Choose Your Own Adventure!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Write a “choose your own adventure”-style story. That is, start writing your story, but when you get to a point where your main character has to make a decision, first continue the story with the character making one choice (up to the point where another decision has to be made), then go back to the fork in the road and write the story with the character making a different choice.

Pick at least three points in your story where it could go in two or more directions and write each of the versions.

A simple version of this exercise would go something like this, and result in eight different versions of the story:

  • Original story ? at the first fork, choose A or B.
    • A story ? at the second fork, choose C or D.
      • C story ? at the third fork, choose G or H.
        • G story ? continue to the end.
        • H story ? continue to the end.
      • D story ? at the third fork, choose I or J.
        • I story ? continue to the end.
        • J story ? continue to the end.
    • B story ? at the second fork, choose E or F.
      • E story ? at the third fork, choose K or L.
        • K story ? continue to the end.
        • L story ? continue to the end.
      • F story ? at the third fork, choose M or N.
        • M story ? continue to the end.
        • N story ? continue to the end.

Of course, stories can get more complicated than this, with more options and storylines backtracking and crisscrossing on each other. Play around and have fun with it.

While a choose-your-own-adventure story can be meant to be read as-is, this is also a good exercise for exploring your options when working through the plot of a longer story or novel.

It’s also a great way to complete a challenge like NaNoWriMo if you “run out of story” before reaching your word goal. Go back through your story and look for points where it could have gone in a different direction and write those versions. You might find you like one of the alternate stories better than the original.

Writing as Therapy

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

First, the disclaimer. I am not a therapist of any kind. I’m not even that much of a writer. There are a few novels in my drawer, to be sure, but nothing publishable, yet.

But what I have, I’m willing to share. Things go wrong in these lives of ours, and sometimes we need a little help to get back on our feet.

For me, writing has helped immensely. Telling stories, any stories, is part of who I am, and it’s part of who I am when I’m mentally healthy. So struggling to tell stories when I just don’t feel like it at all is an important part of regaining my equilibrium.

One of the primary therapies that helps people go from having flashbacks, intrusive memories, etc., is to construct narratives around the events that caused the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Background Image: Lia/Flickr (Public Domain)

In a recent episode, the American Public Media radio program On Being interviewed Kevin Kling. Kling was born with one withered arm, and in early adulthood experienced a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him, and took the use of his other arm. He is also a storyteller, and he loves to laugh.

I found it striking that he remarked that retelling a story, your own story, with different endings, is a good way to get better. It helped him to recover from the PTSD his accident triggered.

Trying on different endings, different answers to the “where should the story go from here?” question, is both a great way to edit a plot flaw out of a story, and to imagine where your life could go.

The full interview with Kevin Kling is available here.

Likewise in an interview, Kurt Vonnegut, best-selling author of Slaughterhouse Five among others, remarked, “A writer is lucky to be able to treat his neurosis every day.”

Writing is, I think in its essence, a process of picking at the sore parts of your being. A common piece of advice to writers is to write what you’re afraid of. Open a vein, bleed a little into your story. Share your experience of pain with your characters; it makes them more believable.

Telling a fictional story that relates in some way to your stresses and bad memories may be a step beyond a memoir-style retelling. It allows more inventive changes to the tale, moving further afield from the simple facts of the case, and a more extensive examination of the what-ifs of the situation.

It’s worth pointing out that there are opposing opinions. For example, Anis Shivani in this essay describes academic creative writing programs as hazing and therapy in the model of an old-fashioned mental hospital. Linking to this, the Brevity Non-Fiction Blog suggests that someone give Mr. Shivani a warm cup of milk.

As an exercise, let me suggest thinking for a few moments (but not too long; this is therapy, after all) about the things that bother you most, that scare you most, about life, the situation you’re in, the way the system works. Write out a list with a few items on it. Now wash your mind out, sit down with a blank page (or word processor window), and write about those things, either one at a time, or several together. Play with different outcomes. Find one that’s good and not wildly improbable.

The stuff you write for therapy may or may not be something you’d share with others. Writing for publication is perhaps a different kind of a thing. But art, to be good, needs to be authentic; it needs to be about something real. And so, in the process of readjusting yourself, you will also, just maybe, readjust your writing to be more authentic. Playing around with different endings may make writing that started out as a private, therapeutic exercise into something that would be of interest to others.

