The story element What is a critical part of a story. Who is important, but without What, there really isn’t any story. The What generally amounts to an event, a romance, an accident, a speech, an election, or an apocalypse.
Normally, What is your plot in the novel or short story and is what your character will focus on. You tie your protagonist to the What, the plot, and the story proceeds through to a resolution.
If you read book blurbs, those paragraphs on the back of paperbacks or the inside flap of a dust jacket, you get a feel for the What. Well-written blurbs usually provide a clue to the main character and the What they will face. Since I mention “well-written,” that indicates there are poorly written … but, I digress.
A lot goes into What. An event, say a wedding, takes a lot of planning and coordination (think Father of the Bride). The event beginning brings in the planner, they select the venue, they redecorate the venue, they select colors, they select flowers, the bride chooses the gown, and all the other details. And, it takes up to a year to carry out.
How you structure that and how your character(s) behave and interact in it can make the story a classic comedy, a bloody thriller, a murder mystery, or an intense drama. Just for a mental exercise, take the movie mentioned above and envision it as a murder mystery. The What doesn’t actually change much, but the characters involved and how they behave do. Significantly.
In my own mental reboot of Father of the Bride, the wedding planner ends as a gruesome murder victim. Of course, the father is the prime suspect, but several of the characters have motive. I even have the groom as a witness to the murder, but he dies horribly just before the ceremony where he planned to name the murderer.
So, you see, the What is a mundane thing. How you, as the writer, treat it is what makes the story.
In my post a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the lead. Who and What are two elements almost always included in the lead. As readers, we care most about who did what, or what happened to whom. As authors, we take the What and break it down to its parts and have the character(s) work in it.
One of the most important story elements in any writing is: Who.
As mentioned in the previous post, The Lead, the first paragraph of a news story should at minimum describe who, what, where, and when. Unless, of course, there is a reason to add why and how in the lead.
Who is always a critical element. We all want to know who did what to whom. That is what we connect with, what we find important, what drives our curiosity.
Of course, the who of any story is the character or characters. The main character, secondary characters, and the antagonist are all included in the who. These are who the reader wants to know about, read about, get involved with.
So we make the character is as real as we can. Use of a character sketch (see an earlier post on just that topic) or character interview helps to fully flesh out details to make a character as real as possible. A character with depth is easy for the reader to settle in with for the duration of the story. To care about. To love. Or to dislike in the case of an antagonist.
The character sketch contains a lot of detail that may never make it directly into the story. However, you use it to add nuance and flavor to the words you choose when describing what the character does, says, and feels.
You probably heard a number of old print newspaper tropes like, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and “you buried the lead.” The word as I’m using it here (sometimes spelled “lede” lately to differentiate it from its homonyms) refers to the first paragraph of a news story.
The version of the term, lede, came into use circa 1965. That spelling just grates on me, so I’ll stick to the old way. The first paragraph of a news story should lead you into the rest by providing you with the most important elements. If I said it should lede you, you’d get all confused and think I committed a typo.
This is the first of a series of posts on journalism and how it relates to writing, specifically writing fiction. I was no famous journalist in my day, but I did work on a number of small weekly and twice-weekly papers. I had some good mentors both in the Navy and in civilian life.
It was through these experiences and practice of writing news stories that I developed my style, I think. An economy of words, precise description, active voice, all play a role in my writing. I’m not perfect, but I try.
So, what exactly is a lead?
In a news story, the first paragraph–usually no more than two sentences–is the lead. It normally contains four or five of the six critical elements of a news story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. It is the lead that draws the reader into the rest of the story which expands on the elements to offer a complete narrative of what happened.
Here is an example of a well-written lead from The Chicago Tribune, Tribune News Service, Oct. 3, 2016:
The Illinois state treasurer plans to announce that the state will suspend billions of dollars of investment activity with Wells Fargo.
This simple single sentence covers the critical elements of the story. Who (Illinois state treasurer), what (suspend investment activity with Wells Fargo), when (soon), where (Illinois). The bridge or body of the story will address these and the “why” and “how” elements in more detail.
Notice the economy of words. Real news writing still lives in Chicago, it seems. You get the primary information in a well-written sentence in active voice. It compels you to read further for more information.
Here’s a lead from the Associated Press in a story dated Oct. 3, 2016:
The Supreme Court has declined an Obama administration request to break its recent tie over plans to protect millions of immigrants, when a ninth justice is on the bench.
This lead is a mess and definitely not what I’m used to seeing from the AP. The sentence uses a passive verb and has a clause that is nonsense. Here’s how it should look:
The Supreme Court rejected an Obama administration request to break the court’s recent tie over plans to protect millions of immigrants.
I suspect the clause dangling at the end of the AP version was a cut-and-paste edit error that stomped on a part of the story’s bridge. The revision punches up the verb and helps drive the reader into the rest of the story without the confusion of the strange clause. Both stories are online and you may not see the versions I’ve clipped here if you go looking.
