Tag Archives: Kristin Swenson

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Trust the Process

I’m pushing… pushing… pushing through weak writing to create new scenes before revising/perfecting the old. First drafts are always full of bad writing, and it’s oh-so-tempting to revise. But instead, I’ve pasted this message at the top of my Scrivener screen:  You do not yet know this story, so keep writing scenes, keep digging deeper into these characters, keep throwing obstacles in the paths of their desires, and see what transpires…TRUST THE PROCESS.

I have to thank Melanie Crowder for her blog post last month about trusting the process. And a thank-you to Sharon Darrow for telling me to think of adverbs as place-holders. We pepper them all over our first drafts. But later, at revision-time, it’s best to pause at each adverb. Take it out, roll it around, toss it up in the air, scatter it across a garden, and see what sprouts. Sharon didn’t say all of that, exactly, but you get the idea. Adverbs tell a reader what to think. Strong nouns and verbs take readers inside scenes and invite them to think for themselves.

I love revision-time. The blank page is what frightens me. Stalls me out. Chokes me dry. Just this week Kristin Swenson asked me about beginnings… how do I go about beginning a new project? I don’t have a good answer. I agonize over beginnings. Virginia Pye told me that between projects, she watches lots of movies, craving narrative, absorbing stories…

coffee cupI met Melanie and Sharon at VCFA, Kristin and Virginia in Richmond, VA. My writer-friends and acquaintances inspire and encourage me. They hold me accountable. Writing is hard! But at the same time, if I fail to begin a day by writing, I’m irritable. Some people begin with a cup of coffee, but not me. Before coffee, before breakfast, before daylight, I write. I pull on leggings, cozy socks and a sweatshirt, then flick on a space heater and a small desk lamp with a florescent bulb that starts dim and brightens as it warms. I pick up a spiral notebook and a smooth, fast pen, and I write stream-of-consciousness—at least three pages worth, thanks to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” suggestion—a practice I began more than ten years ago when I read her book, The Artist’s Way. I throw away sluggish pens, and when the notebook is full, I throw it away, too, and start a new one. I rarely read my stream-of-consciousness rants. My first writing of the day isn’t about the words on the page so much as it’s about freedom and flow, breathing and release, waking and opening up to possibilities…

No matter how bad the writing, it’s always a good morning when I begin with free writing… Then I sigh, make a cup of coffee, stare at a blank page, thank Anne Lamott for her Bird by Bird advice (shitty first drafts), and remind myself to trust the process…