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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Finding Character Motives

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We’ve all heard what a motivation is, but how do we find our character’s motive?

Characters and their motives focus a story.  What is a character fighting for or against?  Although not true in all cases, most stories can be stripped down to be rooted in love (fighting for) or fear (fighting against).

A Wrinkle in Time

Courtesy of Amazon.com

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg is fighting to find her father and bring him home — a motive based in love, her love for her father and her family.  Though quite a few twists hop in front of this motive, her desire to bring her father home and reunite her family gets the story going.

In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, though the love story has gotten the headlines (and really, who doesn’t love Rhett Butler?), Scarlett’s primary motive is survival — surviving the war, surviving General Sherman’s fire, surviving the way her family’s land has been ravaged, surviving heartbreak. She is fighting against humiliation, starvation, and death — a motive based in fear, at least at first.

Love and fear need not be narrowly defined by familial or romantic love or fear of death or physical pain; they can be more basic, like love of a home or love of honor, fear of shame or humiliation.  What other books stick out immediately as being rooted in love or fear?

P.S.  Check out the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time (adapted by Hope Larson) here.

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Can Good Writing Be Taught?

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What makes good writing good?  And can it be taught?

This topic is not new, but the recent Atlantic article The Writing Revolution reignited the debate (see here and here for more).  It certainly made the circuit among all my teaching friends.  The article follows the story of one underperforming school in New York that decided to pursue good writing with a passion, following the idea that structured writing, where students are taught tangible rules and how to apply them, leads to better comprehension of all subjects.  And so far, it seems to be working.

The school believed that the primary issue stemmed from students not understanding basic sentence structure and how to vary sentence structure, and they built from there.  If you think about it much, it’s not very revolutionary at all; it’s just focusing on fundamentals.  Varying sentence structure is a solid, basic rule of writing that is virtually invisible when it’s done well.

ImageBut let’s compare 2 paragraphs.  This first paragraph is the first few lines of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.

Collins pulls us along and controls the pacing with her masterful use of varied sentence structure.  Longer. complex sentences tend to draw us out or be more contemplative; shorter, more to-the-point sentences give more punch.  Without the sentence complexity, it might sound a bit like this:

I wake up.  The other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out.  I’m seeking Prim’s warmth.  I find only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams.  She must have climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.
Without something so simple as varied sentence structure, the paragraph sounds stilted and immature (although that is another way to play with the character’s voice).  What other writing concepts are invisible when done well, but glaringly obvious when they’re missing?

The Beginning

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This blog will explore techniques for us to sharpen our craft as writers and touch on my writer’s journey along the way.  As Hemingway put it best, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”  There is always more to learn where the written word is concerned.

I’ll try not to include too many emoticons. 🙂  Oops, too late…  Happy blogging!

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