Plot Challenge of the Week

tempest-posterToday I want to wish one of our followers, whom I know personally, a very happy birthday. Wayne, I hope that you have a thoroughly wonderful day! It’s time for a plot challenge, and to be honest, I’m not feeling particularly creative at the moment, so with no further ado: I hope you all enjoy yourselves thoroughly! So here are the rules for today’s challenge:

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.

Beat the Writer’s Block: Try Something New

Writer's block sucks.
Writer’s block sucks.

Writer’s block is a pain in the pen. I’ve been dealing with it for the past 4 months or so, and it’s rather aggravating. Of course, I think much of the block came from the stresses of teaching and grading papers and all that jazz this semester, but now I’m relaxed and on break and have absolutely no excuse. None of my usual techniques are working at this point, and I’m starting to feel somewhat stifled, creatively speaking. So I decided to branch out…and that’s what today’s post is about.

As most of you know, I’m a fiction writer. My work is almost exclusively short story-based, although I have tentatively ventured out into the world of novel writing on occasion. The point is, I write creative fiction and not much else. So my attempt at branching out is a very strange and somewhat terrifying one for me: I’m taking a poetry writing class. I’m not much of a poetry reader, to be quite honest; I love my epic poetry, some Shakespearean sonnets, and any poetry by J. R. R. Tolkien, but that’s about it. It just doesn’t appeal to me. As a result, I have trouble writing poetry. It’s so technical and feels very restricted sometimes, even in free verse. I’ve written a few poems, but they’re not very good and it’s an agonizingly painful process. But I signed up for this class anyway, because why not? Might as well try, since I’m having no luck with fiction at the moment. The class doesn’t start until January, but the professor sent out a massive list of things we have to do prior to the beginning of the course. And strangely enough, the pre-class work is already starting to erode the creative wall I’ve been trying to knock down for months. I’ve had to write some new pieces of poetry in different styles, and practice writing a poem out multiple times by hand, pausing to think about what each line means or could mean. It’s an interesting experience, and it’s forcing me to think in different creative ways than I’m used to. Mind you, my poetry still sucks, but I’m learning, as well as forcing my way past my writing issues. I’ve even gotten some short story ideas from working on this poetry stuff.  And this is even before the class actually starts! I’m excited.

Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever seen.
Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever seen.

Branching out doesn’t necessarily require a medium change. You don’t have to try writing a novel if you’re a poet, although I would recommend it. It’s ridiculously frustrating but quite helpful. Anyway, trying something new in your writing can be much simpler than that. If you write mostly in 3rd person, try writing a short story in 1st or even 2nd person. Worldbuilders, take a break from all that complicated detail, and work on a character piece. Free verse poets can try writing sonnets. I think y’all get the idea. When you hit a creative wall, change your writing up. Try something that you’re not comfortable with or that you just don’t like writing. It may be frustrating, but you will most likely learn things. Such detours should help you reorient your brain and hopefully push you past the writer’s block. And who knows? You may even find that you like the  new element of your writing.

In the Opinion of the Intelligent Readers Club…

Alright, well Cassandra is taking a break for a while, but I have a great sub for her! This is the first of several posts that you’ll be seeing from Canaan Suitt:

Machiavelli’s most famous work, and arguably his most influential. The Prince is one of the few books that I’ve read multiple times. It’s magnificent.

“The Divine Comedy,” said my professor, visibly irritated, “a work which everyone likes to talk about but which no one has read.” He could have substituted the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The City of God, Beowulf, The Prince, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Moby Dick and many other renowned pieces of literature and the same censure would hold true. Just today I had a discussion with a friend who expressed disapproval of Machiavelli’s “wretchedness,” but when I asked him if he had actually read The Prince, he responded that, of course, he had not. Or there was the pompous interlocutor who attempted to discredit Alexander Hamilton’s “big government” stance but had not even glanced at The Federalist Papers to discover what Hamilton actually said (besides, Jay and Madison wrote most of the section on the Senate which my friend was bashing). Anyone who actually reads books can only express dismay at such foolishness.

Some of the classics are wonderful, but honestly I think that some of them are over-rated… Everyone is going to have his/her own tastes in literature, don’t be ashamed of yours.

