What South Park Taught Me About Storytelling

If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages. Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome.

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A couple of years ago, a video circulated around Facebook of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators and writers of the animated series South Park, in which they discussed a technique they used to constantly raise the stakes on both the plot and characters of every South Park episode. As the story progressed, rather than connect scenes with “and” and/or “and then”, they connected them with “but” and “therefore”. The latter not only raises the stakes and ratchets up the conflict (and the humor), but it also keeps a story from dragging.

This simple tactic changed my approach to novel writing. Whereas I might have done this instinctively, I now do it consciously. What’s more, when I read a problematic draft-in-progress (my own or someone else’s), the diagnosis is usually that the writer either hasn’t raised the stakes enough or has strung scenes together in an “and” or “and then” rather than the “but/therefore” manner. I’ve diagnosed the same problem in finished, published novels as well.

Here’s a description of my novel, Pasta Wars using “and then”:

Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. And then Katie flies to Italy to convince Gianluca to collaborate because he is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. And then a stubborn Gianluca insists Katie learn how to make pasta from scratch, and then the equally stubborn Katie stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, and she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…

 

Here’s the same sequence using “but” and therefore”:

Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Therefore, her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. But Gianluca is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. Therefore, Katie travels to Italy to personally convince him. But Gianluca is stubborn and insists she learn to make pasta from scratch, therefore Katie, who is just as stubborn stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, but she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…

 

Which story would you rather read? Why?

If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages.

You can even try this if you outline your scenes by inserting “but” and/or “therefore” between each note card, bullet-point, or however you outline.

Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome. Take it from Matt Stone and Trey Parker!

 

Activity/Discussion: Either draft a series of scenes or select a series of scenes from a work in progress and apply the but/therefore approach. How does it affect your characters and/or story?

(If you liked this post, wait ’til you see the next one!)

 

raise the stakes

When You Write, Keep These 5 Things in Mind

Writing is always a series of choices.

There are certain aspects of writing that, like driving a car, have become instinctive. You don’t need to think too much about what words to use when sending a text to a friend (if you even use words at all!), nor do you need to proofread a shopping list. Other kinds of writing, however, may need a great deal of care and consideration: a technical manual for how to build or use a piece of life-saving equipment. A science fiction novel or a murder mystery. A screenplay or television series pilot.

What all these kinds of writing have in common is that, whether consciously or not, the writer is applying the rhetorical situation, and some do it more successfully than others.

Here’s the definition of rhetoric I always supplied my English 101 students (and family members who were perplexed about what I was studying in graduate school):

The art and skill of using language to communicate and/or persuade.

Every rhetorical situation consists of these three elements:

  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Text

We may talk about them as if they’re separate entities, but in the rhetorical situation they’re inextricably linked, each one playing off the other.

Two more elements determine the effectiveness of the first three:

  • Style
  • Stance

 

rhetorical situation graphic

I like to demonstrate the rhetorical situation by using something ubiquitous: a Facebook status update.

Here’s one I recently posted on my personal Facebook page:

Funny/not funny how when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

The kitchen is a disaster. Which means some kick-ass blog posts are gonna happen.

 

So let’s examine the five elements by conducting a rhetorical analysis.

  1. Purpose

When we talk about purpose, we’re asking is my call to write, my reason for writing? What do I want to achieve by writing this?

  • In the case of my status update, any/all of these defined my purpose:
  • To communicate something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
  • To express a truth.
  • To express disinterest in cleaning.
  • To communicate that disinterest in a humorous way.
  • To inform readers.
  • To make readers laugh.

 

Some of these were conscious, others less so. I definitely wanted to make my readers laugh. And writers especially know that when writing becomes difficult, the temptation to do something else becomes very strong. I also made an observation by noting that the temptation/distraction stimulus works in reverse.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about informing my readers, “Hey, I need to clean my house,” but Facebook is typically the vehicle for posting the mundane. Was this information, they absolutely needed to know? No. And thus, because of that, I had to find a way to make it appealing, and so I made it funny. (Or tried to.)

