The 3 act plot structure for the short story

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

The plot isn’t a series of events that move forward in a random way. The events are connected by cause and effect and have a very definite structure to them. The plot for the short story can be structured like a 3 act play and like in a play the acts are divided into scenes. Within each scene the structure is like the play itself with a beginning, middle and end, culminating in a high point.

Let’s take a closer look at this 3 act structure.

Act 1
Start with a set-up. A set-up can be viewed in a simple way: introduce a protagonist within a setting where a problem is about to hit him. What triggers the conflict’s story and kicks the plot into gear at the same time is known as the inciting incident. This incident or problematic situation will be something that both disturbs and challenges the protagonist. It comes as close to the beginning of the story as possible. Once character and setting are introduced in the set-up, the inciting incident should happen. The end of the inciting incident signals the end of the first act.

Act 2
This is the main body of the story. Here we are placing scenes that develop character, plot and conflict in a smooth and logical manner and the tension must always be rising, even in quiet periods of reflection; which means that the stakes are rising for the protagonist and that everything is heading toward a final and inevitable clash with the antagonist.

We have two or three events here where the protagonist and antagonist clash to keep the tension rising, bearing in mind that the inciting incident may be the first clash. The last event in this act will have a high point and the darkest moment. At the high point, it may look like our hero has got one over on the opposition, but then unexpectedly, the darkest moment arrives, and all he has tried to achieve now looks to be undone. It seems as if he has completely failed in his quest to sort out the challenge of the story. This is an essential moment that forces the tension even higher. It is the nail-biting moment in the horror film when it looks like the monster is dead but then it rises up sneakily behind our hero getting ready to devour him. Our hero is surely doomed now.

Act 3
The climax is where our hero turns round in time and has his last battle with the monster. It is an all or nothing moment where everything the hero has striven for will turn to dust if he loses at this point.

In the resolution all the loose ends are tied up.

3 Act Play
A short story plot arc can be structured like a 3 act play. This covers the set-up through to the resolution and the overall objective/problem to be tackled.

Act 1
Set-up
Inciting event
Act 2
Conflict (rising tension)
High point and darkest moment
Act 3
Climax
Resolution

The 3 act plot arc structure is a common formula that works for many popular films and novels really well, so for the short story we may need to tweak it a bit or even quite a bit. But to do this successfully we need to understand the underpinning psychology of why the formula creates rising tension and holds the reader or audience spellbound to a high degree. We can use a sporting analogy as a reference point to explain this underpinning psychology. Let’s think of a tug of war contest.

Act 1 is the set-up and the inciting incident or challenge.

The two teams get ready. The game begins. One team screams out a challenge to the other and tugs hard on the rope (antagonist does the challenging) pulling the other team (protagonist) toward the line. It is aggressive and confrontational but exciting for the spectators (reader, in our case).

Act 2 is the middle part with conflict and rising tension, and has a high point and darkest moment.

The challenged team (protagonist) might manage to pull the other side a few feet forward, but then the challengers (antagonist) dig deep and pull the challenged team forward close to the line. This exciting to-ing and fro-ing is constantly forcing up the tension. The most exciting moments come round possibly three times, so it’s like three little scenes of conflict within the overall match. The challenged team (protagonist) pull the other side right to the line (high point) and it looks like they’ve got it won. But the challengers recover, and soon drag the challenged team toward the line. One of the members of this team slips and falls, releasing his hold on the rope. Surely they’ve lost now. (Here is the darkest moment for the protagonist.)

Act 3 is the climax and resolution.

The losing team (protagonist) suddenly finds its second strength. It pulls back hard and regains a step. The other side pulls back hard. Another fierce struggle ensues, but this time the challenged team (protagonist) pulls its opponents over the line in a nail-biting finish (climax). The winning team get their medals and everyone shakes hands (resolution).

You don’t have to be a tug of war fan to understand this sporting analogy. It is a simple and expressive example and gets the basic points across clearly. If you were just to have a match, where within the opening seconds one team pulled the other over the line, or a match that lasted minutes but one team looked like it would win right from the start with no real balance in the struggle between the contestants, it would not be anywhere near as exciting. Of course, you can’t plan the most exciting outcome for a sport, but you can for a story.

Although the conflict here is described in physical terms, the same rules apply if the conflict is psychological or emotional. The emotional plot in a story has its challenges, its conflicts, its ups and downs and its bruises and tears just like in the physical plot.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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How to write a modern fable for the adult reader

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Here we will look at how to write a modern fable for the adult reader. As this is our first attempt, to make it easier we’ll use one of Aesop’s fables, The Ass, the Cock & the Lion, for both inspiration and guidance. We’ll define a fable then analyse our old fable before planning and writing out our modern fable. At the end are some pointers for crafting the fable.

What is a fable?