Perhaps we can forgive my friends’ vanity when we realize that the impression that we must read certain books (the “classics”) to be considered intelligent is inculcated in students throughout their education. For instance, I’ll never forget my high school English teacher who used to harp on the books that were “vitally important” to read before going into college or the condescension I sometimes received and at times gave to others when a certain book hadn’t been read. I was frowned upon for not having read 1984 in my senior year of high school; I frowned upon someone else because they hadn’t read The Screwtape Letters. First of all, this impression in and of itself is skewed. The purpose of reading “classics” is not so one can brag about one’s intelligence. It seems to me that the only valid reason for reading classics or anything else is to gain knowledge and understanding, not to obtain a membership card into the Intelligent Reader Club. But secondly, this impression isn’t even enforced by reading the books, which, it is insisted, must be read. My English teacher failed to enlighten me a great deal. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Milton, and Shakespeare, are met far more frequently, and perhaps exclusively, through textbooks and other secondary sources than through what the actual authors bequeathed to the world. Like my friends in the foregoing examples, some people will feign knowledge of the primary works based on such superficial acquaintance in order to seem knowledgeable. Some people don’t read them (don’t even read the textbooks!) and don’t care, either. In both cases, the ignorance is disturbing.

Modern politics… Sophism at it’s best… or worst, as the case may be.

More generally, many people have the impression that they ought to have an opinion, and so they express it when, in fact, they don’t have one. In America, this is especially true in politics, a fact that has been proven to a superfluous degree this election year. What most people call their political opinions are the parrot-like recapitulations of their preferred pundit. Not only have people not actually read the books that would have greatly assisted them in forming their opinions, they haven’t even thought for themselves. In consequence of this uncritical mindset, peoples’ tempers flare and they become ludicrously defensive when their political opinions are assailed. For instance, I often wondered why voters become as emotionally involved as the actual candidates during an election when their preferred candidate is criticized–and not even with a good criticism! Someone gives an insipid criticism of a Romney gaffe and the Romney supporter goes nuclear with ominous prophecies of the future if Obama is reelected. It seems to me that unthoughtfulness accounts for this phenomenon. People would rather become polemical about sound bites and birth certificates and falsely pride themselves on having an opinion rather than confront real issues as well as the candidates’ stances on those issues and thereby possess an opinion worth verbalizing. I wonder if we are the most insecure people in the history of the world!

Plato’s allegory of the cave is presented in the Republic as an example of his theory of ideal forms. An example with great depth and breadth that has managed to successfully impact cultures from Plato’s own time to today because it strikes at the basis of human nature.

One thing my English instructor did teach me is that I ought to conclude my writings with a rousing plea, a challenge for readers to take up. Unfortunately, I will not meet that guideline here. All I can do is express my wish that more people would read and read deeply. All I can do is express my wish that more people would think and think carefully. In his essay On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to a narrow, uncritical mindset is to read broadly and deeply. He said reading old books help dispel the misconceptions of the current age like a fresh sea breeze. On the other hand, reading current books help dispel the misconceptions of the past and expose the tacitly accepted mindset of the present time. Reading a three-paragraph textbook summary of Plato’s Theory of Ideals, for example, will not reveal what Plato really meant in all his nuance and complexity–only Plato can do that, and he does a far better job of it than Editor et al. That goes for any of the works I listed before and many, many more. We must read carefully and then think deeply and then repeat. That is, we must do this if we really want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged in the world. The opinions which we love to have and express will follow naturally if we do this–and they will be worth hearing!

The Best of Freedomchic Part 1

Well, Cassandra (freedomchic) is leaving us and moving on to better things.  She may be back from time to time with the random post, but she will no longer be a regular contributor to the blog.  I want to express my deepest thanks to her for her contributions, and wish her all the best in her future endeavors! To honor her contributions to the blog I’m going to be reposting some of her best posts over the next few weeks!  So, today: Imagery Through Metaphors – Predator

I’ve talked quite a bit in previous posts about imagery.  This could be because it is one of my favorite literary techniques.  To me imagery, more than any other tool, brings a story to life.  Think of the movie Pleasantville.  You can have a story with an interesting plot, good dialogue, personable characters, etc.  But, without imagery, the story stays in black and white.  Imagery is color – it adds life and vitality.

One of the best ways to add imagery is through metaphors.   While metaphors are common and most commonly associated with poems, they are exceedingly useful in other literary forms.  When writing an expository essay or even a staid research paper, imagery still has a place.   An extended metaphor is especially handy as it keeps the paper on topic.  As you weave a metaphor in and out of a paper, you keep the paper focused and the reader attentive.