Final Poll Results

What Dr. John H. Watson Can Teach About Writing

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By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

“Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

Dr. John H. Watson is the fictional biographer of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Dr. Watson (and his creator) always spun the tales of deduction and reasoning into stories that mesmerized the Victorian public. Even against the criticism of his friend, Watson continued to write his stories, and when Holmes finally took up the pen to write one or two of his own tales, he was forced to admit that, for all his analytical mind, he had to create a story to interest his readers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless other fictional detectives and mysteries, and are still being rewritten and re-imagined, over one hundred years after their original publication. What is it about the stories penned by Dr. Watson and his creator that have made them last? Why do readers keep returning to them?

Background Image: givingnot/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Tell a Story

First and foremost, Watson was a storyteller. While Holmes may have preferred to focus on the science of the cases, Watson knew his readers wanted the romance and thrill, and he gave them just that. In each story, he painted a picture of the visitors who climbed the seventeen steps to 221B Baker Street, from what they were wearing to their emotional state when they arrived. And when a case called for action, Watson pulled no punches, giving detailed accounts of a dangerous boat chase or a tense stakeout, as well as concluding dramatically with the capture of the criminal and explanation of Holmes’s deductions.

As a writer, give your readers the big picture as well as the small, and allow them to feel the thrill, romance, fear, even the mundanity of the situation. Give them enough information to see the scene in their head and keep them on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.

But don’t tell them everything. Sometimes what the reader can imagine is more interesting to them than what you can come up with. Watson often referred to other cases, dropping tantalizing clues to stories that were never published or giving just enough hints so that his contemporary readers could try to puzzle out the real-life counterpart to a client or villain. You may know about everything that happens in your world, but you don’t have to present it all to the reader. Drop a reference here and there, and let your reader imagine the rest.

Be Prolific

Dr. Watson alludes to many unpublished cases in his stories. One of the reasons he gives as to why he never published them is that the results were too mundane or unsatisfying to provide any interest to his readers. Even though he faithfully chronicled every one of his companion’s adventures, he carefully picked the stories he chose to publish, sharing only the ones he knew would make good stories.

Not every story or novel you write will be a masterpiece. Some of them will have unsatisfying endings, others will have boring characters, and still more will just stop and have no ending. Every writer has a couple of stories that just didn’t work, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to write it. Every word you write is practice for the next one, and even if that piece never sees the light of day, you still had the practice for writing something better. But what do you do with all those unpublished stories?

Watson had a tin dispatch box in the bank vault at Cox & Co., where he kept all of his case notes. Create a special place for all of your work, whether it be a folder on your computer’s desktop or a special box in your closet. Instead of leaving them there, though, make a regular date with yourself to go through them and handpick the best ones to polish and send out into the world.

Create Lasting Characters

Dr. Watson not only created an intriguing star for his stories, but a standout supporting cast. Most readers can immediately recognize the rat-like, unimaginative Inspector Lestrade and the long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, who in turns worried over and was antagonized by her eccentric tenant. Even the smaller characters, such as The Woman, Irene Adler, who once intrigued Holmes with her cleverness and is often cast as his love interest, or the nefarious Professor Moriarty, the shadowy spider behind London’s criminal scene, have their own unique personalities and quirks that make them memorable.

Each of your characters should have a story. For your main characters, this means writing a history for them. What events occurred in the characters’ lives that got them to the point where you start your story? The reader may never get to see that history, but remember that every character is the star of their own show.

With your background and one-scene characters, you don’t have to create as elaborate backstories, but have an idea for what they want out of their lives, and out of their interactions with your story. Writing a character with no purpose to his or her life will make for a flat character. Give them a purpose for their own fictional life. By giving each of your characters a reason for existing, you make them more real and more memorable to your reader.

Live your own adventure

Dr. Watson wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes’s biographer. More often than not, he was found right next to Holmes in the thick of danger, often lending a hand or his trusty service revolver to aid in the capture of a criminal. He didn’t just write the adventures; he lived them, and his perspective gave his stories more interest to readers.

As a writer, you can’t spend all your time imagining at your desk. Sometimes you have to go out into the world, and have an adventure. You don’t always have to write what you know, but you’ll hardly have anything to write about if you don’t have a few adventures now and then. While following the world’s only consulting detective around may not be practical or even safe, there’s plenty you can do, starting by just stepping out your front door. Experience life, and then go home and write about it.

