Friday, October 9, 2015

Writing Workshop Session 14 (Personal Narrative)

Writing Workshop Session 14: Slowing Down & Stretching  Out the Story's Problem

"Writing is a craft before it is an art; writing may appear like magic, but it is a teacher's responsibility to take their students backstage to watch the pigeons being tucked up the magician's sleeve."

Character's dialogue is one powerful way that writers can reveal the character's personalities and hint at the bigger meaning of the moment.  

Think back to "Everything Will Be Okay" and how strongly you reacted to Paul's tone, to his condensation and cruelty.  When Paul told him to "be a man" and help him end the kitten's life, you ached for Jim.  You jumped to his defense and wished you could protect him from his brother's insensitivity.

There is another aspect of Jim Howe's craft that could significantly raise the quality of your writing.  

Read the Dr. office scene with your writing partner.

Do you notice how closely he controls the tension in the scene at Dr. Milk's office?  He carefully maintains a sense of uncertainty and builds emotion.  These qualities make the scene especially gripping for readers who are pulled along, anxious for Jim about what they suspect and dread what might happen.

Extraordinary storytellers structure their own story to stretch out the problem and give the character and the reader, alike, more time to absorb the events.


You will continue to take your self through the writing process and continue to use all your available tools to help you.  I would like to teach about one more thing you can push yourself to do as you write your drafts.  Have you ever noticed that in your favorite Hollywood blockbuster movie that the most intense and perhaps even action-packed scenes actually take their time unfolding?  And of course it's not always mayhem that needs time to unfold- sometimes it's a really sad or scary moment in a movie, too.

(share scene from The Hunger Games p.121)

You can take inspiration from some of your favorite movie directors today as you begin planing and drafting.  You'll want to think about how to build your problem and build tension in ways that keep their viewers on the edge of their seats.

Teaching Point

Today, I want to show you that when writers want to craft an especially compelling story, they can begin by studying a mentor text and ask "How has the author structured the story? What has the writer done to story-tell powerfully?"

It is probably a bit of a challenge for you to stop thinking that you have to stick to telling the story exactly as it happened, but that's what writers do.  They ask themselves:

  • What do I want my reader to feel and understand about this moment?
  • How can I tell my story in a way that will make this happen?

Let's give this a try with "Everything Will Be Okay".  We are going to look closely at the part where Jim Howe tells the story of when he and Paul bring the kitten to Dr. Milk's office, after hours.  Howe really stretches out this tense moment in a way that makes all of us tense.  Let's look at what he writes and list across our fingers each tiny step of events.  

(read scene from Everything Will Be Okay p.122)

Now, let's sequence the events that happened in this scene.
  1. Paul makes Jim get out of the car with the box and follow him into Dr. Milk's office
  2. Paul turns on the lights and tells his brother he has to come in back and help him
  3. But, Jim doesn't move.  He wants to know what Paul is going to do, so he asks and Paul doesn't say it at first.  He just says "What do you think?" in a mean way
  4. The narrator describes how he won't let his tears out, even if it kills him, because he doesn't want Paul to see him cry.
  5. Jim tells Paul he has a choice as he holds on to the box tightly.  Paul takes Jim's arm and tells him to "be a man".
  6. Paul and Jim argue about what the right thing to do is.  
  7. Jim realizes Paul is going to do what he wants.  
  8. Paul and Jim are in the back room and Smokey is now in the pretzel can.  Paul is lecturing Jim about different methods of putting an animal out of their misery.    

When you study the sequence of events like we just did, it really brings out how the author made Jim's ordeal at Dr. Milk's office more and more intense, with each passing second.  Paul just didn't grab the box from Jim and administer the deadly gas.  Instead, Howe created a series of tiny, pressure-filled moments where bit by bit, things only get more devastating for Jim.

With deliberate planning, you can accomplish this in your writing too.  It's a matter of slowing things down, making sure you don't get to the worst part of the problem too quickly.  

Slow down the trouble and build tension

Structure your story so that it builds lots of tension and stretch out the problem and tell it in bits.  With each bit make your emotions more intense.  

(model building tension and emotion with garden story p.124 or one of your own)

Insights gained from trying this work

Sometimes you have to escalate tension in more than one part of your story.  In the garden story, the narrator has to build from the part where her dad leaves to the part where they wreak havoc with the hose.  She also had to build tension again when she tries to repair the damage she caused before her dad returns. Also, the emotions get more serious as the trouble in each scene intensifies.  Is there more than one place in your story where you can build tension? 

Active Engagement

  • Think about the parts of your story- sequence them
  • Think about the problem- how can you slow it down and stretch it out (visualize it like a movie in slow motion)
  • Remember all your strategies you know for elaborating
  • Use more inner thinking and precise actions to slow things down and build tension
*Get with your writing partner and rehearse these parts
Then, remind yourself of your writing goals and continue to develop and edit your stories


Every character needs to have a "mountain" in the story.  On the outside should be the events that the character is experiencing (external) and there should be plenty of rising tension and a stretched out climax.  On the inside of the mountain should be the emotions (internal) that the character is experiencing through the course of the story.  The emotions should naturally build, escalate, and resolve.  So, as your scenes move up the mountain, the emotions intensify and as secndes move down the mountain, emotions mellow.  

*You want your reader to go on a journey with the people in your story, to experience their emotions and feel satisfied at the conclusion.


Tonight continue to develop your characters by making sure to revise in ways that round out your character's arc.
  • What do you need to make your story work?
  • Do you need to slow down a moment of tension?
  • Do you need to craft a more meaningful ending?
  • Do what you need to make sure each of your characters takes a journey in your story
*Sketch out a mountain for each of your characters

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