A prolific and award-winning writer, Lee Martin has put pen to paper to offer his wisdom, honed during thirty years of teaching the oh-so-elusive art of writing. Telling Stories is intended for anyone interested in thinking more about the elements of storytelling in short stories, novels, and memoirs. Martin clearly delineates helpful and practical techniques for demystifying the writing process and provides tools for perfecting the art of the scene, characterization, detail, point of view, language, and revision--in short, the art of writing. His discussion of the craft in his own life draws from experiences, memories, and stories to provide a more personal perspective on the elements of writing.
Martin provides encouragement by sharing what he's learned from his journey through frustrations, challenges, and successes. Most important, Telling Stories emphasizes that you are not alone on this journey and that writers must remain focused on what they love: the process of moving words on the page. By focusing on that purpose, Martin contends, the journey will always take you where you're meant to go.
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About the Author
Lee Martin is a distinguished professor of English and teaches creative writing at Ohio State University. He is the author of several books, including Such a Life (Nebraska, 2012), From Our House (Nebraska, 2009), The Bright Forever (finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction), and Turning Bones (Nebraska, 2003).
Read an Excerpt
Writing the Opening of a Short Story
I wasn't sure I'd be able to run this morning. A light snow was falling, and the streets already had patches of ice on them from yesterday's storm. I walked a ways and had just about decided to play it safe. Then I saw a stretch of pavement with no ice on it, and I thought that maybe it wouldn't hurt to try to run a few steps. An hour later I stopped running.
Getting a new piece of writing started can be like that for me, as can picking up in the midst of a rough draft on a new writing day. I'm always a little fearful that I won't be up to the task, that I'll end up falling on my face, but I'm also stubborn. I like to keep moving forward. So, eventually, I begin. Maybe I write a sentence. Maybe I change a word or two in a sentence I've already written. The important thing is to make a move that engages me with the draft. I enter the stream of composition; the hours go by, and when I finally stop, I'm surprised by the number of words I've put on the page.
I've been working on a new short story lately, so after a good while spent writing the draft of a novel, I'm reacquainting myself with the way a story moves.
Which brings me to the starting out, those first steps the writer of the story makes onto the page, when he or she is trying to clearly state the givens of the premise while also getting the narrative moving forward. Raymond Carver described the early stages of his writing process as a matter of getting the bare bones on the page. "With the first draft," he said, "it's a question of getting down the outline, the scaffolding of the story. Then on subsequent revisions I'll see to the rest of it." Consider the opening of Carver's "Cathedral":
This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife's relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws'. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn't seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle years ago, but she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn't enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
So, what do we know about the world of the story? We know that a blind man, a former employer of the narrator's wife, is coming to spend the night. We know the blind man's wife has died, and we know how the narrator feels about that. Because of his faulty assumptions about blind people, he doesn't look forward to the visit. Notice how clearly and gracefully Carver gives us everything we need to know as we enter the world of the story. Things are in motion from the opening line, and a tension between the narrator and the blind man has been established before the guest arrives. Everything that the story needs to dramatize has been articulated.
A good story starts with a first step: This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night. Write a line that's already moving forward, that contains the story's premise. Then establish the perspective of the main character so we know his or her initial position when it comes to the premise: A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to. Now you're ready to run. You're ready to follow the trail. Keep your eye out for those patches of ice, the ones that will cause the main character to slip and his or her initial position to shift. Do that, and you'll be like the narrator of "Cathedral," who at the end of the story is trying to draw a cathedral with the blind man's hand on top of his so the man can try to understand what such a building looks like. Like the narrator of Carver's story, you'll be amazed at where you've arrived: It was like nothing else in my life up to now. That's what a good story can do for us if we aren't afraid to set out. The journey can take us somewhere we didn't know we were going.
An Exercise for Opening a Short Story
For whatever reason I'm thinking this morning about the openings of short stories and what we expect of them. Rust Hills, in his excellent book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says the end of a good story is always present in its beginning. The final move of a story is only possible because of everything set in motion in the opening.
