How to be a Writer – Dan Schneider’s Elements of a Story

In a perfect universe, Dan Schneider’s short story “Elements of a Story” would be the first thing taught at any Creative Writing class out there. Since we do not live in that perfect universe, those interested in checking it out can buy his Selected Short Stories collection and see it for themselves. As a literary experiment, it is both daring, and, more importantly, an actual success at achieving what it dares – a teaching kit on how to write that is itself a great work of art.

Let’s jump straight into it:

The story is narrated by an unnamed film critic, but it has no straightforward linear plot. It does not begin with the narrator’s voice either, but we get an excerpt of an interview (film commentary to a porn movie) where Dan’s fictional porn director midget Bit Von Rheingold discusses parts of his life and his career. Afterwards, the frame of the story expands and we get the narrator talking about her thoughts on Bit and her history with his films and how much he means to her. Within this exposition, the narrator slips biographical detail about herself and tons more pop culture trivia surrounding Bit. Another slice of an interview is revealed where we get to see more of Bit’s worldview.

From this, the narrator jumps to another thing altogether, revealing how she has a film blog and has started a literary blog. She recounts some especially bad fiction submissions she has received and we get the full text within the story itself. They are as bad as you expect – gimmicky one-off stories with bad modifiers, ridiculous descriptions, pop-culture references that don’t add to anything but novelty, and non-sequiturs. In contrast, the narrator provides us with one of her good, though not great, short stories. The difference is immediately visible – detail used to outline character (even pop culture references), dialogue that isn’t meandering, and a narrative that adds up. A great short story that includes a bad short story and a good short story – daring!

After those excerpts, the narrator reveals to us an email correspondence she is having with a young writer who questions her about what it means to write good stories. The advice she gives is so helpful & on-point that I will excerpt the whole thing here just because I think ANYONE who wants to be a writer worth anything should read it:

This fan named Craig asked me:

Hi, I read your site all the time and enjoy your take on cinema; especially the fact that you realize that film is more of an art where literature is extended to the visual arts rather than being a visual art with a story. After all, wasn’t it John Huston who said that all great films depend on a great screenplay, or something like that?

I responded:

Thanks for the props for my blog. I appreciate good readers who can see what I am trying to do with my explanations of film. I also agree with what you describe as my take on film’s relation to literature, and while I’m not sure of the exact quote, nor whether it was John Huston, nor possibly Orson Welles, who stated it, the sentiment you express re: screenplays’ import to the finished film is correct.

On to your specific ideas, let me address the ideas about what actually goes into a great story, and it’s not really plotting. In fact, most bad writing, in general terms, comes from overplotting, wherein characters act like robots or mannekins to just push along a tale, rather than seeming to have the story emerge organically from the characters. Think of Dan Brown novels or dreadful teen books like Twilight or The Hunger Games, or even supposedly more adult-themed stuff like Fifty Shades Of Grey. Yes, on a sentence by sentence basis, most writing- even of supposed ‘literary merit’ (think David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen) is doomed by the use of clichés, trite characterization, bad dialogue, and an utter banality to the prose line, but, on a more macro scale, it’s almost always the heavyhandedness and predictability of the plot that kills fiction. There is too much of the MFA ‘show don’t tell’ canard, as if showing by great writing is bad.

In fact, character is plot, and characterization is built via observation, meaning that to see from behind the eyes of a character is far more important than knowing the color of the eyes of a character. Ask yourself if any of the overdescribed details of typical fiction lets you think of or understand the character better? Yes, if a character has a scar on their face, explaining how and why they got that scar may be helpful, but if it’s just there to signal that the character is a badass, it may not be worth mentioning, or simply stating, once, that it exists. But, a story can be woven from even the most day to day experiences and observations. Let me give you an example, since you said that you live in the Central Texas region (Florence), as I do (I’m in Georgetown): yesterday, my boyfriend and I drove to a town to have lunch. Among the observed things:

-we went to Copperas Cove, TX- drove through miles of relaxing countryside
-ate lunch at Giovanni’s Italian restaurant
-young waiter, very friendly- left nice tip
-saw a single Oriental man eating by himself and reading a book
-drove toward Lampasas after eating
-stopped in Kempner, TX, a town of 1100
-saw a young boy along a country road and posited him as a future novelist
-redneck in a pickup truck backed quickly out of a driveway and almost hit our car
-my boyfriend yelled at me for not honking horn- I avoid that
-drove by a restaurant run by a guy who used to shop at a store I worked at- the restaurant, Alfredo’s, is closed; a new restaurant opened is there: The Yumm Factory
-my boyfriend wanted to get a menu to read for our next trip this way, but door is locked although sign says open- what of Alfredo? What of the locked door?
-went to Lampasas and got chocolate shake at Dairy Queen
-walked around Lampasas River park
-saw a family of four on scooters
-saw a concrete piece of sidewalk with the names Dean & Maxine in it, with a date. Next to it was a newer concrete block with the names Dean & Janine and a later date. Next to that was a third block with the names Maxine & Robert and an even later date
-we saw ducks in the river
-we crossed a bridge to the other side and saw two big geese on the grass- I pretend to chase one, but she does not move, lowers her neck and starts snapping at me, chasing me away- she called my bluff, and it recalls a time, as kid, in Maine, when I was bitten by a goose and cried
-we saw the scooter family again, on other side, as they crossed bridge on the other end of park
-we crossed that bridge, by a man-made waterfall
-on original side, back near DQ, we saw a small turtle, on a rock, sunbathing in winter- I thought of the sun’s photons traveling 93 million miles to make this wee reptile warm
-as we neared DQ, we heard a siren in the background- an ambulance, cop car, fire engine?
-we drove home and spoke of our little trip

