The 5 Fundamentals of Effective Writing | Tammy Letherer | Skillshare

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The 5 Fundamentals of Effective Writing

teacher avatar Tammy Letherer, Author and Writing Coach

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (22m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Conflict

    • 3. Action

    • 4. Resolution

    • 5. Emotion

    • 6. Showing

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About This Class

What is it that you hope to accomplish when you write?

Sure, you want readers to like your work, but that's not enough, is it? Unless you know WHY your writing is or isn't working, every new scene you create can feel like a stab in the dark. 

This class, led by award-winning author and writing coach Tammy Letherer, will take the guesswork out of the writing process by giving you the 5 key ingredients every effective story must have. Tammy uses examples from bestselling novels and advice from seasoned writing teachers to illustrate how you as the author can create conflict, elicit emotion, and more.

Once you know the 5 fundamentals of effective writing and how to use them, you'll be able to write in a way that engages your readers and allows them to identify with and care about your characters. You'll practice these skills in the class project by writing a short scene that utilizes all 5 key ingredients.

The class is helpful for writers of all levels and the techniques taught here can be applied to both fiction and memoir. 

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Tammy Letherer

Author and Writing Coach


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Creative Writing Creative

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1. Introduction: Hi, welcome to my class, the five fundamentals of effective writing. Today we're going to talk about some writing craft fundamentals. If you're anything like me, that may sound like a bit of a drug. Because isn't it more fun when writing just flows naturally and when it comes from an inspired, creative place. That's true. But what I've learned over many years is that writing is actually the most fun when it works. Today we're going to talk about what makes good writing, what makes it work. In order for your story to work, it has to have certain ingredients. I like to bring this down to five fundamental, essential elements that are always going to be there for you as the basics to help up level you're writing. Once you know these five basic craft elements, you're going to be able to create a compelling, effective story that will hook your reader in and we'll give them a satisfying experience. My name is Tammy Letherer. I'm a writing coach and an author of both fiction and nonfiction. My latest book is a memoir, it's called the Buddha at my table. It was named at 2019 best book of the year by the Chicago Writers Association, as well as a finalist in the 2018 USA best book awards. Speaking of memoir, I want to point out that the five fundamentals we're going to be covering today can and should be used in both fiction and memoir. This information will be useful to you no matter what genre you're writing or what your level of experience is. Maybe you're just getting started as a writer or maybe you have a bunch of first drafts that don't seem to be going anywhere and you're not sure why. Either way you'll learn to apply the five fundamentals of effective writing. You'll practice this in the class exercise, where I will give you a series of prompts so that you can write your own scene or Chapter in a way that really works. Let's get started by looking at the first essential ingredient that must be present in your writing in order for it to work. It's the ingredient that we like to avoid in real life, but that we must pin down on the page. You probably guessed it, it's conflict. Let's find out why conflict is so important. 2. Conflict: Imagine a steam engine sitting on railroad tracks and stretched out behind it, is a series of boxcars. These boxcars represent all the different elements of your story. One might be characters or dialogue, or tone, or setting. All of these pieces are ready to go somewhere. But without the steam engine pulling them forward, they're just going to sit there. They're not going to move. That engine is conflict. Conflict is a thing that we'll get every other element in your story moving. Conflict is the number one essential element in your story. Conflict is the pressure on your character that forces him or her to act and action reveals character. Once we understand the character, we can then identify with the character. One of my favorite books on writing craft is called Immediate Fiction by Jerry cleaver. I really recommend this book for the clear and no nonsense way that he spells out these basic elements. A lot of what I will talk about today comes from this book. Jerry says that all conflict is trouble, but not all trouble is conflict. What does he mean by that? Here's an example. I come home from work one day and I tell my husband that I had a bad day at work. Maybe I missed a meeting or I spilled coffee on my shirt or my computer accidentally deleted an important document. All in all, it was just a day of one problem after another. It was just a really troublesome day. My husband would probably nod sympathetically and maybe give me a hug and then go back to watching the football game. Now let's say in another example that I come home and I tell my husband that my boss called me into his office and it turns out that the meeting I miss was more important that I thought that our company has a chance to show its product on the nightly news or the national news and that the host of that show had come to the meeting and was interested in presenting this opportunity. Then when I walked into the meeting late, everyone was taking selfies with this famous celebrity national talk show host and I couldn't get a picture because I had coffee on my shirt. Then when the host turned to me and asked for the important document that I needed to have to present some of our statistics. I didn't have it because it had been deleted from my computer. In this scenario, my boss is furious with me and tells me that I have until midnight that night to recreate the document and basically my job is on the line. By the way, I also had a surprise birthday party planned for my husband that night. What's the difference between these two scenarios? In the first one, it's what we call false conflict, and that means just plain old trouble. It does not rise to the level of what we call dramatic conflict. Dramatic conflict is what you need to create on the page in order to really create a satisfying story. Dramatic