Final Poll Results

You Gotta Know Your Audience*

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A while back at the forums, we got into a debate about what matters more: writing skills or storytelling ability. It all started when UVRAY said, “The critics are having an absolute field day with [Dan Brown’s] terrible writing skills” and Bellman replied, “This is why I say story-telling trumps writing. Every time. The majority of people will forgive a whole lot in the writing skills department if they like the story.”

Bellman wasn’t suggesting that writing skills are irrelevant, only that “[p]eople are more interested in a good story than in good writing. Both together is, of course, the best scenario, but if they have to choose between one or the other, they are far more likely to choose the good story + mediocre writing over the good writing + mediocre story.” While we had people come down on both sides of the skills/story debate, the majority seemed to agree that story trumped skill. KasaiYoukai said, “I can forgive mediocre writing for good story telling … I love Harry Potter, but [J.K. Rowling’s] writing isn’t what I would call superior.” Kenwood added, “The story is far more important than the writing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing can’t be terrible, but it can simply be good or decent and the story still be great. Not everyone will agree with that of course, but it’s a ‘truth’ I think too many people ignore.”

Where Kenwood said ‘people,’ I would say ‘writers.’ Why do writers ignore the importance of story? Because writers tend to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective. For many writers, what excites them about writing is choosing the perfect word, constructing a melodious sentence, or coming up with a fresh metaphor. But the vast majority of readers are not writers. If the story moves them—if it makes them cry or laugh or smile in recognition, if it surprises them, or makes them sleep with the lights on, or spurs them to make a change in their life or a difference in the world—they are not going to fret over the author’s unsophisticated sentence structure, her pet phrases, or second-rate grammar skills. When readers discuss a book, they say things like “My favorite part was when so-and-so did such-and-such,” not “I really appreciated the craftsmanship in the fifth sentence on page 272.” To understand if a piece of writing works—and why—one needs to evaluate it as a reader, not as a writer.

Background Image: Emily|ebarney/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

On his blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, “In order to have a book published it doesn’t have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment … that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that’s really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf. Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.” Dan Brown does not possess superior writing skills, but he clearly knows a bit about storytelling. No matter that I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code (after all, I’m a picky writer who can’t stop evaluating writing from a writer’s perspective—see above), millions of people did.

For a work to be great, of course the writer must possess writing skills as well as storytelling ability. But just because you have writing skills doesn’t mean your writing is automatically great. You first have to have something to say. That’s storytelling, and it’s the core of your work, the base that gives your writing skills something to embellish.

If story is the cake, writing skills are the frosting. Of course, cake with frosting is best, but cake without frosting is still good. Frosting without cake, on the other hand, is not. With cake, frosting is the finishing touch that makes the cake something special. Alone, it’s just unrelenting sweetness. We’re all familiar with the crash that inevitably follows a sugar high. Superior writing skills are admirable, but on their own they’re just so much sweetness: lovely sentence, lovely sentence, lovely sentence—and then? Oh, you mean that’s it? Crash. Writing skills need a story to support them, to make all those lovely sentences amount to something.

As Nathan Bransford recently said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But … the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment.” Bransford added that, contrary to popular belief, modern literary novels “have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there’s so much to take away, but [Marilynne] Robinson and [Ian] McEwan and [Junot] Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.”

In our “Dan Brown” discussion, I think we all agreed that writing skills and storytelling ability are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I was struck by the number of people who seemed to hold the belief that such works are more a matter of personal style than conscious effort, and that it would be sacrificing one’s artistic integrity to deliberately adjust the skill/story balance in one’s own work. The perception is that true artists write from some inner impetus (that is perhaps unknown even to the writer) and only seek out readers once the work is complete. Only ‘sell-outs’ consider externalities like audience while they are writing.

But I contend that you should always consider your audience. Thinking about audience for me is not a marketing strategy; rather, it’s a way of keeping my writing moving in a direction that makes sense for the piece, and not losing sight of why I am writing.