Now, this was about 3.5 hours of my life, yesterday. A typical reader might think that this was a typical boring day because I encountered no vampires, was not involved in any Apocalyptic endeavors, did not have any high melodramatic moments, and had no James Bondian adventures. Yet, to me, this is rife with possibility for a story, or many of them. Just the graffitti with the names of a guy and gal and their future girlfriends and boyfriends trying to outdo the other is enough to make one wonder, and that’s what a story does: it draws you in to learn more of the characters, not what they look like, what they wear, or what silly trouble they can get into.

The stories that last all deal with deeper ideas and situations that communicate what it is to exist, to think, to feel, and these are not opposing things. Mere observations are the key, and the better the observations and ideas about them are, the better the story is.

Again, yesterday, I had no James Bondian adventures, did not learn the secret of the universe, did nor bed down with some Hollywood stud, and was not in possession of a multi-million dollar winning lottery ticket. Yet, the elements of a good story are all here, and in my next short story manuscript, or maybe novel, I’ll use these for a tale or scene digression. In any given day, in any several hour period, are the elements for any good story. One simply must attune oneself to observing the bounty about oneself. When art, in general fails, it is almost always due to a failure in the artist, not the cornucopia of elements the cosmos tosses at the artist to use.

Craig, if you are a writer then you, too, have such writing blocks to be used: just make lists of such events, then explain the basis of these events, how you got to that point, what these things evoke, and then write on each event, and connect them to the others- either linearly or not. This is narrative. Characterization can grow from it or grow it. But it all starts with observation and reflection- that is the prism from which all stories grow.

Craig then replied, via email:

This is a great illustration of mining the normal day-to-day observations for story raw material. I have always struggled with such, and thank you for pointing out what is so obvious, in retrospect. I see dozens of rich details and story tangents here, especially how your boyfriend chastised you for not honking your car horn. The other detail that just knocked me out was the series of sidewalk pieces showing ‘dueling sweethearts’ between Dean and Maxine. The belligerent goose was another really good touch. The key issue is that these inspired and fascinating details are EVERYWHERE, you just have to be aware of them. I know that they abound in my life, too, I just have to get better at noticing them. As I mentioned in a prior email, I’ve got a bad habit of relying too much on my own personal firsthand experiences, and not enough on secondhand observations like this. It’s the second hand observations that can make even the simplest sentence come alive. Thanks for the valuable illustration.

I replied:

Again, thanks for the civil and intelligent email. Too often people just want to argue and not listen to another’s advice. A point worth mentioning, though: note how the goose anecdote, and the bad redneck driver, TIE INTO my own personal experiences; and the dueling romantic adventures of Dean & Maxine is likely a story unto itself, but one that is relatable.

Everyone has gone to lunch, seen a stranger somewhere and wondered why he or she is alone, met a nasty animal, pondered over a moment like the turtle, had an experience with a bad driver, envied a family’s togetherness at some event, heard a siren wail, and on and on. Just note certain things on the next day you go food shopping, drop your car in for a checkup, pick up your kid at school: maybe you see a fat crossing guard who is sneezing? Maybe the auto is making a noise that reminds you of something, or the mechanic smiles in a way that recalls a character from a favorite old sitcom, or there is a woman with a great body down aisle 10, who causes you to lust, then she turns around and her face does not match her body’s beauty.

Then, with these ‘anchors’ for a narrative, you just connect, elaborate: you think of the bodacious woman and how, her whole life, she had to deal with men who came up to her from behind with lust, only to note their face’s expressions when she turned around, or the sneezing crossing guard recalls an incident in 4th grade where you saw snot drip out of the nose of Timmy Collins, or how you swear that mechanic has to be related to the guy who played the first Darren on the old sitcom, Bewitched.

As I’ve said before with a great narrative: Enter one room and you enter all the rooms of that house.

Now, you figure out what that means for you, Craig.

After that correspondence, the narrator dives back into some biographic detail, talking about how she used to work as a porn star. She quotes an excerpt from one of the bad short stories, chastising it again for how badly written it is. Yet, and this is Dan’s parallelism at work, there are parts hidden within this excerpt that connect to greater themes and ideas within the whole of the story. To use an excerpt from a bad short story as parallel to higher themes – this is what it truly means to experiment.

Finally, the narrator returns to talking about Bit Von Rheingold. The ending is maximally poetic, even metafictive, encapsulates the whole story, and brings us to that ineffability that characterizes all great works of art.

Somehow I feel it right leave my analysis at that. I stand by my statement in the opening paragraph. In a perfect world, this story would be taught at the start of any Creative Writing class. Students would be forced to grapple with it on their own, seek the multitudinous lessons within it for themselves, and teachers would never allow them to pen anything down until they could articulate, with their own ideas, why this story deserves to be called great. It deserves to be read in place of any of those other writing guidebooks out there with their limited prescriptions – this one shows all of the steps that have to be taken as a writer, provided your mind is keen enough put everything together. It is also proof that you can create a story out of anything, absolutely anything, in the world.

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