conflict equals want plus obstacle. Your character has to want something, but here's a catch. The want has to be big. It has to be important. It has to feel like life or death to the character. It has to matter enough to the character to force the character to take action. Then there has to be an obstacle and this is something that stands in the way of the character getting what she wants. I like to think of the want and the obstacle as almost like two chemicals, that when they're mixed together, they will form this steam cloud that then moves the story forward. Dramatic conflict is necessary to move the story forward. It means that the character is required to take an action. False conflict is made up of annoyances or grievances or criticisms. Any little small things that the character could choose to ignore. We often fall into writing false conflict, because we're so adverse in our own real lives to conflict that we don't want to be troublemakers. It doesn't come naturally to us. Jerry cleaver says in his book, writing fiction is an anti-social act. You must ruthlessly, relentlessly push your character to his or her limits, in order for us to know really what the character is made of. We don't want to read about the ordinary day in the life of an ordinary person, who walks to work along an ordinary route that they take every day and maybe they're saying hello to all the friendly people. That's boring. We want to read about the day the same person walks down that same sidewalk and a piano falls out the window and practically crushes him. You may love your characters, but you have to put them in some real trouble in order for us to know really who they are, you have to force them to act. This brings us to number two of the five fundamentals, which is action. We'll talk about that in the next video. 3. Action: Have you ever sat at your desk all day doing lots of busy work and feeling very productive but then at the end of the day you realize you actually haven't produced anything? So it's easy to let your character do this same thing, she might be seeming to do a lot but unless what she's doing directly relates to the dramatic want and the obstacle, then it doesn't count as dramatic action. As Jerry Cleaver says in his book, activity is not action. So just like dramatic conflict is more demanding than ordinary conflict, traumatic action must rise to little bit of a higher standard than just ordinary action. It has to be a reaction to the want and to the obstacle. So if I continue my example from earlier, if I come home from talking to my boss and I'm angry about having to write this document and I start banging pots and pans around or screaming at my husband or complaining how unfair life is, I'm certainly being active but I'm not directly addressing my problem. So those things are okay, you can have those in your story as long as you also include a direct attack upon or a defense against the problem. Maybe I cancel the birthday party and stay and get the document done and save my job or maybe I call my boss and say, never-mind I quit. Remember, action is what reveals character, how far is your character willing to go to get what she wants? As a writer, you can play with different types of outcomes, you can push your character to see exactly what your character's made of and by doing this you might actually discover some interesting aspects of your character that you didn't expect. You'll know that you've nailed the first two fundamental elements if they lead directly and easily into the resolution, which is the next basic ingredient that you're going to need. That's what we'll cover in the next video. 4. Resolution: The resolution is simply the outcome of the action, except that it's not always so simple or clear. A story is usually a series of events or challenges, and not every challenge is tied up in a bow. Your characters resolutions can be messy, they can be conflicting, they can be confusing, even temporary. Your character might believe that she's overcome an obstacle only to find that there's another one ahead. The resolution to my sticky work situation might be that I just buckle down, do the work, miss the party, impress my boss and make everybody happy. That would be a great outcome. But what if while I was working, my husband decided to go to the party and ended up cheating on me with my best friend. That's an unexpected outcome that would provide a resolution to my original dramatic wants, which was to save my job, but it also introduces a new round of conflict. If you're having trouble with your resolution, chances are that you did not set up a strong enough conflict. Try going back and raising the stakes with your character. Make the want and the obstacle even stronger and tougher and this will intensify the action and get a more definite result. Your character either gets what she wants or she doesn't. Now, the first three fundamentals; conflict, action, and resolution, are the main building blocks of a story. To use my freight train analogy from earlier, they are the steam engine, box cars and the caboose. These elements will take your reader on a journey. But we want more for your reader. You don't want to just get them from point A to B. You want them to actually enjoy the journey. We achieve that part of it by adding these next two elements, which are emotion and showing. Think of these two things as the scenery that adds a little bit of excitement to the journey. We'll look at the next one now, which is emotion. 5. Emotion: Emotion is the glue that holds everything together. It's the reason that readers read and it's most likely the reason that you want to write as well because you want to connect with your reader in a meaningful way and you do that through emotion. It can be tricky to pin emotion down on the page because you as the writer might not know what emotions you hope to convey when you start. Because writing is a process of discovery and that's okay. But you're writing can't be devoid of emotion. Robert Frost said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader", and Jerry Cleaver says, "If the emotion's not there, the character is not there and if the character is not there, the reader's not there". If the conflict is there and working strongly enough, your character won't be neutral. She can't be, and your reader can't care more than your character does. You have to understand your character well enough to understand his or her emotions and how do you get to know your character that well? Well, you put your character into conflict and you force your character to act. This is a good reminder of how incredibly important those first fundamentals are, the conflict, which is comprised of want and