 

2. Audience

I am quite conscious of audience when I’m posting on Facebook. I think many are, and that’s what figures into what they will and will not post. My Facebook audience on my profile page consists mostly of family and good friends. It also consists of former students, and people I have yet to meet in person—namely, fellow authors and friends of other friends.

As a wordsmith myself, how do I want to reach these readers/viewers? For one thing, I want to convey humor and wit. I also, at times, want to convey the courage of my convictions. Sometimes I share snippets of dialogue between my husband and me. And sometimes I just want to share photos of my cat or my meals, like most people.

And, of course, I want them to read my books. Thus, rather than say, “Buy my book!” I’d much rather embody the qualities of my books in my status updates. Storytelling. Dialogue. Humor. Relationships. Love.

Do I do this every time? No. Sometimes I’m just being me, speaking directly to the people I most care about. However, no matter what I post I am aware, at all times, that my message has a reader.

 

3. Text

When I say “text,” I mean the medium or genre that houses the writing—a text, tweet, status update, email, open letter, blog post, essay, term paper, dissertation, short story, screenplay, novel—all of these qualify as a “genre.”

Facebook status updates can sometimes run the length of a blog post or an article, or it could be as brief as a text or a tweet. In the case of the above example, I didn’t need to write something lengthy. It’s Facebook, after all. Not a novel. And my subject was mundane. Brevity was best.

 

4. Style

I’ve taken and taught classes devoted entirely to writing style. When I’m talking style, I’m talking word choice. How am I going to put the words together in a way that not only communicates my message, but also identifies and represents me as the writer? What words to I use to establish credibility, to stir readers’ emotions, to persuade them to see my point of view or take action? If I want to make readers laugh, then what words do I use? How do I write in a way that readers know the status update is from me, Elisa, before they even see my name attached?

The word “kick-ass” (is it one word?) is a giveaway, for one thing. The colloquial “gonna” is another; its intention is to make the reader not only read the words but hear my New York accent, my voice. And the use of “antithesis”—putting opposites together: when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

 

5. Stance

Stance refers to attitude or viewpoint in approach. If I were taking a position on a political issue, then my stance would be impassioned, but not angry. A desire to embrace readers as co-thinkers rather than shout them down or belittle them for having a different position. If I’m writing a comedic novel, then my character might be sarcastic or dry in his or her delivery.

When I’m writing novels, I don’t think consciously about stance; rather, I think the characters, story, and characteristics of the novel’s genre (mystery, chick lit, etc.) all play a role in determining stance.

In the case of my status update, my stance was to simply take a humorous approach rather than outright complain about how much I was dreading cleaning my kitchen.

 

Good writing is the result of good choices. Bad writing is the result of bad choices.

Good writing is also a well executed rhetorical situation. And the good news: regardless of what level you’re at in terms of craft—beginner or seasoned—you engage in rhetorical situation, and you can make it work if you take the time to make those choices. And if you are a beginner, remember what driving a car was like: at first, you need to think of everything at once. But the more you do it, and the better you get, the more those decisions and actions become second nature.

 

I did clean my kitchen, by the way. And my next status update?

Cleaning is a love letter to your home.

 

Activity/Discussion: Conduct a rhetorical analysis on the follow-up status update. What was the reader’s purpose? As a reader, how do you respond or react to it? How does the stance differ from its previous status update? Share your thoughts about it in the comments!

What is The Writer’s Habit?

Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

Knowledge, Skill, and Desire

It took me at least seven years to finish my book The Writer’s Habit. I knew I wanted to write a book predominantly for aspiring novelists using a rhetorical approach rather than a literary one. (That is, focusing on elements like audience, purpose, genre, stance, and style rather than plot, theme, symbolism, climax, and exposition.) That’s not to say one is better than the other. But, given my training in rhetoric and composition, it made more sense for me to approach novel writing from that perspective.

What I struggled with, however, was how to put the information together in a way that neither felt too textbook-y nor too I’m-trying-to-be-OnWriting.

