A recent newscast featured a Saskatchewan couple who’ve been waiting for months to celebrate Christmas with their grandchildren. As the pandemic lockdown has eased in their region, and gatherings are now possible, they could celebrate together at last.
But they didn’t have to pull out the holiday trimmings. The holiday tree, adorned in lights and ornaments, and the carefully wrapped presents under that artificial tree have been waiting since December for restrictions to loosen and for family to gather.
earth could inspire a family to be ready for Christmas all this time? Day after
pandemic day, looking at the reminder of what didn’t happen. The grandkids’
gifts unopened. The goofy animated décor gathering dust, still and silent. What
kept them optimistic?
It is the
saving grace of the human race. The thing that keeps many of us going when everything
seems impossible, frightening or deadly. Hope.
In Greek mythology,
Pandora (meaning All Gifts) was created by Zeus’s order to punish mortals for receiving
the gift of fire from Prometheus. Zeus designed Pandora to have insatiable
curiosity and when he gives her a jar as a wedding gift, he tells her never to
open it. Sure enough, she eventually can’t resist and the miseries and evils –
greed, avarice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice, illnesses, pestilence – were all released.
ancient versions of this myth have all sorts of variations:
the jar was full of blessings, not evils
Zeus had two jars in Olympus, one with blessings and one with evils
Pandora’s husband, Epimetheus (meaning Afterthought), opened the jar, his name suggesting he learned from making mistakes like that one
Not only did the ancients write various interpretations of the myth, over the centuries, translations and poetic license gave readers alterations to Pandora’s tale. In the version I learned as a child, the jar was a box like in Waterhouse’s painting and one thing remained inside: Hope. Hope begged to be released too and when released, gave all suffering mortals something to keep them going.
But is Hope a two-edged sword? Does it underpin all stories from the romantic to tragedies? Do readers hope for the lovers to finally find each other or hope that survivors will find the strength to carry on?
And what about our real lives? Hope surely underpins real lives, keeping us going when all is bleak. But sometimes Hope prolongs our agonies, offering something to sufferers that cannot be.
What drives your stories?
Just as we writers hope our work will find an audience, hope provides powerful motivation to characters in stories. And as we’ve suggested again and again, motivation drives your characters and keeps a forward momentum in your stories.
Your characters want to win the race, to learn the family secret, to escape from poverty, to slay the dragon and release the captives. And your readers are right there with them, cheering them on, hoping they achieve their goal. Unless, of course, you’ve not capitalized on the idea of motivation.
As you edit,
look for motivation:
Make it clear in beginning chapters –
what does your character want?
Keep it the driver of your main
character – tie in reactions, choices, behaviour
Avoid motivation that makes no sense –
unless it is key to creating a conflicted character
As your character grows emotionally (character arc) that motivation (want) can change and often does.
Winning the race becomes less important when she realizes the prize at the end is not worth leaving friends and family behind. Releasing the prisoners won’t succeed even if he slays the dragon unless he finds and defeats the dragon master.
Hope holds lots of power to motivate
your characters. But you can motivate your characters through other powerful
emotions: fear, longing, grief and so on. No matter the choice, don’t lose
sight of it as you write and look for its presence as you edit.
Speaking of Hope:
Gwynn and I hope you don’t miss our summer contest, closing June 30th. It’s a fun way to imagine Summer ’21, the most hopeful summer in a long time.
Celebrate with us the Summer of ’21 and create a poem in any form as long as it has 21 lines. There will be prizes, bragging rights and the top 3 entries will be published right here over the summer.
Visit the post to get all the details and a boatload of inspiration and ideas — 21 of them, in fact. Entries are already coming in and we hope to read yours soon.
I imagine you’ve heard this kind of phrase more than once:
I’m touched by your generosity.
I swear he’s been touched by an angel.
I can’t wait to get my hands on that ring.
As soon as this bloody plane touches down, I’m out of here.