Metaphors themselves come in many different forms (don’t expect me to list them all).  Simply put though, there’s the straightforth “She’s a diamond in the rough” to the aforementioned extended metaphor (think Donne’s “No Man is an Island” or Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage”).  Metaphors can be explicit or implicit.  However, the main goal of any metaphor is that, by the end of the metaphor or paper, the metaphor is clear and enhances the point.  One important thing to keep in mind though is that while metaphors should be original (keep away from the cliches as much as possible) they do need to make sense to more than just you.  If in doubt, test it out on a friend, teacher, co-writer, etc.

The following poem uses an extended metaphor with an implicit analogy.  Although the metaphor never comes out and declares itself a specific bird of prey (although the title comes close), throughout the poem, the analogy gets stronger and more developed.

Predator

Depression dips its cold, dark wings
Into the nearby souls of those
Who battle with multiple sorrows and foes
And leave this world and all it brings

Its sinister nature leaves no choice
And once its dark depravity sinks
One merely exists, nevermore to think
It takes away all mind and voice

Its victims, now strangers to all
Who once knew such joy and such life
Have now been replaced by wallowing strife
Which drones out the love and peace which calls

Attached to the mind, one it becomes
With sharpened claws it takes a firm hold
Preying on fears and worries, it leaves one cold
A testament to the darkness from which it comes

This bird of night sneaks in despite
All attempts to thwart its roaming
As greasy and oily it slips through the combing
And gathers newborn speed and height

Once it attacks there is no amending
Its progress is inevitable, an imminent binding
For its talons sink deeper and the poison is spreading
It goes for the kill, to keep the soul from living

Imagery through Metaphors: Predator

I’ve talked quite a bit in previous posts about imagery.  This could be because it is one of my favorite literary techniques.  To me imagery, more than any other tool, brings a story to life.  Think of the movie Pleasantville.  You can have a story with an interesting plot, good dialogue, personable characters, etc.  But, without imagery, the story stays in black and white.  Imagery is color – it adds life and vitality.

One of the best ways to add imagery is through metaphors.   While metaphors are common and most commonly associated with poems, they are exceedingly useful in other literary forms.  When writing an expository essay or even a staid research paper, imagery still has a place.   An extended metaphor is especially handy as it keeps the paper on topic.  As you weave a metaphor in and out of a paper, you keep the paper focused and the reader attentive.

Metaphors themselves come in many different forms (don’t expect me to list them all).  Simply put though, there’s the straightforth “She’s a diamond in the rough” to the aforementioned extended metaphor (think Donne’s “No Man is an Island” or Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage”).  Metaphors can be explicit or implicit.  However, the main goal of any metaphor is that, by the end of the metaphor or paper, the metaphor is clear and enhances the point.  One important thing to keep in mind though is that while metaphors should be original (keep away from the cliches as much as possible) they do need to make sense to more than just you.  If in doubt, test it out on a friend, teacher, co-writer, etc.

The following poem uses an extended metaphor with an implicit analogy.  Although the metaphor never comes out and declares itself a specific bird of prey (although the title comes close), throughout the poem, the analogy gets stronger and more developed.

Predator of the skies

Predator

Depression dips its cold, dark wings
Into the nearby souls of those
Who battle with multiple sorrows and foes
And leave this world and all it brings

Its sinister nature leaves no choice
And once its dark depravity sinks
One merely exists, nevermore to think
It takes away all mind and voice

Its victims, now strangers to all
Who once knew such joy and such life
Have now been replaced by wallowing strife
Which drones out the love and peace which calls

Attached to the mind, one it becomes
With sharpened claws it takes a firm hold
Preying on fears and worries, it leaves one cold
A testament to the darkness from which it comes

This bird of night sneaks in despite
All attempts to thwart its roaming
As greasy and oily it slips through the combing
And gathers newborn speed and height

Once it attacks there is no amending
Its progress is inevitable, an imminent binding
For its talons sink deeper and the poison is spreading
It goes for the kill, to keep the soul from living

The Scene’s the Thing

Professor Gaumer, my Creative Writing teacher. A very interesting man.

“You can have a story without summary in it, but you can’t have a story without scene,” my Creative Writing professor told me during my junior year at college. It’s true, really. I can’t think of a single novel or short story that I’ve read or written that hasn’t utilized the concept of scene. I’ve read and even written some works without summary (it’s hard, but manageable), but it’s impossible to completely leave out scene. Therefore, today we’ll wrap up our discussion of scene and summary by talking about the concept of scene itself: what it is, how it works, and a few tips on when to not use it.

