Storytelling 101: Character, Conflict, Context & Craft | Daniel José Older | Skillshare

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Storytelling 101: Character, Conflict, Context & Craft

teacher avatar Daniel José Older, New York Times Bestselling Author

Watch this class and thousands more

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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

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      — Character in "Salsa Nocturna"


    • 4.



    • 5.

      — Conflict in "Salsa Nocturna"


    • 6.



    • 7.

      — Context in "Salsa Nocturna"


    • 8.



    • 9.



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About This Class

How do you write a story that feels alive? What makes a story different from an anecdote?

Join renowned urban fantasy writer Daniel José Older for a 40-minute dive into the fundamentals of narrative storytelling! 

Energetic, bite-sized lessons explore:

  • The "4 C's" of storytelling: character, conflict, context, and craft 
  • Breaking down how each "C" works in Older's short story, Salsa Nocturna 
  • Tools and questions to ask yourself as you're developing your own story 

This class is for creative writers (both aspiring and established), and everyone who wants a deeper understanding of what makes a great story so captivating. You'll leave this class armed with a tried-and-true framework for writing your own fictional short story, and inspired to put pen to paper.

For more storytelling tips, check out my second class: Creative Writing Essentials: Writing Stand-Out Opening Scenes

Meet Your Teacher

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Daniel José Older

New York Times Bestselling Author


Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Middle Grade historical fantasy series Dactyl Hill Squad, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, Star Wars: Last Shot, and the award winning Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher, which won the International Latino Book Award and was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, the Andre Norton Award, the Locus, the Mythopoeic Award, and named... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Hey. I'm Daniel Jose Older. I'm an author, I write essays, I write books and short stories. I also compose music. I'm very excited to be here. Welcome to the class. We're going to talk about the fundamentals of storytelling. Craft, conflict, character, and context. This class is for writers. When I say writer, I mean people who write or people who want to write, you're still a writer. If you are interested in writing, this class is for you. This is an opportunity for you to actually start writing, which is when you become a writer for real. If you have been writing for years and years, this class is also for you. This is techniques to get your writing to really be on point. Again, this is a way for you to look back on the stories that you've written and to look forward to the stories you're going to write, and start thinking in terms of how to make them alive, how to make them stand up, and how to make them really speak on another level. Now, I was a paramedic for 10 years, which is a lot of the foundation of my writing experience, even though it's not writing itself. But I firmly believe that as much as you need to read and write, you also need to live your life. So, I learned a lot about stories just from being in the streets and being with people in their most difficult moments, sometimes their greatest moments, and do all those different challenges existing on that level around crisis. Crisis is an idea that I really want you to have in your head throughout this whole process and anytime you're writing. A crisis is really a turning point. We think about it as like this awful thing that happened, but the root of the word, really comes back to this idea of a turning point. It's a time that is the root of a great change in someone's life, or in the world, or in society, you're always telling the story of the turning point whatever you're doing with storytelling. You have to keep that in mind because, otherwise, a story can easily become just an anecdote, and nobody wants to really read an anecdote. So, here's your assignment because writers write. I want you to write a short story about something that happened on a single block in your home town over the course of one hour. It could be anything, it can be violent, it can be compassionate, it can be beautiful, it can be funny, it's totally up to you. Now, this might take you an hour to write, it might take you, cannot take the whole year writing it, it might take you more time. Let the process guides you. Take how much time you need to take but make sure that you're committed to writing it down and getting it done. The biggest cause of writer's block is often people just not writing, which isn't actually writers luck, it's just you not writing. So, sit down and write. If you have to, one great way to get past writer's block is to set your timer for five minutes, 10 minutes and commit to writing words on a page for those five or 10 minutes nonstop without thinking about it and without trying and do it right. Perfectionism will kill you again and again. Don't be a perfectionist, just put a word on the page, tells the story. That's the rule, tell the story. So, when you're done, you will have a story written. It might be a terrible story, that's fine. But you, then, will have to make it into something that works, and that's something that we can do, and that's what we're about to talk about. I've attached a story in the Class Resources section. It's called Salsa Nocturnal. It's actually the first short stories that I ever wrote. I'll be referring to it as a guideline and a way to think about different techniques that we're discussing throughout the course. So, if you want, take 15 minutes, read it over, see if it inspires anything inside of you, and then we'll take it from there. 