Tag Archives: Storytelling

Writing Backstory Through Dialogue

Backstory is one of the trickier elements of writing. We have to take our readers back in time to let them know some of the past, but how do we do it without interrupting the flow of the story? Jerry Jenkins is here today to discuss one of the more organic methods for including character backstory without grinding the action to a halt.

What are we to do now that the flashback has fallen into disfavor with today’s readers? Apparently they no longer have the patience for a sudden stop in the story so we can show how our character got where she is today.

Used to be you could invent something to remind her of her childhood or her relationship with her father or the first time she fell in love. Then you’d have her daydream or zone out and remember everything about some poignant incident from years past.

Well, I agree that got to be a clichè—always followed by someone somehow jarring her back to the present.

Regardless, we’re writing for people who get most of their information from screens, so what do we do?

Tell Your Story in Order

Gone is the luxury of taking the character (and the reader) back and rendering the old incident the way it happened. Readers want to read chronologically, and they don’t like the story put on hold to accommodate a flashback.

But we can’t ignore the past without throwing character motivation out with the bathwater. Our characters are who they are and do what they do because of who they once were and what happened to them then.

So what’s the solution?

Good news! You can include your character’s backstory without interrupting the flow of your story.

Backstory is the new solution, and I have to admit it’s better. It doesn’t slow the story, doesn’t force us to artificially create for our heroes a block of time during which they relive some powerful past experience.

What is Backstory?

Don’t mistake it for an abbreviated form of flashback. In its simplest form, backstory is everything that’s happened to your character before your novel opens. In essence you’re writing backstory when you identify a middle-aged man as “General so-and-so,” or a young woman as “Dr. so-and-so.”

Such people weren’t born with those titles and the roles they imply, so immediately readers realize these characters have pasts—and they can even imagine what they were like.

Does your character have a scar? That implies backstory. A limp? It will emerge whether it was congenital or the result of an injury or disease, but regardless, that’s backstory.

How to Write Backstory Through Dialogue

Flashbacks are obvious. They scream, “We’re headed into the past!” But backstory sneaks up on you. Use it over a flashback to avoid breaking the flow of your story. I’ve found the best way to manage this is through dialogue.

Backstory example (at an amusement park):

“You’re not getting me on that ride, Madison,” Suzie said, “Don’t even—”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Still having those dreams?”

Suzie looked away. “Not so much anymore, but once in a while.”

“You’d think after all these years…”

“I’d still rather not talk about it, okay?”

“Sure, sorry.”

See all we’ve learned from that otherwise innocuous exchange? Something years ago still causes nightmares. Naturally, we’ll eventually have to pay off on that set-up, and that’s what keeps readers turning pages.

Whatever the trauma was, you can hint at it like this more and more throughout the story, revealing more each time. Eventually something or someone from her past will show up and force the issue—and the whole story will come out.

But you see the difference? It’ll be onstage now, be recounted and explained now. Sure, it happened years ago, but it emerges as part of the current story. That’s subtly using backstory without resorting to flashback.

One More…

One of the best uses of backstory I’ve seen is from the 2016 movie The Magnificent Seven.

Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter and leader of the titular seven. Ethan Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux, a sharpshooter.

They’re strategizing to protect a town and avenge a woman who saw her husband shot to death. Robicheaux nods toward the woman and says to Chisolm, “She’d be about the same age as your sister, wouldn’t she?”

“Uh-huh.”

Robicheaux says, “Just want to make sure we’re fighting the battle in front of us instead of the battle behind us.”

That’s it. That’s the backstory. We don’t know what it means, but we know we’re going to find out. They’re not going to set up something like that and not tell us what happened. We’re going to find that our hero, Sam Chisolm, was once a victim.

Is he really out to protect somebody out of a sense of honor, or is he out for personal revenge? That’s the perfect example.

Tell me in the comments below how you’ll use backstory in your work in progress. And feel free to share a favorite example of backstory you’ve heard or read.

By Jerry B. Jenkins

Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Making a Living as a Life Story Writer

A business card left at a coffee shop that garners a $50,000+ writing gig. Same card, different coffee shop, that results in a feature story in a local publication.

No, it’s not the card that’s magic, but the profession it advertises: life story writer. Those were only two of the many strokes of good luck I’ve had since I started my career as a life story and family history writer nearly ten years ago. The genre, also known as personal history, serves a population of mostly older adults eager to preserve their stories without having to do the writing themselves. The books are intended for family and friends, not the wider public, so there’s no need for queries, book proposals, agents, or publishers—just a client willing to invest the time and money to record their cherished memories

Here’s how it works: I sit down with a client for a series of interviews in which we talk about their growing-up years, their parents and siblings and relatives, their first loves, their war experiences, their careers, their challenges and joys, their reflections on what it all means—in other words, anything they feel moved to talk about. In between interviews, I’m at my desk, shaping our transcripts into a compelling narrative that will, if I’m doing my job right, give future generations a glimpse of family members they may or may not have ever met.

