Monthly Archives: March 2015

Aristotle Shares His 7 Writing Tips

Okay, I have  a confession to make:  Aristotle never compiled a list of rules for creative writing. If you didn’t realize it by now, Aristotle lived in the 4th century BC, which was a significantly long, long time before “first novels” like The Tale of Genji (1010) or Don Quixote (1605) – and I don’t think there’s any debating that it’s impossible for anyone to foretell the rules of the literary art by 1300 years, even a man as brilliant as Aristotle.

. . . Or is it? Is it, really?

In reality, these are Aristotle’s “Seven Golden Rules of Storytelling.” They’re meant to apply to the visual arts of storytelling; in particular, Greek theatre. But as a writer, I’m always translating advice on any art into a context that fits my own; and I discovered that Aristotle’s rules actually translate into surprisingly accurate and well-rounded elements of writing.

1. Plot

Plot means different things depending on who you ask. We could have interesting discussions just looking for the nature of plot. Some say a story is nothing without it. Some (take Stephen King) “distrust” it. But we’re all agreed that it’s a thing, and that all proper fiction has some form of it – and typically, it’s your first step to a story.

The plot is the “what” of a story. If you’re writing, you’re bound to write about something happening; that’s your plot.

2. Character

Now that you have a plot, you need characters to populate it. No writer will tell you different.  Characters are people, and there’s no story without a) a person to tell it (you), and b) people to live in it. There’s simply no getting around this one. And I don’t know about you, but I like it that way.

3. Theme

Why are you writing your story? Why is the story happening? Why are the characters doing what they’re doing? That’s your theme, honey.

This is another place where writers don’t always agree. Some say Yes, every story has a theme, if you don’t have one you’re missing something; some say No, don’t do the thing, that’s gimmick not story. Most writers (and I can include myself here) will tell you something in between: every story has a theme, yes, but every theme doesn’t have a story. If you start with a theme, it will become your gimmick. If you tack on a theme, it will become your gimmick. If you let the theme grow organically in your story in whatever nooks and crannies it chooses, you’re doing something right.

4. Dialogue

Talk is cheap . . . except when it’s not, because it’s one of your most valuable tools as a writer. Verbal communication is thousands of years in the making, please of all the mistakes you may make do not butcher it by making your characters talk like rocks. They can talk like rockers – or aristocrats or scientists or cockneys or rednecks – but please please please remember they have to talk like human beings.

So far so good. Everything obviously applies to writing. We have four elements no story can go without. Now let’s see what else Aristotle has to share . . .

5. Chorus

In the Greek theatre, the chorus was the part where the actors came out to sing and dance, and to perorate on the nature of the play’s moral. It was a kind of commentary, description, or exposition; and I don’t know what kind of grades you got in your elementary school spelling tests, but to me that clearly spells P-R-O-S-E. This is the only place where writing itself intersects with Greek theatre.

Good plot, bad plot, no plot, you can still have a story; good prose, bad prose, but there has to be prose to be a story. (Unless you’re Paul Fournel. But have you ever heard of him? There might be a reason for that. It’s this: You’re not French and you’ll never be as cool as the French.)

So don’t stint here. You have a compelling plot, complex characters, theme, strong dialogue; it all falls apart if you can’t write it down and do a good job of it. You have to write words good.

6. Decor

You’ve seen a stage: it’s a big platform, usually made of wood, with great big curtains and arcane mysteries behind them. But when you watch a performance, you don’t see the stage; you see the library in a British country villa, or the streets of New York, or the Opera Populaire. Thanks to the decor, you don’t see a stage: you see a setting.

Your story needs to happen somewhere. It could be on Main Street in a rural Minnesooota town, or it could be on Mars. It just needs to be somewhere you can get excited about traveling to, so you can be the tour guide to make your reader excited about being there.

7. Spectacle

I’ll tell you what. I’ve given this one some thought, and I’ve interpreted it in my own way; but I’m not entirely sure about this one. What I’d like you to do is learn a little about the spectacle, the opsis in Greek theatre, for yourself. Make your own interpretations, figure out what you think it means for literature, and then come back for my opinion. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

. . . Ready? You want to know how I interpret the opsis? I think it’s just this:

Action!

I hope you don’t feel cheated. But I’m serious; just hear me out. I really think this is the most pivotal of all the seven rules.

The action is what the reader really wants. Whether they’re reading James Patterson or Charles Dickens, readers crave action. It’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction: nonfiction tells about something that happened; fiction shows something happen. Characters have to do something. Plot is what happens; action is the happening. I think Chekhov says it best:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov*

Nonfiction will tell you the moon is shining, and when the moon shines and why. Good fiction will tell you what the moonlight revealed, what the moon meant to the person seeing it shine, what the lovers did in the moonlight, and what they learned in the moonlight.

 

* Supposedly, Chekhov never actually said this. You probably noticed the similarity to a quote credited to Mark Twain. It seems that somebody took Chekhov’s words and rearranged them to sound like Twain’s (supposed) words.

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What do you think? Do Aristotle’s commandments apply to writing? What was your interpretation of the seventh rule?

