Saturday, August 25, 2007

WORKSHOP: Basic Writing

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Today you will learn how to write a very good story.

Storytelling is a balanced mix of talent, skill & voice. Today you will apply them all to tell a story in written form.

After this process you may never look at your favorite books the same. After today you will have the tools to build a story skeleton, which after much practice will guide you into becoming a published author.

Let's begin.

Story Basics

We pant, pray and run toward another restless sleep. But tonight the air smells different to me. Not its usual burnt trash and trees stench. Tonight...tonight it smells of guava. A perfect fruit balanced in taste and scent, both sweet and sour, both firm and soft. Until you bite one you will not know how it will taste. Until nightfall we will not know what we'll face. Uganda is not balanced. We tread through the dark in an unbalanced manner, but we are quite rational. We know this road. And tonight our footsteps sound less like stomps, but gallops. Tonight...tonight is different.

An excerpt from Pearl’s Miracle, a short story by Dee Stewart

1. First Thing: A Story Idea

I read in a few craft books and once agreed that your story begins with an idea. In my experience coupled with the many authors I’ve interviewed great storytelling doesn’t arise from just an idea. The best stories-- the ones that move you even as you write—come from the soul. What you need to do is to prepare yourself to receive what the soul wants you to write.

Here are a few ways to achieve that:

List the last three hot news topics in your world that caught your attention:

The Trapped Miners in Utah

The Michael Vick Case

High School Musical 2

2. List the last three events that have happened in your life this year.

A family tragedy

A family celebration

3. List the last three lessons you’ve learned.

How to not allow your maternity to take over your identity.

How to disagree with your spouse in a loving way.

How grace has nothing to do with you.

List three current issues that keep you up at night.

Making ends Meet

My children

Does God Exist?

One night well past my bedtime an ABC Nightline new story played on my television. A story about children in Uganda, who had to run away from their homes at night, in order to save themselves from the Lord’s Resistance Army. I sat up in bed and scratched my head.

Children are running from the Lord’s Resistance Army? Something didn’t sound right there. I reached for my remote and turned up the volume. To my heartache I learn that what I heard was real and worse these children shared my faith.

I thought to myself. I have a daughter, a seven-year-old. If she were there that life would be hers. I closed my eyes and imagined my child running through soot, trash and brush to hide. I began to cry. My body puffed up with so much emotion. I could not go back to sleep.

Next: Determining which idea is a story others want to hear.

Storytelling can’t just involve an idea that you feel passionate about. It also has to be an idea that others want to hear. In other words, a good story has to be universal. It’s theme needs connect (resonate) with other readers, else you’re writing for yourself.

Here are a few tips to determine if your story has some firmness to it.

Create a discussion around your topic.

Create a poll around your topic.

Ask your friends their take on your topic.

Record what you find. The topics that receive the most attention from your friends/family and you is the one to write.

The next day I wrote a blog entry about the children in Uganda and I sent an email to my friends, wondering if anyone else saw the same story. People began to comment. Then I learned that Oprah would be doing a special about the same thing. Bingo! I had a story idea.

Three: Giving your idea a friendly face.

The great thing about reading a good story is befriending a great character. Celie(the Color Purple,) Bernadine(Waiting to Exhale), and Laura Ingalls(Little House on the Prairie) are my friends. We have a connection. We have some of the same problems and sometimes they have the answers to the troubles that plague me. So every now and then I chat with them when I open their books.

Your story needs a face that your readers can care about and trust.

Here are some techniques to give your idea a friendly face.

1. Determine her problem and how it relates to your topic.

In my story Pearl’s Miracle I envisioned a little Uganda girl, my daughter’s age, running in the night toward safety. I didn’t know what she looked like, but I could see her frightened eyes.

2. Search the internet for a photo of someone who may look like your character. Places to search

a. International: BBC or CNN

b. Microsoft Clipart Gallery

c. Stock photos

I combed the BBC News website searching for a girl who had those eyes. I found her. I copied and pasted her to the topic of my Microsoft Word document and I had my Pearl.

3. Make your character worth caring about.

My writing mentor, Chuck Pahlaniuk(The Fight Club) taught me that your character has two ways to build authority with your reader:

Head Authority- your character is very smart. She knows things you would like to know. You begin to trust her judgment, because she has taught you something early on in the story. A great example of this is the new USA Network Show- Burned Notice and The Closer

Heart Authority- your character has your heart strings. She is an underdog with a heart of gold. She’s Cinderella. You’re Cinderella. Think The Princess Diaries or The Nanny Diaries or The Color Purple.

You need to decide which authority you will use to introduce your reader to your character. In Pearl’s Miracle I chose the heart method. Who wouldn’t root for a child running for her life?

Next: Plot your story

Plotting is quiet easier than it seems. You can use my basic plot structure for any story, and my basic scene structure for every scene. It never fails.