A fable is a short pithy tale consisting of characters that are usually animals, though plants, humans, inanimate objects or natural forces are also used. The characters are anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) and act as props for human character traits and expression. In the fable, each character fulfils a very narrow set of consistent characteristics. For example, the wolf is always a clearly defined predator with the nature to go with it; the fox is cunning, tricky, not to be trusted. Character is kept within simple boundaries so as not to interfere with the clear purpose or message/moral of the fable: to reveal a single aspect of the universal weakness of human nature.

The Ass, the Cock & the Lion

Below is the Aesopic fable we will use as a template for our modern fable.

An ass and a cock were in a cattle-pen together. Presently a lion, who had been starving for days, came along and was just about to fall upon the ass and make a meal of him when the cock, rising to his full height and flapping his wings vigorously, uttered a tremendous crow. Now, if there is one thing that frightens a lion, it is the crowing of a cock: and this one had no sooner heard the noise than he fled. The ass was mightily elated at this, and thought that, if the lion couldn’t face a cock, he would be still less likely to stand up to an ass: so he ran out and pursued him. But when the two had got well out of sight and hearing of the cock, the lion suddenly turned upon the ass and ate him up.

Analysis of the fable

The theme/human flaw or message
The theme or message is the most important thing about the fable. In order to bring this message across clearly in the tale, character must work as a simple stereotype. The theme must flow simply and clearly through this plot prop without any complications or hindrance. With the message, the fable is powerful. Without the message, the fable is worthless.

The message or moral of this fable is: False confidence often leads to disaster.

Character
Character here is drawn as usual in simple stereotypes. The ass acts as expected, as does the lion, a predator, and the noisy cock. The ass misjudges the situation which in turn leads him to underestimate his opponent. Consequently, his confidence swells out of all proportion to his talent and his subsequent action gets him killed by the king of the beasts.

The plot
An examination of this fable’s plot in the abstract will allow us to manipulate it easily for our own aims. The abstract plot has a physical as well as an emotional side.

Here is the abstract physical plot: B flees from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the psychological or emotional side: B flees in fear from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B, assuming that because he’s much bigger than A, he’ll scare C even more. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

Irony
Human nature is full of irony as it is full of splendid contradictions. When a character acts on a human flaw, as in this fable, irony often arises from the action. A fable with irony works better than one without, especially if irony is combined with an unexpected twist. It is odd that the sound of the cock should scare the lion, but odder still that the ass should make the assumption from this that he himself can scare the king of the beasts even more. The irony lies in the consequences of that assumption.

Plan the modern fable

Theme/human flaw
This is the easy part as we already have the theme/human flaw from the other fable and even the way it is delivered as a message.

False confidence often leads to disaster.

Character
We can also shift across relevant aspects of character from the other fable. The theme centres on the ass’s character flaw, which makes him the most important character in the tale. To keep him intact as a character, all we have to do is carry across his old attitude to the new situation and we keep intact his character flaw, too. If we do not keep intact this character attitude, we could very well end up delivering on a different message, which means we may as well have not bothered using this fable as a guide. Our characters will be a man and a woman and the situation modern, but obviously they must remain stereotypes. The man will become the equivalent of the ass and the woman the lion in our fable.

Plot
Let’s look again at the abstract plot from the old fable.

Here is the physical side: B flees from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the psychological or emotional side: B flees in fear from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B, assuming that because he’s much bigger than A, he’ll scare C even more. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

Now here’s the abstract physical plot for our fable: B dates A. This triggers C to chase B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the abstract psychological or emotional plot: C lusts after B, but until B dates A, C doesn’t act on it. As C thinks himself superior to A, he now chases B from a position of over-confidence. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

When we get the plot like this in the abstract we can easily see that both plots are the same.

The story
In the office, a man has wanted to make a move on a woman for quite a while but never had the confidence to do so. This is the equivalent of the ass who would never ordinarily dream of going after the lion. Up to now the woman has dated men with more money and better looks than our man, but now he discovers that her new boyfriend has less money and fewer good looks than himself. This is the equivalent of the lion fleeing from the crowing cock and the ass putting his own spin on the reason for it. Our man also puts his own spin on it, believing she is only dating below her league because she has lost her confidence. This makes him over-confident, and he gives chase. But as with the ass, the man learns too late that he has misjudged the situation. She cuts him to pieces for his assumptions.

Setting and Situation
Setting is stated rather than described in a fable.
Situation refers to the way the story plays out its conflict sequences. In our fable, the conflict will be done with dialogue. In the old one, the conflict is accomplished with physical movement.

Irony
In our fable, the man’s human flaw leads to action which creates an ironic twist. The woman’s reason for giving him the brush off has nothing to do with money and looks, as he had supposed, but with his poor attitude toward her. Yet it was this poor attitude that had first given him the false confidence to pursue her.

The modern fable

Now it’s time to have a bash at writing the fable itself.

One of the features of the fable is that it is named after the character types in the story; e.g. The Hare and the Tortoise. We are going to hold to that tradition here.