This kind of writing does more than reveal the character of the narrator; it also brings to life long-ago eras. Think about it: The fifty years or so that separates the generation of grandparents from their grandchildren means that they will each spend the bulk of their life in two vastly different worlds—even if they live in the same town. It’s the difference between a horse-drawn plow and an air-conditioned combine, between a one-room schoolhouse and a middle school with a thousand kids, between an outhouse and a heated toilet seat. The world is changing fast; people who hire me want their descendants to know what the world used to look like.

Why has it been so easy to find clients and publicity? Two reasons. The first is a swell in interest in life stories. With genealogy the second most searched topic on the internet (I’ll leave you to imagine the first), with DNA kits topping the list of holiday gifts and shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” topping the charts, it’s clear that people are curious about their roots. And because we’re storytelling creatures, it’s only natural that the focus should swing from data—birthdates, death dates, cemetery plot numbers—to what we really love: the stories that bring it all to life.

And the second reason I’ve been able to make a living as a life story writer? Supply and demand. There may be loads of clients wanting to hire someone to write their story, but there aren’t loads of writers to do so. I’m guessing that’s because most writers have never heard of this niche. What a shame. Not only is it a way to earn your keep by writing, but it allows you to connect with people on a level we seldom reach with any but our closest friends. All while helping to create something your clients will love.

By Amy Woods Butler

Source: fundsforwriters.com

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Writing Scary Stories & Horror for Kids: 4 Lessons from Goosebumps Author R.L. Stine

There is a fine line between scary and funny when it comes to clowns, ventriloquist dummies and other creepy ghouls, but author R.L. Stine heads straight for the dark side. For more than 25 years, Stine has been writing horror for kids around the world with his Goosebumps series, which has sold over 350 million copies in 32 languages.

From the age of nine, Stine knew he wanted to be a writer. Initially, he dreamed of writing humor—not horror—on the old typewriter he found in his attic. While attending Ohio State, he became editor for a humor magazine at the college for three years. When he moved to New York, he fulfilled his dream to write full-time by writing fake celebrity interviews for a fan magazine where he learned to write fast and use his imagination. Soon after he landed a job at Scholastic where he shifted gears to write for younger audiences. For sixteen years he worked as the editor for the kids’ humor magazine, Bananas.

 

 

Stine’s big genre change happened when a friend of his at Scholastic asked him if he ever thought about writing horror for young adults. He hadn’t. She suggested he write a book for this audience with the title Blind Date. Four months later, the book became a bestseller. More books followed, along with a new series, Fear Street. He found some success with this audience, but when it was suggested that he write horror for kids—younger kids, ages 7-12—Goosebumps was born.

The first few books in the series were published without much hype or marketing power behind them. Sales remained flat for 3–4 months before word of mouth kicked in. Stine called it the secret kids’ network. Kids started talking about the books with their friends, sales shot up, and the rest is history. He continues to write and publish for this series, putting out new books each year.

Here are some quotes from Stine along with thoughts and insights in writing horror for young readers as well as writing in general.

“When I write, I try to think back to what I was afraid of or what was scary to me and try to put those feelings into books.” 

Stine grew up a fearful child. He draws on his memories of what scared him to create the stories for Goosebumps. Think back to your childhood. What scared you? Dig deep into the depths of your imagination to find those moments and remember the emotions and feelings associated with those situations and bring them into your writing. 

“My thinking is that these books are entertainment. I’m very careful to keep reality out of it. The real world is much scarier than these books. So, I don’t do divorce, even. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do child abuse. I don’t do all the really serious things that would interfere with the entertainment.”

Adults and kids read horror books for the adrenaline and emotional rush that comes from being scared. When writing for young readers, Stine’s one rule is that it can’t be too realistic. It’s important to him that his readers know his stories are fantasy and can’t really happen. If you are writing scary stories for children, spend time in your creative mind and develop situations and storylines where you take your reader to dark and frightening places, but nothing too close home. Because as Stine says, real life is scary enough. 

“It’s my job, too, to keep up with pop culture and what the kids are into because I don’t want to sound like an old man trying to write for kids. I spend a lot of my time spying on them.” 

Successful children’s authors understand that their young readers are smart. Kids want to read books where the author understands their world and the issues they face. Technology and social media along make life for young people today very different than it was for previous generations. As a writer it is up to you to keep up with current culture and write stories that resonate and connect with kids today. 

