Monday, February 27, 2012

NW Author Series: Bill Johnson

A Story is a Promise:  The Essential Elements of Storytelling


Bill Johnson is the office manager and ├╝ber volunteer for Willamette Writers. He is also a writer, story analyst, and teacher. I've attended Bill's workshops at Willamette Writers annual conference and read his 2000 book on writing, A Story is a Promise: Good Thinks to Know Before You Write that Screenplay, Novel, or Play. So I was looking forward to his presentation for this season's NW Author Series.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. As with riding, the trainer or teacher can repeat an instruction over and over, but until you're ready to grasp and apply it, the information just doesn't sink in. Yesterday, Bill's message (at least the main gist of it) finally sank in for me.

Within the first paragraph of your book and no later than the first page, you must inform the reader what the story is about. The author then fulfills the promise to the reader by telling that story.

Yeah, I know. Duh.

Bill drew a simple illustration to distinguish Story Line from Plot. The Story Line is a straight horizontal line from the beginning to the end of the story. On the left (beginning) is the underlying issue for the main character, on the right is the resolution of that issue. Arcing above the Story Line is the Plot. The Plot Line contains the obstacles the main character must overcome on the way to the story climax and conclusion. For example, the Story Line for the Harry Potter books is Harry's underlying desire to fit in. That is the story that J.K. Rowling promises to tell the reader. The Plot includes Harry's friends and enemies who help and hinder him on the way to his goal.

Bill called it the Dramatic Truth of the main character. The reader can relate the fictional character's underlying need to his or her own real life desires. Whether it is fitting in (Harry Potter), getting unstuck from a past experience (The Kite Runner), overcoming grief (The Lovely Bones), seeking redemption for a father (Star Wars), or desiring a second chance (The Sixth Sense) -- the reader/viewer can identify with these very human desires.

Once the Story Line is established, the role of each secondary and minor character serves to aid or derail the main character's journey. The plot raises the stakes with each obstacle the main character must overcome. Narrative tension is created when the reader internalizes the character's struggles. The reader/viewer experiences a deeper level of feeling with each rising level of obstacle and invests in the outcome of the story.

When introducing the Story Line the author can be blunt (Once upon a time....), but for best results the opening paragraph should raise a question. The reader is intrigued. Just how will the Boy Wizard go about fitting in? By opening with Question ➝ Answer ➝ Question the reader is sucked in. By continuing this format with each chapter the reader remains with the story to the conclusion.

Bill's new book, A Story is a Promise: The Spirit of Storytelling, is a revision of his previous book that adds a section on Deep Characterization. During the workshop Bill helped attendees practice deep character analysis through meditation. We closed our eyes and visualized our main character sitting with us in a room and let that character tell us his or her underlying desire. (Aha! Penarddyn wants freedom from fear! That's the Story Line for Galactic Empress).

Bill suggested that Story resonates with us because it is a release. Stories embody our own conflicting emotions as depicted by the characters. When the story resonates with the reader the final resolution can provide relief. We intrinsically seem to know when the Story Line is missing, even if we don't consciously know why we stopped reading the book or can't recommend a movie.

As a story analyst and editor, Bill sees so many novels that take pages and pages to get to the real story. The author provides detail about the appearance and back story of the characters, the location, etc., but arrives at the Story Line late (or not at all). As Bill says, "The quicker the storyteller communicates the role of characters and a story's events in fulfilling a story's promise, the more quickly an audience will desire to enter a story's world to experience its promise played out to resolution and fulfillment."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Stills: Textures and Trees

ARGH! I'm catching up with last week's challenge and posting for this week.

Here are my photos of "Texture." This first one is a small section from a fountain that sends water gently cascading downhill and provides a great place for children to splash.


Last week I liked the rough bark of Douglas firs at the same park as the above fountain,  but I didn't have my camera at the time and then we had a wet spell. Today I captured the bark during a break in the rain.


Which transitions to this week's challenge:  "Trees"


The photo above is one of the fir trees at the park.


And here is mud-crusty Phantom in his equally crusty "onesie" turnout sheet with Douglas fir trees in the background.

Visit Sunday Stills to see more winter trees.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Club: "The Art of Racing in the Rain"


For our February meeting we discussed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I had no idea what the book was about, but having seen the book cover I assumed it referred to a dog racing across the park during a rainy day. I was glad to learn I wasn't the only one with this misconception.

We all loved the story told from the viewpoint of Enzo, the dog. In the novel Enzo relates the story of his family:  Denny (an aspiring race car driver), Eve (Denny's wife whose parents believe she married beneath her), and Zoe (their daughter). The story is framed by Enzo's end of life remembrances. The title refers to Denny's special skill at driving on a wet track.

Denny, like many of us with dreams, keeps putting his fledgling auto racing career on the back burner when the demands of "real life" interfere. Enzo, with the heightened senses of a dog, knows trouble is ahead for the loving trio. Eve is sick and, despite Enzo's best efforts to alert everyone to how serious her condition is, she dies much too young of cancer.

Denny is devastated, but he has Zoe to raise with Enzo's help. However, Eve's parents begin a campaign to gain custody of Zoe. They have financial advantages that Denny lacks and when he declines their offer the fight gets nasty. Through it all, Enzo is a steadfast supporter of Denny.

The POV narration by Enzo makes the book. Any other character would have made for a dreary accounting of family tragedy and discord. But a dog's honest assessment of events makes the story special.

We gave the author credit for presenting the information the reader needed for the story despite the limited perspective of Enzo. Denny started leaving the television on to entertain Enzo when he was left home alone. In narrating the story Enzo uses the knowledge he accumulated from his TV viewing. He learned to read from watching Sesame Street, and a documentary about the Himalayas convinced him that his next incarnation would be as a man. Enzo's knowledge of the justice system was derived from episodes of crime and legal shows.