The Man & the Woman

A man lusted after a woman at the office, but kept from approaching her, fearful that she’d laugh off his advances, as her dates were always men with far greater looks and income than his own. One day, he discovered her new date was not as good looking as himself and earned far less income. Now his chest swelled with confidence, and he pounced on her, expecting a date. But he was rebuked with a laugh.

Shocked and angry at the rebuttal, he lashed out, “No longer able to date the classier men, you now date a man with fewer good looks and even less money than me. So why should you turn me down?”

She laughed again, “Your assumptions are all your own. I don’t judge men your way. My latest man is as good as any man. Your confidence was raised only because you thought mine was lowered and therefore my standards with it. You underestimate others in order to overestimate yourself. That’s why I’d never date you.”

Our theme or message rises clear and simple out of our fable: False confidence often leads to disaster.

Summing up

We are able to take the same theme/message, character attitude, and even the same physical and emotional abstract plot and sense of irony from the old fable and place them all in the modern fable, and yet on the surface they both appear very different to one another. And notice how relevant our modern fable is to our modern world! This is evidence (if needed) of how well the old fables encapsulate human nature, and do so in a witty and entertaining way. It also means that we can quite easily use these old fables as both inspiration and guide to create fresh and relevant fables of our own.

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Pointers for crafting the fable

Play with the formula
Fables tend to be very formulaic. This is not a bad thing as it allows the writer to concentrate on the delivery of the message within a well-established framework. However, now that we know what strengthens and what weakens a fable, we can play with the formula to make the fable a little more dynamic.

Story type
Story is often pure fantasy in the fable, which reflects in the use of anthropomorphic character. There is no effort made to convince the reader of the reality of the situation; it is the reality of the human weakness portrayed that is the function of the tale.
The main way to break with the tradition of the formula is to give it a context and situation of realism.

Style
We can follow the style of the Aesopic fable or take the vocabulary and imagery from elsewhere; from the modern world around us, for example. The more elaborate our language, though, the longer the fable is likely to be. For our example here, we more or less stuck to the tradition of style found in Aesop’s translations.

Description
Description must be plot-related and kept to a bare minimum. Language is often condensed and connective words and phrases used to push the plot on quickly.

To show difference or opposition use connectives like, ‘on the other hand’, ‘on the contrary’.

Causal connectives are words and phrases like, ‘consequently’, ‘because of’, ‘under the circumstances’.

Temporal connectives point out when things are happening and the passage of time. Examples are, ‘at this point’, ‘afterwards’, ‘then’, ‘on another occasion’, ‘winter arrived’.

Dialogue
Dialogue is cynical, witty, innocent, honest, often contrived and preachy when delivering on the message, but always short, sharp, to the point and effective.

“Aha! You never thought to come to this, did you, you who were so proud!”

Our Aesopic fable here lacks dialogue. The fable might have been more entertaining, if, for instance, the lion had informed the ass before devouring him, “The sound of the cock might scare me, but you, on the other hand, only make my mouth water.”

Beginnings
It’s a good idea to establish setting and character in the first line, as we must move to the plot as quickly as possible. ‘A woodman was felling a tree on the bank of a river…’ ‘An ass and a cock were in a cattle-pen together…’

Or we might get stuck into the theme (the human weakness) straightaway. ‘A bear was once bragging about his generous feelings…’

But we must at least introduce character in the first line. ‘A very unskilful cobbler, finding himself unable to make a living at his trade…’

Endings
The narrative works purely toward the final statement/message which may well be delivered with an ironic twist. This sort of twist gives the ending a lot of punch. But whether we have a twist or not, once the message is delivered the fable must end. There is now no reason to go on writing and to continue doing so might distract from the message and even leave the reader confused.

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For more on fables see: How to develop credible and insightful short story ideas from a fable.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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How to create a saying

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

The type of saying we will look at here expresses nuanced truths in an ironic and often witty way. This might sound like quite a lofty thing to try for but it’s not as difficult as it might at first appear. The saying is really a sophisticated joke, also with a set-up and a punchline. The first half usually sets the reader up for an expectation that is not met in the second half. Instead, we get an ironic twist. The effect is to jolt the reader into seeing the truth (message or theme) of the saying from a fresh and poignant perspective in a way they would not otherwise have thought about, if they had ever thought about it at all.

So for us to create a saying, we obviously need a sense of perspective that involves wit and irony, as well as a topic and a theme or message to deliver. In the saying’s first half, we will introduce the topic and then throw into an unexpected and ironic twist in the second half. We accomplish this by matching two concepts that usually never go together but in doing so create a spark. That’s why we get the irony and the twist and the message delivered in a fresh and poignant way. This is pretty much how wit works everywhere.

We’ll take three separate topics with a saying for each one and analyse them to see why they work. After that, we will introduce a fourth topic and attempt to create a saying out of it, using our three analyses to help us with inspiration and guidance.

Here’s our first saying on the topic of drinking:

Abstinence is the weakness of the faint-hearted; drunkenness the weakness of the strong-hearted.