A. Basic Plot

1. Life is what it is, sort of good for a little girl and her sweet mommy.

2. One day mommy becomes sick, so sick she needs water from a healing well at the top of a hill.

3. The child cannot go to the hill, because she is afraid of wild animals. She seeks help from others, who refuse.

4. She has to get up that hill because her sick mom needs water.

5. She decides to face her fear to save her mom.

6. As she goes up the hill she meets a storm, a roadblock, and a wild animal.

7. The storm taught her to shield herself.

8. The roadblock taught her how to get over a fear.

9. The wild animal is a test of her old fear, but she isn't afraid anymore. She kills it and now she is exhausted. She can't get up the hill.

10. Now she’s afraid of something else, failure.

11. Her fear of failure succumbs her. She doesn't have the will to get to the well at the top of the hill.

12. Until she notices a broken tree branch caused by the storm. She catches it and climbs.

13. The roadblock has made her physically stronger she climbs until she reaches the hilltop.

14. She looks down and discover more wells and a clinic and a cute little boy, who loves animals.

The gist of that outline is that you have a character who has to come out of her comfort zone to achieve a goal. And you have to present it in a way that keeps your reader guessing about the outcome.

In Pearl’s Miracle case, Pearl and her brother were running toward Noah’s ark when the Lord’s Resistance Army approaches them. They must hide. But will the LRA find them?

Scene Structure Plotting.

Scenes are important to a story, because they help you build a voice and move your story in a way most readers are comfortable with. Each story or novel chapter needs at least three scenes. For a short story the three scenes crescendo to a final moment. For a novel the scenes crescendo to a plot point. A plot point is a place in your novel when your character makes a vital decision that will push the story forward or conclude it.

The basic elements of a scene work in this way:

1. Your character has an action. (Pearl is running to Noah’s Ark.)

2. Your character meets a conflict that interferes with that action. (The other kids are walking.)

3. Your character does something that creates a disaster. (T\the Lord’s Resistance Army catches up to them.)

4. Your character has to react to the disaster. (Pearl trembles. She thinks she is going to die.

5. Your character makes a decision.(She hides behind compost and monkey dung hills.)

The decision should lead the character to the next station and either make the reader ask a question or solve the reader’s question. Do you want to know what will happen next? I’ll tell you later.


Before you write you need to establish the tone of your story. Tone is the atmosphere you plan to bring to your tale. My friend, author and critic J. Mark Bertrand wrote an excellent entry at The Master’s Artist Community last week about tone. In short tone is how the story reads. Is it heavy, brooding, light, comical. You can’t decide setting, or minor characters without knowing this first.

Setting and Cast

I build both of these aspects at the same time, because I think of setting as a silent member of my cast. In Pearl’s Miracle the setting was current day, wartime, Uganda, at night.

When you write your story your reader should know where your character is within the first paragraph. Ground your reader.

When you know your tone and understand your topic you can build a cast that will help your story reach its gold. Short stories need no more than one other cast mate. A novel needs no more than six or eight. You don’t want to many people diluting your story.

In Pearl’s Miracle I chose two- Pearl’s brothers. Both were a dichotomy of her family. One good. One evil. They represent our world and my faith.

As you build your cast you must think clearly what does each cast member do to enhance your story. If they are fodder, erase them.


Now that you have a topic, a character, tone, setting, a cast and plot building tools you need a voice, the literary entity where your personality meets your writing.

There are no tips or techniques to create voice. It comes with practice. My writing assignment for you is to build a story, build a plot, write the story and send it to me. From now until Dec. 31, 2008 I will work with the first five writers on polishing their story. Those five writers will be feature on Christian Fiction Blog.

Fare enough? Good. Now I want to read your story.

Still interested in Pearl’s Miracle?

The story will be included in Infuze Magazine’s 2006 Best Christian Short Stories Anthology that will be available to purchase soon. Subscribe to my newsfeed to get the first scoop.

Thanks for participating.

Dee Stewart has worked as a respected book critic and freelance writer for various publications- Spirit Led Woman, Romantic Times, Gospel Today, Infuze, Hope for Women, Rejoice, Anointed, Atlanta Christian Family, Mosaic Literary Journal and Precious Times—not to mention hosting Christian Fiction Blog. Her short stories have been featured in Infuze Magazine’s Best of Christian Shorts Anthologies. She hosted Third Thursdays and The Perfect Romance Reader Event Series in Atlanta, and coordinated the Christian Fiction Workshop Panels for the 2007 Romantic Times Booklover’s Convention in Houston, TX. She is also publicist to ministers, gospel recording artists and actors living in the Atlanta area. While Angel on the Back Pew isn’t autobiographical, many of the situations were inspired by actual events. She resides in the North Atlanta suburbs with her family and Girl Scout troop. She can give you the scoop at


Shoba said...

Hi, my name is Shoba Mano. I'd just like to ask if it's necessary to have an outline of the plot.

So my question is are seat of the pants writers losing out in productivity, flow, tone etc. if they don't have an outline of the plot?

Koko Brown said...

Great information! I just recently started to plot my books...before I was what you called a panster. But plotting does help for at least planning the story because I have suffered from the slumping middle.