“If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block.”

Stine is a prolific writer with hundreds of published books. He has a system that works for him and allows him to put out 4 to 6 new books each year. He is a plotter who creates a complete chapter-by-chapter outline of each book. When it comes time to write the book, he’s already done the important thinking and knows everything that is going to happen. This allows him to relax and enjoy the writing. As writers, we all have our own styles and systems and approaches to the writing process. To be successful and achieve the goals you have set out for yourself, it is essential that you find what works for you. If you consistently miss the mark or your productivity is not what you want it to be, then you should examine how you approach your writing life. Maybe it is time to switch from being a “Panster” to being more of a planner like Stine.

By Kerrie Flanagan
Source: writersdigest.com

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How to end a novel: Writing strong story endings

Knowing how to end a novel is an essential skill for fiction writers. Story endings often stay with us as readers – especially when they’re satisfying, haunting, clever or profound. Here are 7 ways to end a novel. May they inspire you to find the best closing for your story:

1. Leave readers guessing: The open-ended story

2. Bring readers full circle: Ending where you began

3. Pull the rug from beneath their feet: Shocking twist endings

4. Create feel-good lingering: ‘Happily ever after’ endings

5. Build in ‘what next?’ – Cliffhanger endings

6. Create complex resolutions: Combining ending types

7. Avoid cliched and unsatisfying story endings: Ending ‘don’ts’

Let’s explore each of these story ending types in greater detail:

1. Leave readers guessing: The open-ended story

Leaving your story open-ended is an interesting but risky approach. Open-ended closing chapters may work in a literary novel. Yet in a genre romance novel, readers typically expect that lovers will be united.

What makes an open-ended story satisfying? It allows the reader to imagine, to fill in the blanks. Without a guide for how we should interpret the final scenes, we’re free to decide for ourselves what they mean.

An example of an open ending: An anti-hero killer ends up relocating and going incognito. This ending was used by the writer’s of the Showtime TV adaptation of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series. Not giving a final conflict or confrontation leaves room for future installments.

J.K. Rowling took a similar approach in the final book of her Harry Potter series. (Rowling however also advanced the timeline several years, with her characters shown as grown adults in her epilogue. This was interpreted as a way for the author to convince her devoted readers there would be no more stories involving her characters’ teenage years.)

Even though this type of story ending leaves some room for imagination and interpretation, make sure that you:

  1. Resolve secondary conflicts and arcs so that there is at least some sense of resolution. For example, even if a primary villain lives to fight another day, perhaps their henchmen get their just desserts.
  2. Don’t mistake an open ending for letting the story peter out – even if there is no decisive conclusion, maintain tension to the end.
  3. Know your reason for leaving your story open-ended. Perhaps you want to convey a specific message (in the case of the example above, it could be that sometimes ‘bad’ people get away with bad deeds).

Another type of story ending is the ‘full circle’ closing. Here, everything returns to how it all began:

2. Bring readers full circle: Ending where you began

If you prefer a stronger sense of an ending, the ‘full circle’ story ending can be highly satisfying. This is a particularly effective way to end a book if your story began with a mysterious, unresolved situation. [Brainstorm the starting and ending scenarios for your story using Now Novel’s step-by-step process.]

Example of a ‘full circle’ story ending

David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas is an excellent example of this type of novel ending.

In his sci-fi adventure novel, Mitchell hops between eras and locations from section to section. Each section ends on a cliffhanger or with an unknown unexplained. The author resolves each story arc in reverse order from the middle. This creates a sort of mirror structure around the central post-apocalyptic section.

Cloud Atlas ends with the resolution of the first interrupted story arc. We learn the fate of a character taken ill aboard a ship, and a shocking twist about a primary relationship for the character. Mitchell thus returns us to the first set of characters, and the novel’s first time setting and style (the first and last sections are written as journal entries at sea). This mirror or cyclical structure gives Mitchell’s novel a particularly satisfying sense of completion.

Shocking story endings that surprise us with a major twist are also effective:

3. Pull the rug from beneath their feet: Shocking twist endings

The plot twist is a typical ending for the short story. Famous short fiction authors such as O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe mastered the ‘twist in the tale’ ending. Yet this can also be a satisfying ending to a longer work of fiction. Masters of the surprise ending include the authors Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan.