It wasn’t until this year, as I was finally finishing the book, that I found the angle, the way to tie everything together. I had unearthed my copy of Stephen Covey’s renowned The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and read the first pages as a refresher. Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

And so, I organizing the book accordingly.

Knowledge (what to do)

In this section, I give a basic overview of the definition of rhetoric, its origins, and how to apply the rhetorical situation. I also discuss into writing for audience (and when to ignore them), writing what you know (and its sometimes misunderstood meaning), and the assertion that “writers write.”

 

Skill (how to do it)

Here is where theory meets practice. The most comprehensive section of the book, I introduce the craft of storytelling in which I feature these key components: narration and description, intention and obstacle, story structure, character development, dialogue, and setting. Many of this blog’s future posts will highlight lessons or features of each.

Additionally, I discuss the writing process, including drafting, organization and arrangement, stylistics, revision, and editing.

As with music and sports, the more you practice, the better you get.

Desire (wanting to do it)

The more I speak to aspiring writers, the more I believe that desire is what holds many of them back. And it’s not necessarily that they don’t want to do it, it’s that they’re afraid to do it. They’re afraid of not having the time, not being good enough, or old enough, or young enough, or rich enough, or smart enough, and so on. They fear failure. They fear success. They’re unwilling to persist. They’re unwilling to learn. They’re unwilling to commit. I say that not as a judgment, but as the reaction to that fear. I’ve been there, if not in the creative or the writing aspect, then certainly in the commitment as an entrepreneur.

This section of the book also touches on the business of being a published writer. I’ve learned even more since publishing The Writer’s Habit, and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

Desire is the aspect of The Writer’s Habit that I tend to be most passionate about (although I definitely geek out when talking craft, process, and heck even just simple rhetorical situation stuff). And you’ll see why when I begin unveiling the online courses.

Overall, I aim not to teach writers to write, but to develop and master the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire so that writing becomes a habit, regardless of the scope. And what I love is that its lessons are quite versatile.

Moreover, I don’t want to only share my successes, but also my mistakes. Like anyone else, I’ve made them, and I’ve come to see them as necessary stepping stones on the path toward actualizing my goals as a writer and an author.

 

The bottom line: I want The Writer’s Habit—and this companion blog—to convey the joy that is inherent in my writing as well as my process. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean the happy-feel-goods. Writing—especially as a job and a profession, can be arduous or laborious at times. In fact, sometimes it can be downright tedious and discouraging. But I can think of no better gig than one that allows me to use my imagination, connect with readers and other writers, and navigate through this life journey with humor, depth, and wordsmithing. I’m a lucky woman.

 

 Activity/Discussion: Do you see writing as a habit? How do you combine knowledge, skill, and desire? Do you think you need more practice or development in one of those components? Please respond in the comments!

Have you seen my author website? I invite you to visit and sign up for my author mailing list. You can also sign up here for The Writer’s Habit mailing list!

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5 Helpful Tips to Make Your Author Blog Effective

I was trying so hard to win readers with gimmicks that I didn’t think about what they really needed or what was of value to them. I may have had a purpose in terms of gaining more readers and, eventually, more book sales, but the blog itself still had no clear purpose. It had no theme. It had no rhetorical situation. And I had no fun with any of it.

I’m a published novelist. So what do I blog about?

Confession: I’ve been asking that question for ten years.

Since 2007, I’ve been trying to figure out the purpose of my author blog, what it was about, and whom it was for. In other words, I’ve been trying to figure out the rhetorical situation.

In the early days, before I published my first novel, countless articles about publishing told me I needed a blog—more specifically, I needed a “platform.” In the dating world, it’s known as “putting yourself out there.”

Yeah, I hated that expression with a passion when I was single.

In the world of authors, it meant building a following of readers so that when you submitted your manuscript to literary agents or editors, you could assure them that your books would sell, that you already had a tribe who loved your words and would read anything you published. And if you self-published, you already had a prime selling location: your blog.