And so on. It is interesting that the sense of “touch” should be used in such emotionally charged moments. I believe it speaks to the power this sense has to connect our hearts and minds.
In any kind of writing, the power that all five senses can bring to your material is enormous. In previous posts, we’ve written about smell, taste, hearing and sight. Then just to keep you thinking, we followed each post on the sense with a companion post focusing on poetry using that sense.
Today, we bring it all home with a focus on the sense of
touch and ways in which it can power up the emotions in your writing and
immerse your reader in the story.
A trio of touches
We touch through our skin. As our bodies are 99.9% wrapped
in the stuff, this massive organ is constantly sending messages to our brains.
Once there, our brains choose what signals to notice and what signals to put
There are three types of touches.
A light touch, also known as a
“protective touch” includes tickling. A light touch engages our brain
immediately so, if an insect starts crawling along your arm, your body responds
right away. Depending on your history with bugs, you might swat or brush away
the insect immediately or, if you’re less bug-averse, take a closer look to
decide if it’s a threat or benign.
A fine touch, also known as a
“discriminative touch” is responsible to give your brain specific information
about what is touching your body. So, the fine touch alerts the brain that the
insect left a slimy trail on your arm as your fingers touch the yucky stuff.
Ewww. Get. Slime. Off.
Touch pressure and deep touch pressure is
the last of the trio. Shoes that are too tight or that dear old auntie who
gives everyone a hug are examples of touch pressure. Covered with a soft
feather duvet or a double-layer woolen blanket, it’s your touch pressure sense that
tells your brain how heavy each one is. If you’ve ever caught your fingers in a
car door, you’ll know what deep touch pressure is like.
aware of the degree of touch in your writing. I’ll have more to say on that in
Touch in writing
It’s easy to use ordinary actions. He touched her face. She picked up the stone. They hugged each other. But it’s useful to consider the variety of ways in which humans give and receive a touch and apply those to your writing.
Touch is more than hands. All of our body is touching
something all the time. Even naked, our skin is touching the air.
Do your characters touch only with their hands?
If the hands are the logical body part to use, can you get more specific? Fingertips, nails, palm, heel, knuckles – all can be used to “feel” something/someone
What degree of touching? He felt for a pulse versus he pressed two fingertips against her cold neck, seeking a pulse.
What other body parts can you use for touch? Our bodies bump into things all the time and we don’t notice – are there places where a hip brushing against a doorway or when a thorn lodging inside a thigh could give a bit more of setting for your reader? Lean back in your chair and what parts of you are connecting with it? Now write a paragraph or two with one of your characters sitting in a chair, describing the physical connection with that chair.
Go beyond the physical
And touch is not simply physically connecting with something. There are degrees of types of touch that relate to more than the object itself. Touch as an action either being delivered or received is affected by a person’s emotional state and by their own history (stove=hot!) and sensory input levels. Someone with acute sensitivity to physical touch will back away from a hug or even a handshake. And that same person may avoid wools, corduroy or nylon materials. A person with low levels of sensitivity may not notice the texture of rough wool and, in extreme cases, not have any sensory input for types of pain.
With the emotional in mind, remember that the act of touch includes many qualities, and as infants, we learned about our world through the senses. Touch taught us so much through physical explorations. If you want to bring your reader deep into the story, you’ll be wise to keep those qualities in mind:
Texture – every physical thing has an exterior that has a texture. Sharp, smooth, ridged, pocked, spongy, liquid, etc.
Size – from tiny seeds to cardboard boxes to solid walls, touch informs us of size
Shape – similar to texture and size, our 3D world holds all of geometry. Round, flat, oval, rectangular, bulgy, pyramidic, etc.