Alec Worley, in his post ‘The 5 types of twist ending’, lists the following types of story twists:

How to end a novel with a reversal: the 5 types

  1. Identity reversal: In which ‘someone turns out to be someone else’. A character is not who we (or other characters) thought they were. This is a common ending type when there is an unreliable narrator.
  2. Motive reversal: In which the reader assumes a character is acting out of the desire for x when what they really want turns out to be y. For example, we think a character seeks a lover because they’re romantic, but they turn out to be controlling and power-seeking.
  3. Perception reversal: In this type of story ending, the protagonist realizes their world or their understanding of it is out of step with reality. This is a common ending type in Poe’s dark, Gothic stories.
  4. Fortune reversal: Here a character is brought low or elevated to new highs by a stroke of luck or unforeseen circumstances. Dickens’ Great Expectations is an example. The character Pip inherits a fortune from a mystery benefactor, who turns out not to be the person he thought.
  5. Fulfillment reversal: A character reaches the goal of their primary motivation. But another character’s actions undo their hard work.

An ending doesn’t have to be shocking or surprising. Yet surprising reversal endings give readers the uncanny feeling of having been duped. This sense of surprise can make your climax more dynamic and exciting.

Story endings - quote by Stephen King | Now Novel

4. Create feel-good lingering: ‘Happily ever after’ endings

A twist ending, especially a shocking, discomforting one, carries the risk of angering readers who were looking forward to an expected resolution. Sometimes you’ll simply want to give readers what they expect and desire of a novel in your genre.

A tidy wrap-up can be comforting and reassuring – it’s why most childhood tales end with ‘happily ever after’ (or simply the reassuring finality of ‘the end’).

Even if a tidy ending feels a little too predictable, there are ways to make the wrap-up more interesting:

5. Build in ‘What if?’ – Cliffhanger endings

If you want to explore your fictional world further over a series of books, cliffhangers are effective story endings.

Think of how screenwriters handle plot arcs in thriller TV series. While each major plot arc of each season is mostly resolved, there is something left over that leaves viewers hankering for the next season to start. The bodyguard’s ward may be killed and they fail in their main task, but they (and us) still need further answers. Who was the culprit? What was their motivation?

Think of each book in your series as a season. Building the ‘what next?’ into your closing chapter will keep readers on the lookout for your next installment. It also helps to stop your resolution from feeling too tidy and convenient.

6. Create complex resolutions: Combining ending types

There’s no reason why you should have to stick to just one of the story ending types listed above.

There’s no single correct answer for how to end a novel. A simple return to the beginning can be effective, but the way David Mitchell returns to the beginning in Cloud Atlas with new information is both complex and satisfying. It’s a combination of a ‘full circle’ ending and a final twist.

Explore ways you can combine different types of ending to provide some surprise and some satisfaction.

Writing story endings - John Irving quote | Now Novel

7. Avoid cliched and unsatisfying story endings: Ending ‘don’ts’

Some story endings feel hollow and unsatisfying. Here are novel endings to avoid in your writing:

  1. The deus ex machina

    A deus ex machina describes when an unlikely story event provides a quick, all-too-convenient resolution. It usually feels contrived. The term is derived from the ancient Greek for ‘God from the machine’. In the Greek theatre, actors playing Gods would be lowered onto the stage on a rope via a crane-like contraption, usually to resolve primary conflicts. Try to avoid lowering in convenient Gods near the end of your story on obvious rope.

  2. The abrupt ending

    The end of a novel serves multiple important functions: It resolves major questions raised by preceding plot events (or purposefully leaves some unanswered). It clarifies and rounds off important ideas or themes (reinforces the ‘point’ of the novel). It also shapes the lingering impression readers will have of your story as a whole.

    Avoid moving your story to an end without sufficient build-up and release. The best story endings weave together all the different threads that have been laid out before the reader. It’s often subtler to do this over several ending scenes or chapters. This is often smoother than hurriedly tying all your characters’ arcs up in a clumsy knot. This being said, there are no ‘rules’. Bret Easton Ellis ends The Rules of Attraction mid-sentence. However you choose to end your story, know your reasons.

Source: nownovel.com

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4 Easy Edits That Make Your Story Flow Better

As a copy editor, I’ve learned a lot about improving the flow of my own writing as I’ve tweaked the manuscripts of others. Today I want to share five easy edits you can make yourself that invite the reader deeper into the story and provide the impact you want to have.

1. Eliminate crutch words.

Crutch words are words we lean on too much in our writing — used when unnecessary, repeated too often, diluting the point. Like many definitions, it’s easier to understand when you see examples. Here are a few: just, so, definitely, really, very, suddenly, and (at the beginning of sentences), smiled, shrugged, knew, saw, heard.

Adverbs are most often the culprits, but you might wonder what’s bad about knew, saw, and heard. Nothing is wrong with any of these words used well, but we tend to misuse or overuse them. It’s a crutch when you write, “I knew I was going to be in trouble,” when “I was going to be in trouble” is the same thing and a deeper point of view (POV) anyway. The same is true with saw and heard. If a POV character says a bell tolled, we know they heard it.