2. CHARACTER: So, we're discussing the four Fundamentals of Storytelling; Character, Context, Craft, Conflict. All of these pieces have to be solid in your story for your story to work. This is about functionality, and this is about everything coming together as a whole and thinking about the different parts. I think of it as a table. If one of the legs is wobbly, dinner is annoying and that's what happens. On top of each piece being solid, they are interconnected and they're always in conversation. So, keep that in mind as we move forward. The first thing we're talking about is Character. Character is like the most obvious thing that needs to work, because if you think about it, most of the time that you're not really feeling the story is because you don't care that much about the characters. The characters have to be alive. Let's start with the two most important aspects of character building. We have to understand and believe in their humanity to the point that we care about them on some level, and they have to want something. Let's take those things one at a time. Take humanity. This is a little more complicated than it sounds. Well, it sounds pretty complicated, so I guess it's just as complicated as it sounds. But no matter whether it's a dragon, a robot, or whatever this character is in its actuality. There has to be some sense of humanity if they're going to come to life on the page of a book. So, we have to believe in their existence in their fundamental humanity. If we do, then we have to care about them on some level. Now, likability is a very complex and controversial kind of term right now and literature and for a long time. Likability is weird, we don't actually have to Like a character. There's a lot of gendered problems that come along with likability in the sense we've always had really horrible men characters in the history of literature that we're supposed to like somehow and do. Then when a woman comes along, that's not necessarily as likable or whatever quote unquote or does some horrible things. Then suddenly, all kinds of critics have a problem with them. It's not so much about likability. What it's about is, do we care about them on some level? Even if they're disgusting human being, we have to figure out some way to care about them and be intrigued. Think about the classic anti-heroes. Richard the third or Frank Underwood or whoever it may be that you don't agree with any of their life choices, but you're invested in them, and that's the difficult thing that you have to find. A lot of a characters humanity comes out of details. These little details there are about a person that tell us who they are on some deeper level than just your regular, average, some average schmo. We need to know that they have a life and sometimes, that life comes through clearest in the small decisions they make and how they dressed themselves, that little eccentricities, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak. I often think about character development is like when you have a crush on someone. You know when you have a crush on someone and it's just like that certain thing about them that intrigues you and makes you want to know more, and they may be a horrible person but you're still just like what is going on with you? You want to know. It's not ev even about sleeping with them, you just want to know what's going on with that person. Often, it's just that little detail about them like they wore red shoes. Why are they wearing red shoes? You want to know. That's what you're going for when you create Characters. You want to give us in just a few quick strokes, the details about that person that matter, that are going to stand out to a reader or to the other character. Because anytime you're describing something, you're describing what you're describing, and you're also describing the character through who's as you're seeing it. So, whatever matters to the person to the point of view character, it should matter to us as a reader. What are the details that bring somebody to life? What it is about them that really stands out in a crowd that really makes them individually indifferent? Maybe it's the fact that they don't want to be individually at all. So, they're trying their best to dress like everybody else, but failing at it somehow. These are the different kinds of elements. You have to figure out about each character. Try to have a crush on all of your characters. Hopefully not in a creepy way. Then take it from there, and see what about them really stands out to you. The second thing that you need to have in place for your character, is your character has to want something. Particularly, your main character, or protagonist and your antagonist, they have to have a desire. They have to have motivation. If they don't, there's no engine to your story. The engine of your story is the desire of your main character. That's what pushes everything forward. So, whoever they are, whatever humanity you've granted to them, whatever eccentricities and details you've come to create this person that we now believe in. They have to care enough about something that they will actively go out and get it. Now sometimes- and we'll talk about this a little more in conflict. -actively going out and getting something means thinking through whether or not you want to actively go out and get it for a long time and then finally doing it. That's still in a strange sense in action. The main thing is that they had to care about it enough, that we care about it too, and we want them to take action if