The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, March 10, 2008

Workshop notes - III: Turning points

By Tamara Lee

In real life, the things that stress us out or possibly alter us are a result of going into a situation expecting one thing but getting something completely different. In fiction, we use this expectation/unexpected-result model to create tension. Without it, there’s not much to keep us reading.

There I stood, lost in the push-pull ritual of bookstore closing time vacuuming.
This week Nancy reminded us of this basic story-writing principle. Referred once again to Robert McKee’s Story—and his insistence that turning points shouldn’t be merely worked into the ends of one of three acts—we were also reminded that although a short story may do just fine with two or three, in novel writing, writers underestimate how many turning points are needed.

A thunk and swack heard above the motor; I turned off the vaccum, prepared to inform yet another yuppie that the ‘Closed’ sign was indeed meant for everyone.
Instead, great stories usually have some kind of turning point in every scene: the turn could be moving the scene from positive to negative or vice-versa; or taking the reader somewhere very different from the beginning of that scene. Playing not only with reader’s expectations, but with character’s as well will heighten the tension in the story.

I rounded the New Releases book display to stand face-to-torso with a kid in baggy jeans, wearing a ski mask and holding a gun.
Nancy mentioned some of the best contemporary fiction writers—including Lorrie Moore and Rick Moody—are able to achieve this effect within one sentence.

So I had a quick look at some Lorrie Moore examples online, and now I'm really excited to explore not only how she's done it, but how I might be able to do it in the mess that is my current manuscript.

Below are some great Moore examples, taking the reader from one place to an entirely different one within a single sentence:

They are a kind of seafood, he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by light; they've grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy night.

~ an excerpt taken from Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994)

The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew?) cinched the blowsy fat of his finger, which had grown twistedly around it like a fucking happy challah.

The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things—cheeks, tongues, thymus glands.

~ from ‘Debarking'


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Thanks for these notes, T, great examples. This is something I need to work at generally, but to accomplish this is one sentence is something to admire. I struggle with balancing the unexpected and the believable. How to develop/test that internal scale?

Mon Mar 10, 10:11:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Glad you're enjoying the notes, Jen. It's great for me to review them, too, and reflect. And I agree about the balancing act. It is an admirable ability. Rick Moody, I think, would say in order to develop that internal scale you'd need to test it.

Mon Mar 10, 04:31:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

That is such good advice about a turning point in every scene. Sometimes as writers we have so much fun writing a certain scene it's hard for us to see that it's superfluous, doesn't propel the story ahead. Guilty as charged am I.

Mon Mar 10, 08:25:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Me, too, Tricia. I get into scenes and start playing with language, then flip over somewhere else in the story and keep going, without a care in the world. Then I have to snap out of it at some point and cut it all; they always seems to be my favourite bits, but if they don't serve the master, erm story...

Tue Mar 11, 02:26:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Chumplet said...

Oh, I MUST write like that. The Challah -- beautiful!

Tue Mar 11, 10:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Another useful pearl of wisdom. I'm enjoying your series a lot. I have a lot of writing that is atmospheric but kind of flaccid. I might pick out my favourites and see if I can't throw some unexpected turning points at the characters and see what they do...

Wed Mar 19, 11:03:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Denis Taillefer said...

Great stuff, Tamara. Lorrie Moore is probably my favourite short story writer, and my copy of Debarking is crinkled and highlighted and barely legible, now. I shall read it again with what you've pointed out, in mind. Thanks!

Thu Mar 20, 11:51:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks for popping by, guys. Glad you're getting something out of my ramblings!

Mon Mar 24, 11:32:00 pm GMT-4  

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