these elements. After all, you are writing to a timetable and the revision will happen later, unless, of course, that’s what you are doing now. I find it still helps to have basic narrative elements wandering around the brain.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

girl meets boy
girl loses boy
girl gets boy

Cinderella can’t go
She goes anyway
Cinderella gets prince

Man lures rats
People won’t pay
Man takes children

Take a story [your story?] and break down its main idea into three sentences of three words each. This will help you understand the structure of the work. By choosing three verbs, you are forced to consider the three parts of the action. You’ll also discover whether you have a main idea.

Two basic plot lines:

sin    suffer    repent

quest      obstacle    overcome obstacle

Think of the novels you have read. You should find they fall into one, or both, the above.

This is the picture that should sit in the forefront of your writing brain:




Caveat: of course, there are exceptions. We’re talking the generality of fiction and this is very basic. The Pyramid (Freytag’s Pyramid) is often lopsided with the rising action being the longer arm. If you only remember three things, remember that the rising action contains the major conflict (and a host of minor ones); the climax is the point at which the main character makes a decision to do, or not do, something about the main conflict; this decision leads inevitably to the denouement, or resolution of the main conflict which you set up in the rising action (Roby’s Circle).

Yes, yes, I’ll stop. I get carried away. I love discussing narrative structure and the elements that provide it. I promised links. I won’t say anything, just provide them. Okay, minimum commentary. The first is a list of 42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists, by Melissa Donovan. I would go through and create a short-list for yourself. The second is Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers. Pay attention.

I will see you tomorrow for the week’s roundup of prompts; Tuesday for a narrative prompt; and Thursday for another little talk and possibly, links.

Happy writing, all.


Posted by on 06/11/2014 in links, writing


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Poem Tryouts: Then What?

8:25 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Ravel’s Bolero — I had forgotten how much I love it

Brrr. Hello, all. Maybe, if we exercise our brain cells we can warm up a little. I mentioned last week that I spend November focusing on narrative exercises, for the NaNoWriMo-ers among you. Participants run a gamut from first time participants to those who arrived, three days ago, with a first draft in hand, ready to get down to real writing, with revision as their focus. The prompts, and Thursday’s notes plus links, are intended as rest stops or, even, something to note and apply to your NaNoWriMo piece.

Poets who are not participating, or are and also writing poetry (are you nuts?), your challenge is to turn the prompt to your advantage. Almost any prompt works for poetic and narrative writing. You can take your prompt from my title, from something I natter about, or, of course, the prompt itself.

Let’s start with something that is useful to both the first timer and the old hand, called simply: Then what? You would be surprised how many writers sit and agonise when they reach a blocking point (not really surprised, right?), when they have at hand a simple technique for moving on. Remember that the point is to get words on paper, to move the plot of the story forward. It is important that you actually say the words, aloud, in your head, whatever, but give Then what? form. It acts as a trigger.

I’ll start you with an arbitrary point. You may change the start point when you try the exercise. Your main character has woken up and moving over to the window, she stares out. Then what? Write down five or six possibilities and do not, NOT self-censor. Here is what my brain came up with:

1] She watched as their car reversed down the driveway and wondered when he would be back.

2] She noticed a green sedan parked in front of her neighbour’s; it had been there all night.

3] Down the street she saw the garbage truck and swore, as she realised she had forgotten to put out the bins.

4] Where once she had a flower bed, sat a smallish flying saucer. Hey, I said no censoring

5] She saw nothing of the view, eyes focused on a telephone pole, her mind going over the provisions of her aunt’s will.

The idea is to pick one that furthers your story and ask yourself, Then what? again, until the brain starts moving. Note that each of the scenarios hint at conflict, the bread and butter of all stories. I did not do this on purpose. I merely asked Then what? and wrote down the answers.

Poets, I admit this one might be more of a challenge than upcoming ones, for a poem. One possibility is to find an old poem draft where you became stuck and try, Then what? Or, take the phrase and incorporate it in a new poem, in some manner. I look forward to your ingenuity. NaNoWriMo-ers, if you are sticking purely to prose this month and you try this out, consider posting your Then whats?, or a resulting paragraph from one of your scenarios.

I shall see you Thursday for some fiction talk and a couple of links; Friday for the roundup; and next Tuesday for a character prompt.

Happy writing, everyone.