they're not taking action and there's our investment. We believe in their humanity, so we care about the person, so we care about what they want. We want what they want, so we follow them through whatever it takes to get it. Now, their desire might be just to find out what's going on. Whatever it is, it's probably going to adjust and change over the course of the story as they change and they grow, because they got to grow, right? We're not just going from point A to point A. So, as they grow, their desire may develop with them. It might start out as just being what is going on here? I want to know. It might then turn into, "I need to kill the evil wizard overlord, so that I can save the dragons" or whatever. It might be, again, I need to learn to love again. These are all different levels of desires that a character has to have for them to really fit functionally within the larger framework of your story, so that we have a guiding principle to move forward with as we read and as we write. 3. — Character in "Salsa Nocturna": So, in the example story, "Salsa Nocturna," think about Gordo and the different ways that Gordo lets the reader know who he is and what he's about, the way that he keeps you into his fundamental humanity. Starting from Page one where he talks about taking his morning medicina with a little bit of bacon, and eggs, and pappasitos and everything else so that he can have balance. That's his way of saying, he loves to eat, he's kind of a joker, he's kind of ridiculous, he's kind of old and huge, and that's who he is. It's also about language. So, his choices of deciding to call certain things their Spanish words and certain things their English words speaks about who he is fundamentally and how he flows and how he rolls. He's letting you know all that from jump. It's really important that character stuff happen early on. We need to know exactly who we're dealing with very quickly so that we know if we're going to keep reading and if we care about them because that's, again, what hinges the whole story, character is fundamental. So, we know who Gordo is, we get a sense of him very quickly. As he continues, his voice is what kind of guides us through the story, always letting us know about different things about him, that he's late, that he has family, that he plays music, that he lives in Brooklyn and that he really loves music and kids who also love him back. So, when he gets this job watching over kids, something that he cares about is in play. Remember it's their humanity and it's their desire or what they care about. So, something that he thinks is important is now all around him and he's actually in charge of making sure that they stay safe. So, what's the first thing that happened? One of them goes missing. That's how it always got to work. You show us that a character cares about something and then you take it away. That's why writers are called sadists a lot because that's what you have to do, is hurt your characters so that we care about what's going to happen next and we follow them through. So, a child is now missing. On top of that, there's ghost wandering around, and yeah, they're friendly ghosts but still when you have the combination of ghosts running around in this child care facility and then a missing child and in the middle of it this big Cuban dude that really wants everybody to be okay and plays music, there is your story. So, now, we follow him along trying to find the child and that is his desire to keep everybody safe, fueling the story. So, when he finds the child and the child is surrounded by all these evil baby ghost spirits or just angry baby ghost spirits and in danger, Gordo is called into action and then he has to make a very active step and choice to rescue the child and to make it through that hoard of baby ghosts. What's going to carry him through? His desire, his desire that we've been building throughout to understand he cares about the people around him, he cares about little kids, he cares about having the job that his future stepdaughter got him. All these things are important to him and his legacy is important to him as we realize. As he's trying to figure out how to get his way through this mob of ghosts, he wants to pass on his legacy to someone, and when it turns out that this young boy Marcos plays music too, this is a way for him to do that. So, these are all character aspects that are also noticed in relationship to conflict and in relationship to the world build in and in the context around them. So, that's how they all come together and are in conversation. But fundamentally, we need to know what Gordo cares about so that when it's taken away, it matters. Now, think about your own characters, think about your own stories, what is it that brings them to life? What do they want? What do they want so badly that they will run through a hoard of baby ghosts to get it? It doesn't necessarily have to be that dramatic and graphic, but they need to have that impulse to need it so that they will go through fire to get it and then we will care about them enough to keep reading. 