Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bruce Coville: at the intersection of plot and character

Bruce Coville
Bruce Coville, author of too many books to count, launched our conference with a speech about the ripple effect our writing can have in the lives of children. He helped wrap it up with a talk about plot and character, two elements that work together to create a story.

"You need to discuss them both interweaving with each other," he said.

There is a literary divide between plot writing and character writing, and Bruce has a theory of male and female storytelling energy. Male energy is about action, adventure, incident. "You blow stuff up and boys love it."  Female storytelling energy is about character, relationship and beauty of language. "Many girls will sit still for a story with that kind of energy."

The best stories partake equally of both male and female energy, he said, "in that sweet spot in the center where you have incredible characters engaged in fascinating situations."

Some useful nuggets: 
  • Plot imposes discipline on the disorder of life.
  • A perfect ending is both a surprise and inevitable.
  • Fiction is held to a much higher standard of believability than life is. 
  • On coincidence: it can start a story, but not end one.
What is a good story? 
Bruce loves to find three things in a story when he's reading: the Ha, Waah, Yikes! formula. Ha is a belly laugh. Waah is a tear. Yikes! is a gasp of surprise.

"It's hard to get somebody to gasp when they're reading a story, but it can happen," Bruce said.

The ha: Bruce loves jokes, but this isn't a belly laugh in a story. It's one that grows out of the story itself. When a bully gets his comeuppance, for example.

The waah: It's easy to get the tear. You just kill the dog. If you wake up one morning and you're a dog on the pages of a children's book, run for your life. Your pages are numbered.

What he prefers are the tears or joy of relief, because of what happened that was so true.

There's a third kind of tear that you can't plan for, but can happen: the tears of personal connection. They will ring true for the right person, who needs to hear that thing at that time. "The right story for the right person is like an arrow to the heart."

The yikes!: When the world of the story changes on us and we see the story in a new light. 

Some story and writing fundamentals
"The recipe for story is very simple: Take somebody you like and get them into trouble. The better the character, the worse the trouble, the better the story," Bruce said.

Another rule: The character has to solve the problem. Usually they're making a tough choice.

"Writing is, in many ways, the art of choosing details" Bruce said. "By choosing the right details, you can crank up the emotional drama and make the story more compelling... By asking questions and inventing scenes that answer them, you end up with a story."

For your major scenes, try to engage three of the five senses. Don't do it for all your scenes; that's too much.

* * * * *

Q. How do you write a story for the New Yorker? 
A. It's easy. Just write your story and throw away the last page. Then you have a New Yorker story.

* * * * *

On characters: Make your character face a tough choice: a moral decision, Bruce said. All of the elements in a story should lead to choice, which is the primary character revealer in a story. Generally, people will take the most conservative action that gets them what they want.

More Bruce

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