Temperature – cool to the touch, barely warm, flaming hot, ice cold. Our skin is our constant thermometer
Pressure – a squeeze of an arm or a chokehold on our throat, we feel the touch and can decide if it’s good or bad
Vibration – Place a hand on the washing machine in the spin cycle and the movement and noise reaches us but it’s our skin that is the “first responder” to that vibration
Pain – So many kinds of pain that come from our skin being touched by something or someone and yet, so many kinds of pain that can be relieved with a soothing or loving touch
This is just an overview of this last of the five senses. When
you finish your first draft, remember to give at least one edit pass that
focuses on your use of the senses. If they’re missing or just given a superficial
treatment, then you are probably missing the opportunity to immerse your reader
in the physical and emotional heart of your story.
got something to tell you but first, close your eyes. Ready? Now, imagine
you’re in a dark room, so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your
face. Okay. Now pay attention to the sounds around you. Tell me about them.
I can tell you that three cars just drove past my house. My office is in the
front and we’re close to our street. And the windows are old so I can hear
quite a bit. Here comes another car, tires sizzling on the wet asphalt, engine whirring,
the whoosh of air so clear as it passes right in front and now all the whoosh,
whirr and sizzle fading, fading, fading…gone. It’s silent again.
about your sounds? Did you default to reportage: three cars just drove past? Or
did you work to recreate the sounds around you? Sizzle, whirr, whoosh.
There is a
time and place for good old narrative in any story. It’s a shortcut to convey
information without getting bogged down in too many details. Narrative is
useful to bridge between scenes, or transition time and place, or give readers
a break after a busy action scene.
For example: She stopped when she heard the sound of a shotgun in the distance.
basic narration giving readers an important detail and setting up the scene to
follow. But if you don’t need narration and instead, you want your reader to be
closer to your character’s POV, to feel their reaction, to hear what they
heard, it’s wise to move from narration into action. Bring the reader in closer.
Closer: She stopped when a shotgun fired in the distance.
Even Closer: Bang! She held still and listened. Was that a shotgun?
In the Even
Closer example, we are much more inside the character’s POV, the sound followed
by the physical reaction followed by the internal thought “Was that a shotgun?”
Just like sizzle, whirr and whoosh, Bang! is a use of figurative language: it is onomatopoeia, or when a word mimics or recreates the actual sound. Traditionally, onomatopoeia should be in italics but that rule, like many others, has loosened. The main point is that writers need to be consistent throughout the whole story. Personally, I prefer not to use italics for onomatopoeia.
how sounds are introduced is a matter of choice. There is nothing wrong with
using the phrase “the sound of” to set up a noise. But like good old narrative,
too much of it becomes repetitive, slows down the pacing and does little to
engage your reader’s imagination.
heard the sound of a door opening and then he heard the sound of footsteps and he
held his breath. Then he heard the sound of bricks falling.
Something – the
door? – creaked. A scrape of shoe leather on the floorboards, once, twice,
three times, coming closer. He kept his own breaths small and then a clattering
thump of falling bricks and dust washed over him.
this last example how the sound and the dust both “washed over” the character.
Sounds create vibrations that our ears hear but also that our bodies feel –
sometimes on a subconscious level and sometimes, like stomping feet in a packed
stadium, the sound rattles our bones.
A wise writer
appeals to the full range of senses, leaving room for a full body experience
for the character and consequently, for the reader.
The type of
sound you are working with will dictate how it needs to show in your story.
Natural sounds are the most obvious because they are the sounds that fit into the scene of the story. The roar of a lion on safari or at the zoo; the revving of engines at a car race; the plink-plinking of rainfall on leaves in a forest.
Sounds with meaning express the perception of characters and the mood of the scene. So the whimpering of a baby can evoke nurturing responses “Oh, Hassan, our sweet baby is waking at last” versus “Is that thing going to cry all night?” So, if that whimper is to irritate, your character needs to react to the sound, imagining it increase in pitch and intensity.
Similarly, pounding on the door, shattering glass, rapid-fire tapping of toes, drumming of fingers, grinding of gears – these are sounds meant to express a mood and to raise tension. And what about the swish of silk, popping of a champagne cork, the crackle of a fireplace? Depending on how you use it, sound can create a warm sexy moment or a sinister seduction. You’re the sound technician and you need to create that choice.