I once wrote a short story with an 8-year-old narrator. In the first draft, the story was set in the present, although many of the details were scooped from my own childhood. After I got some feedback on the story, I realized that it was those details that resonated with readers. I decided to revise the story to set it definitively in the 1970s. That decision was influenced by recognizing that even though the narrator was eight, the audience for the story was not so much present-day 8-year-olds (although they might enjoy it), but reminiscing adults who remembered being eight. The original version might have been what was ‘in my head’ at the time of the initial writing but the conscious changes I made to the final version made it a better story.

Audience is the bridge between writing skills and storytelling. Saying “I write for myself” doesn’t excuse you from this. Even private writing has an audience: you. Your journal writing should be different than your fiction. But while your personal journals might be intended for an audience of one, fiction explicitly targets a larger audience. You might not be interested in Dan Brown’s readership, but if you write fiction, the intended audience is more than just yourself. And with each person added to your audience, your personal importance as a reader decreases. Even in an audience of 100—microscopic by Dan Brown standards—you make up only 1% of your readership. Failing to consider the rest of your audience is not artistic, it’s narcissistic. And ultimately, self-sabotaging.

For writers whose work doesn’t enjoy the same level of popularity as Dan Brown’s or J.K. Rowling’s (which is, let’s face it, most of us), it helps immensely to have what Kevin Kelly calls True Fans: people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” But true fans need to be nurtured; you’re not going to build a truefanbase by telling potential readers/fans—as some did during our discussion—that you have no purpose for writing aside from preventing your own crazy, that if your work says anything it’s completely unintentional, and that you don’t care whether readers take anything away from your work. As Sparky99 pointed out, this makes it sound like “the only reason you’re writing is for your own entertainment, your own release, your own therapy”—and, if that’s the case, why should anyone else be interested in reading your work?

Such declarations are generally made in the defense of one’s work as art, the purity of which is not be sullied by outside considerations. But writing that has nothing to say is not art. As Baker said, “I think most art is created as a statement by the artist. The creator of work has something to say and says it through the work. Otherwise, why create?” In an essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell argued that there are four motives for writing (aside from the need to earn a living): sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. All writers have these motives but in different proportions. Valuing writing skills to the neglect of story is too much aesthetic enthusiasm. Writing ‘for me’ without any other consideration is excessive egoism.

One of the things I’ve struggled with as a writer is finishing a novel. Inevitably, I’ve bogged down somewhere between the middle and the end. I have terrible trouble with resolution. Should the main character make this choice or that one? I try choice A. I try choice B. Maybe choice C? It all feels so arbitrary. Shouldn’t one feel more right than the others? Why can’t I decide? My frustration was compounded by the feeling I knew the answer (after all, I’ve finished plenty of other things, just not novels); I just couldn’t articulate it.

My “aha!” moment was realizing my novel-writing stalled when—caught up in the details of word, sentence, and paragraph (too much aesthetic enthusiasm!)—I lost track of the story, the big picture. I didn’t experience the same difficulty when writing in other genres because, in those cases, my purpose for writing and the intended audience were always implicitly clear, if not explicitly stated.

Good writing doesn’t just spontaneously happen. Without consciously thinking about why—and for whom—you are writing, your work will wander aimlessly. You’ll be unsatisfied, because the piece will never feel finished regardless of how long it gets. Thinking about who is going to read your work does not equate to sacrificing your artistic integrity; it’s a way of focusing what you have to say—and it transcends genre. Whatever your subject matter, the principle remains the same: how you approach your work depends on who your real or imagined audience is. Poet Sharon Olds has said: “Questions that interest me include: … For whom are you writing (the dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you at the checkout line in Safeway)?”

For whom are you writing?

With grateful thanks to everyone who participated in the “Dan Brown” thread.

*Credit for the title goes to Elaine Lui.

Final Poll Results

Writer’s Glossary, Part I: Elements of Fiction Construction

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Welcome to the first of Toasted Cheese’s new “Writer’s Glossary” series.

This article defines elements of fiction construction (characters and story elements). These are some of the most common storytelling elements, ones that writers and readers use when speaking about the story. If you don’t know what an editor meant when she said “the narrative didn’t work for me” or “I enjoyed the relationship between the nemesis and the antagonist,” this article might be the resource you’ve been hoping to find. Of course this glossary is not all-inclusive but it should give you a good foundation for you to perform further research.

The second Writer’s Glossary is scheduled for October 2009 and will be about the business of writing and publishing.