Koko Brown
"Charmed" 9.21.07

Anonymous said...

Hi Dee,

What a great article! I found it interesting as well as informative. I loved, and will definitely be using, your approach to coming up with and polling story ideas.

Thanks for participating. I love it when I learn stuff!


Anonymous said...

Hi Dee
I was wondering if you use pictures or collage to help with your writing process. I find if I have picture of who I think my characters look like & of areas, places, houses ect. I stay more focused on my story.

RhondaN said...

Great lesson, Dee. I never thought about sharing my idea with others to see if they like it.

Shoba said...

Hi Dee,

I checked out the article by your friend, Mark. You're right. It is an excellent piece. I was wondering if tone or as he so quaintly put it, "texture" can be derived through research that does not involve physically going to that location.

For instance when you decided on Uganda as your setting, did you have to travel to Uganda to get a feel of it?

Deatri King-Bey said...

Excellent article!!! Great job.


Unknown said...

Great article. I am currently working on my first book, and this is a big help for me.

Rudelle Thomas said...

This was really helpful to me and I plan on putting the information to use immediately. Thanks so much!

Rudelle Thomas
Divine Eloquence Magazine

Anonymous said...

Dee, I enjoyed your explanation about getting out of the comfort zone. So often, writing textbooks are explained in a language designed for the English professor, where you broke it down and simplified for the aspiring writer. I also got a lot out of your suggestion for ideas. I never thought about this before, but then I realized that pitching my idea to my friends will give me an idea of what people want to buy after I finished the novel.
Night to Dawn editor

Unknown said...

Just call me 'AK'. I write with a great friend of mine and the first book we wrote we didn't have a outline at all and it was very hard to complete that book. The great thing is that once we learned about the art of writing we know know that we have to plot and outline everything. That doesn't mean we don't come up with interesting things down the road to add to the book but at least the foundation is there. Thanks for the article.


Unknown said...

Hi, Shoba.

So my question is are seat of the pants writers losing out in productivity, flow, tone etc. if they don't have an outline of the plot?

No, Shoba. I am a seat of the pants writer. However, as I've learned the basic format for my stories. Short stories and novels are different. I know what key elements I need to have in mind as I write. I also know that by page 50 my character needs to decide to solve her problem. I know by page 125 my character's first problem should be solved. What you have to do is know your character and put her in a bad situation then give her a solution to get out of that situation. Then write. As you write your character will take shape and you will see that perhaps your solution wasn't right for her.

In short you need to think about the basic elements of your story once you have decided upon a story idea. Jot them down on a todo list then write.

You should use a basic skeleton with the first problem and conflict and three problems that will keep her from solving this problem. That outline isn't too structured and restricting for you. Thanks for commenting.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Koko!

The sagging middle sags when your character runs out of things to do or say. Her problem wasn't hard enough for her. Or a bigger problem didn't emerge that should have.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Kathy!

I'm excited about this conference. You can learn and teach in your pajamas!

Unknown said...

From Sandra,

I was wondering if you use pictures or collage to help with your writing process.

I am a painter, so of course I use visuals!! I search through magazines for where my people live. I sketch scenes. I try to write very vivid stories so I need pictures to help me get the details.

Thanks, Sarah.

Unknown said...

Hey, Rhonda.

Thanks for stopping by, girlfriends. You know you can poll me anytime. :)

Unknown said...

From Shoba,

I checked out the article by your friend, Mark. You're right. It is an excellent piece. I was wondering if tone or as he so quaintly put it, "texture" can be derived through research that does not involve physically going to that location.

For instance when you decided on Uganda as your setting, did you have to travel to Uganda to get a feel of it?

Shoba, I watched ABC News Nightline again online. Then I watched the piece Oprah did. Then I went to BBC America and found some blogs written by ministers over in Uganda. I also interviewed an author friend, DiAnn Mills, who has spent much time in the Sudan.

We live in a world where you can learn a great deal at your fingertips or your local museum!

Thanks for a great question.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Deatri!

Unknown said...

Thanks, La Tessa and let me know how your book goes.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Rudelle.

I plan to check out your magazine. I'm a journalist. You know. :)

Unknown said...


I tell you. It works every time.

What I've discovered--and I base this on my faith-- is that God wants me to write something that addresses the people in my circle, else he wouldn't have put me there. I'm black for a reason. I'm a woman for a reason. I'm a single mother for a reason. I need to use my writing voice to meet those people where they are. That helps me stay focused on what ideas will work for me.

Thanks for your response.

Unknown said...

AK, thanks for your comment.

And I agree. Plotting doesn't mean your story is etched in stone. You can always change it.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Dee,

I enjoyed your article. Where can we send our story for help with polishing?


FinalDraft said...

I'm reading what I missed. See, there's always a surprise lurking between the words. Great Info... I'm putting together my story idea/plot and I'm hoping to be one of the 5 writers you work with. Thanks alot, all of this will help me get started!!!

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