Monday, May 10, 2010

A Punch in the Gut



I've been reading Hooked by Les Edgerton. I've posted about it before, but I read a section recently - about story-worthy problems - that I feel compelled to share.
"Good and worthy story problems derive from the small and the particular and the individual. Not the grandiose. Don't begin a story with the intent of writing about a grand topic, such as freedom for instance."
Yes! This reminds me of Ralph Fletcher's saying, "The bigger the topic, the smaller you write." We can't write a story well if we're trying to focus on ALL of something. We need to narrow the topic until we can make it personal, emotional, powerful. Les Edgerton provides a fabulous example:

...some years ago we had civil strife in this country over states' rights versus federalism and slavery, among other things. We called it the Civil War. ...there were a great many essays and speeches written on both sides about the conflict - even without chat rooms - and most of those are now forgotten except to academics specializing in such knowledge.

What lots more people do remember about this chapter in our history, however, is a little book titled Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by a lady named Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book had a powerful effect on the nation, both the North and the South. Why? Because she focused on one particular, the life of Uncle Tom and the effect of slavery upon him.

Wow. For me, this example was like a punch in the gut - but in a good way. The first time I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was crying at my desk, in front of my students, by the end of chapter three. It's powerful stuff. And Edgerton's right - it's because of her focus on specific people and their lives that we react as strongly as we do. No one has ever made me care about characters more than she did. That book hurt me, which is exactly what she wanted it to do.

By narrowing our story's problem and limiting its focus, we make it more emotionally powerful. Edgerton says it better than I can: "Always get your story down to the level of individuals. We can see individuals. We can't see The Forces of Capitalism vs. The Forces of Communism."

What piece of writing advice/wisdom hit you like a punch in the gut?

54 comments:

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

Great Post!

I am constantly 'punched'! The more I write the more I learn. ;o)

Visit My Kingdom Anytime

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Yes! And stories (like UNCLE TOM'S CABIN or glimpses into everyday live's of eras past) are what make history real, too.

beth said...

This is something I teach my students, too--that if you look at history in terms of individuals, it becomes much more important to you.

Jennie Englund said...

Look at all those awards you've won your sweet self!!!

Okay, advice... I saw a poster in my son's fifth grade classroom last year: "Give the seed of a story, not the whole watermelon."

LOVE that!

Patti said...

Writing advice hits me differently each day. One day I can read something and it means nothing, but the next day I can read it and have an aha moment.

Crystal Cook said...

That is powerful stuff. And so true! I think you've just punched me in the guy. It's funny how we know this but then forget it until someone *wink* reminds us. :)

Kasie West said...

Great advice. I think it's so true and good to remember.

Matthew Rush said...

Great advice, great post. Writing about the big picture is great for textbooks, and necessary, but to connect with the reader you really ought write about something they can wrap themselves around entirely.

B. Miller said...

Wonderful post and I love this mindset. My WIP is all about my characters... and the crazy crap that's happening to them. The story talks about the afterlife, and ghosts, and the manipulation of power for good and for ill... how the church affects the South and how hard it is to grieve and let go of someone... it's about so many things. But I didn't start out writing about all that stuff. It started as just a story about people. Ya know?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This is fantastic advice and I think it works in reverse too - if you have a story about individuals, you probably are touching on a larger theme as well. Don't make your story about the theme (make it about the individual) but the theme will make the individual's story richer, more poignant, and more powerful.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

A good gut punch once in awhile can do wonders for our writing.

As a YA writer I used to constantly stop and wonder if something I typed was too edgy, or taboo, etc. Then a J.K. Rowling quote punched me:

"I'm not writing to make anyone's children feel safe."

Amen, J.K.!

Lydia Kang said...

Love that, the bigger the topic, the smaller you write. I must write that down!

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post.
My punch in the gut was someone saying "If you want to write a book then write. Don't wait. No one ever wrote by waiting."

Candyland said...

You said that very well!

Diane said...

Good thoughts on focus and narrowing it down. :O)

Lisa and Laura said...

Such a great reminder! Way back when, Elana J. read our first draft of LIAR SOCIETY. She helped remind us that Kate needed to feel things and react. Now we are sure to focus on an emotional core--it's the characters (and their reactions) that help drive the story home!

Kelly said...

Well said, Shannon!

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

ooooh yeah this is so true! Great reminder! I have to think what advice gave me that reaction, but I love this.

L. T. Host said...

Thanks for this, Shannon... you make a great point, and have given me lots to think about.

Mary Campbell said...

great advice and so true. We won't care about these big issues until we humanize them. Not sure if anything has punched me in the gut, but I have received a lot of great advice from fellow bloggers and authors - keep it Shannon.

Susan Fields said...

I'm reading Hooked right now and loving it! I put it off for a while because there is so much fiction I want to read right now and non-fiction has always been a "have-to" not a "want-to", but I don't feel that way about Hooked at all. I look forward to my before bed reading time as much as I do when I'm reading a good fiction book.

Writing advice? I'd say, also from Hooked, that the character has to have a story-worthy problem, something deeper than their surface problem, and his example of Thelma and Louise really made that clear.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Great post. Hooked is a great writing resource.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post - it's so much easier to get readers to care about people than concepts. People make all the difference.

Catherine A. Winn said...

You are so right, the best and most memorable books of all time made the reader feel something. Great post and thanks for stopping by and commenting today.