Finally, what about imagined sounds? Like sounds that carry meaning, these are noises that only your character can hear and are part of their perception of their world. Held in their thoughts, these sounds relate directly to who your character is. An egotist may hear applause from her co-workers every time she makes a point in the boardroom. A self-conscious introvert might imagine snickers when he’s forced to offer an opinion. And some over-imaginative characters could hear non-existent sounds all the time.
But like any action/reaction, remember to crosscheck your character’s imaginary sounds with their wants and, more importantly, their needs. That introvert wants to have others value his opinion but he needs to first gain confidence. So as the story moves forward and your character stiffens his spine, that imagined snickering should fade away and eventually, be replaced with real approval from others.
Sound, like the four other senses (taste, touch, smell, sight) needs to be balanced. Writers should consider where and when sound is best used. Here are some questions to ask when you are editing that first or second draft:
Do you want background sound or is it important for readers to hear it loud and clear?
Is the sound revealing something, hiding something or simply part of the expected scenery?
Would another sense be stronger to convey the mood or intention of the scene?
Is this sound logical — i.e., could it truly be heard, is it a sound that fits the location, is it a sound that would actually be noticed by the characters?
Earlier this month, I wrote about using the sense of smell in writing. Look for future posts on taste, touch and sight. Well, that sounds like a wrap. Thanks for listening.
That’s a loaded question because, like poetic forms, short fiction comes in a host of forms and lengths and changes with the times.
This sample list of interesting short fiction forms and their word counts comes from a seminar I gave a few years ago at the Ontario Writers’ Conference:
Six word stories
Should provide a moment of conflict,
action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in
a moment’s reading.
140 characters or less.
Expresso Stories – 25 words or less
A literary form for today’s
frothed-up, on-the-hoof, want-it-all-now consumer lifestyle: complete stories
that take no longer to read than an espresso takes to slurp.
Hint Fiction – 25 words or less
story, should do in twenty-five words what it could do in twenty-five hundred,
that is, it “should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”
Trifextra – exactly 33 words
Stories written from prompts, and
having something to with the number three.
Trifecta – no fewer than 33
and no more than 333 words.
competition in which writers are given a one-word prompt, use the third given
definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to write a story between 33 and
Minisaga, mini saga
or mini-saga – exactly 50 words [AKA ultra-shorts or microstory.]
Started by The Daily Telegraph and used in business
as an educational tool to stimulate creativity. They are often funny or
surprising and are described as “bite-sized lessons for life and business.”
Dribble Fiction – exactly 50 words
of Drabble with the word count reduced to 50 words.
55 Fiction – 55 words
From the New Times short story contest. 55 Fiction has: a setting; one or more
characters; conflict and resolution.
Fiction – usually 50 words or less but up to 250
exploration, usually inspired by photographs and able to fit on a standard size
fiction – under 100 words
A complete fictional story in a
limited number of words in any genre.
Drabble Fiction – exactly 100 words
Originated in UK science fiction
fandom in the 1980s. Drabble calls for brevity, testing the author’s ability to
express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.
Feghoot or Shaggy dog
story – usually 100 to 250 words
sci-fi, centers around or concludes with a pun, has a title character in a dangerous
situation, any place in the galaxy, any past or future time. Can involve the
travelling device with no name, represented as the “)(“.
Haibun – usually 100 to 1000 words.
English haibun is of one or more
paragraphs of prose coupled with one or more haiku. It may record a scene, or a
special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a
wholly fictional or dream-like space. Accompanying haiku has a direct or subtle
relationship with the prose.
Short Story 1000 to 15000 words.
varies with publication form: collections, anthologies, magazines, or journals;
print or on-line; genre or not. Print costs for journals, magazines and
anthologies usually keep the count between 2000 – 4000.Genre stories for
anthology collections can go to 7500 words. Single author collections often
have one longer story up to 15000 words coupled with shorter stories.
