Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Plot’

Mountain fires and writing with fire

In 52 Writing Topics, Motivation, Passions, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 1, 2012 at 11:00 am

The High Park fire as viewed from Fort Collins, Colorado.

When the wind rode my laptop screen as if it were a sail, pushing my years of work across the table and onto the cement ground, I panicked.

Had I saved my latest work on my flashdrive? What if I lost a few pages, a few poems or a short story?

This was before theHighPark fire struck northernLarimerCounty, smothering the air in my hometown with the smells of a campfire gone wrong. From a lightning strike, thousands of burning acres. Evacuees. Lost homes. Harmed wildlife. A story that is becoming too large to imagine, at least from the outside.

I am writing about fire, a project I started in January nearly six months before my environment became engulfed in the smell, the texture (ashes drop like gray snowflakes), the sight (the smoke rises off the mountain as if from a chimney) and the taste and sound of burning .

My character in “Dropping Colors,” has lost her home in an apartment fire and is on the quest to find her lost things. A few of theHighParkevacuees had the chance to grab their essentials and most important personal things. Kate Letts, my character, does not get that chance and becomes reflective about the meaning of stuff.

Writing is about stuff, about loss and gain and about fire and the flame that lets the words burn. That burn will be revealed in my six-month review of blogging about 52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty.

Here’s the stuff, or what is essential to writing: Plot, Setting, Character, Dialogue, Voice, Pacing, Flashbacks, Scenes, Arc, Storytelling. The elements of fiction that are the pieces of wood in a fire.

The match is that initial idea for a character identity, an outline for a story or a snippet of something seen or overheard with the unanswered What If?

Strike the match to that pile of wood symbolizing the writer’s blank page. The spark is the inspiration, motivation, creativity and imagination that ignite the initial idea into flow.

Flow is the opposite of writer’s block, which is the state of mind when words refuse to come.

Flow is losing track of time, place and whatever evokes the senses and getting lost in the telling of the story. For me, it’s almost like reading, because I am not in complete control, though I am conscious, at least somewhat, that I am writing.

To stoke the fire to last until the next writing session, find a good stopping point in the middle of a scene or a chapter or an idea. That way the flame can be picked up to continue the writing burn.

Stoking the fire is keeping to a writing schedule. It is discipline. It is putting time into the craft and art of storytelling.

To keep on writing, there needs to be goals, a belief in the self and the knowledge that this is a rough draft. Just as the main character has to face her flaws, fears and limitations and overcome them to get what she wants, the writer has to work through the same things.

That’s what passion is, doing this thing you love without ever giving up. Despite heartbreak. Despite being told your work is ashes. Despite not having a home for your words.

Writing is Catching Fire, Running with the Wind and Being Wild with all the elements of fiction, so that what results is a thing of beauty. From fire comes a myriad of colors that cannot be washed away. It becomes part of the text, so that the readers lose track of their own settings, identities and stories of their lives.

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

Telling Dialogue in Stories

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 5, 2012 at 10:00 am

A writer good at dialogue doesn’t have to be good at conversation.

Dropping a conversation, recorded verbatim or that imitates actual talk, directly into a story would bore most readers.

Dialogue is one of those elements of fiction that if done poorly slows the pace of a story, distracting from the forward motion of the plot.

Unlike dialogue, conversations start with introductions and are peppered with fillers, like um, oh, sure, okay and other one-syllable words.

“Hi, Anna,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Good. It’s such a beautiful day.”

“Not for me. It’s raining,” said Amie (who lives in Seattle or Washington, D.C., where rain is the norm).

Not very interesting, but this is what happens when we talk.

Dialogue has a point and leaves out normal conversational natter, like the “hi’s” and “how are you’s.”

It edits out the repetitions, tangents and diversions that occur in conversation.

It economizes by skipping introductions.

It winnows down to the key words, removing the subject or creating an ellipses within the sentence. Dropping words adds to the impact of what the characters are saying.

In other words, dialogue must drive the plot.

It shouldn’t be used to tell back story, explaining the incidents that occurred before the story’s opening scene. It shouldn’t give exposition or drop in information better left to the narrative.

Dialogue, as well as facial expressions, gestures and movement, should be used to show what the characters are like. It should show who they are and how they are feeling in the moment.

Dialogue differentiates the characters, so that they don’t all sound the same.

In other words, dialogue communicates a lot using a few words. Conversation doesn’t really have a stopping point, but peters out or ends when someone has to catch a taxi, gets bored or has a very important date.

Dialogue is like butter, too much and that’s what you taste; too little and the toast is dry.

Hooking Readers

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 15, 2012 at 10:00 am

Though it weighs a fraction of an ounce, the page will not get turned if it’s missing this essential ingredient.

It’s like the sugar in cookies.

Or the money in the paycheck.

Without it, why would the reader want to continue reading?

The reader likely will stop if a story lacks plot, character, setting and dialogue and just rambles, going nowhere as if the writer was saying, “And then this happened, and this happened after that, and on and on.”

To get the reader to chapter two and to give your book or story a chance, there has to be a hook that reels in the reader (think caught fish, but one that has the choice to cut loose without struggle).