4. CONFLICT: So, the second fundamental of storytelling is conflict. Conflict is the backbone of story. If you don't have a conflict, you don't have a story. What we were saying about crisis earlier, crisis is an element of conflict. The conflict has to be in place, we have to understand it, we have to understand what's at stake in your story, so that we know once the character does or doesn't get what they want, what will happen, what are the consequences of failure or success. We have to have an understanding that all those are questions of conflict. Robert McKee says, "Conflict is the music of story". He wrote a really great book called Story, which is most about screenwriting but a very good resource to check out. Yes, if the underlying music, if you don't have a conflict, you don't have a story, you just have a bunch of stuff that happened. Figure out your conflict, understand it deeply, know what's at stake, understand what are the economics of your story, what are the things that are good and what are the things that are bad. What do you gain and what do you lose. It might be money, but usually behind money there's something deeper. So, maybe it's freedom, maybe it's love, maybe it's never having to work again. Whatever is at stake, we want to understand it and what it really means for the character. Because remember, money means different things to different people, there's no universal money, is just a whole lot of stuff, but it can mean something to someone emotionally that's going to resonate on a deeper level than just being rich. Understand that there are two fundamental kinds of conflict that you're going to be dealing with. There's internal conflict and there's external conflict. Internal conflict is going to be what the character is going through within themselves, what they have to overcome to get done whatever they need to get done to get to the end of the story, to get what they want, to get their desire which has been fueling them for the story. The external conflict is whatever outside of them stands in their way in the world. Now, your best bet is if you can marry those two together as much as possible so that the internal conflict is something that they have to overcome in order to succeed at achieving their external conflict, then you're telling me a powerful story. Then there's a lot at stake, there's a lot of different elements at play, and you get to then be complicated in the ending, because they could achieve their internal conflict but fail at their external conflict and then you have an opportunity to say something a little deeper than just everybody gets what they want, they win, happy ending, and tied up in a nice little bow. Nobody believes in that shit. So you want to keep it moving, have something really interesting, give us different layers and different dynamics and conflict is your opportunity to do that. Think about complex conflicts and then think about how to simplify them and then give yourself the space to then also become more complex with them again. These are all at play, these are all different levels that you can bring into your story, and always remember that it is going to be fueled by the desire of the character. The character has to care enough about whatever that conflict is, that they then go out and get what they want. Understand and think about power in a complicated way. We don't talk a lot about power in writing programs, and we should, we need to, because if conflict is really the fundamental truth of what a story is, the fundamental building block of a story, you have to understand the power dynamics that are at play, that fuel that conflict, so that there's some balance between the protagonist and the antagonist. Whether that means racial power, gender power, sexual power, class power, magic power, spiritual power, all of these different levels are going to be at play. You might be inventing a whole new world where there's different dynamics but do you have to know those dynamics, so that then you can play them out in the scope of your narrative.That's for you to decide, but what you can't do is just hope it all works out, I don't really know what's going on but I'm sure it'll be cool. It's not, it's not going to be cool. Think about power, think deeply about power, read different people who write about power in interesting ways, and then bring that knowledge and that analysis to your story and see how it plays out. It will only make your story better. 5. — Conflict in "Salsa Nocturna": So, in Salsa Nocturna, think about what the conflict is. We've talked about it already a little bit because conflict is always going to be seen through the lens of character, but think deeper about what is the conflict? What's going on in the world around Gordo, and what does he really need to get done? What's at stake? At stake is his job, the life of a child. Okay, so not in that order. The life of a child, his job, him caring about people around him and wanting everybody to be okay, him and his musical legacy and passing it on to another generation. All these things are at play basically. Just one of them would really be enough, but because we have a couple of different things going on as an opportunity again for things to get more interesting in the story, you don't want them to get cluttered. So, you do have to find a balance. You can't just throw all kinds of stuff in the pot and stir it up. You have to be strategic about what you're doing. All those conflicts are interrelated, and they're connected, and they're in conversation. So, you can get away with having different things that are connected like that in there. That's what's going to fuel everything going on. The antagonist, you could say are the child goals, who have now sequestered this little boy because they love his music, and they want to keep him there and make sure he keeps playing music, which he obviously can't do because he's a living child. So, we need to get through those child goals, rescue the child and get away in order for everything to be okay in the end. That's what's at stake. So, look at your own story. What's the conflict? Why does it matter? What's at stake? Have you shown us what's at stake? Have you told us what's at stake? Do you understand the consequences of what will happen if the character succeeds or fails? Do we understand it? Make sure you can answer those questions as you write, and if you're clear on it, make sure we're clear on it. 6. CONTEXT: The next