Bonus thought: Curse words can easily become crutch words too. Make sure you treat each like you would other words; that is, imagine substituting another common word in its place. If it feels overly repetitive, you have too many instances of that curse word — it’s become a crutch and can interrupt the flow of the read.

2. Finish strong with sentences and paragraphs.

Way back when I was in college, I learned about the recency effect. Psychologists have shown that we remember what we heard or write mostly recently better than what’s in the beginning and especially the middle. For this reason, deleting or moving around a few words in a sentence can make a real difference in the impact they have on a reader.

Let’s take a quick example. Which do you think would have the recency effect a writer desires?

“No one seemed to know if the spell had any real power in it.”

“No one seemed to know if the spell had any real power.”

“In it” doesn’t finish strong the way “power” does. Ditching those two words can give the sentence the impact it deserves. Here’s another example, with moving words around:

“As I stared at the knife raised above my heart, regret was my strongest emotion.”

“As I stared at the knife raised above my heart, my strongest emotion was regret.”

The second clearly lets the word regret linger in the reader’s mind. Look for places where removing a few words or moving them around draws attention to the words you want to echo in the reader’s mind.

3. Substitute action or description for he said/she said.

“I loved him like a brother,” she said. She placed a rose on his grave and wiped away a tear.

Why is she said included? A dialogue is needed to tell us who’s talking, but in this case, the next sentence gives that information. The action fills in that information, so that she said can get nixed and nothing’s lost:

“I loved him like a brother.” She placed a rose on his grave and wiped away a tear.

Sometimes you’ll have a double-hit like the example above, but other times a writer has missed an opportunity to give more information about a character by using he said/she said instead of describing their body language, vocal tone, actions, or appearance. Just compare the strength of these two options:

“I loved him too,” he said. “Or I did until he backstabbed me.”

“I loved him too.” He clutched his rose tight to his chest, crushing its petals with his grip. “Or I did until he backstabbed me.”

Door number two, anyone? Simply run a manuscript-wide search for those he said/she saids and see if you want to make any deletions or substitutions.

4. Break up some paragraphs.

When I edit my own books, one run-through always involves putting the book on my e-reader so that I can see it the way a reader would. The prose appears very different in this format than on a computer screen, and it’s easier to see large, clunky paragraphs that need to be broken up.

Your book needs white space — that is, areas without text — to prevent the reader from being overwhelmed with the busyness of the page. Without sufficient white space, reading a book can feel like searching for Waldo; your brain gets overwhelmed.

What’s the right size for paragraphs? It depends. What genre do you write? Historical will have longer paragraphs than thrillers. What’s happening on the page? Description tends to have longer paragraphs than dialogue. Who’s talking? An erudite POV character will have longer chunks of thought than a street thug. So you have to make that call.

Regardless, make sure no page is so overwhelmed with text that it’s difficult for the reader’s eyes to focus.

With so much of writing a book being hard, it’s nice to learn about some easy ideas for improving the flow of your story. These four easy fixes can help you achieve the impact you want to have on the reader.

By Julie Glover
Source: writersinthestormblog.com

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Small Moments Make Your Story Big

“A big story is about a small moment.” ~Matthew Dicks

Think about that for a moment (not a small one).

Every book you have ever read is about a small moment—an epiphany when a character realizes an emotional truth with complete clarity.

Let me provide examples:

THE MONSTORE is not just about a store that sells monsters. It’s about a brother and sister who learn to appreciate one another and cooperate.

 

7 ATE 9 is about number 9 realizing his worth.

 

LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD is about not judging someone before you get to know them.

 

Before I read Matthew Dicks’ STORYWORTHY, I used to phrase this “small moment” concept differently. I would explain that a story, especially a picture book, required an emotional core. Now I realize that is an amorphous blob of a statement.

In other words, not very helpful.

Likewise, if I told you my manuscript was about siblings who learn to get along, that doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Sounds preachy and boring—been there, done that.

However, frame that sibling story in a shop of misbehaving monsters and suddenly it’s a must-read.

Small moments. They are what make your story BIG.

You may ask, do I set out writing about small moments? NEVER. I begin with an appealing, kid-friendly premise about dolphins or aliens or robots or puppies. If I am doing my job correctly, my main dolphin is not going to be the same dolphin by the end of the story. That dolphin has changed. Not from a bottlenose to a pantropical spotted, but from a mean dolphin to a nice one. Or one who doesn’t believe in narwhals to one who does. That small moment of emotional transformation is what makes the journey through the waves (and the story) meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just splashing in the ocean.