Novellette – 7500 to 17500
Novella – 17500 to 40,000, sometimes 50000
Write your story the length it needs to be without thinking about word limits. Decide afterwards if you want to edit it to fit a certain count.
If you hope to sell your story, figure out what magazines or anthologies would be the best fit for the content/genre/style of your story, then look up their submission guidelines.
With the shortest day of the year around the corner, I thought I would write today about short fiction. I began my writing journey writing short stories and poetry and in many ways , I think the two are alike.
Here are some of my random thoughts on writing short fiction. Interestingly, the same perspectives can be applied to writing poetry.
Short stories are like poems in that they steer the reader into reading the piece more than once, and the reader finds something new on each reading.
A “mainstream” short story can be about anything: a mood, a character, a setting, even a flashy writing style. A genre short story is about an idea. The fictional elements—character, plot, setting, etc.—are only there to dramatize the idea.
One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. For experimental writing choose everyday events. The stranger the idea, the more real the world must seem to be.
Know whose story it is, who is telling the story, and why.
The short story is a controlled release of information. Never rush or compact it. The fewer the words, the more air it needs to breathe.
Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click. Repetition is good for symmetry but must be used sparingly, like salt.
One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.
One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.
Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
Leave stuff out. It’s what’s left out that makes what’s left in do its work more effectively.
Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.
I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.
I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.
Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.
It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when
the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help
control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when
humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the
A Murder Most Foul
Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.
Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.
Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.
Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.
I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.
Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.
When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.
Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again
That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.
Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.
Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.
Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.
Back to the Beginning
Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.
It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.
One of my grandchildren texted me: “School starts in 2 days” followed by no less than 6 emojis, all different. Smiley, sad, angry, astonished, upside down and shrugging.
By themselves, her text words could have been interpreted several ways: Yikes! I can’t believe school starts in 2 days after so long. Or I’m so excited that school is starting in 2 days. Or OMG I’m dreading the fact that school starts in 2 days.
What was this child trying to tell me? Or was she just trigger happy on the emoji screen? What was she expecting from me? A thumbs up, or something more? I opted for the “something more”, and we ended up having a lengthier discussion about what was bothering her. All good.
But the incident reminded me that in the absence of sound
volume and intonation, words in messages have to be specific enough to convey
the right message.
The same applies to fiction dialogue. And if the words can’t do it, the author
needs to use one of several “dialogue helpers” to clarify.
I remember in a critique group years ago, a writer read
aloud a small excerpt from his chapter where we follow the protagonist (a male
teacher at a private boarding school) up to the principal’s office. Then a line
of dialogue: “Sit down,” said the principal. “We must talk about young
Had I been reading the words myself from the page, I would have assumed that this was to be a cordial conversation between teacher colleagues, but unexpectedly, the author delivered the dialogue in a loud angry voice. Where was that emotion in the text? The dialogue needed help so readers could imagine the tone.
Using someone’s full name, title or nickname
Did your mother ever add your middle name when she was
angry: “Alison Elizabeth Martin! Get in here this minute.” Or a pet name when
she was trying to console? “Oh Snooks, tell me all about it.”
If this principal usually calls the protagonist Bill, then using his full name William will signal that something is wrong. He might go further by removing any personal connection and using his title, or calling him Mr.
“Coach Simons, sit down…..”
Match the length and type of sentence to the emotion being expressed. In an angry situation, short commands are more likely. “Get in here.” Friendly conversations will begin with greetings and perhaps questions about the other’s situation or feelings. “What have you been doing lately?” “How’s your Mum?” “What’s the matter?”
“Coach Simons. Close the door.”
The command to close the door signals that what is to follow
is private. Issued as a command suggests that the person entering is in
trouble. Short clipped sentences support tension.
Think about how many words people use in different emotional
states and what kind of words. The angry mother commands in simple words what
she wants done. “Get in here this minute.” She doesn’t acknowledge what the
recipient wants or feels, nor is she concerned with politeness. She is not
likely to say, “When you’ve finished playing with Julie, please come inside.”