What is this saying telling us? Those who choose not to drink at all abstain because they are too faint-hearted to drink (this is wit). It is suggesting that the non-drinker is afraid of what might happen to his personality if he lets himself go through drink. We know this because the second clause flips the subject of drink and abstinence on its head to suggest that abstinence would actually be a good thing for the strong-hearted who are only too ready to participate in alcohol overuse. The saying suggests that the faint-hearted would benefit by some alcohol and the strong-hearted (or headstrong) would benefit from some abstinence. These two concepts placed side by side in this way and delivered with sharp word play throw up wit and irony with a message that appears fresh.

Here’s our second saying on the topic of wealth:

Some people live in fifteen-million-pound houses and others in rundown public housing. But the same postal service delivers all our mail and the same graveyard accepts all our bones. Who says we don’t have equality?

This second saying is making a comment on equality, or lack of it, in society. Again, the matching of concepts that wouldn’t usually be placed together help deliver on the wit and irony in an offbeat way. The question at the end, of course, is our punchline. The writing is sharp and snappy and must be in order to carry the wit well.

Here’s our third saying on the topic of relationships:

Can romance really begin on first dates? Shouldn’t it start after you’ve had lots of time to get to know one another – like when the divorce papers have been signed?

Here we have another odd set of comparisons. The saying suggests that a couple need time to get to know one another before romance can blossom. How can we be romantic on a first date when we hardly know the other person? It ironically suggests that the best time for romance is when a couple have split up and are signing the divorce papers. Here is where you know the person best of all. But by then, of course, it’s too late. This saying seems ridiculous on the surface, and yet, people often don’t know one another very well at the beginning of a romantic relationship, and these same people certainly do know one another a lot better when the divorce papers are being signed. So when would the best time be to start the romance?

Our own saying:

We’ve analysed our examples and now have an idea of how things work. Let’s see if we can create a saying around the topic of journalism. What do we think of journalists? Well, they range from excellent to poor. Here we want to be witty, ironic and cynical all at the same time. We want to create something offbeat.

Journalism is a craft practised by journalists. (Makes sense so far). They take hard facts and attempt to make a story out of them. But often the story is biased, and, anyway, sometimes the journalist simply doesn’t know what he’s writing about, and at other times, he actually makes things up. Yet, the journalist attempts to persuade his audience that he is not biased but actually reasonable in his interpretation of the facts.

Let’s go into wit and irony mode now.

Journalism is a craft, which takes hard facts and turns them into stories; stories that are often biased or worse. Now it looks like more than a craft. The ability to twist facts to fit the biased opinion looks more like an art form.
Here we have found some key words which we can use to help us create the saying.

Journalism is an art form that takes hard facts and turns them into biased stories.

We’re already nearly there. We just need a little more punch, especially at the end.

Journalism is an art form that takes hard facts and turns them into fiction.

This is much better. The end is punchier but it is still not quite there. It doesn’t really give us the full ironic punch that we need. The journalist is trying to convince his audience he is writing the truth; he must appear plausible. Let’s stick the word plausible in at the end and see how it looks.

Journalism is an art form that takes hard facts and turns them into plausible fiction.

Plausible and fiction don’t go together ordinarily, but we are writing a saying and developing irony, and they fit in perfectly here for our purpose. Our ending is now fine and has the ironic punch we need. We can just make the first part a little punchier by writing it this way.

Journalism is the art of taking entire sets of hard facts and turning them into plausible fiction.

And there we have it: our first saying.

Summing up

We need wit, irony, a twist/ punchline, as well as a ring of nuanced truth about the topic, even if it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and a touch cynical. We achieve all this by matching concepts that would not normally go together and express them by using snappy and punchy words, some of which would not normally go together either.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Those forgotten great ideas

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

This post is about two great ideas I had then lost, why I lost them, whether I even had them, but what I gained from it all, anyway.

One night, having twisted and turned for ages, unable to nod off, I eventually and gratefully felt the blanket of sleep settle over my shoulders. Except, at that moment – bam! The greatest idea I’d ever had for a story sprang into my mind.

If I dared to think more on the idea, the mental stimulus would lift me right out of any slumbering state. Likewise, if I leapt out of bed, turned on the light and reached for a pen, I knew I’d go on writing for a while; and even once back in bed, I’d continue mulling the idea over in my head. Sleep would be a will-o’-the-wisp then. It was already past three and I had to be up for work at seven. These thoughts had taken only a handful of seconds to complete, so I was still on the cusp of dozing off.

It occurred to me that if this great idea was so great – which it was – a night’s snoozing couldn’t possibly wipe it from my memory. This one-in-a-million idea must have just branded itself into my memory, so wasn’t going anywhere soon. Nothing except proper memory loss could wipe it from my biological hard drive now.  Secure in the truth of this fact, I allowed myself the pleasure of drifting away into unconsciousness.

