A couple weeks ago I got a call from Matthew Arkin. We talk a few times a week about projects, processes, calendars, and clients, so I grabbed my earbuds and started doing chores, getting ready to walk and talk.
I was not expecting to hear a catch in his voice when he said hello.
He said he had to tell me about his last session with a new client. He sounded very intense. My eyes got big and I had one of those moments where you take note of where you are — I stopped on the third basement step with a basket of laundry on my hip.
“Nothing!” he said. “It’s just that this last assignment she turned in made me cry, it was so good!”
I grinned and snapped out of my holding pattern, heading back down the stairs. Matthew has been teaching The Storyteller’s Eye pretty intensely this year; for stage and screen at Chapman University, and for fiction writers at MTCE. We’ve been tweaking the fiction course over the last six months, making it more responsive to each client’s needs and refining the process — which now often includes a phone call from me at about the 3rd-assignment mark, where people tend to have a breakdown and need a good pep talk. It’s in the last three weeks that the magic is really happening.
Matthew told me about this client, about the original draft she started with, the assignments she’d tackled on exposition, showing vs. telling, character development . . . but the major breakthrough was with this last draft. She’d infused it with all the energy and elements of the lessons she’d completed and wrote an entirely new scene out of a couple of sentences of the original draft.
We asked the client if we could share this story in a blog post and she graciously said yes. Read on to see how a passing mention of a guy walking into a bar developed into a totally engaging scene.
Behind the Scenes: The Storyteller’s Eye
by Matthew Arkin
It is one thing for an editor to tell you to show, rather than tell. It is quite another to figure out how to do it.
We work every day with authors, some of whose first foray into the literary world is writing a full-length novel. They have an idea—quite often a wonderful idea—and a toolbox stocked with words and the notion that the work should be set down in paragraphs and broken up into chapters.
Sometimes they’ve never taken a writing course. Some have written a novel from beginning to end and sent it to us for critique without ever having read the manuscript all the way through.
These authors are often dismayed to discover that their first draft is just that, a first draft, and that much more work is required; sometimes more work than it took to put the first pass down on the page to begin with.
Overwhelmed, some simply give up.
I believe this is a mistake.
Writing is a craft, difficult and painstaking. It requires talent, of course, but also skill, dedication, and practice, to at least the same degree required of other artists—painters, sculptors, dancers, woodworkers. To think otherwise is folly. But there is hope.
There are many excellent books and courses that can help you improve your writing. You can learn how to conjure evocative details, catch yourself when you’re telling, figure out how to show, and ultimately bring your fictive dream to life on the page.
I’d like to share an example of the progress one of my students made recently. The following passage was written by Stephanie McIntyre, who has graciously given us permission to share her work with you.
In the first draft of Stephanie’s fantasy adventure novel, a character named Viktor arrives for a meeting at a pub called The Sleeping Dragon. The passage is on page 10 of the novel, and we do not know much about the fantastical story world. As Viktor enters the pub, he is confronted by a bouncer, and we read the following:
“You are welcome to drink, but take heed. There will be no violence in this establishment.”
Viktor nodded and walked to the back of the room, where an elf sat impatiently waiting.
“It’s about time. I got word two days ago.”
Although this meeting is crucial to the plot, the reader is unceremoniously thrust into it. We are new to the world, and we have no idea what it looks and feels like. We don’t really know where we are. I wrote in the margin of this early draft, “Do you perhaps want to give us more detail here, and some of the dialogue? His interaction with the barkeep and what he sees as he scans the pub while he waits for his drink are opportunities to tell us a lot about this world and the characters in it.” I also sent her an example of a bar scene. (It happened to be from my own novel, but any one good one would have done the trick.)
I pointed out that pubs are rich ground to till; they can tell us so much about a world or a society. Think about the Star Wars Cantina, Rick’s Café Americain, Cheers, Callahan’s Place, the Gold Room at the Overlook Hotel, the Korova Milk Bar . . .
Restaurants, bars, and pubs are an intersection of all walks of life, and the interactions there can show us so much information, saving the author the labor of telling and reader the tedium of being told.
After our conversations, here is what the author returned:
“There won’t be any trouble in my pub. Understand me?” the bouncer continued.
Viktor ignored the doorman as he scanned the patrons of the bar.
The bouncer reached out to touch Viktor’s arm. “I said—”
“Don’t.” Viktor turned to look the bouncer in the eye. He watched the doorman pause, give him a weary look, and then slowly withdraw his hand. “I won’t be here long.”
Viktor walked to the bar. He ran his hand along the edge of he oak countertop. His fingers trailed along the dents and dings from years of abuse. The bartender stopped shining the surface and looked at him, then laid a coaster printed with a dragon in front of him. Viktor watched as the dragon on the coaster turned around in circles, lay down, and fell asleep.
“Until noon, get two Disgruntled Elves for a copper,” said the bartender. Pointing to the whiskey barrel marked in green gothic letters, he said, “We’re out of Hag. Everything else we’ve got.”
“I’ll take the Disgruntled Elf,” said Viktor. He tossed a copper in the direction of the bartender, who caught it and tucked it in the pack at his waist. With his two remaining hands he picked up two pint glasses and began to fill them from a wooden tap marked Old Marge— D. ELF. “Slow day?”
“Usual crowd.” The bartender tilted his head towards a table surrounded by an orc, gremlin, troll, halfling, and lizard. Each had a small pile of coins in front of them and cards in their hand. “They will be out of money or too drunk soon enough.”
Viktor watched the couple at the table behind the gamblers. He had trouble figuring out where one individual started from the next. The bartender followed his gaze. “They just had the passion punch.”
The wench walked over to the bar, turned towards the couple, and then leaned against the bar. She began to count. “Three . . . two . . . one.”
The couple got up, bumped into several tables, and finally ran out the door the bouncer had already swung open for them.
She turned back to the bartender. “You owe me two coppers. Told you they wouldn’t make it ten minutes.”
The bartender reached in his bag and passed her the coins. “You have to admit she seemed frigid when they walked in. I was sure it would take ten.”
The bar wench laughed, then glanced to Viktor, frowned, and headed towards the gamblers.
Viktor grabbed the two pints and made his way to the empty table in the back corner. As he passed the bar wench on the way, he told her not to bother servicing his table. He took the chair in the corner and sat with his back against the wall. With a view of the entire pub, he took a drink and waited, sizing up newcomers as they entered.
His mug was half gone when the pub door opened and in strolled a tall, slender elf.
The difference between these two passages is astounding. By making the simple change of having Viktor arrive before the elf, we have a character in the bar, forced to interact with others, then to observe as he sits and waits. In that interaction and observation, the world of the novel springs to life. We are not simply being fed the facts of plot. Rather, we are invited into the author’s dream, where we become immersed and are able to lose ourselves as the story unfolds around us.
There are many ways to study the craft of writing. If you’re interested in learning more about the one-on-one online writing course that helped bring the scene above to life, please check out The Storyteller’s Eye and schedule a free consultation. Six exercises can make a dramatic difference for your writing!