Two weeks ago, we defined scene as taking a short amount of fictional time and expanding it, filling it with details. A scene contains the present action and the dialogue. In writing parlance, summary is the “telling” of what happened, but scene is the showing. This is where you let your readers experience what’s going on in that exact moment in time, storywise. In a scene, you want the readers to be completely immersed in the events, not viewing them as outsiders who aren’t privy to the specifics of it. The scene’s the thing, as Shakespeare might have said if he was composing a play about Creative Writing (hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

One of my literary heroes.

So, characteristics of a scene: since you’re showing the event, this is where you’re going to use dialogue and sensory details to let the reader get involved with what’s going on in this relatively short period of fictional time. If the protagonist spills a cup of coffee on her husband, you’re probably going to give the husband’s verbal response, describe the sight of the dark liquid spreading across his immaculate white shirt, the protagonist’s horror at her clumsiness, etc. Those sorts of details make the scene come alive. We “see” the coffee spilling, “hear” the husband’s response, visualize the liquid staining his shirt, and sympathize with the protagonist’s embarrassment, because most of us have done something similar at some point in our lives. The details are what get the reader involved in the story. They utilize the 5 senses in a way that engages us, connects us to the story. The dialogue gets the story moving, provides character exposition, and allows us to get inside the heads of the dramatis personae. You can’t have sensory details or dialogue in summary; characters don’t speak and the author doesn’t describe things. That’s why scene is so important and necessary to a story and why you can’t have fiction without it. Without scene, all you have is a summary, like a synopsis on the dust jacket of a book or in a critic’s review. No one wants to read that, it’s boring. We want to experience the story, not just be told what happened.

If the plot isn't advanced by what happens on the park bench, summarize it.

Ok, so, what to avoid when using scene: first of all, don’t try to make your entire story consist of a scene, unless that story takes place over the space of a few minutes, no more than an hour (and even that is stretching it). It’s almost impossible to use scene in a story covering a long period of time, because it wearies the reader and bogs down the story. Using scene that way means you have to give details of every single event that happens in the entire time frame of the story, and we don’t want to read that. We don’t need to know everything Jake sees while sitting on the bench in the park for 3 hours. If nothing relevant to the plot happens in those 3 hours, summarize it. Even if a particularly witty piece of dialogue happens that you’re very fond of, cut it if it doesn’t move the plot along. Scene is great, but too much of it all at once makes a reader tired. On the other hand, don’t under use scene. It’s a very powerful tool, and yes, excess of it drags a story down, but it’s vital to the life of your writing. I’ve seen several aspiring writers try to avoid detail and dialogue in their works, so they sprinkle it very lightly in the story. It doesn’t work! It just gives the reader a taste of what’s going on in the story, and never really lets them connect to it. You WANT them to be involved, you want them to experience the story for themselves, especially during important revelations or turning points. Let the reader hear, see, taste, feel, and smell what’s happening. Otherwise, you’re cheating them out of what they’ve been waiting for and what they want in the story. Show, don’t tell.

Well, that wraps up this series on scene and summary. Hopefully it’s been of help to you in your writing. These two tools are very useful for any aspiring writer, so I hope you’ve learned how to use them in a way that will enhance your work, not drag it down. Scene and summary are vitally important….use wisely. Happy writing!

Poems to Share: Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Why do we always chase the things that hurt us?

Don’t tell anyone, but I must admit that I am a romantic at heart.  Well – I can be.  That heart has taken quite a beating over the years, and so all of my romance tends to be buried pretty deep these days, lest another girl – and my use of the miniscule is pejorative – come and trample it once more.  That being said, I am fond of love poems.  Whether they compare a woman’s hair to the sun, or her eyes to the moon and the depths of the sea; whether they compare a blush to sweet smelling roses, or wax philosophical in poetic verse about the nature of romance; poems of romance manage to tug at my heart strings.  So, in a rare moment of vulnerability – that I have no doubt I will regret when this actually appears on the blog – I want to share with you three of my favorite sonnets from Shakespeare.  One of love true, one of loving satire, and one more cognitively disposed.

Sonnet 118 – Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 130 – My Mistresses Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Sonnet 116 – Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.