When I woke next morning, I instantly recalled I’d thought up a great idea and why I hadn’t bothered to rise and write it down. But as to the idea itself, I had no memory. Zilch! I shook my head. I pulled my hair.  Zilch! I went to work with a frown carved on my brow. Lunchtime came. I sat in the cafeteria with pen poised, waiting for the great idea to reappear with a fanfare of trumpets. Lunchtime passed. But for a few pathetic doodles, a page in my notepad remained blank. The afternoon passed. The evening passed. Lying in bed again, I suspected the great idea would return in a flash of glory just as I was falling asleep. The bedside light and paper and pen were but an arm’s length away. That night sleep swept over me in a moment. Zilch! That great idea has eluded me ever since.

The second great idea arrived when my creative antennae were twitching away in a frenzy, so I knew an idea would arrive from anywhere at any moment. Whether from overhearing a conversation, reading a newspaper or even just gazing through the window of the pub, something lively was going to spring out at me. I was actually overhearing a conversation when suddenly a snippet of it clashed head on with whatever aspect of the brain ‘plasma’ sparks off the imagination. A loud firework exploded, unleashing a multi-coloured shower of streaks and sparks, and as they descended slowly to earth – all happening in my mind, of course – they began to pattern the air with the words of another great idea.

Two things I had to bear in mind at this point. One, I’d learnt my lesson thoroughly from the last episode when sleep had deprived me of the first great idea forever. Since, I had taken especial pains in writing every idea down, although none of them had risen high enough in my estimation to warrant the label ‘the greatest idea I’d ever had’ like the one that had gotten away. Second, I was somewhat in a state of intoxicated light-headedness, which has forgetfulness as one of its major downsides. So I knew I had to cut and paste this idea from my mind onto paper, and the quicker the better, or else face the possibility of another catastrophe.

I scribbled away like a child with a crayon, filling half a sheet. Then I tucked the folded sheet away deep in my jacket pocket, downed the rest of my pint, smacked my lips together with smug satisfaction and congratulated myself on a masterful piece of tactical thinking as I rose to get another pint. It even occurred to me that this idea might be the one and the same as the great forgotten idea and that some sort of karma had helped regurgitate it up from the depths of my memory, with overhearing the snippet of conversation as the trigger for this.

The following day, I had completely forgotten about last night’s great idea, though hardly surprising due to the pace of my drinking. Only when I found the note in my jacket pocket did I become aware of it.

Even at the best of times my writing is quite the scrawl and I often struggle to make out my own written word, though do generally manage it. But when considerably light-headed and writing excitedly, hastily, as I must have done due to the belief that I had discovered another great idea – I could just make out the words at the top of the note ‘a really great idea’ – this had obviously taken its effect on my scrawl and every other word in the note looked like a row of trees battered and scattered by a hurricane.

Then memories of the previous day jumped into my mind. Now I recalled having an idea, that snippets of conversation had prompted it (though couldn’t remember what they were), and that I had eagerly written the idea down. In fact, I remembered everything except the idea itself. Once again, zilch!

Without the clarity of these words ‘a really great idea’, I would never have put myself through the mental assault course which followed.  My excitement picked up, and I ploughed on, desperate to read more. There were actually one or two other readable words in the dozen or so sentences of the note but that was it. I had no intention of giving up though. I was not going to lose my second ‘really great idea’.

I worked on that note on and off over a number of weeks as though I was decrypting a secret code. I would try and guess some letters of a word to see if I could then recognize the word itself, and next, by using this word as a clue, try and made sense of the clause. Once or twice, working in this way, it seemed that I had broken the meaning of a clause, and this really excited me, but I truly couldn’t be sure, and anyway, I never was able to break the meaning of the next clause in that sentence, if it actually was a sentence. What was really frustrating was that I could not even get a hint at what the great idea was about. Zilch!

Eventually, I realised I was staring at a complete dead end.

Karma, indeed. More like the Gods playing games with me.

Of course, as a form of consolation, now I like to think that none of these ideas were actually great, that in the cold light of day or sobriety their weaknesses would have become apparent. It’s just that I rarely stick the label ‘great’ on an idea unless I think it is. Not knowing was what plagued me.

But maybe there is a real consolation to be gained from it all in the end, though. I suppose it amounts to this: a great idea lost, a little story gained. Could there be a bit of karma involved, after all?

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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What makes J K Rowling’s Harry Potter so successful?

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

We’ll look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the series, which set the pace and standard for the others to follow.

Certainly the book’s success partly reflects readers’ love of wizards, ghosts, monsters, old-fashioned school settings (though Hogwarts with its numerous shadowy corridors, banqueting hall, etc., seems to surpass most of them for sheer dramatic effect), horrible characters, funny characters, inter-house rivalry, sporting rivalry (Quidditch), paternal headmaster, both evil and good teachers, the eternal struggle between good and evil, a central mystery to the plot, and last, but certainly not least, a central child character who at first seems ordinary and is even mistreated by those around him, but soon discovers his aristocratic (wizarding) background.

But lots of tales out there already have these storytelling attributes, and yet pale into insignificance beside this story. So what makes this one so successful? There are several reasons, but let’s explore just one amongst them to make our point.