fundamental aspect of storytelling that we're going to talk about is context, context is one of my favorites. We honestly don't talk about it quite enough I think in a lot of writing classes, but context is so important to storytelling, it underguards everything, it's always present, we cannot ignore it. It's about thinking through place, and time, and again, power. Putting all those together that's what creates context, place, plus time, plus power, and that's how place really can come to life, is if we add these different dimensions of time, and specificity, and power, and really understand the different layers that are going on around a character in a world. Now that world may just be in the space of a room, but you still need to understand a room they're in, and who else is in it, and what it looks like, and what matters about that room. There's a phenomenon that a lot of writing classes talk about called the white room, which is when you just write a scene, and you never mention where they are, and they're just two characters talking, and then they leave and boom, and where are they? As far as you're concerned the reader, all you know is there's a white space behind them. The same thing applies to the larger question of world-building, if you don't do your job as a world builder, then the world around them will just be a big white nothing, and you don't want that, it's a missed opportunity, is lazy writing, and it doesn't really give us anything to hold onto and ground us as we're moving through the story. So, understand the world that's your characters live in. World building is a term that we usually use in fantasy and science fiction, but it applies across the board. I don't care if you're writing a story about right here, right now, in this very moment, you still have to world build, you are responsible for letting the reader know what are the parameters of the world that you're talking about, what is the context that you are creating. Context and creating context is a very complicated and political act, so you have to enter into it knowing that and with intentionality. Just like a photographer decides what is in the frame, what is outside of the frame, and then you can change the entire story based on what you keep in the frame. It could be a natural disaster and then you pan a little bit to the right and there's a guy with a huge bazooka, and that's a whole other story that you're telling with that picture. So, understand when you're creating those parameters, when you're framing your story you're deciding what gets to stay in, and what gets cut out, what are the dynamics at play, who has the power in the situation? Who do we see and who do we not see. On top of understanding the power in it, what are the experiential levels of being in this place? What are the sounds? What are the smells? What do you see? What do you feel when you're here? What do always come back to character, because we're always seeing everything through the lens of character, so what are the characters experiencing of this place. Do they have emotional attachments to it, or do they feel scared because they've never been somewhere like that before? Do they have memories? Is the place in flux? Yes. Everywhere is in flux. The everywhere is in some state of change, and you need to understand what kind of change is going on so that you can bring that place to life. It's kind of a late cliche at this point to say like the setting was so cool is like a character, and that is dope, it should be like a character, but also think about setting in terms of conflict, because most settings are in conflict somehow, especially if you're writing about cities, also these are in some level of conflict, and the more you can understand that, the more deeply that you can wrap your hands around that conflict, the better your story will be if it speaks to that. Now, this should all be something that you think of like a pallet not like a checklist, where you have to go through and have everything perfectly done around setting. Think about the setting deeply, think about the power, think about the context, and then use it like a pallet when you deploy your characters across it. You don't have to have every single street corner mapped out, what you have to have it is in your head so that then when you put it on the page you get the important details down. Just like with character, those details are going to matter, those eccentricities, the way that the street will tell us the whole story just by the different storefronts are on it, or who's on the block, whether there's trash on the street, or brand new trees or both says a lot about a neighborhood. All those things are part of telling the story, and all they will do is make your story better if you're paying attention to them more and more. 7. — Context in "Salsa Nocturna": In Salsa Nocturna, pay attention to the different ways that the story is talking about the world around Gordo. So, I'm from Jump. He's talking about gentrification, great white flight, the different elements and dynamics of history that play a role in life in Brooklyn, and the way that manifests even in the fact that his band had to move out of town, the different kinds of beers that you can buy, or drinks that you can buy in the different coffee shops and bars. All those things are world building. The actual building that he's in in the setting of the story for the most part is this old music hall turned into a care center that still has all that good music called juju in it. From Gordo's perspective again, the filter of character, the lens of character. So, that's how he sees it, that's how he's understanding it. That tells us a whole lot both about Gordo and about this micro-world that he lives in within the larger world of