The principal would need to be professional but show his
anger in some way.
“Coach Simons. Close the door. Sit there… please.”
Allotting a specific chair signals control in the hands of
the principal. Adding a hesitant “please” at the end preserves civility
but diminishes cordiality.
A word of caution here. Describing the actual sounds in the
scene is different from “labelling” them using attributives like “he said
NOT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal said
BUT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed
between clenched teeth
The unspoken vocabulary of body language is a gold mine for
conveying emotions. Use it.
“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed
between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air
with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.”
Beats are physical actions a character makes
while speaking. The pointed finger in the last example is both a gesture and a
beat. But beats are not just gestures. They are all actions your character
might make that help to animate your dialogue scene. Think of it as the
difference between listening to a stage play where everyone stands in a line
and recites their words versus the acting that happens on stage as characters
“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.” The principal walked to the window, and stared out to the courtyard below for a full minute before he turned to face Simons.
Obviously, you don’t need every helper in every dialogue situation, but add these to your writers toolkit to use whenever you need them.
Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc
Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster
Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers, e.e.cummings
Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake
Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver
Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them.
Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses. But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed with 4 white crosses for those who did not quite make this curve because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski
Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?
Pacing – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page
Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.
Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That
frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been
on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn
on the page.
Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to
toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?
Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory
was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a
few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with
backstory in a way that appeals to readers.
Decide What to Throw Out
Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory
explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the
character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma
shapeshifted a character’s personality.
Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world
works in fantasy or science fiction.
Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what
you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”
1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy
Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July,
drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy
for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean
I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying
by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it
My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight.
Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this
early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should
have been important to her.
2. Save Your Cast-offs
Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment.
For each, ask:
Does the reader need to know this?
How does this episode propel the main story forward?
Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes
Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another
Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special
closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the
door: Private. I move beloved old
outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may
inspire their own narratives.
Threading So the Stitches
Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in
essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.
1. Wait for Thirst
Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially
in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then
deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.
What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.
What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and
engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical
details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us
eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.
Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.
2. Show Readers the Gap
But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A
critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life
was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or
feel the related emotion.
Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening
scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the
protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?
My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband
in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She
reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees
the envelope with the familiar handwriting.
Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory,
they understand what she risks by opening that letter.
3. Animate Backstory with Scene
Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.
Showing is better.
Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with
character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies
curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to
be—including its own chapter.
Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an
anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey
does this splendidly in Sweetland
when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a
glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.
Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an
historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information
in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.
4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory
Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments
of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.
Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend
at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old
letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious
face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.
I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at
the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical
opportunity to muse on who was this man.
5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit
Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.
One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She had writtenwrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.
In Three Day Road, Joseph
Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get
here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with
that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.
Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for
your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to
examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed
What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.
Meet Heidi Croot
Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.
Our congratulations to Helen Bajorek-MacDonald for winning Writescape’s summer Postcard Story Contest, with her story Woman with Cigarette
You can read her winning story below, followed by our comments on why we chose this story as our winner. And after our comments, read why and how Helen wrote this story. Truly inspirational!
If you missed them, please follow these links for the 2nd-place and 3rd-place winning stories and our comments on those.
Here again is the contest image that inspired this story.
Woman with Cigarette
by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald
You think you want to crawl over me, slither across my skin, creep into my soul.
You think you can create a masterpiece with your authoritative direction and with darkroom magic. One that will earn what you expect: praise for your technical skill, for your ability to render beauty.
You think you can possess me, after you gift me with your obsessive eye, and the promise of immortality.
And you think you can do all this with a click of the shutter.
You perform as artiste.
Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.
Then the sound of the film advance lever.
Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.
“Good! Almost there! Lift your face. No, don’t look up. Chin up! A little. Eyes on the camera. Look deep into the lens.”
The staccato rhythm of the shutter-and-advance-lever echoes the intensity of your tone and commands.