Posted by on 04/11/2014 in exercises, poetry, writing


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Poetics Serendipity: Meet Freytag

8:03 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Light My Fire sung by Jose Feliciano

Hullo, all. Ready for some discourse? Grab your coffee mug. I am going to go on the assumption no one has heard of Mr. Freytag, or they have long forgotten they knew.

In the early 1800’s, Freytag published a definitive study of the narrative structure of the five-act play, about the time it was going out of fashion. Freytag’s Pyramid, as it is known, has since been found to work for plays of any number of acts, as well as novels and short stories. The pyramid may no longer be of three equal sides, but its premise underpins the narrative structure of 98% of fiction.

I know that many of you, who are writing for NaNoWriMo, are working on the novel where the rest of you are working on a novel. [Some of you are just masochists] How does Freytag’s Pyramid help you, the budding novelist? It gives you the map for laying out the skeleton of your narrative and a means of checking your material to make sure your plot is not lost in a maze.

Here are the components, as developed and revamped for lit analysis:

The exposition: tells us what it is we need to know to understand what is about to happen in the greater story. The exposition often has the inciting incident within it.

Inciting incident: begins the conflict. In something as long as a novel there are many conflicts. The majority should tie to the main character’s main conflict, the one she is trying to resolve.

Rising action: contains the main conflict and other conflicts that propel the plot towards the climactic moment.

Climactic moment: when first developed this occurred at the pinnacle of the pyramid. It’s still the pinnacle, but the arm of rising action is often longer than the falling action, so that the pyramid is lopsided.

The climactic moment usually involves the highest moment of tension. More importantly, it’s the moment when the protagonist makes the decision to do, or nor do, something to resolve their main conflict [Got that one? It’s the most important point.]

Falling action: the movement towards the resolution of the conflict, as a direct result of the decision made by the main character.

Resolution: does not necessarily mean the problem is solved, but it is resolved.

If you don’t know where to go next with your novel, check it against Freytag. Do you have everything? If you feel that your novel is a structural disaster, put it to the Freytag test.

I shall see you tomorrow for the week’s roundup of prompts; next Tuesday for a narrative prompt revolving around eating; and next Thursday for approaches to narrative structure, which covers techniques.

Happy writing, all.

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Posted by on 14/11/2013 in writing


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Poem Tryouts: Narrative Consciousness

7:41 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to The Beatles singing Get Back

Hello, all. Here we go with this week’s narrative exercise. As prose writers you need to be aware of the effect of the narrator, point of view, and distance, on the story. Keeping a continuity of narrative voice for the length of a novel is not an easy thing and you will need to train your ear.

“It is through action that characters most successfully and fully emerge, and seldom mere description.”[Roorbach, Writing Life Stories p74]

You need to look back for a character you have created or one from real life. Or use a photograph from a magazine. Ahead of the exercise:

Give the character a gender. [I am going to refer to the character as ‘he’ rather than the wretched dual pronoun thing.]
Name the character.
What does this character want… more than anything else… NOW?
Think: Is it the kind of matter that can sustain a story?
Explain the want.
Who is preventing the character from getting what he wants?
What does this character think about himself?

Keep these in mind as you follow the steps of the exercise.

1. Don’t have the character move. Describe him in prose. Just the person; no background. Describe especially the things people remember about him. Third person point of view.

2. Have this character move, but stay close; continue to focus tightly on him. Think of yourself as a movie camera in a close-up. Third person point of view.

3. Have your character approach and say something to someone else. Don’t get inside the second character. Describe the second character through your first character’s eyes. This can be third, or first person. Try both points of view and note how they differ.

4. Again, think of yourself as a movie camera. Continue with the interaction between these two characters, but report it from a distance, or through some kind of partial obstruction (fog, fence, screen door mesh, wind, snowstorm, passing traffic)  Third person point of view. BUT do let the reader be aware of the partial obstruction or distance that separates you from the characters.

5. Describe something your main character can’t possibly be aware of–but that is in some way related to him. It can be something physical about himself, or something that’s going on right now far away or nearby out of his sight. Third person POV.

6. Have your two characters go separate ways. Send away your starting–main–character first. Follow him for a while noting what he does.  Third person POV.

7. Come back to the second character. Reveal to us that your second character has been lying to your main character or concealing something the whole time. This may have been done for positive or negative reasons. Tell us how and why and since when this deception has been going on.  Third person POV.

