11 Apr

ABCs of Story Analysis

Posted in DIY MFA, Plot, Tips, Writing, Writing Exercises

Today’s technique is one I learned from my thesis adviser and I found it so helpful that it’s stayed with me.  While you can use this technique to develop your own stories, you can also use it as a method of analyzing stories that you read.  Today, I’d like you to take a few minutes and read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.

This story is one of my favorites in terms of plot development because while it follows the ABC method beautifully, it is by no means predictable.  In fact, even though you know what’s going to happen, it’s one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read.  What keeps you reading is the How.  You might have a hunch what the ending will be but you want to know how we get there.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First the ABC method of Story Analysis.

A = Action.  The action sets the story in motion.  Some teachers give this a fancy name–“inciting incident”–but really all that means is that an action has to kick-start the story.  (Tip: If it takes too long for an action kick in, maybe you need to start the story closer to where the action starts.)

B = Background.  At some point early in the story, you need to establish who these characters are and what their story is.  This doesn’t mean giving pages and pages of back-story.  Rather, a few well-placed details can give us all the background we need.

C = Conflict.  This is probably the most important element in your story.  Without conflict, you might have a great sequence of events or a lovely character study, but you don’t have a story.  90% of the time, the conflict comes from the character wanting something and an obstacle getting in his/her way.

D = Development.  Most of the story or novel occurs in this phase.  This is where we see various obstacles get in the character’s way.  This is where subplots emerge.

E = Ending.  The ending consists of 3 C’s: Crisis, Climax and Consequences.

  • Crisis: The events leading up to the climax.
  • Climax: This is the final showdown, the big event at the end of the story/novel where everything unravels.
  • Consequences: Also called “Denouement” is where some or all of the plot threads are tied together.

Now you know the ABC method, I’d like you to look at the Flannery O’Connor sometime this week and try to identify the different elements in that story.  It’s not a very long story, but take your time with it and really try to pick apart how O’Connor crafts this story.  The ABC elements are your guide.

Homework:  This week I would like you to read and analyze A Good Man is Hard to Find.  In addition, today, I’d like you to take at a piece of your own writing and examine it using the ABC method.  Jot down some notes on how elements A-E and the 3C’s function in your piece.

What did you discover from your analysis?  Did you notice any elements missing from your story?


10 Apr

DIY MFA: Morphological Forced Connections

Posted in DIY MFA, Plot, Writing, Writing Exercises

Hello Friends of iggi!

Welcome to Week 2 of DIY MFA.  Last week we talked about using characters to spark ideas.  Now we’ll be shifting gears and looking at story elements that can generate ideas.

Today we’ll be talking about Morphological Forced Connections, a technique I learned when taking a creativity seminar in graduate school.  I’ve blogged about this technique in DIY MFA before, but this time we’re taking a slightly different approach.  Before, we used this technique to brainstorm ideas for new stories but today we’ll be applying it to your current work-in-progress.

Step-by-Step Guide to Morphological Forced Connections:

What you need:
• Paper and pencil
• Random.org

Step 1: Answer the following questions.

• What does your character want?
• List at least 5 possible obstacles that will get in the way.
• List a set of worst-case scenarios that could happen.
• List a set of settings where the big show-down could happen should a worst-case scenario occur.
• 4 possible outcomes to the story:

  1. Character gets what he/she wants.
  2. Character doesn’t get what he/she wants.
  3. Character decides he/she wants something else.
  4. Character gets what he/she wants but realizes he/she didn’t really want it.

Step 2: Make a pretty little chart, like this:

Obstacles   Worst-Case              Settings         Outcome

Option 1          Option 1                 Option 1        1.  Gets what he wants
Option 2          Option 2                 Option 2        2.  Doesn’t get what he wants
Option 3          Option 3                 Option 3        3.  Wants something else
   etc.                    etc.                         etc.            4.  Doesn’t really want it

Note that for this exercise, you don’t have to make the same number of options in each column.  You can brainstorm as many options for the first three columns as you like.  The only column with a set number of options is the outcome because there are four basic possibilities.