“Don’t move. Just look. Right at me.”
My head’s right, but the eyes aren’t.
My neck’s right, but the shoulders aren’t
“Raise your arm over your head.”
Not a question.
I thought it would be easy and fun. First one, then the other, taking photos for our first portraiture assignment. It’s just a few weeks into our photography programme where I am the sole female student, and already it’s all insistent tones and breathless snapping. Just another reminder that I am – merely – subject. For your camera and of your desires.
You complain that there’s not enough light because of the storm.
The rain beating against the window of your shabby one-room apartment makes me shiver, and I wonder … when will you ask me to take off my clothes, for the sake of art?
“Back in a minute,” you announce as you get up from your crouched position on the hardwood floor.
As she stands to stretch, her eyes sweep the room. Her camera waits on its tripod. Atop a beaten dresser, cup circle stains are partially exposed under the clutter of keys, cigarette packs, matchbooks, a brimming ashtray, and other miscellany.
Maybe it was the clatter of thunder that drums an idea into her mind.
She moves quickly and purposefully.
She sets up her camera. Pre-focusses on the couch. One frame left in the roll of film. One chance to get the focus and exposure right, and to coolly pose herself.
She grabs a cigarette from atop the dresser, sets the camera’s self-timer, dashes to her position at the couch.
Pose. Gaze into the lens. Be you!
She and her camera are gone before he emerges from the bathroom.
Later, under her darkroom’s safelight, the image reveals itself in the developer tray.
A whisper: Woman with Cigarette.
Why we chose this entry as the winner
Risk in any art form is part of stretching the creative soul and we feel that in this story, huge risks were taken, and they worked. Risks in POV and content themes.
Narration/voice/POV – the writer took a huge risk in moving from what seems to be second-person narration but what the reader is surprised to realize is first-person narration by the character directed at an anonymous “you” — followed by a full shift into third-person narration at the point the “I” narrator takes control of her movements and poses, makes the decision to photograph herself with the last shot in her film (which means she likely expended all but one on the fellow student who is male.) It’s unexpected and despite common advice to not switch POV in a short piece, in this story it works. It does take time to realize what is happening and may challenge some readers, but the payoff was worth it. The story begs a second read to savour the story again with that realization.
Theme: Tackling a familiar subject — the female as object — is also risky because it has been done and done and done. But this feels fresh, partly because of the intriguing shift in POV.
Intensity of the moment which is always a plus for a postcard story — like the click of the camera, a few minutes only are captured and shared to create an emotional effect on readers. Little is given as background or character relationships, but a lot is implied.
Layers – even though we see only a few moments of story action, there are big issues presented for readers to consider: We’re asked to consider the idea of “subject” as seen through the lens of the camera — and that that lens takes a perspective from the person lining up the shot. We are asked to consider the trope of female model posing equals permission for sex. We are asked who has control – of the art and of the model?
Twist: the tropes of subject and model and control as part of the production of perfect art is upended with the sense of the personal as she takes control of the last photo — she chooses the lighting, the pose and backdrop — all of it her decision.
The style of the first part is staccato like the click click of the camera. Short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes even just one word per line. No descriptions of setting or characters. Everything is focussed, mechanical, shallow, artificial, dehumanizing. In the second half, the writing becomes more fluid and human. We see some of the surroundings and there is character movement and building to a motivated point. The reader is involved in the action and outcome.
Both of us felt that the writer’s attention to craft in this fine story was as strong as any we’ve read over the years in various journals and anthologies.
We asked Helen why she entered and what was it about this photograph that took her into this story…
Over the last two years I have been home ill, battling sarcoidosis. Symptoms include debilitating fatigue and visual and cognitive impairment. Not good for a college professor who teaches communications!