Your small moment appears with the story’s organic evolution. Often, if you begin with a small moment you end up sounding like a big know-it-all. Why? Because you can unknowingly force that theme into being. Never do I write in THE MONSTORE, “Zach and Gracie learned to appreciate one another and cooperate.” SNOOZEFEST. Instead, they open another Monstore together. That’s a lot more fun, and the small moment of transformation shines through.

While STORYWORTHY by Matthew Dicks is about crafting personal storytelling narratives, it contains nuggets of writing gold applicable to picture books. I had a small moment myself when I read about small moments.

So examine your manuscript. Does it contain a small moment? If you hear from an editor that your story requires another layer, that emotional epiphany could be the big answer.

Source: taralazar.com

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How Story Affects Us

Continuing in our four post series on the foundation for harnessing your readers’ psychology, today we’re exploring how story affects us. We’ve already explored where story is (essentially, everywhere), and why we love it so much (because it serves a very useful function!), and now we’re going to discover exactly how deeply it’s been wired into our grey matter.

Genes are the building blocks of our DNA. They mutate and blend, creating an myriad of possibilities for survival of the fittest to select from. Each gene is a blueprint for a particular characteristic, and if that particular characteristic helps us survive, it receives a tick of evolutionary approval and is spread throughout the population. Evolution thought opposable thumbs were pretty cool, language was pretty useful, and that being drawn to story was pretty important.

Evolution thought the benefits of narratives were so important that it actually wired us for story. In fact, it thought it was so important that it deeply embedded it into our grey matter in two significant ways. The first is in the chemical communications that happen in our head. Namely dopamine, the little molecule involved in pleasure and reward. Cheesecake, coitus and cocaine all trigger the release of dopamine in our brain.

And so does devouring a good book.

In the case of reading, dopamine is your brain’s way of rewarding curiosity, so you can learn the hard-won lessons the character is enduring (in the safety of the library or your bedroom). Interestingly, the more dopamine is released, the more of a high we get, the more we want to keep doing what we’re doing. Most importantly, if the brain anticipates doing that activity again, like reading, it will release dopamine accordingly.

Think about it, we’ve all been there when our favourite author releases a new book. When that book finally rests in your palms, that happy, heady feeling has you diving into the first page no matter where you are. It’s the brain’s way of encouraging you to go for it because it felt so good last time.

The second has us probing right down at a cellular level. Neurons are the spindly, spidery cells that make up our brain matter. They’re the little suckers that zip information and messages all around our brain and body. A relatively recent discovery was that of mirror neurons, cells that fire both when you do something but also when you see someone else doing it. Oh, like hear a story, watch a movie…or read a book! Mirror neurons are why we get just as excited watching sport as playing it, why we scrunch up in our seats and turn our eyes away from a horror film.

Or why we have a physical, visceral response to a great book. One study scanned participants brains whilst they watched scenes from Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) showed was that viewers’ brains ‘caught’ whatever emotions were being acted out on the screen. When Eastwood was angry, the viewers brain was angry. When the scene was sad, the viewers brain was sad, too.

In a similar study, a team of neuroscientists popped some research subjects in a fMRI scanner while they played a short clip of an actor drinking from a cup and then grimacing in disgust. They also scanned subjects while researchers read a short story, asking participants to imagine walking down the street, accidentally bumping into a retching drunk, and catching some of the vomit in their own mouths (anyone else have an instinctive, visceral reaction to that?!? Actually, that’s our very own mirror neurons working right now!). Finally, the scientists scanned the subjects’ brains while they actually tasted disgusting solutions.

In all three cases, the region of the brain associated with disgust (the anterior insula, in case you were wondering) lit up. It’s fascinating to appreciate that whether we see a movie or read a story, the same thing happens—we activate the sensation of disgust. This is exactly why reading a book can make us feel as if we are literally experiencing what the characters are going through.

Pretty cool, huh?

What’s more, in addition to the evidence that the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, science has also discovered it treats social interactions among fictional characters as real-life. A review of 86 fMRI studies by psychologist Raymond Mar concluded that there is substantial overlap in brain networks used to understand stories and those used to navigate interactions with other individuals. What’s more, this is particularly evident in interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.

Actually, it’s not surprising that reading fiction can improve a reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. But what’s really cool for us lovers of the written word is that recent research has discovered that people who read score higher in empathy and understanding others. Readers who frequently read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathise with them and see the world from their perspective. Yes, it literally makes you a better person! And when empathy is linked to prosocial behaviour and health benefits for the individual, it seems everyone wins when you pick up a book.

Are you noticing the overlap of this information with the earlier chapter on why we’re drawn to story? These studies of the ‘brain on fiction’ are consistent with the theory that story functions as a virtual reality, a place for us to safely learn so we can improve our ability to deal with real-life problems, but more specifically, the complexities of social life.