For that reason I'm interested in stories that open with some degree of forward momentum. That momentum can come on a plot level from a sense of mystery or a problem to be solved, but it can also come more quietly, but just as urgently, from a character struggling with something. Maybe it's something about the self, or maybe it's something about a certain situation or another character in the story. Whatever it is, there's something to be resolved, and the story, from its opening words, is moving toward that resolution, or the lack of one, and all that it will mean to the characters involved. No matter how quiet the opening of a story may be, there's tension and urgency because stories are about characters moving through pivotal moments of their lives.
So, here's an exercise for opening a short story.
1. Open a story with a line something like this: "I was cutting wheat when Burton Quick came to tell me [fill in the rest of the line however you'd like.]" Something in this first line signals that the story is opening in the midst of something that will make this day unlike any other in our narrator's life.
2. Write a second line something like this: "At the house my wife was [fill in the rest of the line however you'd like.]" Often one story line isn't enough. Two elements of the plot need to vibrate against each other to create a resonance. I assume from our opening two lines that whatever Burton Quick has come to say will bear upon whatever is at issue for the narrator and his wife.
3. Write a third line that contains the narrator's initial response to whatever his wife is doing at the house — something like this: "I'd told her [fill in the line however you'd like], but she wouldn't listen, so I'd decided to [again, fill this in however you'd like.]"
We now have three things to pay attention to in the story: (1) whatever it is that Burton Quick has come to tell the narrator, (2) whatever it is that the wife is doing in spite of her husband's protestation, and (3) whatever the narrator thinks he's decided to do. Three balls up in the air within three sentences. Quite enough to arouse our curiosity, to make us keep writing to see where things might go.
THE BONUS ROUND: Write a few lines that you imagine might serve as a closing move. You're free to create whatever you'd like, but I'll offer up a few lines as an example. "That's when my wife surprised me by [fill it in]. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. Burton Quick's story seemed like [fill it in]. I felt myself moving toward something, and I [fill it in]."
The final move of the story, of course, may change as you write the draft, but at least writing one now will give you some sense of the sort of ending that you've made possible with your beginning.
Using Mystery to Open Your Story
Once in an undergraduate fiction workshop that I was teaching, I found myself talking about the value of mystery in the opening of a short story. Of course, there are a number of ways to open a story, but let's say you're desperate for one. Let's say you're in the prewriting stage of a new story, and not only are you at a loss for where to begin; you also have no knowledge of the characters or the plot. A good opening line that contains a bit of mystery may be just what you need.
Consider the following examples of first sentences:
I was in bed when I heard the gate. (From Raymond Carver's "I Could See the Smallest Things")
I wake up afraid. (From Tobias Wolff's "Next Door")
This is a story about an old lady who ordered a young man from an L.L. Bean catalog. (From Ellen Gilchrist's "The Young Man")
On the platform at Penn Station, at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, a young woman in a red sweater stood waiting for the Boston train to pull in. (From Joan Wickersham's "Commuter Marriage")
If you're like me, your curiosity is aroused by these openings. Questions arise from each sentence; there are things we want and need to know. Who's at the gate, and what will the narrator do next? Why does the narrator in the Wolff story wake up afraid? Afraid of what? Why would an old lady order a young man from L.L. Bean? How would that even be possible? What would happen if a young man actually arrived? Why is the young woman waiting for the train from Boston? Who's on that train, and what does he or she mean to the woman?
Imagine that you're the writer of each of these stories. How can you not keep writing from these opening sentences that give you so much to figure out? All you have to do is get your main characters into action. Maybe you'll see a causal chain of events begin to come together as your main characters respond to the mysteries that open their stories. If this happens, then this might happen, and so on, all the way to the end of the narrative.
To get the first draft of a story written, sometimes all you need is an opening line that has a bit of mystery in it. Often a story moves ahead from what the writer doesn't know. Norman Mailer once said, "Writer's block is only a failure of the ego." So, instead of fearing the blank page, march boldly onto it. Give yourself some questions to answer and keep writing until you have them. Open with a line that makes you curious, and then draft the story that eventually satisfies that curiosity. Start with what you don't know and end with what you do.
Trouble? I've Seen Trouble
I recently posted a quote from E. B. White on my Facebook group page, a quote that spoke to me about the importance of trouble when it comes to generating a plot: "There's no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another."