When the Covid-19 quarantine struck, I was already accustomed to self-quarantine. But, my world grew even smaller. While unable to devote more than a few minutes each day to reading or writing, I decided as the quarantine dragged on that I needed something to do. So, I turned to Writescape as I knew of the work of Gwynn and Ruth from Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). A blog is short, requiring little time and energy, and it is easy to enlarge text on a computer screen. It was something I could give precious time and resources to, without compounding my health challenges.
Ruth’s blog, “Picturing Inspiration” resonated especially strongly. Firstly, because it combined two things I love to do: writing and photography.
Secondly, the image haunted me. Maybe because of the times, but I kept thinking about the masks we wear. Yet, the woman in the photograph seems to be unmasked.
Further, she is in repose, but this didn’t make visual sense to me, so I kept turning the picture around to see what the image might ‘say’ if she were erect.
I was especially struck by the direct gaze of the woman in the photograph. Not blank, I wondered what she was projecting to the photographer. What was the photographer trying to achieve? And who was the photographer? Further, there was a nagging whisper over my shoulder … why was her cigarette unlit?
These and other questions led me to conclude that the woman must be the photographer. Her gaze suggests a certain confidence, defiance, direct communication with the camera’s lens. Though this is no 21st century selfie. It’s a self-portrait. It’s art. But how did she come to take the photograph? And what was her motivation for the self-portrait?
I began to think about the reasons one does a self-portrait. Lots of history and critical mass of the male self-portrait, in painting, photography and in writing. Not so for women. Even less awareness of the female self-portrait.
Perhaps predictably, I imagined the woman in the image to be a student in a photography programme. I determined she was a trailblazer. Defiant. Confident. Keenly aware how others might view her self-portraiture – as ‘less than’ in the art world [yes, I imagined her an artist; she’s got something of a beatnik look to her which helped me determined her era] – similar to the reception given to painters Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka, who woman-with-cigarette might have known, and photographers Elsa Dorfman and Vivian Maier, who remained largely unknown throughout their lives, and about whom woman-with-cigarette likely would not learn of in a school of photography.
As I thought of the challenges woman-with-cigarette would face in her aspirations to be a photographer, I was reminded of the work of African-American photographer Deborah Willis, who was told when she entered an all-male Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) program in the early 1970s that she was taking up a man’s seat, when all she’d end up doing was have babies. One of her earliest and most profound works is Willis’ self-portrait triptych, “I made space for a good man.” A direct, confident, and political response to those who would silence her creative voice.
And so, I envisioned the woman-with-cigarette in the late 1960s; maybe early 1970s. A nascent feminist and emerging artist, committed to the study of photography, and most certainly possessing some skill and creative talent. She was going places with her art!
And, I determined, she knew enough about art history to know that Woman with Cigarette is almost a cliché over-saturated subject for painters. The greatest challenge in writing “Woman with Cigarette” was to find a subtle way to expose her ironic joke with self.
Writescape’s contest became a much-needed distraction during challenging times, as well as allowed writing to become part of my wellness plan.
Thank you to Writescape for offering the writing challenge, “Picturing Inspiration”. It’s not easy to write to spec. But, Ruth’s blog and the image were a perfect Goldilocks challenge for me. Absolutely, the right time! Just the right length to manage with my limited personal resources. The image checked all of the right inspirational boxes. And, most important, because I struggle with brevity, clarity, and conciseness in my writing, the postcard parameter of the competition offered a perfect opportunity to wrestle with these skills. As Timothy Findlay once observed, a writer must learn to “kill her darlings”. Not so easy! My first draft was almost 900 words.
Thank you, Ruth and Gwynn, for this writing challenge, for your feedback, and for allowing readers to read the three finalist stories. It is inspiring to read the unique approaches to the telling of ‘her’ story.
Helen Bajorek-MacDonald is an educator, writer and photo-text artist, whose writing has been published in books, journals, anthologies, magazines and newspapers.
Helen has exhibited collaborative visual/textual works with partner Jean-Michel Komarnicki, such as “Water and Iron” in Clarington Taken (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), and in a group exhibition, Reading the Image (Whitby Station Gallery).