It was way easier to do this if you were a nonfiction author with a specific product or idea you were writing about, such as dating or how to self-publish a book. If you wrote novels in a specific genre, such as science fiction or chick lit, you could possibly draw on related topics, such as Star Wars or the five best date outfits. But for most people who wrote fiction, they were kind of adrift.

In a way, blogging as a novelist is much like rhetoric in that it’s a subject that encompasses all other subjects.

And something happened. The Internet became saturated with blogs. And social networking took over. Suddenly everyone was way more interested in the photos of your snickerdoodles than in the ramblings of your mind. Digital publishing was the other game-changer. Your success as an author relied on the perfect synchronization of writing a good novel, digitally publishing it, selling it cheaply, and social media spreading the word for you. That’s certainly how it happened for me.

The blog became irrelevant. Or so it seemed.

My blog went through several incarnations. First, I thought it was for writing teachers. Then I thought it was for writing students. Then I decided to make it for novel readers—specifically, my novel readers. But I still got stuck. Who were my readers? Why would they want to read my blog? What did I have to say that was of value to them? What topics would I discuss? My writing life? My Duranie life? My single life, and now married life? And even if yes to all of the above, why?

My blog floundered. I wrote inconsistently. Scatteredly. When I felt like it or had something to say that was longer than 140 characters or a Facebook post.

Late last year, as book sales plummeted, I panicked. I needed to win back my readership and, more desperately, my royalties. So I started reading everything I could about content and social media marketing. And what kept coming up? Blogging.

And yet, when I asked my author friends about it, they were all in the same boat I was. Having already established their readership through book sales, they either no longer had the time or saw the point of blogging, except maybe a guest post around the time of a book launch. Even the blog tour lost its appeal. As my friend and fellow author Tyler Dilts said, “It seems very 2007 to me.”

Nevertheless, I tried to resuscitate my blog. I tried to establish multiple series: A Year With Nora Ephron. Ask the Author. 7 Things.

Meh.

Some of my most popular posts had been about my relationship with my husband, back when we were doing all the really romantic stuff like falling in love and long distance dating and getting engaged. So I tried writing about those things again.

Crickets. Now that I was married, it was anti-climactic, like when your two favorite characters in your favorite TV show finally get together, and the ratings drop.

Something was missing from all this blogging: joy. And, to an extent, authenticity.

And here’s the irony about trying to build a following: you have to do it without making it your primary goal. It’s kind of like when writing your first draft, you have to ignore your audience.

I was trying so hard to win readers with gimmicks that I didn’t think about what they really needed or what was of value to them. I may have had a purpose in terms of gaining more readers and, eventually, more book sales, but the blog itself still had no clear purpose. It had no theme. It had no rhetorical situation. And I had no fun with any of it. I saw it as time-consuming, directionless, and ineffective. And I gave up on it yet again.

When I took Jeff Goins’s webinar (which persuaded me to sign up for his Intentional Blog course), a lot of participants had the same question: I’m a fiction writer. What do I blog about? It’s still a tough question to answer. But after taking the course and thinking closely about rhetorical situation, here are the five things I think you need to do in order to answer it.

 

  1. Get very clear about why or if you really want a blog.

Do you want one because someone influential said you need one? Will it somehow supplement your novels? Would it support or showcase your worldview? Is it a way to connect with your novel readers? If so, in what way?

If the answer is I don’t know, then I recommend you not start or continue with a blog. Ditto and especially if the answer is because I’m supposed to. That’s never been a good answer to anything.

 

  1. Create value.

If you’re certain you want and need an author blog, then the next thing to determine is whether your blog has value. Are your readers learning something? Are they being entertained? Motivated? Inspired? Are they getting something for free, like a new short story every week? Or maybe they’re sharing one of your passions, like books or music, something that is a staple of the novels you write. Whatever it is, your readers need a reason for visiting your blog post after post, week after week, especially given that they’re bombarded every minute with news feeds, articles, images, videos, ads, and more. Something has to be in it for them. They need to feel appreciated. Validated. Thought of. They need to be treated like a guest in your home or a customer in your store. For so long I had failed to do that. I had thought of them as means to an end. So, so wrong.

