Monday, February 12, 2007

"You Ended the Story Where it Should Have Begun"

(First in a series on thoughts about writing.)

Once upon a time, I was watching "Party of Five." You know, Neve Campbell, that guy, and that other guy. Five kids try to hold it together after their parents died. The older brother has to go to work and sacrifices his dreams; there's lots of angst, everybody "hurting," etc.

But I digress.

In one episode, Neve Campbell's character was taking a college creative writing class. She wrote a very fine piece. I have to admit it sounded good. The professor had a blunt reaction, though. He said, "you ended the story where it should have begun." She was devastated and planned to drop the class.

I think I've come to understand what he meant.

This particular phenomenon lives in the old "show, don't tell" neighborhood, and in the spirit of showing, I'm going to demonstrate. For the first piece, imagine hearing the words of the narrator in a movie like "Stand by Me" or a TV show like "The Wonder Years." It might go something like this:

My mother always brought my lunch to class. Every single day. The other mothers packed lunches and were happy to send them crumpled in hands, dropped on buses, and shoved into corner of lockers. But not my mother. She kept mine in the refrigerator until ten minutes before noon. Then, she came. Right into the classroom to hand it me.

It made me ever so popular. I never forgave her for that.

As a writer, this paragraph was pretty comfortable to write. I explored the character, set the tone of the story, and gave you essential back story. Unfortunately, I've also failed. Why? Because I just gave you the Cliff's Notes version of my story.

Hidden in all that exposition, there's gobs of action. But I didn't deliver any of it. I've hoarded it all to myself.

Perhaps this would be better:

Mrs. Rose slashed the chalk on the blackboard.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

I misspelled the word "misspelled" again. Oh man, she hated that.

Her face flushed. "Billy! m-i-s...S! I've been quizzing you people on this word for two months! Do you think you can finally fit that somewhere in your brain?"

"Yes, Mrs. Rose."

"Two S's!"

"Yes, Mrs. Rose."

I glanced at the clock for the fourth time. The second hand kept sweeping. That's why I mispelled it.

I mean misspelled!

It was coming any moment. I sank down and begged my ears not to get red. She knocked when my eyes were closed.

"Mrs. Rose? Mrs. Rose?"

The teacher didn't even answer anymore. She just waved from her desk.

Is Billy here? I have his lunch for him."

Someone snickered, and a spitball smacked me in the hair.

Is the experience of reading that more engaging? The trick is to carefully weave in the back story while letting the readers live experience. By manipulating mood, description choices, character interaction, and dialog, the readers can piece together everything they need. A story created in the readers' minds will always be far more vivid that one we can package for them.

So what was Neve's problem in a "Party of Five?" Her piece was the back story, the narration. Almost like the notes a writer makes before diving beginning a story. When she was done, and we were ready to dive into the action, there was nothing more.

Let your characters live and breathe right away. By living with them a while, we'll get to know them. Just give them an exciting world to walk around in, and it will all come together.


Bev said...

thanks Jason, that made a lot of sense!

Cailleach said...

Ooh, nice workshop - I see straight away what you mean. Well explained.

apprentice said...

Great example and fun to read..

kintheatl said...

Is it wrong of me to like your first example better than your second more engaging piece? Because I like both, but prefer the first one.

briliantdonkey said...

Great example. I DO think you will find some people that will like the first version better though(not that that is a bad thing). Which will be liked the most I am not sure. This kind of reminds me of word problems back in High school. Watching someone else explain it it makes perfect sense. Sitting down and DOING it though is a lot tougher. Hopefully this will be like those were and eventually click in my brain without me even realizing the exact moment it happens.


BTW, Thanks for the input on my story and the email. VERY GREATLY appreciated.


Michele said...

OOOH, Professor Evans is IN the house!

I guess I'm a bit contrary. I like a combination of both because they both have merit. So I'm going along with some of Kintheatl's opinion mixed in with yours.

Your example was clear and I absolutely benefitted from your showing the "showing and not telling" scenario.

BTW- I don't believe I've ever watched a show that closely to pick up on those kind of nuances.
Very Deep, Jason.

Anonymous said...

Bev, I'm glad I made my point relatively clear. I wasn't sure if I digressed a bit too much. :)

Cailleach, thanks for saying so!

Apprentice, much appreciated.

Kintheatl, I do think the first has merit, but I think it should be used for special effect, rather than the norm. Novels which begin this way sometimes have trouble getting traction.

BD, differing opinions are great! I think we all benefit from this sort of open dialog.

Michele, LOL, I hope I get a dawg pound too!! I think the mixed approach would be workable, but I would try to keep the exposition to a minimum. If three or four paragraphs stack up before the action starts, it might be hard to hold onto the reader.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Jason,
I'm sorry. I don't know if I should apologise but in an honest comment, I'm with kintheathl.
That I was drawn to the first example more than the second.
I think more in this particular episode because you have carved out both scenes incredibly well, one is at a loss to choose.
It may depend too on the reader and his/her mood at the present time. Because as I said, your scenes stand equally well on their own.
That's the trouble when you're the really good writer, that you are, Jason. :-)
I was drawn to the first narrative because it's straightaway picturesque, with fine detailing piled one on top of the other and with a mini-plot in that para that races along. Every liner is a new discovery.
But I understand what you're drawing at and certainly, this is a lesson that I will keep im mind always. The show and tell is a pricelees writing tip.
And thank you very much for this. :-)

Eileen said...

