Shelley Widhalm

Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Story’s Arc

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 27, 2012 at 11:00 am

Arc is a literary term that conceptually makes sense but is difficult to apply in story planning – that is, if you’re the type of writer you can’t figure out endings.

Arc is the storyline from beginning to middle to end.

In my novel “Dropping Colors,” I’m a third of the way into the story – I know that my two main characters, an artist and a musician, are going to meet, engage in some kind of romance and change each other’s realities. How my story will end is up to my subconscious and the process of letting the story unfold.

The arc is a very loose description of story structure, similar to how the architecture of a home can be reduced to the walls, windows and doors.

The structure of a story contains the elements of the arc line but with more detail. Stories need to have an origination, or some kind of incident that sets up the conflict. This is the beginning.

The middle is the escalation of that conflict and a complication of the situation the characters have to face. The ending resolves the conflict and situation, offering a resolution, unless the story is part of a series.

The storyline, in that case, is resolved but something brought up in the telling sets up a new conflict that can be continued in the next installment. Or, in the case of mysteries, one case is closed but there will be another as part of the character’s job or hobby.

Alongside the story arc, there is character arc.

The character arc is the line of the character’s transformation from the beginning to the middle and to the end. The line shows how the character faces her flaws, fears and limitations and overcomes what hinders her from getting what she wants.

The arc, in other words, is the personal growth and development that she undergoes in a story.

See Zoey the dachshund’s take on arc at


Ways to Add Complexity to Writing

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

As I write, I am not consciously trying to insert subtext and symbolism in the chapters of my story as it unfolds.

But if I achieve one or both, the two literary devices can add complexity to how I tell that story.

Subtext, or the undertone, is the content the characters or narrator do not announce explicitly. It is implicit, the unspoken thoughts and motives of the characters and the content underneath their spoken dialogue. This implicitness can point to conflict, anger, conceit and other emotions.

When I write, I want my characters to say one thing but mean another, to not express how they really feel when they are in situations that make such expression difficult. I want them to have an inner life that they do not completely understand, so that their actions are not self-evident.

As for symbols, I typically write from a brief outline, not planning to use a person, object, event or situation to represent something else in addition to its literal meaning.

In my latest novel project, “Dropping Colors,” my writer’s group pointed out that my mention of a skeleton key that Kate kept that her father had lost is intriguing. The key, mentioned in chapter 1, is something I will include in the end of the book, but its meaning is not yet clear to me.

I like that I will be discovering that meaning as I dig into Kate’s character, adding another layer to the text that may surprise me.

Metaphors and similes are two of my favorite literary devices. I love comparing things, coming up with my own slant on how to describe my dog, for example.

A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things, using the qualities of one object or idea to illustrate the qualities in the other. “My dog is a teddy bear” is a metaphor.

A simile is a type of metaphor that compares two things using the word “like” or “as,” such as, “My dog barks like a Great Dane.”

Another type of comparison is a literary analogy, which compares a subject point by point to something else that is familiar. The key to an analogy is to find some characteristics of both that have similar qualities.

The key to adding complexity to text is to consciously use some of the literary devices but also to let the devices arise out of the process of discovering what your characters want to say and do and be.

A Writer’s Toolbox

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 13, 2012 at 11:00 am

Every writer’s toolbox has different tools, but the most essential is the desire to write.

Learning about the elements of writing – storytelling, story structure and word usage – is similar to using an instruction manual to fix a car.

Diagnosing the problem, looking at a chart pointing out the parts of the car and reading about the necessary steps doesn’t mean the problem will be solved. The missing element could be the desire to do the work, or the confidence and skill to complete it so the car runs.

Writing requires work, and to do that work, there needs to be motivation, discipline and, I believe, a love for some or several aspects of creating or the final creation. Do you love words, individually or how they sound in sentences? Do you love telling stories? Do you love solving story problems? Do you want to make readers feel? Do you want to feel?

Or maybe you like to see your name in print? Or to have finished something?

Writers need spark, just like cars need spark plugs to fire the ignition. For me that spark is a passion for words and getting lost in the story or poem I’m writing, so that what comes out feels like dancing and breathing and living, while I lose awareness of my physical self.

Like cars that need gas in the tank, writers need the space and time to be present for writing. If the tank drops toward the E, writers need to ride out their writer’s block or frustration with the knowledge that these emotions are not permanent.

I find that I get frustrated having so little time for writing.

The result is I save up words, emotions and ideas like money in the bank for when I do get to hang out with my laptop. I let go of my editor and inner critic, plus any negative emotions I have, because now it’s time for my date with QWERTY.

I schedule my writing time, not to specific days but to two to three times a week. I log in the hours I write, so I can see that, like an odometer marking the miles, I am making progress toward a goal. I get excited about every 5,000 words I finish in a novel’s rough draft.

All of this is my fuel for not giving up when I am unpublished with a burning, driving, raging yawp to get my words out into the world. I want my words to be heard, read and even sung.

I don’t necessarily have a map with every step plotted out, but what I do have is a giant imagination, a spark of creativity without which I would fade and a passion for this art I cannot stop loving.

See Zoey the dachshund’s interpretation of toolboxes at

A Writer’s Quarterly Review

In 52 Writing Topics, Plot, Quarterly Review, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 6, 2012 at 11:00 am

Businesses do it for survival, but I figured as a writer, I could glean my own form of a quarterly review.

I’ve just finished month four of my yearlong blog of 52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty.

A little late, my review is three months, plus one.

Each week, I am tackling a writing topic, starting with the basics of Plot, Setting, Character, Dialogue and Pacing to fire up the big guns in my writer’s toolbox.
The BIG guns, you ask.

Before opening the toolbox, I want to key in on the essentials of writing a story or novel.

There has to be a hook in the beginning that contains a strong inciting incident. This incident triggers the main character’s problem or submerges him or her into trouble. She wants something but has to face obstacles that block the path to obtaining her goals and desires.

The telling of her story begins in the middle of the action to achieve a level of pacing that draws in the reader. The exciting moment is what gets readers turning the page, which likely won’t happen if the telling is bogged down with back story or has to start at the beginning without anything interesting happening.

Wherever they appear in a story, flashbacks should retell what happened before the story’s action begins and are triggered by something specific, such as a character seeing an object and remembering something because of it.

The story unfolds as a series of scenes strung together with a beginning, middle and end, or the arc of the entire telling. The outcome of each scene is what moves the plot forward.

What the story is about and why it matters is the theme, which offers insights or comments about the human experience.

The setting grounds the character in his or her reality without drawing too much attention to the words.

Voice comes through word choice and how words are put together to describe things.

Unlike that of the author, a character’s voice is revealed in her behaviors and attitudes to those around her. Her dialogue is reduced to the essentials, leaving out the normal repetitions, tangents and diversions that occur in regular conversation.

The elements of fiction are just one aspect of my toolbox, as are my hammer, nails, screwdriver and pliers that represent my paper, pen, laptop, journals and the other things I need to do the writing.

The specifics of what is in a writer’s toolbox will be continued to next week, because my quarterly review has two parts. Like some CEOs, I need lots of paper to make a point.

* See Zoey the dachshund’s blog on her four-month review at