 

  1. Narrow and clarify your focus.

In order to give your readers something of value, you need to think of what you want to say and to whom. In other words, you need to focus on a particular theme or worldview. Here’s what especially tripped me up when it came to identifying myself as a novelist and my blog for readers of my novels. What the heck did I have to say? Hadn’t my novels already said it? Isn’t that why I wrote novels in the first place?

Here’s an example. The theme that most often occurs in my novels is authenticity. Yet, I wasn’t sure how to express that as a worldview, or how to approach it in terms of subject matter or posts. Moreover, I didn’t know if I wanted to. (Funny, as I write this, I’m getting ideas now. However, it’s still not exciting enough to officially take my author blog in this direction. Yet.)

 

  1. Love it.

And while we’re on the subject of authenticity, no matter what you write about or why or for whom, you need to love it. Love your subject. Love the act of writing. Love your readers. Love the connections you’re making. Love the message. Love the meaning. Love the purpose. Otherwise your readers will see right through you.

I had no love or desire for my author blog anymore. And when I came to that realization, I knew for sure it was time to let it go indefinitely. It wasn’t easy to do so, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

 

  1. Focus on one reader.

Finally, when it comes to determining your audience. Rather focusing on the hundreds of thousands of readers you want to attract, instead, take a page out of Mr. Rogers’s playbook and concentrate on one reader. When I watch Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, I feel like he’s speaking to me and me alone. Even now, as an adult! That’s because when he looked into the camera, he didn’t imagine himself talking to scores of children; he focused only on one child. I take this same approach when writing my novels. First and foremost, I always write for me. But I also envision one intended reader, usually someone I know. Even now, as I write this post, I have a reader in mind.

Bottom line: It’s OK to come to the conclusion and make the decision to be a novelist without a blog. I understand the fear of doing so, especially when everyone is telling you this is what you’re supposed to be doing. But here’s the thing: if it can’t serve your readers, then it can’t serve you. Moreover, to quote Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream fame, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” But if you become clear on your rhetorical situation: your purpose, audience, topic, and approach, and you love just about every aspect of it, then blog away.

 

Activity/Discussion: Do you have a favorite novelist who blogs regularly? If so, what does s/he blog about? What keeps you coming back to it? Can you identify their rhetorical situation? If so, in what ways are they achieving it? I invite you to share your answers in the Comments.

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Welcome!

If you’re here, you’re either a writer or you want to be one. Hooray! Welcome.

Or maybe you’ve read my novels and want to learn a little more about me and my life as a writer. Welcome! I’m glad you’re here.

Maybe you’re a writer who has fallen out of love with writing, or is struggling with the process, or wants to make a living from writing but can’t seem to make it happen. Have a seat. You’re not alone. Welcome.

Maybe you have no clue while you’re here. That’s OK! Welcome.

As I stated on the About page, I’ve started this blog to share my thoughts, experiences, and lessons on writing based on my book The Writer’s Habit.

Three components make up the writer’s habit: knowledge, skill, and desire. Knowledge is about what to do. Skill is about how to do it. Desire is about wanting to do it.

With humor, kindness, stories, and a smile, I aim to motivate and inspire you to fall in love with (if you’re not already or currently) and stay connected to the joy of writing, and to help you develop your authenticity not only as writers, but also as individuals. It’s not just about being a better writer. It’s about living a better life.

Participation isn’t mandatory, but I hope you’ll share feedback, ask questions, or contribute to and continue the conversation in the comments section. Because that’s what I want this blog to be: an ongoing conversation.

I’m so excited about this new venture, and I invite you to be a part of it. Ready? Here we go!

Activity: If you’ve looked at this site or my official author site, then you’ve learned something about me. I’d like to learn something about you! In the Comments, please tell me something about your writing, your goals, and one of your favorite things. It can go something like this:

I’m Elisa. I’ve written ten books (8 novels, a memoir, and a book about writing), I’m here to foster my love of writing (and teaching), and help others do the same. One of my favorite things is freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

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