Writer's Glossary, Part I

Background Photo: (CC-by-sa).

People in the Story

Narrator: the voice within the work telling the story.

  • Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden Caulfield, The Catcher In the Rye
  • Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Unreliable narrator: a narrator whose credibility is compromised.
    • Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
    • Dr. James Sheppard, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Protagonist: the main character.

  • Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
  • Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
  • Celie, The Color Purple
  • Hero: a protagonist who faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges.
    • Harry Potter, the Harry Potter series
    • Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
  • False protagonist: a character who seems to be the protagonist until he is disposed of and a new protagonist takes over.
    • Bernard Marx, Brave New World (new protagonists: Helmholtz Watson, John)
    • Mary Crane, Psycho (new protagonist: Norman Bates)

Antagonist: a main character (or group) working against the protagonist.

  • Mister, The Color Purple
  • Randall Flag, The Stand
  • Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Villain: a main character who works in opposition to a hero.
    • Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series
    • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
    • Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Nemesis: A character who creates trouble for the protagonist but is not necessarily opposed to his goals.
    • Fagin, Oliver Twist
    • Gollum, The Hobbit, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    • Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series.

Foil: a character whose contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, underscores aspects of the other character’s personality. The characteristics they share are often superficial, such as appearance or a shared history.

  • In Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet in that both men experience the loss of their fathers via murder (Polonius by Hamlet and King Hamlet by Claudius, respectively) but while Hamlet has spent the play deciding what to do to avenge his father, Laertes acts immediately by challenging Hamlet to a duel, underscoring Hamlet’s indecision.

Archetype: a generalization about individuals as created and reflected by the whole of a culture.

  • Father/Mother Figure (Sirius Black/Molly Weasley, The Harry Potter series)
  • Trickster (Peeves the Poltergeist, The Harry Potter series)
  • Mentor (Remus Lupin, The Harry Potter series)

Stereotype: a generalization about a group of people, which varies among cultures often based on prejudice. Common stereotypes tend to be applied to ethnic, racial or economic groups or classes.

Stock character: more narrowly defined than archetypes, stock characters can act as shorthand for an author to introduce a character about whom the reader already has an expectation or knowledge.

  • The hooker with the heart of gold, the ugly duckling or the “redshirt” (i.e. an expendable character who appears only to be eliminated, referring to the red shirts worn by undeveloped Star Trek characters who appeared as part of the crew for away missions during which they would be killed).


Elements of the Story

Narrative: the telling of the events of the story by the narrator; the way in which the narrator communicates the story to the reader

Prose: a free form writing style which uses full sentences and paragraphs, reflective of everyday language.

Voice: the unique way in which a writer uses elements like syntax (word order), character development, plot structure, etc.

Plot: The main sequence of events. (See also.)

  • Subplot:a secondary storyline, usually involving secondary characters
  • Plot hole: a gap in the logic established by the story
  • Plot device: an element introduced in order to move the story forward. Examples include deus ex machina or a MacGuffin.
    • Deus ex machina: literally “God from the machine” – an unexpected event which serves to alter action in the story or solve conflict
    • MacGuffin: an object that is not as important as the motivation of the characters to acquire it. Examples include the Maltese Falcon or the “papers of transit” in the film Casablanca.

Act: a unit of the overall story. There are usually three acts: the first act establishes character, place and scenario, the second introduces and perpetuates conflict and the third includes the climax and dénouement (ending). Acts tend to take up ¼, ½ and ¼ of the story respectively.

Pace: the rate of flow for the action.

Theme: an idea or message conveyed in the work, usually conveyed in an abstract way. Themes may be simple or complex and there may be several minor themes in addition to a main theme in a long work.

Atmosphere: the mood of the story

Symbolism: something in your story used to evoke something else. Symbolism may be cultural/universal or contextual/authorial.

Tone: the feel of the work.

  • serious, humorous, sarcastic, playful, etc.

Cliché: a saying or expression that is so common it lacks substantial meaning.

  • cuts like a knife
  • thick as pea soup

Dialogue/dialog: words spoken by characters; written conversations.

Dialect: speech patterns, determined by factors like region or social class, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

Flashback: shifts the action of the story to a previous point in time and then back to current action.

Foreshadowing: hinting at an event which will come later in the story.

Frame: “surrounds” the main story as a narrative technique that provides context for the story within.