8. End by showing us the first character again, probably unaware of the deception. This can be third, or first person POV.

Note that the exercise, while focusing on character, includes something the main character wants and a possible conflict, or two. Both of these are necessary in fiction to propel the plot.

Poets: Pick one of these steps and adapt it for a poem. If you choose a step that can be told in either first, or third, person point of view, try both. If you find the differences interesting, give us both versions and tell us what you note.

I shall see you Thursday for links; Friday for this week’s prompt roundup; and next Tuesday for a narrative prompt that focuses on eating.

Happy writing, everyone.

P.S. The Roorbach book is worth having if you write narrative.


Posted by on 12/11/2013 in exercises, writing


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Skydiving into Tuesday Tryouts

7:26 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Little Darling by The Diamonds

Hi, everyone. We have another prose/fiction/narrative exercise [i.e. not poetry]. This is an interesting one that could result in some hair pulling, but can also result in a cool piece of writing. If you are having problems with NaNoWriMo, this will add about 1500 words. More importantly, it will allow you to play with perspective. Non-NaNo people, I suggest trying out the exercise, then looking to see where you see a poem. That leaves things broad for you which, I know, drives some of you nuts. Remember: there is no wrong way. The objective is to write. Ready to play?

This exercise suggests another way to look at something, a person, a setting, an event. In this exercise, your narrator(s) (imagine a camera eye)  must start high in the air and descend, getting closer and closer all the time to the same spot on the earth — and finally, passing through that spot and going under the ground (yes, a camera eye that has a heck of a swivel).

RULES ( how about that!):
Don’t change your target in mid-exercise.
Don’t move side-to-side; that is, focus on the same event on the ground but observe it from different altitudes.
You may, however, change narrator and/or point-of-view (first-person, second-person, third-person) from step to step. An anonymous third-person will often make sense.
It’s all right to read ahead (but it’s interesting to take each step as it comes). Try to write at least 250 words for each step.

REMEMBER: At different heights, degree of detail is different… the kinds of things one can see are different… the sounds one can hear are different… the angle of vision is different… things don’t always seem to be what they are …

If you are able, try this physically. Choose something that you are able to view from at least four levels and do so. For each, note the differences, the things you notice at one level, that you don’t see at another. No, no, don’t bang your head on the wall. This was an exercise my mentor and I gave high schoolers. Don’t over-think the steps. Relax. Write.

These steps may result in a continuous narrative… or a collection of different possibilities.  No transitions needed, at this point.

You might wish to target a character, a moment or event from an existing story. Or you can just wait for each step and see what happens, as you write. Whichever, decide what your focus is.

1.    Pretend you are like a bird or at the height of an airplane in flight, at least 600 feet or 200 meters in the air. Focus on your target (which is on the ground). Write everything you can see or hear. Try for at least 250 words.

2.    Pretend you are high in a tree or on a church steeple or on the roof of a nine-story apartment building or at a similar height. Remember: You may shift narrator and/or point of view from the previous step. You might even change the time of the narrative from that of the earlier step. Focus on your target. Write everything you can see or hear.

3.    Pretend you are looking out a first story-window  or sitting in the cab of a big truck or standing on a table or riding a horse. In some way, you are a little higher than most people’s heads.  Remember: You may wish to shift narrator and/or point of view. You may wish to shift the time of the narration. Focus on your target. Write everything you can see or hear.

4.    Pretend you are at eye-level with a grownup. (Okay, you are a grownup; I didn’t want to change my pattern.)  Or perhaps you are an invisible narrator. Remember: You can shift narrator and/or point of view. You can shift time. Focus on your target. Write everything you can see or hear.

5.    Pretend you are at the height of a child sitting on a rock or of a Labrador Retriever’s  eyes. Perhaps you are a child, or a Labrador Retriever (see what I mean about choosing to be a different narrator?]. Focus on your target. Write everything you can see or hear.

6.    Pretend you are underground, perhaps in a tunnel, a subway, a grave, a ditch. Remember: You may wish to shift narrator and/or point of view. You may shift time. Focus on your target. Write everything you can see or hear.

There is the possibility of adding smell to the equation, as that would change with proximity.

Non-NaNo poets, I think you can do the exercise and then look at what you have written as material within which to find a poem. You can also play with writing a narrative poem. Include all the steps. It can be about changes in perspective, about seeing things differently, maybe unexpectedly, with a shift in perspective. This can be figurative, or literal.

