Monday, October 22, 2012

Storyphobia

A common condition saps the strength of many of the first novels I’ve evaluated: the fear of telling the story.

Granted, a story is a dark house that can be frightening until the author turns on a few lights. Too often, though, she does just that—lights up the conflict, then scoots out into the yard only to view it through windows, from afar. The reader wants to experience the characters stirring ash in the hot center of the conflict.

Let’s say that you have a love story set in the highly competitive world of championship dog shows. Perhaps Don grew up around blue-blood Miniature Pinschers, and despite the health problems associated with their suspected inbreeding, he remains a purist—his great grandfather was a founding member of the American Kennel Club. Alice bred Australian Shepherds—that is until her prizewinner mated with the French Poodle next door, resulting in Fifi, the sweetest Ausiedoodle she ever saw. She is now fighting for the inclusion of half-breeds in the AKA obedience trials. Don adores her feisty spirit but fights his attraction—they are second cousins, and Don can’t let his oft-defended standards slip. 

Here are some of the common storyphobia symptoms I’d find:

General bloatedness
Fifi jumped off the couch and over the object in front of it. The object was brown, solid, three feet tall, rounded on top, had brass hinges on one side and a leather strap handle on the other, and stood on four stubby legs. [The logjam of words dammed your river of thought, robbing your prose of its story purpose: Fifi sprang from the couch and over an object that looked like a trunk on legs. She looked back at Alice, then Don, clearly expecting them both to applaud her trick.]

Vomiting
You’ve learned everything there is to know about dogs—the AKA history, its breed approval process, symptoms of inbreeding, cleaning carpet smells, etc.—and put it all in the first few pages so your reader will understand the world of story. [Which will net you a perfectly wonderful…newspaper article. Each of these areas of research, if dramatized and distributed throughout the novel, would seem less like vomit and more like key nutrients.]

Melodramatica eruptus
Rather than orienting the reader by feeding out story, you withhold it, thinking you’ll spring it on them later—as a surprise. Such as at the climax of the book, when Don and Alice are in bed and one of them exclaims, “But you are my second cousin!” [Whereupon your reader will laugh. If we knew they were cousins from the start, then learned of Don’s predispositions, then felt the attraction burning, we’d think “Oh no! How is a guy like Don going to deal with this?”]

Dementia 
With typecasting by breed, you came up with the perfect humorous metaphor for prejudice in American society, with all you’d need to explore its roots and possible solutions and deepen the taboo-like tension between these lovers—then forgot to make your point. [These people are dog breeders, yes, but you never write scenes at dog shows or at kennel club meetings because it was so much more fun to show them…breeding.] 

Reflux
Your prose repeats on you: Fifi jogged, no—ran, sprinted, galloped!—across the yard. [Just get Fifi across the yard so we can see what will get this story moving! Unless there’s nothing there. In which case we’ll set down the book and watch TV.]

I blame word count enthusiasts for such problems. Once allowed to drift off-track, as can easily happen while trying to apply as many black marks to a page as one can in a day, it can be hard to re-center the story without a thorough re-imagining. Something to think about for those of you about to start NaNoWriMo.

Once diagnosed, storyphobia is easily cured: Find that first moment of conflict and write straight into it until you’ve come up with its essential manifestations. Feel the blood pounding through your veins? That's the pulse of your story. Assign perspectives essential its full exploration to each of your characters. Then drive your characters into that conflict, over and over, never letting them escape into backstory or inane stage direction or a meaningless glut of words. Hold them there until they scream for mercy—and when you won’t bestow it, watch their glorious transformation.

Do that from the start and you can avoid storyphobia altogether.

Then call me in the morning. I’d be glad to edit that kind of project.

Do you recognize any symptoms of Storyphobia in your work? Or do you have more creative symptoms to share? 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her article, "The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing," co-written with Janice Gable Bashman, is in the current Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Sourcebooks. Her essay Memoir of a Book Deal tells the larger story while also serving as a primer on story structures. To follow her writing please "Like" her Facebook Author Page. She follows back most writers on Twitter.


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20 comments :

  1. This is fantastic Kathryn! Posting this on my board next to my PC: Then drive your characters into that conflict, over and over, never letting them escape into backstory or inane stage direction or a meaningless glut of words. Hold them there until they scream for mercy—and when you won’t bestow it, watch their glorious transformation.

    The term Melodramaticus Eruptus sounds suspiciously like Deus_ex_machina (which I am guilty of as you know!)

    Storyphobia: I will think of this term whilst I edit away today and laugh at myself as I am sure I have vomited throughout my dementia (without of course remembering I did so)! The story example you use is a hoot.

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  2. Donna I giggled all the way through your comment. Thanks for your creative twist! I had written this before my inciting incident workshop on Saturday, so all the concepts were fresh in my mind. Judging from your novel A Human Element, I know that your characters scream for mercy quite a bit, so on that point I may have been preaching to the choir...

