Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story

There’s a cart-load of advice out there for would-be storysmiths; everything from websites explaining how to go about self-publishing, right down to books that cover the finer points of stringing together an intelligible sentence.

But the most important and fundamental skill of fiction writing, the marrow if you will, is effective story writing. IT’S THE STORY STOOPID! And, at least in my case, it’s the most challenging.

Fortunately, once in a while you come across advice that is so so incisive that you feel inspired (and somewhat relieved) just reading through them.  You think, “Hey, you’ve just summed up in one paragraph what that other book couldn’t do in twelve chapters.” Although they’ve now been out there a good while, the collected tweets of Emma Coats, former storyboard artist at Pixar, is such advice. It’s all the wisdom she has accumulated working on major animated films and it’s essential reading for fiction writers of all persuasions… yes, even short story writers. Continue reading “Pixar’s 22 tips for telling a ripping story”

Short stories, not attention spans

When fans queue to see the movie Ender’s Game later this year, many of them will know that the movie is based on Orson Scott’s card 1985 novel of the same name.

It’s safe to assume that a great deal of them will have also read the book and the subsequent titles in the series too. But I would bet that only a handful would know (mostly the hardcore fans) that the idea and many of the characters in Ender’s Game had humble beginnings in a short story, published in Analog magazine in 1977.

Whenever I hear about short stories that have triggered the creation of a larger work, or when I read the works of Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, or the dozens of other short story writers whose ideas ‘made it’, not only am I comforted by the thought that I’m not wasting my time learning the craft, but also by the promise that a short story can lead to bigger things. In my case, I hope my journey into short fiction will lead to a novel.

Continue reading “Short stories, not attention spans”

‘A Village After Dark’ by Kazuo Ishiguro – a review

It is the way of ideas to burn brightly for a time. Given enough fuel they ignite passions, blaze through communities, spark enlightenment and become beacons for the disenfranchised and hopeless.

But like the people who promote them, they dim and weaken until the fervour, the arguments and optimism which drove them turn to ash, and only darkness remains.

It may seem a melodramatic way to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story, A Village After Dark, yet it is this darkness – this vacuum of conviction where ideas once shone – which provides the main setting.

Continue reading “‘A Village After Dark’ by Kazuo Ishiguro – a review”

Make up sex

Donald hopped out of the taxi, the long flight still heavy in his ankles. “Keep it,” he mumbled handing over a hundred.

“Merry Christmas,” the driver said before skidding off down the oak-lined road.

In the street lamp’s yellow wash, Donald thought he could see his father-in-law’s frowning face in the the two-story Victorian’s facade – his white eyebrows in the eaves, his brick jaw resting squarely against the trimmed grass – and he was suddenly thankful he’d been delayed. Continue reading “Make up sex”

Across the border

It is not simple line on a map, or a fence that pinches against our wispy plains like a monk’s belt.

No, our border is a wall: as high and thick as a mountain. It strangles, silences, mutes the cracks of truncheon on bone. No one knows what lays beyond; only that the clouds and birds that pass over head fly somewhere, and we cannot. Continue reading “Across the border”

Is fiction writing tasteless?

Tonguing for a meat pie
Tonguing for a meat pie

Taste is an elusive sense. Have you ever tried to describe what bitterness is? What about the enigmatic meatiness of umami? It’s not an easy task. But should I change the question and ask what you feel when you eat something of a particular taste – not just whether it is hot, chewy or smooth, but what you think or how other parts of your body react besides those in your mouth – then we stumble upon a banquet of ideas.

I for one swoon at the pleasure of devouring a savoury stew of thick beef chunks, red wine, sea salt, carrot and sweet onion, but the taste of tripe makes me want to call a priest.

Food is emotional

The sense of taste triggers intense reactions in us, both physically and emotionally. Therefore, when writing fiction, we don’t need to rely on words such as bitterness, sweetness or sourness – readers know these gustatory concepts already. Our goal is to connect notions such as texture, smell, temperature, memories and expectations so that we can communicate the experience of taste.

Consider this sentence:

Joanne held the spoon of honey at arm’s length and let the syrup topple into her mouth. At first she felt a tingling, then a slight whisper of wattle and citrus before the sweetness started to crawl across the surface of her tongue like viscous wave of sugar ants, up the insides of her cheeks and across her palate. She closed her mouth and eyes and thought of her mother’s farm, the smell of warm September mornings and of her childhood pet, the one-eyed cat, Salamander, who would lay all day purring on her bare feet.

Here we reveal not just the physical properties of the food, but also the relationship between Joanne and the taste of honey, in both the present and the past. We animate the texture, throw in a few taste references that would make a thesaurus-hugging wine connoisseur proud; we depict even the way she eats the food.

Most people are familiar with the taste of honey, but by adding these emotional and sensory ingredients we are attempting to present honey in novel way.

Of course it doesn’t have to be as floury as my example, but I think depictions of food are only tasteless when they don’t venture beyond the ‘bland’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’. By using all the senses at our disposal, it is possible to transform the description of taste into a very delectable morsel for readers to digest.

Creating descriptions of people

Here’s an exercise we were taught in writing school to help free our minds from the conciseness and blandness used by politically-correct trogologytes with nothing better to do than to force us all to use non-figurative, monosyllabic grunts expressly devised to be comprehensible to a sock puppet.

What you do is think of someone you know well and write ten metaphorical sentences about them. It starts by thinking:

“If my friend were a vehicle, what type of vehicle would he/she be?”

The answer might be something like:

“She is a wheat harvester rearing on its back wheels.”

The idea is taken from a poet, whose name I cannot remember, who used this device to describe English poet laureate, Ted Hughes.

For example, here’s one I made up about a person I know:

His shoulders are two oversized furcoats, draped over a telegraph pole.
His voice, a shotgun ringing through a bowling alley on a Saturday night.
His eyes blink over an early evening at the equator.
He uses his nose like a vacuum cleaner sucks up marbles.

As you can see, you can create a fairly vivid image of a person through the association of ideas. My example is rubbish, but give it a go, it’s not only simple but fun – like throwing a hair dryer in the fish tank.