  • Frankenstein
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Turn of the Screw

Metaphor/simile: connects seemingly unrelated objects (simile uses “like” or “as” to accomplish this). Specific metaphor types include:

  • allegory: an extended metaphor that illustrates an important attribute of the subject
  • catachresis: mixed metaphor, one that connects two disparate identifications (ex: While looking for the needle in the haystack, make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater)
  • parable: extended metaphor that teaches a moral lesson

Persona: usually refers to a unifying force throughout a book, linking different situations and narratives and guiding the reader through the work, sometimes subtly suggesting conclusions or opinions the reader should have about characters or situations, in the opinion of the author. The persona is not the same as the narrator.

  • Authors who have used regularly personas include James Joyce (Ulysses) , William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Charles Dickens.

Exposition: Opening narrative used to orient readers in the story.

Rising action: Narrative leading up to the climax.

Crisis: a turning point; a moment of decision; there may be several crises in long works of fiction or drama.

  • Celie standing up to and leaving Mister, The Color Purple
  • Janie shoots Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Climax: The height of action, the ultimate crisis or turning point where several elements combine to create “fireworks” (even though the climax may be a quiet moment with little action).

  • The fight over Daisy, between Tom and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden gives his red hunting hat to Phoebe, The Catcher In The Rye

Falling action: Narrative following the climax, leading to the dénouement.

Dénouement: the resolution of the plot (sometimes called “catastrophe” in tragedy).

Catharsis: purification, cleansing or purging, often symbolic in literature.

  • Brutus’s death in Julius Caesar
  • Gatsby’s body floating in the pool, The Great Gatsby

POV: Point of view. Point of view is either first person (“I” or “we”), second person (narrative voice addresses the reader as “you”) or third person (calls characters by name). Third-person POV may be limited (action shown through one character) or omniscient (action may be shown through any character’s experiences).

  • First person POV: Rebecca; The Great Gatsby
  • Second Person POV: Bright Lights, Big City
  • Third person limited POV: Harry Potter series
  • Third person omniscient POV: The Lord of the Rings

Narrative mode: encompasses POV and includes elements like stream of consciousness or the reliability of the narrator

Sequel/prequel: The events of a sequel fall after the events in a previous work. The events of a prequel come before the events of the previous work.

  • The Silence of the Lambs (sequel to Red Dragon).
  • The Magician’s Nephew (prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, both part of The Chronicles of Narnia).

Info dump: A chunk of information, usually exposition, not integrated into the story, usually superfluous to the action

AYKB: “As you know, Bob…” Implausible dialogue often used to explain something to the reader that the characters already know; an “info dump” disguised as dialogue. Here are some examples from Dracula:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 1

When all was ready, Van Helsing said, “Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would for all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have filled us with horror. The career of this so unhappy dear lady is but just begun. Those children whose blood she sucked are not as yet so much the worse, but if she lives on, Un-Dead, more and more they lose their blood and by her power over them they come to her, and so she draw their blood with that so wicked mouth. But if she die in truth, then all cease. The tiny wounds of the throats disappear, and they go back to their play unknowing ever of what has been. But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 16

Final Poll Results

More than Just the Facts, Ma’am

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

When I was in junior high, I tried to read a book about druids. I really wanted to understand the culture. I was motivated to read. And after the end of the first few pages, I sat back and tried to figure out what I’d learned. I was upset to realize I couldn’t really remember anything at all about what I’d just read. I read the first few pages again, and still came up blank. I tried to read more, but I couldn’t seem to retain any information about the druids, or anything else. I ultimately shoved the book under my bed, and decided that even though I was highly literate when reading fiction, I was completely illiterate when it came to reading non-fiction. I’d had same problems with most of my textbooks. And with other non-fiction I’d tried to read. It was like trying to read in a foreign language I didn’t know.

Things didn’t improve much as I got older. It was a struggle to get through the technical articles I needed to read to get my degree. I avoided non-fiction books like the plague. What was it that made reading non-fiction so hard for me? I wasn’t stupid, I understood the words, and I even understood the facts most of the time, but I just couldn’t seem to understand how things fit together.

Eventually I realized the problem was not so much about my inability to read. I found some non-fiction books I had no trouble with at all. I discovered that the problems I had all stemmed from the presentation.