Throughout the story, Enzo shares Denny's observations about race car driving -- which of course are metaphors for life. A little heavy handed at times, to my thinking. "That which you manifest is before you" was repeated a couple of times. As Denny explains it, we are the creators of our own destiny. In driving terms, rather than wait for the car to skid during a turn, initiate and control the skid. In an earlier post I discussed what I saw as a correlation between driving a race car and riding a horse over a jump course.

Most of us found the ending a bit contrived. And we wondered about the plausibility of a significant scene that later thwarted Denny during the custody battle for Zoe.

But Enzo was the star of the story and we enjoyed his canine observations. He referred to Eve's parents (Maxwell and Trish) as the Twins -- country club types who dressed alike in polo shirts and khakis. Enzo is convinced that dew claws are the precursors to thumbs and their removal is a human conspiracy to prevent the evolution of dogs into men. His list of favorite actors (in numerical order) and TV education were charming and amusing. Enzo, unlike humans who worry too much about the future in his view, lives in the moment and loyally defends Denny despite his human imperfections.

Believe me, those of us with dogs began looking at them differently while reading the book. Denny's story with its heavy serving of metaphors for life is a typical angst-ridden family drama. It's the POV that sets it apart.

My favorite message from the novel was Denny's statement:  "It's never too late. Things change." Denny's character shows remarkable patience and restraint that pay off in the end, but getting there required the help of friends and Enzo's loyalty. Although the novel lacks the whiz bang action preferred by younger readers (except for a few race scenes) -- I believe it would be a good read for children who feel hopeless and alienated. They are so young they lack the perspective that, given time, things can and do change.
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Our book club is trying a new approach to our reading selections. We have planned them in advance for the next twelve months! Each member suggested titles that we compiled into a list. After our book discussion we went around the table to describe the books and explain why we recommended them. We then voted using the "dot system" (we each got 12 sticky dots to paste on the printed list of books) and arranged the reads with the most votes for the coming months. It looks like we have just about every genre covered, including our first fantasy read for the group.

In March we will be discussing Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. This is a stand alone novel by Moon who has written several sf/f series.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How Do You Write?




There must be a secret to writing the breakout blockbuster novel. Is it the Hook that draws in readers? The Characters with whom readers can empathize? The Concept that captures the imagination? Or is it the Method the author used to compose the first draft?

I've heard attendees at writing conferences and workshops ask how the presiding author wrote his or her novel. Was it long hand with a ballpoint pen on yellow legal paper? Using grandpa's old typewriter? Or with a state-of-the-art computer using the latest and greatest software? As if the instrument used to place words on paper (or screen) takes care of characterization, story arc, theme, etc.

I have reverted to my original writing method:  ballpoint pen on paper. A Pentel RSVP fine point black ink pen. College ruled (I prefer narrow ruled but it's impossible to find) three-hole punched binder paper. I then enter the handwritten pages on my Mac (editing as I do so) using Microsoft Word. Double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 point.

For me, the equipment always seemed to get in the way of the words. Typewriters are hell to compose on. Typos and stuck keys are distracting. Corrections require stopping to apply white-out or scribbling between lines once the page is completed and removed from the roller. It took effort for me to learn to compose on a computer. I had to for work. Even so, I would often hand write difficult paragraphs or scribble an outline with key phrases.

For me, there seems to be a kinetic aspect to the creative process. The story flows from the imagination down the arm to the hand and through the pen onto the paper. No placing the fingers on the wrong row of keys or hitting caps lock instead of the shift key. The ideas get down without the equipment interfering.

My initial forays in writing as a child were with pencil on tablet paper. So apparently I am more comfortable with my original process. Since then I've learned about story structure and the other elements that make for a good story. It isn't the how but the what that makes for a well-written novel.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Racing and Riding



I recently finished reading The Art of Racing in the Rain for our neighborhood book club. I'll report on our club discussion next week. However, while reading the book I couldn't help but note the similarities between driving race cars and riding hunter/jumpers.

The book is narrated by Enzo the dog who shares advice about driving at speed learned from his owner. The following statements caught my attention.

  • It requires balance, anticipation, patience. This is so true for riding. Balance in the saddle, anticipating the next turn and/or fence, and patiently waiting for the fence to come to you.
  • Your car goes where your eyes go. Exactly. Which is why we're constantly reminded not to look at the base of the fence, because that's where you'll end up.
  • Attention and intention is far ahead to the next turn and the one beyond that. The old cliche for jumping is to throw your heart over the fence and follow it. That is the intention. Attention should be on the next fence, the next line, etc., because your horse goes where your eyes go!
  • Racing is about discipline and intelligence. Riding horses over fences requires repetition to build trust and timing. The discipline to show up day after day, to ride the horse you have that day (they have moods just like we do), to put the horse first -- always. Intelligent riders enter the arena with a plan and have the knowledge and skills to adapt that plan as the course unfolds.
  • A driver's hands should be relaxed, sensitive, aware. A rider's hands should be relaxed, sensitive, aware.  :-)  A tense grip makes for a tense horse.
  • The driver must have faith. Hoo boy! The rider must have faith that the horse will take the fence, as the horse must have faith that the rider will never attempt an obstacle beyond their capabilities.
  • It's all about the ride. That sums it up perfectly.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sunday Stills: Liquids

More cooperative weather this week. This is the fountain at our adjacent neighborhood.




Kind of has a "Splish splash I was takin' a bath...."  vibe.  ;-)  With apologies to Bobby Darin.

To see how others met the challenge, visit Sunday Stills.