The story’s background detail creates more than a simple fill-in for the physical description and backstory of the wizarding world, though it performs that task very well. Rowling’s well-developed and imaginative details help give the story a pulse, which in turn creates tension and pushes the pace; it often familiarises the reader with the unusual; and without doubt much of it adds humour, charm and a never ending amount of surprises.
Let’s look at some examples.

A world not unlike our own

Here is a great example where the background detail familiarises the reader with the unusual.

When Harry is getting his first wand, Ollivander, the shop’s owner, says to him, “Your father, on the other hand, favoured a mahogany wand. Eleven inches. Pliable. A little more power and excellent for transfiguration.”

Harry is discovering a little about his father here but also a whole lot about wands as he learns that ‘every Ollivander wand has a core of a powerful magical substance: unicorn hairs, phoenix tailfeathers and the heartstrings of dragons. No two Ollivander wands are the same…’ He finds out that wands are made of beechwood and dragon heartstring, maple and Phoenix feather, ebony and unicorn hair, and lots of other combinations.

Harry must try many wands before finding the one right for him. But not only Harry, the reader, too, is receiving an education in the immense and marvellous detail of the world of wands.

However, what makes this scene really special and memorable is that it reminds us of our own experiences in buying our first school uniform or a brand new musical instrument, for example, which we couldn’t yet play. The memory of the smell and feel of my first school blazer returned to me here. Just like with Harry, on first entering the school clothing shop, the back of my neck prickled with expectation as soon as I saw those ‘narrow boxes piled neatly high’ and felt the dust and silence everywhere. Only with the tailor’s appearance and his show of enthusiasm in wanting to make sure I got exactly what was right for me did my unease disappear.

Harry is measured ‘from shoulder to finger, then wrist to elbow, shoulder to floor, knee to armpit and round his head’. The tape measure doing all the measuring by itself is an extra charming and surprising touch.

The magical elements of the scene weave in and out easily with this familiar real world setting. It is because of this similarity with our own experiences that we feel we know this shop and what Harry is going through. So we are right there with him as he gets fitted out for his new wand.

It’s like everything’s alive

What a surprise for Ron to find out that in the Muggle world nobody moves in a photo and what a surprise for Harry to find out the opposite happens in the wizarding world. But not only photos move in the wizarding world, of course. The people in the portraits keep going to visit each other and Harry is sure that suits of armour can walk about. The moving portraits give rise to lots of funny moments. One in particular is where Hermione wants to get back into Gryffindor Tower late one night. But the fat lady in the portrait has gone on a night-time visit, so Hermione can’t give her the password to get back in and instead stands facing an empty painting.

Then there is chess where the figures are alive, ‘which made it a lot like directing troops in battle’. Ron has an old chess set and knows his chessmen so well ‘he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted’. Having borrowed some chessmen to play with and not being much of a player yet, Harry discovers that the chessmen have little time for him and shout out confusing advice during play, ‘Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him.’

In the Restricted Section of the library, Harry feels the books might be whispering about him, as though they know he’s trespassing. When he opens a large black and silver book it lets out a blood-curdling shriek which continues even after he snaps the book shut. Despite events like this happening frequently, the screaming book still took me by surprise and I laughed at Harry’s reaction to it.

Even Hogwarts itself seems to be restless with staircases leading to different places on a Friday; doors that won’t open unless you ask politely, or tickle them in exactly the right place. Then there are solid walls just pretending to have doors in them. Harry found it hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.

These little details about photos, paintings, chessmen, books and Hogwarts castle help to create a sense of unease in the story. You have the feeling of always needing to be on your guard and wondering what is coming next. These details help give the story a strong pulse, heighten tension and quicken pace. They conjure up a metaphor of a cauldron always bubbling away with some mysterious spell in the making. But is it a good or a bad spell? At Hogwarts it won’t be long before you find out.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords. 

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s ebooks on the US Amazon site.

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The creative writer in a state of idleness

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Lazing on a bench by the river Nidd in the old market town of Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, I was staring at people climbing in and out of hired rowing boats. A couple had just settled down on a boat’s seating. He took up the oars and made a few tentative strokes through the water, while she, wearing a broad-brimmed white sunhat, chattered away to him. The boat moved out into the stream, and by a whisker avoided colliding with an incoming boat.

The last time I’d been here, I’d struggled all that week to come up with a fresh way of linking two scenes of a story, and reckoned the day out might help knock my imagination into gear (Click here for post). Fortunately, it had. But this afternoon, I had no such target or ambition. I was simply idling away a few hours.

I squeezed my eyelids shut against the sun’s glare, feeling the heat soaking into my face. My thoughts up to now were bobbing about like flotsam, with no particular place to go, indifferent to any specific sight or sound.

Yet soon, a set of similar sounds in short but recurring intervals caught my attention, on my right and slightly behind me. I turned my head. Two women and a man were standing around a low circular stone wall, with a roof-like structure over it supported by wooden beams.