Brooklyn. So, the story only grows and gets stronger based on the deeper understanding that Gordo as a Brooklynite has of his own world, which is really just a question of being honest about it. He's someone that lives there, so he sees the changes, he has an emotional relationship to the place of it. So, as it is dynamic and as it is moving, he has emotions about that, and that's how we see it is through his eyes. In your own stories, think about the world that your characters live in. How long have they lived there? How long do they plan to live there? Do they care about it? Is it in flux? It is. How is it in flux? What are the changes happening? What stories does the street tell in the world that they live in? Or if they're in a building, what stories does the building tell? Is it in disrepair? Is it everything perfect to the point that it's kind of creepy? Who has been there before? Did they leave their footprints? These are all questions that you can ask yourself, and that you can have the story ask of itself to build it and make it better, make it deeper. 8. CRAFT: The next fundamental element of storytelling that we're going to talk about is craft. Craft holds it all together because you can have a great conflict with cool characters and awesome world building. But if you can't write a good sentence or if you can't write a sentence that make sense to anybody, we're going to put the book down on page one. If you just kind of let it all sit there, we're really not going to be that invested. The good news about craft is you don't have to have amazing craft, you just have to have clarity. Clarity, clarity, clarity. That's what matters the most. We have to understand what is happening in your story. That's the job of the craft. Now, craft could really refer to everything that we were talking about today because all of these are elements of craft. When I say craft right now, I'm talking specifically about the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence paragraph level of you writing prose. Is it clear what's happening? Do we have a very clear visual of the events of the story? Can we see it in our mind? Can we understand the play-by-play? Can we feel it on some level? Read your story out loud. Ninety percent of craft errors happen because writers don't read their story out loud. You may feel weird about doing it, get over it, read it out loud before you submit. It is crucial. You will catch, first of all, really dumb mistakes. Second of all, really awkward sentences. Third of all, shit that just doesn't make any sense. That's what you need to be on the lookout for. When you read it out loud, if you're paying attention to yourself and you're listening to the words that you're saying, you will stop halfway through a sentence that is completely jumbled, and you will step back and you will then rewrite it. You don't want us to have to follow a set like jump back to the top of a sentence and reread it to actually get what's going on. You want to throw in different kinds of sentences. What's called parallel structure is a bad thing. If it's the same type of sentence over and over and over again, it hurts our eyes and our ears and our brains. It doesn't make any sense to us and then it's just starts to get annoying. Shake it up, have different sizes of sentences, sometimes short and punchy, sometimes a little longer and more eloquent. Figure out what you want to say and what kind of sentence you need to say it with, but make sure it's not a jumbled sentence and it's really that simple. There are a couple of basic things that I want you to think about staying away from and all of these are suggestions, all of them are dependent on the context of what you're writing. None of them are hard rules but let's go down some of them quickly because they're well-understood in the writing world to more often than not over complicate things instead of adding clarity. There are things that we often lean on as newer writers because we think that it's making us better. First of all, the number one mistake of new writers is generally to overwrite stuff. You're going to throw in tons and tons of extra words trying to explain everything. What that's really saying is that you don't trust the reader to really get what you're saying, which is also telling us that you don't trust yourself to tell us what's happening in a very clear and straightforward way, so you're trying to play a lot of games with words to make us think that you're a great writer. We'll know you're a great writer if you tell a great story. That's your job as a writer. Give it to us straight. Don't overdo it. There are moments that you can be beautiful with your prose but there are moments, it shouldn't be a whole story of just glorious flowery writing. Why? Because that doesn't feel real. We don't walkthrough the world constantly just being amazed by every little detail of the glorious nuances of each crack. That's strange. The reality is we go through life, just living life and moving through our lives and taking actions and regretting things and whatever and blah-blah-blah. Then there's moments where we stop and things are really striking and you take that in. Fine, so find those moments and use them and they will be all the more powerful because you're not oversaturating us with pretty language the whole time. You want to make things stand out and so you can't draw our attention to it specifically. Otherwise, just tell us what happened. What is the character doing right now? If you need to, what they're thinking, but really what are they doing and a lot of what they're doing should be the mechanism for us understanding why they're doing it and what they're thinking while they're doing it. The passive voice. Avoid the passive voice. Try to avoid the passive