I believe that too often we spend too long getting to the story. The story should start as close to the inciting event/conflict as possible. Story= conflict. Don't take too long setting up the world- people want to get to the meat of the matter.

anne said...

The purposes of both styles are different, I would have thought.
For me, the first example promises a story after the school years, maybe told by the now grown-up teen, who would refer to his past in a sort of "filigree" fashion. The second one on the other hand is more of a moment frozen in time, if you will.
The first one tells me that there were consequences to that "small" admission, and the second one is the consequence.
Am I clear?

Nienke said...

As a writer I know this, but it's hard to put all my ideas into that type of "show-don't-tell" action. I think it's something to address after the first draft.
I appreciate writers who 'get' this premise. It gives some credit to the reader and let's them figure things out for themselves. Which, I suppose, is the whole idea.

Jaye said...

Friggin blogger ate my comment!

Basically I said this:
a)Charlie and Bailey were the reasons to watch Party of Five. Neve was whiney.

b)The two scenes work, just for different purposes. I struggle with showing, but have to remind myself I can always go back and fix it later.

It all sounded better (and wittier) the first time.

bekbek said...

Wow, I have a whole different interpretation of "you ended where you should have begun."

Both of your examples end at the beginning. You have set us up, you have introduced the drama. You have, essentially, made the story ABOUT the drama, instead of about the resolution of the drama. Not that I thought you were actually finished, mind you, but here's where it clicks into place with dear old Neve:

Party of Five. Yet another teenaged angst story, yes?

Neve, like many young girl-women, tends to focus on the setup. On the dramatic event. On the conflict, and not on the resolution.

The stereotype is the best example: You daydream about the big wedding, not about the happily ever after. In fact, the phrase "happily ever after" is symbolic of how little attention we pay to the real story. Everything is about the setup. The real story? We leave that to "and they lived happily ever after."

Bizarrely, I recall seeing that little snippet of that show (bizarre because I never followed the show). But I don't remember what her story was like, so I can't back up my claim.

But that's what I see. Both your story end at the setup.

And yeah, I like the first one better, lol.

RuKsaK said...

this was very helpful. but, as you say - time - it takes time - and for me and I'm guessing for most people - there's the rub.

Sam said...

A good read, thanks, Jason. I was wondering, could the first example also be foreshadowing if it lead to the second example, or is it giving too much away?

Anonymous said...

Susan, absolutely no reason to apologize, my friend. :) With two short selections, it is difficult. I think that two novels beginning in these two different styles would stand apart much more.

Eileen, great point. Back story is for later. Conflict and the heart of the story should come first.

Anne, very clear. :) The problem can come with having that later teen sit down and tell you the story. Unless you have specifically chosen that model because the narrator is the true focus, the underlying events will not come alive as well.

Nienke, yes, I think you've hit on it exactly.

Jaye, Charlie and Bailey! Of course. *bells ringing* Yes, Neve was a little rough after while. Small doses, small does. ** Sorry Blogger ate your comment. I hate when that happens! Thanks for sticking with it, though!

Bekbek, Neve's story was about a relationship ending, I believe. And you're right, these were just introductions, not true examples of a completed piece which ends/begins in the wrong place. I suppose what I'm saying more is to skip the back story/exposition kind of opening.

Ruksak, it's just like how a movie unfolds. Star Wars is one of the few movies I can think of where you get a little primer at the beginning. The rest build the story piece by piece.

Sam, it could work as a brief introduction, I think, but you would have to be careful of Anne's point. Now it feels like the adult child is in the room telling you story. As the writer, you would have to address that somehow.

Chemical Billy said...

I think what many are finding appealing about the first bit is exactly what Eileen brought up. The first line gives us the conflict. It goes on to expand on it in a witty, pithy manner.

Your point is well taken, though. I'm actually terrible about exposition - I'd rather show everything in scene & leave out great lumps of information - but your first example (the curse of being good) does the trick with a light touch.

Chemical Billy said...

I'd like to hear your take on dialogue sometime, Jason. I had an "ah-ha" moment with a particular snippet of dialoge recently. I think I tend to be too direct - having my characters say what they're thinking, or what I need them to say - and thus sucking all the life out of the exchange.

My recent discovery was about sneaking up on the subject from the side, so to speak. I had my characters talk about something else entirely, and it sprang to life.

Anonymous said...

Chemical Billy, yeah, I guess I didn't accomplish what I set out to do so well. ;) My main point is trying to steer folks away from the sit-down-and-let-me-tell-you-a-story kind of style. In it's most extreme form, it's kind of like, once upon a time there was a prince who loved a princess. Rather than lay all that out, then begin the close-in story, we should just start the story. Like I said above in comments, most movies don't start with a paragraph of back story. They just start with a scene.

As for dialog, I totally agree that it's essential to reflect how people actually interact with one another, not how we need them to interact. Often when I'm writing, the dialog will steer far away from where I intended. It's the natural progression of what the people would say. I give myself the freedom to do that. Dialog is very touchy, and if it drifts over to forced, the realism evaporates.