Step 3: Use Random.org to choose an option from each of the four lists.  Random.org will choose numbers at random from 1 to whatever number you choose.  Just plug in how many options you have for each column and it will pick one at random.

Step 4: Write!  Take that show-down scene where the worst-case scenario happens and write that scene.

Homework: Try out this technique, then check-in in the comments, to let us know how it went!


07 Apr

Acrostic Character Bio

Posted in Character, DIY MFA, Process, Writing, Writing Exercises

Now that you’ve gotten to know your characters a bit more, you’ll need an easy way to keep track of all this new information.  After all, if you’re writing on-the-go, you can’t exactly tote around stacks of pages with character dossiers.  This is where the Acrostic Bio-in-a-Nutshell comes in.  This technique forces you to choose the most important details of your character and organizes it in a compact way.

First a word on acrostics.  I got the idea for this exercise from acrostic poems written by Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of each line spells the name of the person to whom the poem is dedicated.  It occurred to me that you could use the same technique to organize information in a character dossier, using the character’s name as the basic structure.  Here follows an example of a character bio for one of the character’s I’ve worked with for a story that is now in press.

Lucy Marie Watson

Loyal to her friends
Unaware her best friend (Jake) has a crush on her
Crush on Ralph (leader of her group of friends)
Young (age 11, 6th grade)

Moral compass of the group
Always wears hair in a pony tail
Incredibly close to her dad
Efficient (plans ahead)

Willing to take risks and break rules if it’s for a good reason
Two sisters: Danielle (older) and Caroline (younger)
Smart (smartest kid in her group, though the boys would never admit it)
Obedient (usually) so when she breaks rules, she feels guilty
No idea she what to do about her crush (not even aware she has one)

Notice how most of the information is focused on the interpersonal relationships (not a lot of appearance or demographic detail).  For Lucy the relationships were the most important part of her character development so the acrostic bio reflects that.  If your character has a unique appearance or a job that is central to his/her character, then those things are likely to be the ones that pop up on the acrostic.

I like to write my acrostic bio-in-a-nutshell on an index card.  That way I can carry it with me in my notebook and have it right at my fingertips when I need it.

Homework: Choose one of your characters (preferably one you’ve worked with this week) and write an acrostic bio that reflects who that character is at their core.

Then tell me, how has your study of character gone this week?  Discover something new about a character or two?  Anything surprise you?


05 Apr

20 Questions to Create a Character

Posted in Character, Creativity, DIY MFA, Writing, Writing Exercises

Remember that game 20 Questions, where you had to guess what the person was thinking of only by asking yes/no questions?  This exercise uses a similar technique to help you develop a new character or get to know an existing character better.

There are two ways you can use 20 Questions to create or develop a character.

Option A: Take a character you’ve been working with, perhaps one from your current work-in-progress (WIP).  Answer these twenty questions as quickly as possible about your character.  Then write a short scene with that character, using this new-found knowledge.

Option B: (my personal favorite) Use a coin-toss to select one option from each pair.  That’s your character.  Now write.

The 20 Questions are:

  1. Male / Female
  2. Old soul / Young at heart
  3. Left brain / Right brain
  4. Glass half-empty / Glass half-full
  5. City / Country
  6. Big spender / Penny pincher
  7. Loves water / Can’t swim
  8. Glasses / Tattoo
  9. Dogs / Cats
  10. Hybrid car / SUV
  11. Bites nails / Always manicured
  12. Chocolate syrup / Hot sauce
  13. Coffee / Tea
  14. Overgrown garden / Plastic plants
  15. Always tells the truth / Lies when necessary
  16. Organic food / Fast food
  17. Straight hair / Curly hair
  18. Soft-spoken / Loudmouth
  19. PBS / Reality TV
  20. Motto: “Do or die” / “Look before you leap”

This exercise is based on an exercise from the Write Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer.

Homework: Use this technique for one of your existing characters or create a new one.  Now write a short scene with that character, where at least three of these details are revealed.  This can be something completely new or an extension of a piece you’re already writing.


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