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5 Things I’ve Been Up To (or, 5 Things Every Writer Should Do)

Dear readers,

I’m back . . . again! I’ve been accidentally on hiatus, trying to avoid the internet, and keeping myself busy with other pursuits (and procrastinating, maybe there was some procrastinating involved). But today I decided it was time to get my rear in gear and get back into blogging (again!).

And in celebration of my return – and I know that you’re celebrating, of course you missed me more than you can say – I’m going to share some of what I did while I was absent, and tell you what a few of the things I did taught me about writing:

Photo Credit: Audringje via Compfight cc  (altered)

Photo Credit: Audringje via Compfight cc (altered)

1. Write a Novel. If you haven’t already, you should. And with NaNoWriMo coming up again next month, there’s no better time to get that great idea down on paper.

That’s what I’ve been working on lately; my fourth novel, and a little on my fifth, and a lot on my sixth, and here and there on my ninth and seventeenth and thirty-eighth. (No, if you’re wondering, I don’t have them planned out quite that accurately. My methods are a little more on-the-fly.) My next novel won’t be about Leo Westmacott and the gang, but they will be back, don’t worry. As for what it is about . . . I’ll keep you posted, but I’m not going to talk about it too much just now, as it’s still got a long way to go before being published. But I’ll tell you this: It’s about a golem, there are a few Judaists involved, and it’s set in Spain.

2. Write with a workshop. It shouldn’t be hard to find one in your area, whether you live in New York City or some podunk town nobody’s ever heard of. (Even if you live in Monowi, Nebraska – which of course you don’t, unless I’m talking to Elsie, in which case I would be honored – or somewhere similar.) And if you can’t find one, you could always start one yourself.

Or, for the antisocial types who want to write from the comfort of their own homes, I would recommend either A, you get some guts because it’s important to be fearless in writing and ready to go out and show the world what you’ve got, or B, find a group online. There are plenty of online writing communites you can get in on, sometimes in the most unexpected places, so don’t be afraid to look around.

Personally, I don’t trust those online workshops that ask for a few hundred dollars in return for a chance to listen to some “author” who’s never even polished a bestseller’s shoes talk about what he thinks makes a good story, so I’d avoid those if I were you. But if you feel differently, there are plenty of those around.

And if nothing else, you could always start up an online community yourself. (Which, I confess, is what happened to me a couple years ago, although it was only part choice and mostly chance.)

For the past few months I’ve been writing another anthology with the Ambage, my informal online writer’s workshop. This anthology our theme is crime fiction, and we’re a couple weeks, maybe another month from publishing. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available.

(By the way, if you think you’re up for an improfessional workshop full of close-knit writers who get together to produce short story anthologies once or twice a year, you’re welcome to join us! We’re always eager for fresh meat – uh, blood – uh, talent.)

3. Try out other forms of storytelling. Poetry, songwriting, screenwriting, playwriting, comic writing – they’re essentially similar to the prose we’re used to, and yet very different in execution, and they all have important lessons to teach us about writing and telling stories. Even entirely different forms of art, like music or painting, are worth exploring.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with a little poetry, playwriting, and songwriting – even some comic strip writing.

4. Read. This is a given. Read, read, read. Always read. Read with every spare moment you have to yourself. It’s relaxing, it’ll make you a smarter, nice, more attractive, generally better person, and it’ll teach you all the essential things you need to know about writing and then some and then some on top of the then-some.

One of the things I finally got around to reading over the winter was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Masterpieces, don’t you think? I can’t believe I waited this long – these books were written for me. (You know what I mean, right? When a book touches you deeply, which is what any good book is written to do, then logically, it was written for you.) I’ve been inspired, so much so that I’ve started turning some old ideas for surrealist, literary nonsense stories into words.

That’s one of the best things about reading. It’ll give you ideas – plenty of ideas.

5. Take up new interests. I can’t emphasize this enough: artists are just people who know how to live and how to express life, and insatiable curiosity and a sense of discovery are essential to living. You never know what you could do that might be fodder for your next story. Skydiving? Bear wrestling? Extreme ironing? Or maybe keep it local – go out to the theatre or take up running or go birdwatching. You never know if you might like something until you’ve tried.

And if you’re the extreme introvert who doesn’t even want to step outside, I have an idea for you, too: STEP OUTSIDE AND SEE WHAT YOU’RE MISSING. But a more sensitive suggestion would be – go researching! Just find a topic you’d like to learn more about and start reading everything you can find on the subject: blogs, wikipedia articles, any material you might happen to have on your bookshelf, and anything you can find at your library (or on your Kindle).

Bonus. Blog! Personally, I sometimes see blogging as a distraction. But let’s face facts: if you’re a writer, what you do is write, and blogging is writing. Maybe it’s not the same kind of writing you’re used to – and that’s why it’s important! It’s just another form of storytelling, and I’ve already told you what I think about challenging yourself to experiment with different forms of storytelling. Blogging also gives you the unique opportunity to have direct communication with your readers, and there’s a lot to learn from that.

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So what have you been up to lately? Do you have any habits that help you keep your writerly mojo fuelled?

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