Kimberly Franklin said...

I swear, everyone is reading this book. I must go get it now!!

Happy Monday!!

Theresa Milstein said...

I LOVE Les Edgerton's book. Anytime someone asks for book recommendations, I recommend it. He recently commented on my blog after seeing one of my compliments, so I began following him.

He's shopping a second book, and wrote a post in the last few weeks about how powerful visuals can me. He uses Thelma and Louise like he did in Hooked, but he shows how subtle visuals clues can speak volumes, even in writing. I think it's cured me of show, not tell once and for all.

Here's the link:
http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/04/how-actions-inform-character-and.html

Victoria Dixon said...

Wonderful post, Shannon. I went to see a couple of authors Saturday and one of them likes to cover the lives of children in the midst of warfare. I hope to interview her sometime soon about one of her books - it's set in Vietnam - and I've got to read her stuff.

Helen Ginger said...

Les Edgerton is fabulous, isn't he? I have two of his books and am waiting for the next. He has a great blog, too, full of wonderful advice.

Helen
Straight From Hel

K. Harrington said...

Can't think of a specific example to share right now. That is a great one, though! Thanks.

Mary Aalgaard said...

That is exactly dead-on accurate. I've learned through writing for a local women's magazine that the topics that seem the most common and ordinary attract the most readers/responses. We see ourselves in the situation. It's real, touchable, us. I cried during my reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, too. That's the power of a great storyteller.

Jaydee Morgan said...

I think what you stated in your post really resonates with me - especially as this makes sense to incorporate/focus on in my own work. So thank you - this post hit home for me today :)

Janna Qualman said...

"Good and worthy story problems derive from the small and the particular and the individual."

This speaks to me! Because it's those little things in life I draw from, and try to capture.

Thanks, Shannon!

Jonathon Arntson said...

Hm...I am not sure. I have had several 'aha' moments listening to John Green and Maureen Johnson and others, but no gut punches yet. I'll keep an eye out though, my abs are not as toned as they once were.

Jen said...

When you are happy in your life the writing comes!

Great post and that sounds like an awesome book!

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working. – Stephen DeStaebler

AND

Vision is always ahead of execution. – Art and Fear

Tabitha Bird said...

Oh, this is so true. I always believe that writers who focus on topics actually lose readers in the topic. It is people we attach ourselves too, not topics. Love this post. Well said :)

Bossy Betty said...

Just go ahead and write--don't wait!

Stephanie Thornton said...

That is a great post. And I love Uncle Tom's Cabin. In fact, I think I might have my students read part of it next year. I love teaching the Civil War!

Carolyn V. said...

Wow Shannon! That sounds like a great book! I think it's true. Narrowing the story's problem can limit the focus (and move the story onward). Thanks so much!!!

ali said...

Excellent advice! Thank you!

Michelle said...

love this - so true - you can give loads of information or you can pull it in and give the full story of one - powerful

Christina Farley said...

Great advice! Big things come in small packages!

Jayne said...

Oh gosh - so many things about writing sucker punch me, but can I remember anything right now apart from the old adage 'write about what you know?' Of course not! But thanks for this, so true.

Tina Lynn said...

Ooh! I liked this. Makes tons of sense. I've been trying to get a hold of this book and just can't ever catch a break:)

Jeanette Levellie said...

Amazing what one little woman, one little book and one Big God can do to change a huge nation.

What punched me in the gut? Less is more; find the one perfect word to replace five mediocre ones.

You are a blessing, Shannon. You make a positive difference in your world!

Jody Hedlund said...

I really like this point, Shannon. I think it's just like when we add details to our story--it helps us to focus on what's truly important rather than trying to describe it all. The same thing is true of our story messages.

Les Edgerton said...

Once again I owe you a debt, Shannon. Thank you so much for the shout-out of Hooked--I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I'm just glad it's been of some help in your own writing. And I see a bunch of my friends on here (they have good taste!). Thanks for the nice words, Susan, Solvang, Theresa and Helen. You guys rock!

Shannon, I always turn to your blog first thing in the morning. It's always great.

Blue skies,
Les

Julie Dao said...

I haven't been punched in the gut with a great piece of writing lately. Looks like I need to go out and get this book!

Heather said...

This is an excellent reminder that while our stories may have deeper, underlying themes, in the end, they're about people and the affect those issues have on them.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Shannon, this is such a great reminder. You are so resourceful! Thanks for the punch back. I needed that. It is really true, though. I tend to complicate things and need constant reminders to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Silly)

Simon C. Larter said...

The best is when I think of something for my own fiction that punches me in the gut. I have to sit there for a moment, and thinking, 'Man, that SUCKS for my characters. AWESOME!'

I can't think of any writing advice offhand that punched me in the gut, but your example certainly is powerful. Nicely done, good lady.

Patti Lacy said...

Patti, your character needs to be likeable.

Wow. I hadn't realized that. Truly.
B/c I read for good writing.
But most readers want good plot...and LIKEABLE characters.

LOVE LOVE this blog.

Palindrome said...

That's so true. The books that resonate with me more are always in first person or their third person view is so focused, I can't help but become entranced.

Victoria Dixon said...

BTW, Shannon. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I'm reading it now and it's already making me question some stuff. ;D Also, thank you for dropping in, commenting, and being personable, Les. I've done enough reviews and interviews by now to know how rare it is to have the author pop in!

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