Background Image: delete08/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

There are two ways to write non-fiction. One way is to list a bunch of facts you want people to know about the topic. This was the way I most encountered. The other way is to turn the facts into an interconnected story. Guess which way led me to understand the material, and which way didn’t.

Non-fiction writers can often benefit from some of the same techniques fiction writers use. Both ultimately have the same goal: to tell a story. Non-fiction writers are just telling a story that has facts for its characters and themes of understanding for its plot lines. The best non-fiction writers craft and build a story as intricate as any classic novel. A science writer can turn the discoveries leading up to the development of a theory into a fascinating mystery story. A historian can make the people and events of an era as exciting as an action-adventure novel. Or they both can write a “Just the facts, Ma’am” book that ends up, at best, as a decent reference guide, and at worst, collecting dust under the bed with the druids.

When is a list of facts more than a list of facts? Consider the following two examples:

From Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life by Thomas J. Schlereth

In many rural, one-room elementary schools, a single teacher taught children from ages six through fourteen. Such schools usually had a rough tripartite division into beginning, intermediate, and advanced work, with reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic stressed in the first phase; geography and nature study in the second phase; and history and grammar included in the advanced phase. During a school day that lasted from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. in the winter months, the students learned the four Rs, reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and recitation. McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were commonly the texts to be memorized and recited. Between 1836 and 1922, approximately 122 million copies of these readers were sold, with the strongest sales being from 1870 to 1890.


What memories surround this little Southern Maryland school house. For over a hundred years it has stood in its shady grove on the grounds of Christ Church in Port Republic, Maryland. Here came the youth of Calvert County to sit at wooden desks, to open red and tan McGuffy Readers, to write on slates and to eat mid-day meals from tin lunch pails. Here during recess games of “Annie Over” and “Bug in the Gully,” they raced shouting over the sun-dappled play ground. Here a single, dedicated teacher taught reading, writing and arithmetic to seven grades of boys and girls in a classroom at times so crowded that the young students had to sit along the edge of the teacher’s platform or cram them selves into the aisles between the desks, their warm bodies supplementing the heat that in winter radiated from the iron chunk stove in the center of the room.

The first example is from an historical overview of the American Victorian era. The second is from the Calvert County website about one of its tourist attractions. Both examples convey what a day in a one-room school house was like. While the first gives you some extra facts, the second gives you both facts and a sense of what those facts meant to people. Notice how the second example uses some fiction techniques—it turns the facts into a story and helps you to see them in a larger context rather than as isolated tidbits of information. The information is shown, not merely told. Admittedly the second example is intended to sell the one-room schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, but you can use the same sort of techniques to sell your ideas to a larger audience.

I bought the Schlereth book cited in the first example as background for a historical story I was thinking about writing. I found the lack of explicit connections between the facts made it impossible to get any feel for American Victorian society, however. I could get no grip on the thought patterns that were behind the statistics and facts he presented. Although the “thinking of the time” was part of the fact list, it was never woven into a story that made sense. Although they may have been accurate, the facts never felt real. (I pulled it out from under the bed when I was looking for examples for this article.)

How can you keep your brilliant research from collecting dust?

Here are a few suggestions on how to make your non-fiction more story-like and compelling:

  • Think of it as being a story.

Tell the story of the topic. Look over the flow of the content in the same way that you would analyze a fiction plot. Have you established the basic ideas before you get into the intricacies of all the details and exceptions to the rule? Are you too bogged down in trivial details? Where you can, show, don’t tell.

  • Identify the main themes.

Think about the major themes behind the facts. What ideas tie things together? If you are writing a text about physics, for example, you might keep bringing up the ideas of matter and energy and how they interact. If you are writing about a war, identify what political and social themes have had a large influence on the fighting.

  • Tie the facts into the themes.

Isolated facts are easily forgotten. If you use your main themes as the thread that weaves throughout your facts, you give people the structure and context they need to understand and remember the facts.

  • Connect, connect, connect.

People who are not experts in a subject aren’t able to make the same immediate connections that the experts make. In fact, there have been studies that show the ability to make many connections is what distinguishes the experts from the novices in subjects like physics. Explicitly help your audience make connections between themes and topics that you take for granted. Help make them experts by helping them to see connections they would otherwise miss.

Final Poll Results