Straddling the unique position of both reader and writer, authors already appreciate that story offers a unique opportunity to engage this capacity—it’s a space where we can identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and vicariously experience encounters with friends and lovers, competitors and enemies. As a reader we’ve felt the heady sensation of immersion, and as a writer we try to capture it.

For you as a writer, this neuro-soup of cells and chemicals is one you want to tap into. When a reader is experiencing that rush of dopamine, they will keep reading. When they are experiencing your story world as if it were their own, they will keep reading. Building on what we’ve learned, there’s one big thing you have into include in your story, and that’s what we’re going to explore next.

By Tamar Sloan
Source: psychwriter.com.au

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Do characters work personalities shape a story?

How important is a character’s work situation when it comes to shaping an overall impression of a character.

Looking at four basic work situations where the job is an ordinary job in that it can be recognized as a normal occupation. Piloting a space ship would be considered a normal job, as it’s just another kind of vehicle that can be driven. Growing a garden in burnt out soil after a war, everything is knocked back to basics, where getting mixed results would be considered normal.

1) The job is performed in an ordinary way under normal circumstances yielding normal results.
This probably wouldn’t create an impression about the character.
2) The job is a situation dealing with ordinary or unusual situations yielding hapless results.
Might make the character appear less than desirable.
3) The job is dealing with unusual situations yielding as best as can be expected results for the circumstances, including failure.
Generates some respect for the character even if things don’t work out.
4) The job is dealing with ordinary or unusual situations constantly yielding spectacular results.
Creates a competent gets the job done type of character, one that people would appreciate reading about.

If the majority of character’s jobs in a story were sticking to one of the four types listed, how much of a driver would that be for a story. I could see option #4 setting up an action packed adventure story. Option #1 would be just a passive background, more informational about a life style rather than a working part of the plot. Option #2 might drive a comedy or a tragedy. Option #3, being less predictable creates a background for the overall story, perhaps contributes more to the style of writing.

Source: sffchronicles.com

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Story in the Human Psyche

After my brief hiatus (life got busy and I got overwhelmed), I’m back and excited to bring you a series of posts that will be part of a book I’m writing. Harness Your Reader’s Psychology is going to all about understanding what draws readers to your story, what fires their psychology, and how we can harness that.

The first part of the book will focus on why readers read. Four chapters will explore where story can be found, why we’re so drawn to it, how story impacts us, and what it is readers are really looking for. So this week, we’re going to discover exactly how pervasive story is.

Most writers can tell you that story lives in other places outside of books. We understand that everyone does story in one form or another, even those that don’t read. I devour books, my husband loves to watch TV, my son absorbs himself in games of breeding dragons or building pixelated forests. In fact, gossiping is story, seeing a psychologist is all about telling your story, marketers know that a good story will invest you in their product.

Story’s roots are so deeply embedded and woven through our humanity, that it is, quite literally, everywhere. Yep, story is everywhere.

The proof that fiction is deeply embedded in humanity’s psyche is simple—story is everywhere. Story was with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime thousands of years ago, it’s stamped in the hieroglyphics of the pyramids and was carried in the beaded necklaces of the American Indians. And yes, we are reading less than we used to, and oral story telling is an art on the brink of extinction. But that isn’t because we’ve forsaken fiction. Story now thrives in chart-busting love ballads, Call of Duty games, and generates billions of dollars in movies about blue-skinned, long-tailed Avatars.

Many of us understand that most of those examples are stories. But story is deeply embedded in our psyche, as evidenced by the stories we tell ourselves. Whether you aspire to be a writer or not, we are all storytellers in our sleep. Dreams are the places where we fly, commit adultery, witness murders, save lives. We spend hours (some scientists believe we may dream all night) scripting and screening fantastical theatre in our mind. Asleep, everyone of us is a storyteller.

Nor do we stop dreaming when we’re awake. Daydreaming is the mind’s default state. We daydream when driving, when walking, when mopping the floor, when listening to Uncle Joe regal us with the golden years. The reality is, that if our mind isn’t focused on a task, it will skip off to wondering what would happen if you interrupted Uncle Joe and began discussing the joys of cross-dressing.