If you are struggling, but game, for heaven’s sake write me ( and say: This is what I have but I’m not sure about… or, I understand all, except this bit.

Above all, enjoy the experiment. It’s a valuable exercise for both prose and poetry. I shall see you Friday for the roundup; and next Tuesday for the next exciting installment of narrative exercises.

I’m off to organise my Christmas shopping! Happy writing, all.


Posted by on 13/11/2012 in exercises, poetry, writing


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Let’s Compare Apples and Oranges: Tuesday Tryouts

7:39 a.m. — Atlanta

listening to Ally Ally Oxen Free by the Kingston Trio… that takes some of you back, doesn’t it?

Hello, all. I hope our New Yorkers and New Jersey Shorers are hanging in. It was good to see you posting.

We are going to have a different focus for the next four, or five, weeks: narrative. So many of you participate in NaNoWriMo that I thought it might be interesting for you to have specific exercises to try as you go.

I do realise that this may result in a month of no poetry for us to read. Horrors! So, for those of you not participating, or those who want to keep the poetry going, you know you can find poetry anywhere. Take a part of any exercise I post and craft a poem. If the title of an exercise prompts a poem, go for it, because what do we say? So long as we are writing!

If you write a short fiction piece in response to any of the exercises, consider posting it, just as you do your poems. All writing welcome.

We will start easy, with metaphor. Writing narrative does not mean all literary techniques go out the window. Quite the opposite, and metaphor is one of your most valuable tools.

Comparison is as natural as breathing. You hear a train and it reminds you of the ocean. You caress bark and remember your grandfather’s knees. You look at tributaries and see your veins. One landscape melts into another. It’s as if each time you encounter something it is imprinted over all the impressions that came before it; each impression is transparent.
    The connection between two things can be obvious or subtle. Sometimes it’s physical. Other times the similarity is experiential or has to do with function. It is possible to find some similarity between [almost] any two things.‘ [Bonni Goldberg, Room to Write]


Draw comparisons between two things. Choose at least one from your surroundings. The other can be an object, a person, or an abstract concept like jealousy, love, fate. How many ways can you compare them? Go for at least twenty-five. Stretch yourself. If you have difficulty, try another pair. One of the things might come out of what you have written for NaNoWriMo, so far, or have in mind to write.

Create a metaphor . . .
simile: indirect comparison? metaphor: direct comparison?
NO! A metaphor provides the identification of two unlike things.
x=y. The two things are not being compared, one to the other; the two things are each other.

Category metaphor

Comparison allows us to distance ourselves from the subject and allows, therefore, more direct comment. Examine a group. It can be your peers, your family, characters from your novel idea… Then pick a category: vegetables, gardening tools, types of cereals, holidays, birds, any category that comes to mind. Develop character sketches for each member of the group based on elements within your chosen category. For instance, if you choose vegetables as a category, write about what type of vegetable your character looks like or acts like and why. You will be surprised how much you will learn about your characters.

Animal metaphor

What kind of animal are you? What qualities does that animal embody that you identify with temperamentally? Describe yourself as this creature. How does being this animal affect the way you write? You may also apply this to a character. Again, it aids in development.


Consider what kind of weather corresponds to one of your characters: snow, lightning, rain, fog, a summer storm, whirlwind…how far can you take the comparison: mood, thought pattern, appearance, what the character likes to do for fun… Have you noticed, in novels you read, how often the author describes the weather. Authors often use the weather as a parallel to what is happening to a character, or to the plot.

Give these a try. It might be messy and sprawly, but words you will have. Consider posting one of your comparisons, so we can see what everyone has come up with. Poet people not into narrative, you can take this exercise almost exactly the same but you won’t apply it to a character and you will produce a poem, yes?

Above all, have fun. I shall see you Friday for the prompt roundup. Thursdays are dark until January, unless you have a question you want me to explore. This goes for narrative as well, particularly in the area of structure. Next Tuesday, we might have a more out there exercise in metaphor, or we may start playing with structure… or point of view. There’s so much. In fact, if you would like me to see whether I have a narrative exercise that addresses a particular aspect of fiction, let me know.

Happy writing, everyone.




Posted by on 06/11/2012 in exercises, poetry, writing


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