Report on Days 4 & 5 from the Eckerd College Writers Conference

I’ll call the theme of Day 4 “wants versus needs” and that of Day 5 “story structure.”

On Day 4, after the two workshop stories were discussed, we focused on identifying the elements of the story arc in the first part of the novel. Using the movie Legally Blond as a teaching devise, workshop leader Lori Roy broke the movie down into beats or segments, starting with showing the status quo at the start of the movie. (The Reese Witherspoon character is shown to be beautiful and rich, but also kind; she is preparing for a date with her boyfriend whom she expects to ask her to marry him.)

The inciting incident in the movie––the breaking of the status quo––is her boyfriend’s dumping her, stating the woman he wants to marry is a Jackie (Kennedy) and not a Marilyn (Monroe). In a novel there can be one or a series of incidents that happens to the protagonist that upsets the status quo.

What the protagonist does next determines the direction of the story. In Legally Blond, the R.W. character decides to go to law school. She still wants to get the guy, and thinks this is the way to do so. Every story must have a key event where the protagonist takes some step consistent with h/h character to try to get what s/he wants.

The irony in Legally Blond is that what R.W. does to fulfill her want (marry her ex-boyfriend) eventually brings her into conflict with that want. She needs to be taken seriously and by taking herself seriously finds she no longer wants that marriage.

The topic of story structure evolved out of the discussion of the two workshop contributions on Day 5, including the first 25 pages of my work in progress tentatively entitled “Chains of Time.”

My synopsis for The Chains of Time envisioned a story divided into six equal parts which when completed would be around 800 pages in length and which I projected to be divided into two or three books.

The problem with my game plan coming into the conference was how to introduce multiple protagonists in an alternative world that had to be “built”––i.e., readers had to know the story setting. The technique I tried out had the flaw of too great a disconnect between the macro world as described in an opening page “memo” and the micro world portrayed in the first 25 pages.

Using a series such as the Harry Potter stories, I can see how there’s both an overriding story arc (the battle between Harry and Voldemort) and a story arc for each of the individual books.

Therefore, the solution to my structural issues will require me to re-organize my story into three parts each with its own story arc while defining a conflict that encompasses the entire story.

Sterling Watson gave the craft lecture on Tuesday on writing short, effective sentences. I told him I was concentrating on writing longer, more effective sentences. He said ‘stop’. We agreed that variety in sentence length was necessary.

On Thursday, Laura Lippman showed how she uses visual tools to get unstuck when writing a story with complex story lines and Watson sped through a handout that encompassed more topics that the revision session label.

Poet Peter Meinke and children’s author Laura Williams McCaffrey read Tuesday evening. Thursday evening the readers were Lori Roy, reading the first chapter of her second novel, and Stewart O’Nan, reading from a work in progress on F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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