Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

What I learned about writing at Grub Street


Day 23 of Blogathon 2013

What do you think matters most in a novel? Is it characters? Plot? Writing style?

For a seat-of-the-pants writer like me (ask my friend Peter how much I hate outlining), it was disconcerting to learn that the answer is “none of the above.”  What matters most is structure.

Yesterday I found out why at a terrific all-day workshop at Boston’s Grub Street taught by Mary Carroll Moore  .

I’ve been a writer for decades, first as a newspaper reporter, then as a city magazine editor, corporate communicator, executive speech writer and now as a freelancer.

But other than a few unfinished short stories that wandered off  into the woods, I’ve never written fiction.  (Though God knows I have a shelf full of books about how to do it.)

Nor have I written any book-length nonfiction.

But like many of you, I’ve had a story idea nagging at me for years.  I wanted to know how to bring it to life.

It turns out the best way is to give the story an underlying skeleton in the shape of a capital W, with 5 points: 3 above and 2 below.


 What I learned about writing at Grub Street


All the scenes hang on that W structure.  When there are multiple story lines, as in Khaled Hosseini’s “And the Mountains Echoed” , there may be several overlapping W’s, but  we kept it simple.

Here’s how it’s done.

As  you move through the W, forget being chronologically linear. Think drama and movement.

At the upper left goes the “first trigger”: some event, usually external, that sets the story in motion. This must be dramatic, but not as dramatic as what’s to come later.

From there the story descends to the first turning point: something internally motivated.

The third point – the middle peak of the W – is the 2nd trigger, the most dramatic point in the story. Something big has to happen here.

The fourth point of the W is the second turning point, the place the major character hits bottom and has to make a decision that will change things.

Finally, at the top right of the W, is the final crisis, followed by the dénouement.

(One writer’s advice on how to structure a story is simpler — “Get them up a tree. Throw rocks at them. Get them down.” )

We plotted those 5 points on foam core storyboards, placing scenes from our stories with sticky notes.  We critiqued each others storyboards, suggesting places where scenes could be re-ordered for greater impact. At this point, a few people decided they were going to change their stories completely. A few others had breakthroughs.

There was much more.

  • How to create inner and outer stories.
  • How to foreshadow.
  • How to create “call and  response.”

But that W structure was worth the day. I’ll be going back to Grub Street for more.  And I bought the instructor’s “Your Book Starts Here”

Have you ever been to a writers’ workshop? What did you learn?

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2 Responses to What I learned about writing at Grub Street

  1. Jean Gogolin says:

    I’m discovering how many groupies Grub Street has! We should all meet up there for an event sometime. I came away feeling positively energized.

  2. Evelyn says:

    Glad to hear you got so much out of your workshop Jean. That W is by far the easier direction I’ve seen yet on how to create a story arch.

    I treasure Grub Street too. I’ve taken 3 courses there so far. I’ve learned that:
    - writing fiction or creative non-fiction is much harder than it looks.
    - AIC is the number one rule for writing.
    - the adage “show don’t tell” is in fact not true (although those weren’t instructor Steve Almond’s words) – you need enough backstory for the reader to understand where she is and why what is taking place is significant.

    I’ll be going back for more too!
    Evelyn recently posted..What Google, Netflix, and Zumba Have in Common

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