I've always agreed with those who say that creating a plot is a simple matter of getting a character into trouble and then seeing what he or she will do to try to get out of it. John Updike described his first steps onto the page in this way: "I try instantly to set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity, and at the end of the story or novel to rectify the tilt, to complete the motion." With that in mind I'd like to offer up a few ways to get your characters into trouble.
1. Sometimes trouble pays a visit. In Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing" a young boy, Scotty, gets hit by a car, and though he appears to be unhurt at first, he later slips into a coma and then dies. His mother forgets about the cake that she ordered for his birthday from a baker who was abrupt with her. When the baker starts calling the house to say the cake hasn't been picked up — saying things like "Have you forgotten about Scotty?" — the trouble that started the story takes on an added dimension. No longer is it merely bad fortune striking. It's now something that requires a response, and that response is the eventual confrontation with the baker, which leads to a surprising moment of grace. The combination of bad luck and the presence of the baker leads us into the complicated terrain of suffering and compassion. If trouble puts pressure on a character, increase the pressure from a source outside the realm of the trouble. Press harder until your character has to act.
2. Sometimes we make our own trouble by what we decide to do. Sammy, the teenaged narrator of John Updike's "A&P," quits his job as a grocery clerk cashier in support of the girls who have violated decorum and come into the store in their bathing suits. Of course, his gesture goes unnoticed by the girls, and Sammy ends up with a consequence he couldn't have predicted: "My stomach fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." Use dramatic irony to complicate the trouble-causing action. Let the character's intention produce its opposite result.
3. Sometimes we make our trouble by letting people believe something is true when it isn't. The central action of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement depends on thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, who makes a false accusation based upon facts she believes to be true. Her accusation changes lives forever. There are variations of this plot-making strategy. Perhaps the character tells the truth about something heard or seen but leaves out other facts in order to let the listener construct the narrative that the speaker desires, a narrative that the speaker knows to be a partial truth. Sometimes a character says or does something only to have it misinterpreted. The key here is to arrange the facts in such a way, with whatever back story is necessary, so more than one narrative is plausible.
4. Sometimes we make our trouble by trying to run away from what we've done or by being afraid of what we might do. The mathematics tutor Henry Dees in my novel The Bright Forever gives his pupil Katie Mackey a fatherly kiss on the cheek, but because he knows people already consider him an odd bird, he fears that if anyone were to have witnessed the kiss, they would consider him suspect. Adding to his fear is the fact that he's already started to question his own motivations. His fear leads him to a moment of paralysis at the time when he most needs to act, thereby creating a trouble that will haunt him the rest of his life. An entire plot can be spun from a character's questioning of his or her own action.
I'm particularly interested in how people create their own troubles, either from the get-go or from how they respond to misfortunes that befall them. As the quote from E. B. White indicates, things will always get complicated if we let one thing follow another. If we can add a little pressure, irony, misinterpretation, or multilayered motivations, we can help those complications along. Too much restraint or politeness ruins a good narrative. Put your characters into action. Let them run at cross-purposes with others, with dramatic situations, and with themselves, and you'll create a memorable chain of events. We have to make room for the human flaws that can lead to trouble. Then we have to make enough room for our characters' attempts to save themselves. One thing leads to another. It's a good thing for a narrative to remember.
Making a Scene
When I was a boy, my mother often said to me, "Don't make a scene." Maybe I grew up to be a writer so I could make all the scenes I wanted. When we write narratives, whether fictional or the personal narratives of memoirs and essays, we need to give ourselves permission to make a scene.
I once had the pleasure of teaching a memoir writing workshop at the Warren County Public Library in Bowling Green, Kentucky. During the workshop we used objects from childhood (shoes, toys, scents) to recall pivotal moments from our pasts. Then we crafted scenes that invited the reader into the writer's memory and focused upon a moment of emotional resonance and complexity.
When people shared what they'd written, I heard stories of envy, desire, joy, disastrous circumstances — human moments, all of them shaped and delivered in a way that made me feel, and feel deeply, what the writers had felt when they lived through those moments.
Here are some reminders for writers of personal narratives:
1. Make sure that you've chosen an episode that was somehow outside the regular come and go of an ordinary day, an episode that includes a climactic moment beyond which life was never quite the same.