In fact, our mind can’t help but create stories. This point is beautifully illustrated by an experiment conducted by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. It was the mid-1940’s when the researchers made a short film, a simple black and white animation that lasts about a minute and a half. Essentially, there is a big rectangle that is motionless, except for a flap on the side that opens and closes. There’s a big triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. The animation starts with the big triangle inside the big rectangle. The small triangle and circle then move onto the screen. As the big square’s flap opens, the big triangle moves out. The three shapes move around the screen, in and out of the rectangle. After ninety seconds or so, the little triangle and little circle leave the screen again.

heider-simmel

When I watched the film, I didn’t see basic geometric shapes. Instead I saw a father (the big triangle) inside his home, comfortable that he is lord and master of his domain. His daughter (the small circle) enters the scene with her newfound love, the little triangle. The father exits the house, and is furious to discover who his daughter has chosen. He instantly attacks the boyfriend, using his size to aggressively push and shove the smaller triangle around. He fires insults at the poor fellow, never giving him a chance to defend himself, then orders him to stay away from his daughter. The daughter runs to the house, cowering from behind the door as she watches in horror. But as she sees her love be bullied, the indignation has her approaching them. But her father berates her, being brutish and dominant. The couple try to flee, only to be chased. Eventually, they manage to escape. There’s a possibility the father may never see his daughter again.

It was all very Romeo and Juliet, angst-filled teens fighting for identity and love and independence. In truth, it was a silly story my mind created in the moment from ambiguous stimuli.

Thankfully, I’m not alone. After showing the film to their research subjects, Heider and Simmel gave them a simple task.

Describe what you see.

It’s fascinating (and relieving!) to discover that less than three percent of participants gave a truly subjective answer. The majority were like me; they didn’t see inanimate objects, they saw characters and drama and emotion driven action. (The link to the animation is at the end of this article.)

We can’t help but create story.

What’s more, not only do we think in story, but our interactions are driven by story. When we meet another person, the simple question of ‘how are you?’ sparks a description of our current state; the why we feel like that, and the how of how we got there. Discussing the news, our workmates, the latest reality TV craze is natural and normal. It’s all underscored by story. In fact, some scientists believe that one of the reasons story has stayed with us through the centuries is because of its importance in helping us function as individuals, but also in groups.

So not only is story everywhere, we’re incapable of being without it.

As writers, this is a something we want to harness. Our readers are drawn to our narratives for a reason; an unconscious one, a deeply rooted one. To do that, to grab them by the neutrons and not let go, we need to understand why story has become such a staple of our psyche, the how of what we’re trying to harness, and ultimately, what readers are really looking for.

For that, stay tuned to the upcoming posts in this series.

By Tamar Sloan
Source: psychwriter.com.au

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9 Quick Fixes For Short Story Writers Who Run Out Of Ideas

It is Short Story Africa Day on 21 June each year! It is the shortest day in the southern hemisphere.

To celebrate, we’re sharing ways to find ideas for your stories. If you are a short story writer and you’re looking for a quick fix, try one of these.

1.  Find Out What Lies Behind The Lyrics

Choose a date. What song was number one on that day? Do some research about the song. Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who inspired it? Use what you find out as inspiration for your short story.

2.  Use A Writing Prompt

Sign up for a daily writing prompt. Follow people who share them on social media. ‘A prompt can be anything. A word, a line from a poem or a song, a name or even a picture. Anything that gets you writing. Find ones you enjoy.’ (via) Your daily prompt could inspire your short story.

3.  Rewrite A Fairy Tale

Take a fairy take and write it as a modern day story. Change the sexes of the main characters. Choose a random setting. If the tale is too long for a short story, write the beginning or ending as your short story.

4.  Rewrite A Myth

A myth is an ancient story involving supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes. It is used to explain aspects of the natural world or to show the psychology, customs, or ideals of a society. Examples: The Myth of Creation, Arthur and Camelot, The Rain Queen. Write a myth using one of our 20 Myth Prompts as a short story.

5.  Obsess Over Details

Find one thing that interests you. Keep a file and save these items in it. It can be in a photograph or something you’ve heard. Research it and use it as inspiration for a story. Use this random first line generator to start your story.

6.  Hashtags On Instagram

Choose a topic that interests you. Visit Instagram and click on a hashtag related to the topic. Look at the posts and choose an image that inspires a story. Use this ‘What if?’ generator to enhance your scenario.

7.  Ask Your Followers

If you have a social media following, ask your fans what they want you to write about. Create a poll of some of the ideas you get and write about the one that gets the most votes. Use easypolls or pollcode or pollmaker. Use the embed code to share it on your blog or link it to your social media platform.

8.  Use A Holiday

Which public holiday is next on the calendar. Write a short story about someone who is planning for this holiday, or a story that centres around the holiday in some way.

9.  Write About The Day Your Parents Met

Rewrite the story of your parent’s first meeting. Write it from the perspective of a stranger watching them. Change names, swap the sexes of the characters, change locations. Go!

By Amanda Patterson
Source: writerswrite.co.za

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