“Did you make your wish?”

“I’m about to.”

A laugh. “You have to do it as you toss the money in.”

“Oh!”

These people had keen gestures with animated faces, eyes big and bright.

“Do it again!”

“Spin the money! Look! Mine’s going in quicker than yours.”

I could hear coins rolling round on metal.

After this group had gone, another arrived, enthusiastically repeating the same ritual. What struck me was their lack of hesitation in approaching this structure and throwing money into it.

I stepped across. A metal sheet acted as a cover inside this low circular wall. It sloped inward with a hole in its centre. A sign read, Wishing Well.

I shook my head slowly, dropping back down on the bench and staring over again at the rowing boats. I’d pay money to do that, to float on the river for half an hour, but this other thing… absurd!

More adults arrived at the so called ‘wishing well’, exhibiting the same unquestioning and reflexive movements as the others.

“Mine went done before yours!”

“What did you wish for?”

“Don’t tell! You won’t get your wish if you do.”

Not wanting to suffer any more of this insane nonsense, I strolled off in the direction of the famous stone viaduct. But with my mind and body in its slow idling gear, thoughts of this ‘wishing well’ kept dogging me.

Why do grown people behave like this? Some had even been skipping around the ‘well’. The wall and roof bit had been recently built and I wondered if the well itself was any deeper than ground level. Not a well at all, probably. Hadn’t anyone else noticed? Anyway, don’t wishing wells belong to fairy tale territory? Sure, as a child I chucked money into them, believing wishes might come true, but by ten or eleven such beliefs were fast giving way to a healthy and mature scepticism.

I sat on another bench and listened to a train rumbling over the viaduct. Is it the persistence of childhood beliefs and superstitions that make grown people throw money into a hole? Would they throw money into any old hole to make a wish? Do the words Wishing Well act like a magnet? Or is it the structure itself? Or both? Do words and structure together equal a sort of irresistible charm for them?

I burst out laughing. One or two people flashed me a funny look. People were indeed strange.

Okay, to be fair! They’re on holiday, at an attractive riverside location, wanting fun, new experiences, and with a bit of money to throw away (literally). They’re much more susceptible to this sort of thing than they would be on a grey Monday morning rushing to the office. Like me, in fact, they’re in a state of idleness, or even frivolousness. Their usual sceptical state has given way to something softer, less defensive. Otherwise, they may not have even noticed the ‘well’.

I bought myself a strawberry ice cream, continued rambling and stuck with the topic.

What if I offered passers-by the chance of throwing money into my outstretched pocket and making a wish? I’d explain it’s a wishing pocket. Would they go for it? What if I dressed up as Puss in Boots or Santa Claus first? Unlikely that would work. Even in their idling state, people’s scepticism would dismiss this idea out of hand. Worse, they’d probably look at me in that odd way people reserve for lunatics and drunks. Boy, the difficulty in reaching beyond traditional boundaries!

Yet, throwing money into a hole will never make a wish come true. And every adult knows that. Otherwise, we’d all be lottery winners many times over and all our enemies would be dead many times over. We’d be a world full of rich dead people.

Earlier, it had rained. I stopped now and gazed down at a puddle. A tiny black-and-white terrier rubbed up against me and took his turn to stare into the puddle, his nose only a few inches from it. But seeing nothing interesting there he moved on.

But I saw something interesting there. Like the swell on a wave, I saw the idea of a story beginning to emerge.

How about a wishing puddle? People could throw money in and make a splash as well as a wish. The higher the splash the more likely the wish will come true. I could hang a sign over the puddle, made out in a fancy font, giving the sense of being Olde Worlde. Even dangle a few lucky charms from the sign.

Or what about a portable wishing well? One that looked real, of course. Like a portable toilet, you could carry it around the country to tourist spots or raves or concerts and so on. Could anyone make a living out of it? Was it a good way of raising charity money? Could whoever owned this portable but real-looking wishing well set up a franchise? Obviously, this story would have humour but say something poignant about people, especially about their fickleness over superstitions and beliefs.

Hold on! What about a story about a street beggar who opts for a makeover? He’d wear a colourful and eccentric hat, scarf or shoes, but sombre colours for the rest of his dress. He’d have an air that associates him with the mysterious and charm-filled world of the fairy tale. Maybe he could sport a patch over one eye; except he had to avoid looking like a pantomime act. His makeover would excite the punter’s sense of childhood memories so they couldn’t resist throwing money at him.

A sign hanging around the neck of his old, tired-looking dog (would he need a makeover, too?) could explain to every pair of passing and curious eyes:

Here sits the wishing beggar.
Throw a pound coin into his hat and make a wish.
100% success guaranteed.

He might feign blindness or deafness or dumbness to add to his sense of mystery mixed with pity.

And the plot? The conflict? Aah! A woman had thrown money into his hat and made her wish, but it hadn’t come true. A fussy, complaining customer, she demands a refund. He explains: a mind with any trace of cynicism makes the wish null and void. She crinkles her brow and bites her bottom lip.