2. Set the scene right away in space and time and give us a sense of what the main characters carried with them into the scene. That emotional baggage plays a huge part in the characters' actions and reactions.
3. Include enough sensory detail to draw your reader into the scene. Remember that memoir isn't only a record of what happened. It's a chance to put your readers into your shoes. A scene is built from small details. Don't neglect them.
4. Use the reflective voice of the writer at the desk to flesh out the complicated layers of the scene and how they played a role in shaping that writer's life. Remember that you're always a participant in the scene (the you of a younger age), but you're also the narrator looking back and making meaning from what happened.
5. Use dialogue and action to move the scene to its climax. This is all part of making the readers feel that they're with you in that moment.
Virginia Woolf said it isn't the thing that happened that matters the most but what the writer is able to make of the thing that happened. So, make a scene and see where it takes you in your thinking about how you came to be who you are in the here and now. Make a scene so your readers can participate in it. Step back from the scene, providing a voice-over as such, as you speak from the adult perspective, the person who is capable of knowing now what you didn't know then.
Excerpted from "Telling Stories"
Copyright © 2017 Lee Martin.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction Part 1. Structure: Once upon a Time Writing the Opening of a Short Story Juggling Balls: An Exercise for Opening a Short Story Using Mystery to Open Your Story Trouble? I’ve Seen Trouble Making a Scene The Inevitable Surprise Framing the Story Character and Incident I Didn’t Expect That One Way to Structure a Memoir Organizing the Memoir The Layers of Memoir I Was Wearing Them the Day: Touchstone Moments and Details for the Fiction Writer Yogi Berra and the Art of Flash Nonfiction Mad Libs for Creative Nonfiction Enough about Me, Tell Me What You Think about Me Shrinking a Novel Preparing the Final Scene by Avoiding Conflict Here We Are at the End Taking Care at the End: The Art of Misdirection Part 2. Characterization: There Were Three Little Pigs On a Mother’s Birthday, a Writer Loves the World Tightening the Screws: Putting Pressure on Our Characters Contradictory Characters Odd Couples: The Writer as Matchmaker Characterization in the Personal Essay Creating Richer Characters The Art of the Snark Part 3. Detail: A House of Straw, a House of Sticks, a House of Bricks My Mother Gives Me a Writing Lesson Get the Particulars Right Know Your Place That Kind of Place: An Argument for Nostalgia Nostalgia and the Memoirist A Detail and All It Can Do The Places We Know: What Richard Ford Taught Me Daydreaming Your Memoir The Heart’s Field: Place in Fiction Oh, Those Pesky Facts: What’s a Memoir Writer to Do? Memoir and the Work of Resurrection Using Photos in Memoir Ordinary Details in Memoir Connecting Particulars Context Part 4. Point of View: “Little Pig, Little Pig, Let Me Come In” Your Point of View Choice Creates the Effect of the Story The Inner Story of the Writer’s Thinking Finding a Different Lens Memoir and the Future Living Full: Avoiding Sentimentality in Memoir Into the Fire Part 5. Language: “Not by the Hair of My Chinny Chin Chin” Stylin’ The Value of a Beautiful Sentence The Art of the Twerk: Writing the Miley Cyrus Way Communal and Personal Voices Voice in Creative Nonfiction Personae and Tone in Fiction Paying Attention to Form in Flash Nonfiction The Kite The Thing Said: Ten Thoughts on Writing Dialogue in Memoir Alligators and Marshmallows: A Lesson in Humor Comedy in Fiction Part 6. Revision: And the Third Little Pig Lived Happily Ever After Taking Flight: First Drafts Felt Sense: Focusing on Revision More Revision Activities The Doorway between Memoir and Fiction Proverbs for Revising a Novel Part 7. The Writing Life: The Two Little Pigs Now Felt Sorry for Having Been So Lazy and Built Their Houses with Bricks My Mother’s Gifts to Me My Aunt among the Rocks Five Ways We Keep Ourselves from Writing Five Things All Writers Can Control Reading Like a Writer Writing to Preserve Travel and the Writer Slowing Down Our Quiet Places What Fills Us The Books and the Boys of Summer A Writer Writes: A Lifelong Apprenticeship Defeating Writer’s Block Ten Thoughts on the Writing Life Keep Facing the Blank Page