obstacle plus the action. How do you create these emotions on the page without resorting to labels or clichés? You do it by sharing the characters, hopes, worries, and fears. These are always loaded with emotions that the reader will perceive on their own, through their own level of perception or through their own lens. In other words, you show emotion through specific thoughts. As an example, I want to read you an excerpt from a book called Britt-Marie Was Here, this is by Frederik Backman, and this is a great example of emotion. Forks, knives, spoons. In that order. Britt-Marie is certainly not the person who judges other people far from it. But surely no civilized person would even think of arranging a cutlery drawer in a different way from how cutlery drawers are supposed to be arranged. We're not animals, are we? It's a Monday in January. She's sitting at a desk in the unemployment office. Admittedly, there's no cutlery in sight, but it's on her mind because it sums up everything that's gone wrong recently. Cutlery should be arranged as it has always been, because life should go on unchanged. Normal life is presentable. In normal life, you clean up the kitchen and keep your balcony tidy and take care of your children. It's hard work, harder than one might think. In normal life, you certainly don't find yourself sitting in the unemployment office. The girl who works here has staggeringly short hair, Britt-Marie thinks, like a man's, not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. It's modern, no doubt. The girl points at a piece of paper and smiles evidently in a hurry. Just fill in your name, social security number, and address here, please. Britt-Marie has to be registered as if she were a criminal, as if she has come to steal a job rather than find one. Do you feel the characters anxiety and discomfort? It's all conveyed here through her thoughts. There is not a single word here mentioning an emotion and yet, this character is compelling precisely because we feel her discomfort, because we can identify with it and that sense of identification is really what it's all about. You've got four fundamentals now to work with. Conflict, action, resolution, and emotion. The last one is the fun one, where you get to be as creative as you want. Let's look at showing and why it's important. 6. Showing: What's more fun, going to a party or hearing about one? Or watching a football game, or playing football? Or reading about romance, or actually feeling the touch of someone's hand in yours? Showing versus telling is one of the basic rules of writing. Jerry Cleaver says, showing a little is better than telling a lot, why is that? Today's writers are very savvy, so they're not going to be satisfied with half told stories, they're looking for a full experience and they want to discover that experience on their own. When you explain every little thing in your story, your reader will actually tune you out. Much the same way we tune out people who talk too much. Just because you're the author doesn't mean your reader will necessarily trust you. You may write, she was a happy girl, and the reader may wonder why. Why is she happy? How do you know she's happy? Maybe I don't believe she's happy. Or say that you describe a character as annoying, but you don't explain what the annoying behavior is. How can the reader be expected to also feel annoyed? Maybe this guy passes girlfriends hand repeatedly when they're in a movie theater together, and the character, who is the girlfriend thinks it's annoying, but maybe you as the reader, find it endearing and sweet. Anytime you label something in your writing and tell it rather than show it, you really risk having your reader disagree with you and become disconnected to your writing. But when you show a behavior or an experience, the reader gets to overlay her own perceptions and gets to be part of the process by engaging and drawing your own conclusions. This is a much more satisfying experience for your reader, so how do you know when you're showing rather than telling? Showing feels like it's taking place in the moment. It's usually happening in front of you in real time, and it's almost always done through scene and dialogue rather than summary. Let's look at another example, this one comes from the novel Lonesome Dove by Larry Mc Murtry, one of my favorite books. Here it is, it might help if I could hang on to it. When Augustus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake. Not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and it's rattling days were over. The Sao had it by the neck and the Show, had the tail. "You pigs get," Augustus said kicking the Show, "head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake." It was the porch she begrudge them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter and things were already hot enough. He stepped down into the dusty yard and walked around to the spring house to get his jug. The sun was still high, sold in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for sun, and to his eye the long light from the West to take it on and encouraging slant. I don't need to be told that this is a dry and hot and inhospitable environment, or that there's a spectra of violence and death hanging over this scene and there's a, maybe a clash with nature. I get that by what the author chooses to show me. So in your own writing, when you want to focus on showing, you can think about your five senses. Think in terms of sounds and smells and sites and colors. One writing teacher I know used to say, pick up your video camera. When you think visually, that's a good way to train yourself in this era showing rather than telling. Those are our five fundamentals of effective writing, conflict, action, resolution, emotion, and showing, and now for the class project, I would love for you to write your own scene or chapter using these five elements. I want to encourage you to not just assume that you've got them on the page, but actually go back and circle or highlight exactly on the page where you pin it down because these things are elusive, oftentimes when we write, we think we've nailed it. We may understand it and think we've conveyed it, but it's not actually on the page. Beginning, I think it's very helpful to start off actually writing that down on the page. Secondly then net pinning it down and knowing for sure that you've gotten it. Check out the prompts have given you for the class exercise and please share your projects with me. I would love to be able to comment and help you develop these, and see where you have trouble if you do, and what parts of it come easily to you. Thank you so much for watching, and I look forward to seeing your work.