“So,” you ask, “just what does all this have to do with writing fiction?”
Using an economy of words and addressing the critical elements of the story (who, what, when, where, why, and how) are important in getting a reader to read initially, and continue to read. Fiction writing really isn’t that far from news writing.
The first element we address in a fiction story, usually, is the who. Tie the main character or protagonist quickly and actively to a what so you entice the reader to read more. If we spend too much time in all the detail of a who, or a what, in the first few paragraphs or pages, the book or story gets put down.
That first page of your book–or the first paragraph of a short story–is the lead into your story. You don’t need to go into excessive detail on the character’s description or personality disorders, or heavy description of the what the character gets involved in.
Just give the reader enough information to hook him or her into reading further. Salt your protagonist’s physical and character traits through your narrative, or use “show, don’t tell” techniques. Tease the reader with elements of the what as you go along. This keeps the narrative moving and the reader interested.
“Kluge” is a word common around computer and hardware systems and is an unfortunate appropriation of a German family name. The term kluge (often misspelled “kludge”) refers to a “clunky, unpolished, quickly thrown together,” workaround or patch that results in a difficult to maintain or repair system.
I knew that the term likely came from the Kluge paper feeder and offset printing systems from the early 1900s. It surprised me to find in Missoula a near-working Kluge offset in a custom print business. They were in the process of repairing the Kluge to get it to print foil embossing. A quick study of the Kluge and comparison to other offset printing devices gives you an idea of how the unit earned the reputation–and why the term became common. When they work, they work beautifully. Maintenance and repair is difficult.
Here’s a link in Wikipedia to give you a more or less complete rundown on the term.
One of the scheduled events at the Montana Book Festival was a printing demonstration using a Golding offset printing press. Probably circa 1890, the device weighed about 350-400 pounds. The frame is cast iron and the mechanism works smooth as butter. The owners of this letterpress adapted it in the “make-ready” process to use more modern materials, including polymer plates. That disk in the picture is the ink plate. The rollers smear the ink around on it and apply it to the image plate, which then presses the ink onto the paper. It is an amazing process to watch.
Yes, I found all this pretty interesting and exciting. I started working in newspapers when some were still printed using offset and moveable type. I was witness to the transition from hot lead to digital typesetting. Seeing this old stuff and watching it work was very nostalgic. The smell of the ink and oil, the sound of the mechanism as it worked, brought back a lot of memories.
The Kluge and some other devices were at Noteworthy Paper & Press in Missoula. If you visit, you’ll find a lot of custom printed things.
I visited Valley Christian School for my part of the Youth Festival and got to talk to the high school senior AP english class. After a short read from Sudden Mission, I lead them through an exercise in creating a fictional character using a character sketch. I had fun and I hope the students did, as well.
Saturday was the book fair at the Holiday Inn, and everyone had their books available. Here’s a pic of my books among the others on one table.
I had a great time at the festival and I hope they can keep it going.
I’m off to the Montana Book Festival. This year, I’m not just attending but participating. I’ll be talking to two classes of high school students at Missoula area Christian high schools as part of the Youth Festival.
This is pretty exciting. I enjoyed the festival last year, sold a few books, and met a few other authors. One thing that impressed me was how much the Missoula community embraced and participated in the festival.
I may still be added to a panel or two as the schedule finalizes. I plan to attend a number of them, as well. So, if you are in the Missoula area this week, please stop by the festival. Look me up! I will have the new BugBear Books editions of Sudden Mission and Nasty Leftovers with me. A Missoula vendor should have a few copies of each, as well.
After this, I’m going to try to settle down for the season and get busy working on the third book in the Spirit Missions series, as well as some other writing projects.
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Don’t forget. If you live or are in Spokane this week, I’m reading/signing at Auntie’s Bookstoredowntown at 7 pm, Thursday, September 15.
I’ll be brief today. I’m getting ready for a reading/signing at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane, WA, on Sept. 15, 7 pm. I hope lots of folks in Spokane and the surrounding area come to hear!
From Sept. 21-25, I’ll be at the Montana Book Festival in Missoula, MT. They’re still putting the schedule together. If you plan to attend, or will be in the Missoula area during that time, please check in and look me up! The schedule on the link above should be firmed up in the next week.
Both Sudden Mission and Nasty Leftovers (as reported in the previous post) are available in print now. You can even order print copies from Amazon (see the links). The print copies are not via CreateSpace, but Ingram, so shipping might take a couple more days. For some reason, Amazon isn’t showing the cover image for Sudden Mission, but it may show up soon.
There is a new review of Sudden Mission on Amazon by an old Madras High School friend. She was a couple of years behind me and married one of my classmates. I attended a combined reunion this summer and had a lot of fun catching up with old friends.
Any time authors or artists can get ratings or reviews is a blessing. Today’s market is so crammed with content and content providers, it is hard to get noticed any other way. So, when you read something put up a star rating if you can. Good or bad, it all counts and it all helps.
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