The hook typically contains a strong inciting incident that triggers the main character’s problem or submerges her (I tend to write about female characters, hence my pronoun choice) into trouble.

This character realizes that she wants something out of reach or doesn’t want what’s just happened to her. She’d like to return her life to status quo, but it has been altered by this problem or trouble that she has to resolve.

Let’s say the character has been served divorce papers while waiting tables to pay off the student loans of her just-graduated husband. He comes into the bar where she works with a …

Or she yells at someone in the parking lot who raises …

Are you hooked?

The hook, or the first one or two or three paragraphs, shouldn’t start with scenery (the opposite of an exciting inciting incident) or dialogue, though some writers will disagree. If a story begins with quote marks, the second paragraph has to make it clear who made the statement and where and why. As for writing pages of scenery, writers of the classics delayed the action in a manner stylistic for the times that readers in a fast track tech world typically find cumbersome.

That’s not to say that the opening should exclude a reference to the setting, without which the character would be floating around in no particular time or place.

The opening scene, I believe, should begin with character, and not plot, though there needs to be some sort of action. An interesting character with a secret, a contradiction in her personality or an overwhelming desire for something makes the reader want to find out more about this person.

The reader becomes engaged in finding out why the character wants to tell her story.

A hook, if not an immediate grab into the story’s action, can pivot on the use of language, or a description of something that is so compelling and different that the reader becomes intrigued by the writer’s style.

The writing either way shouldn’t be heavy with clichés and abstractions, but visual and visceral, drawing upon the senses. Good writing includes detail and shows and doesn’t tell. It doesn’t summarize or skim over descriptions like a skipping stone.

Writing a great opening scene requires some action on the part of writers. They need to write and rewrite, of course, but they should save the rewriting and self-editing for later in the process. They need to think of story and character, while resting like the angler on the water, waiting for the fish to bite. They are waiting for words to rise, not forcing them as they begin.

Facing the BLANK Page

In Plot, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 8, 2012 at 9:20 pm

As a self-proclaimed word junkie, I get frustrated when I face the blank page.

When I told my friend about my challenge for the year – 52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty – he asked, “How do you write a great opening scene?”

Understanding plot is an essential start, just as having a blueprint is necessary to build a house or an outline to write a college essay.

Without plot, there is no story, but unconnected moments of time like a broken string of pearls scattered on the ground. Stories follow a structure or framework called the narrative arc, which, simply put, is the story’s beginning, middle and end.

The opening scene needs a hook, or the inciting incident that gets the story moving. There should be some action, a character or two and a setting, which is the time and place where the action is occurring.

Readers will turn to page 2 and on to 3 and 4 if they care about the main character, whose actions drive the plot. The character has to have a goal or desire, whether it is romantic, emotional or practical.

This desire is what drives the character to act; otherwise the character would be just as happy watching TV or reading a book.

As the character goes for what she wants, she will face challenges, or obstacles, that become increasingly more difficult to overcome as the arc of the story rises upward.

The conflicts, whether internal or external, represent what the character is trying to resolve and are what creates these obstacles. The climax offers up the largest obstacle and determines whether the character actually gets what she wants.

The structure or framework, once in place, requires that everything in the story work together to tell the tale.

The other side of the arc, or the falling action to the story’s end, is where the character experiences some kind of revelation. Does she meet her goal? Or does her goal even matter anymore? Did she get something better (or worse) in her search to obtain her desires?

The resolution is where these revelations occur and where any loose ends are tied up, so that the strand of pearls becomes a full circle.

Now that the framework is in place, next week, I will talk about how to approach the opening scene with inspiration, creativity and originality.

The Plot-Sentence Question

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 18, 2011 at 7:00 am

Is it plot or the sentence that’s the problem?

Beginning writers can have pretty sentences that go nowhere, or they can have plot without the other elements of good writing.

That’s what young adult author Brenna Yovanoff, who visited the Loveland Public Library last week, has found to be the case from her multiple years of experience writing short stories and publishing two novels, including her New York Times bestseller “The Replacement.”

I have to agree.

My first attempts at writing had the adornment of store windows decorated for the holidays, sparkly, colorful and attention grabbing. But they lacked the building holding the windows in place.

What I wrote had a scantily clad plot, without setting and character development to color my created world with people, places and things.

Everything I did was an attempt without story. My characters acted but without the goal that drives them through each scene until they overcome some obstacle to get what they want or realize that they didn’t want, but learning something even better along the way.

I had to do a lot of research – I read books and magazine articles about the writing process – to understand the structure that holds stories together.

This structure encompasses the plotline from beginning to end with the arising conflicts, whether inner or outer, and tension between characters or forces serving as the scaffolding. Otherwise the plotline would be flat moving from Point A to B to C and on and on.

I didn’t understand what some would call formula, but what I now know is elemental to writing a novel.

Plot is what gets readers turning the page, escalating their desire to find out what happens until the last page. Sentences and how they are written, or an author’s style and voice, is what gives writing individuality, so that no other writer can tell a story just how you, the writer, has to. Pretty sentences and all.