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  3. I can't help but think that I might have partly inspired this post:) This is really helpful and all so true. Time to dive in and find the pulse of my story. As always, thanks for your insight.

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  4. Kate, worry not, you are in the company of a long string of writers who do the same. So when our BRP theme was "fear" this month, the first fear that came to mind was fear of driving deep into the story. I understand well the fear of filling up all those pages required to amass a novel. It's daunting. But so much easier if you get the storytelling engine cooking by diving deep into the conflict. The impulsion you create will power the rest and those pages will fly by.

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  5. This was such a helpful post, Kathryn. Reading it, I couldn't help but think of one of the first times I had to write a scene where a couple was fighting. This was for the producer in New York that I worked with on several screenplays. I wrote the scene, but,for reasons best left unsaid, I really have a problem with outright fighting, so I really backed off the conflict. I can still hear Stephen say, "Maryann, this is not a fight. Where's the beef?"

    So now I ask myself the same question when I evaluate a scene that I have written, or a client has written.

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  6. That's a great anecdote, Maryann, and an easily recalled question: Where's the beef?

    You are absolutely right that conflicts eventually play out in dialogue, often in the form of a fight. I would like to point out to our other readers, though, that dialogue is one of the first ways writers think of to express conflict—and sometimes, one of the more melodramatic and superficial ways of doing so. (I call that bitch-slapping, lol.)

    If your story comes alive through the conflicting goals of your characters, enough subtext can be created that when push comes to shove, sometimes one simple word can evoke an entire world of tragedy. We may hear all that dialogue as we try to come to the truth of our characters, but it may not all be needed on the page, in the end. (In a novel, of course! Screenplays/plays much different!)

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  7. Excellent advice. And you got right to it!

    j. //

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  8. Haha—well done, Jason. Thanks for noticing. ;)

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  9. I've just completed final edits on my next mystery, and even after I thought it was trimmed (I knew it was long, but my editor said it was working), I could still trim some excess. For me, it tends to be those "extras" and "walk-on" characters that I have way too much fun with. If they're not coming back after they've served their purpose--kill them. Or at least dismember them.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  10. Wow Terry, there's some advice that begs attention—dismemberment! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  11. Nothing like skirting the issue and then leaving the scene to fend for itself. Your humorous approach to a common but serious problem makes the content palatable food for thought.

    Great post, Kathryn! :-)

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  12. Yes Linda, so true. I have to admit I was guilty of this when just starting out. From my literary remove, I wanted my scenes to resonate like glimmering, metaphorical blocks that the reader could stack at their leisure, arriving at just the right conclusion with no further guidance from moi.

    Ha!

    Then I learned to tell a story, and realized upon whose shoulders the true responsibility fell. It's so much easier to tell the story from within the conflict than from watching it at a remove.

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  13. Exactly, Kathryn. And what's the best way to view that conflict within the scene? Through the eyes and ears and heart of the POV character. Show the action. Let all the senses come into play. Then the reader can jump into the fracas along with the characters. Can't get a more powerful scene than that.

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  14. Here's a first chapter excerpt from LJ Sellers next novel. See if you think this gets you into the story, Kathryn:)
    http://ljsellers.com/winners-and-rules-of-crime-excerpt/

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  15. Great post, Kathryn. It is so easy and so common to find yourself doing all of the above while spewing through your first draft. But remember Hemingway's quote, "There are no great writers, only great re-writers."

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  16. Wow, you nailed it, Kathryn. This is the first time I've seen someone deal with this subject and you're so right, it's such a common problem! I'm facebooking it!

    Gaelen
    www.gaelenfoley.com
    www.egfoley.com

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  17. Sure Dani, homework! Haha. I hope to squeeze in a look when I can. If anyone else gets to it first, feel free to comment!

    Heidi: I agree that it's easy. Hopefully this list of symptoms will help some writers self-diagnose!

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  18. Gaelen: Thanks for stopping by, for your kind words, and for the signal boost!

    If anyone wants to see a great book trailer, go to Gaelen's E.G. Foley site and check out the trailer for The Lost Heir!

    (That's right, more homework!)

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  19. Wow, that's a great post. I have to admit I'm a little afraid of my story because it's going to offend a lot of readers if I take it where it's going. And it's going to contradict a lot of what I personally have stood for until now. So I admit to some dancing around.

    As far as word count goes, I'm doing Nano for the first time and really struggling not to edit myself for the sake of word count, but I've taken to graying out the stuff I want to omit when I really just can't help it.

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  20. Thanks, Christine. Your comment reminds me of a debate I had with a choreographer when I was a dance critic. She was trying to expose prejudice and resulting tension between the PA Dutch and growing Hispanic communities in Allentown. In our interview she shared with me some of the preconceived notions of the PA Dutch, which were so provocative I used them in my piece. She was livid—said I had undermined her goal of peace. I saw it differently. If the reader had any sort of conscience, the comments would inspire outrage in a memorable way. What higher goal could socially conscious writing have?

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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