And the story kicks into gear.

While I’m out strolling in a state of idleness, I’m always secretly wishing for some new story idea or character to come along. And today one had done.

So you can guess what I had to do next.

I fished out a pound coin and rolled it round the sloping metal cover, watching it drop into the hole with a smile of satisfaction.

Beside me were the couple from the boat earlier. She threw a pound coin onto the metal sheet.

“I made a wish,” she cried, holding onto her broad-brimmed white sunhat. “But will it really come true?”

I thought she was asking him, until I saw her looking at me.

“Your money went into the hole,” I told her. “So, of course, it will come true.”

She gave me a big smile.

What I didn’t tell her, and what no one else knew, was that you could make your wish and see it come true before throwing money into the well.

Where would a writer be without people’s flaws and especially an acknowledgment of his own? What would writers have left of interest to write about? Sometimes, when under the grace of idleness, those flaws come into focus very clearly indeed.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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A philosophical approach to the slog of draft writing those early novels

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Writing a novel is not a simple matter of writing a single draft, or even a second or a third. The first draft is merely the end of the beginning. In fact, once you have properly written your first readable novel, you will realize that the draft which you once thought was the final draft was just the beginning of the end of your draft writing. Some new writers will tell you that once they have finished their first or second draft they now understand the meaning of that famous phrase, ‘writing is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration’. But they would be ill-advised to say so at this point. It is only after they have managed ten or fifteen drafts of their story and done so for six or seven novels that they will truly understand the meaning behind the phrase.

During the early years of learning my craft, I’d often swear blind to myself that a particular novel couldn’t possibly need another draft and that it was as good as it was ever going to be. But months on, I’d discover to my horror that the same novel was full of weaknesses and would need another whole draft to make it perfect again. I’ve done fifteen drafts for a novel, and still it ended up not being enough, especially if I’d taken a six month break since the previous draft.

How could I have been so wrong in my estimation? I’d ask myself at those times, while my morale would slump and I’d start to believe in conspiracy theories. Was a gremlin living inside my computer and deliberately tinkering with my manuscript? It certainly seemed so, because I just found it so hard to believe that I’d got it so wrong and that the story really did need another draft. And yet this might happen again and again with the same story over a period of years. Working toward a well-polished novel seemed like the equivalent of trying to write my name in water with my fingertip, while expecting it to appear like ink in an exercise book.

Back then, it hadn’t always occurred to me that I was actually on a learning curve, and it was because I was constantly improving that I was able to see the weaknesses in the manuscript several months after the fact. But even if I had been fully aware of developments in my own learning curve, I still felt that the overwhelming slog of rewriting was slowly crushing my spirit.

Then, one day, I was struck by an epiphany. I had been seeing this whole matter of rewriting from the wrong end of the spectrum. Now I began to view it in a philosophical light.

If you think about it, you will see that life itself gives us just one go, one draft. If we get it wrong the first time out, well tough! Life is a learning curve but most of us find ourselves behind the curve most of the time, desperately trying to catch up. Living is tricky. Often things to be worked through and resolved in our lives seem quite abstract and difficult to comprehend: love, relationships, desires, and so on. Sometimes, it may seem that trying to understand and resolve life’s problems is like trying to write our name in water with our fingertip, while expecting it to appear like ink in an exercise book.

But imagine if we were allowed not just a second go, but a third and a fourth and a fifth go at life. Imagine if we could get right up there with that learning curve and never let it get ahead of us again. Imagine if we were allowed to go through life as many times as necessary in order to end up with a well-polished version of it.

Of course, we cannot do this with life itself because it is not a Hollywood film; and we cannot do this with most parts of life; but we can do it with our writing.

The story shows us all that we are and all that we desire to be. In other words, it offers us a reflection, often an uncannily accurate one, of our human condition. For this reason, if for no other, the story is very important to our culture. To write a good and readable novel is very hard to do and is a high cultural achievement in our society; and in theory, at least, there is nothing to stop a person from both attempting and achieving it. It is something many people claim they want to do, but so many of these never reach their objectives. But the true writer will always strive to master his art on the instinctive understanding that this thing of high cultural value might be the only important thing in his life that he is given the chance of working on over and over until he gets it right.

Now that’s quite a statement to make if you really think about it. And there is more than a touch of irony hidden away in it, too.

If we believe in ourselves, if we think our work is worth developing, that it contributes something to the total sum of our lives, then we as writers will give our all to bring it to fruition. And while doing so, we shouldn’t moan about the perspiration of rewriting, but give thanks for the fact that we can go on rewriting to improve our story. Having a second and a third and a twentieth chance at getting it right is stark evidence of how lucky we are, not how unlucky we are. Writing is one of the few things on our life’s journey where we are allowed to make as many mistakes as necessary in our attempt to accomplish something of value.

The next time you find yourself in the trenches with your manuscript, pulling out your hair and wondering if the rewriting will ever come to an end, give yourself pause for thought on this point.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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