voice. The passive voice means instead of saying I picked up the pen, I would say the pen was picked up by me. Now, right off the bat, you can see that it's a bunch more of words, it goes on longer, it feels cluttered and weird. The passive voice is an awkward way to say anything, which is part of why we don't use it because it's just awkward. The other reason is that it's confusing for the brain. If you think about it, the brain processes things in a linear kind of way chronologically as it's reading a sentence. If the first thing we hear is the pen was picked up, what we're seeing is the pen and then it's kind of like levitating in the air because we don't know what's picking it up. The truth is that that's actually a full sentence right there. The passive voice allows you to just end the sentence without ever knowing who picked up the pen. The pen was picked up is a complete sentence. It's confusing. There's just a ghost image of the pen being lifted. It's much easier if you say I picked up the pen. We know exactly what's going on play-by-play. It also is a way of getting around responsibility. You'll see it in the news a lot, or famously George Bush once said mistakes were made. That's the most famous historical use of the passive voice in recent memory, and of course, he was referring to the Iran-Contra affair and all kinds of horrible things that he himself did and his buddies. It was a way of ducking and dodging out of responsibility. My own reference point for the passive voice was from when I was a paramedic, and we would have some ridiculous situation, some horrible whatever happened in the streets, and then the next morning I would go read the paper to see what happened and it would say the patient was transported to the hospital. I was like, "Who transported that dude?" I did, and not only did we transport him but we did a whole bunch of stuff on them and we were very actively involved but we get completely erased. See, that was actually passive voice right there. The newspaper completely erases us by the way that they use the passive voice to tell the story of that particular tragedy. I was sitting there like, "Where am I in the story?" That's why, another reason why it is good to avoid the passive voice, it can be a very political way of abstaining from taking any responsibility. Watch out for it. Find it in your stories, and then, like with all of these things that we're talking about, interrogate it. Does it really need to be there? Is it there for a reason? Do you have a character that's trying to get out of responsibility? All right, maybe that's a good reason to use it. Otherwise, it's just going to over complicate things unnecessarily. The verb to be, be careful of the verb to be. Again, it's not a thing that you can never use. I want you to think about why you're using it every time you use it. It's a dead verb in the sense of if you close your eyes and try to imagine what does it look like to be something or to be, there's nothing. You don't have an image. Whereas, if you think about the verb to jump or to run, it might not be a complete image, you don't know who's doing the jumping or running but you see there's motion, there's something going on. The verb to be is just stillness and emptiness. You got nothing. If you're going to have a sentence like the bookshelf is in the room, it's kind of a dead sentence. I mean, we understand the information that is trying to get across, and clarity is good, but you can bring a lot more evocative language to it even simply saying the bookshelf towers in the corner or towers in the corner or looms over the room. It was obviously kind of cliche examples but the point is that you can be much more creative than just saying the bookshelf is in the room and you want to think economically with your prose. If you can get a couple of things done in one sentence as opposed to just one nugget of information per sentence, then you're giving us a lot more per word and per sentence, and we're a lot more engaged and it increases your flow so you're moving us forward and we're getting lots of things done at the same time multitasking, and that's a good thing. Watch out for the verb to be, use it selectively, use it with a lot of intentionality so that there's reason behind it. If you want to be very simple and straightforward, this is this then go ahead with it. If you're trying to really get an evocative description going, then try to think more interestingly and try to use more evocative and powerful verbs. Speaking of evocative and powerful verbs, adverbs is the next thing that you really want to watch out for. It's famous at this point because the over use of it has just become like a standard critique in the way that we talk about writing. The reason is that it gets you to be very lazy with your verb choices if you rely on a lot of adverbs as a kind of crutch. With an adverb, you may say "He said loudly," when you could simply say that he yelled. It is really about just saying exactly what's happening. He briskly walked down the street, no he ran down the damn street. I mean, if he briskly walked, then maybe that's a distinction you need to make, but in general, just say what it is. Don't waste words. Don't give us a lot of extra words that we don't need. Say what's happening. That's the problem with adverbs. Again, you can use them but make sure you use them very intentionally and very consciously and make sure you really need them when you use them. Otherwise, 90 percent of adverbs you can really just delete and leave it as it is. The one exception to the whole be interesting with the adverbs rule, and Stephen King talks about all these things actually really well in our writing, and so I will refer you to that book again, is the verb to say. People get a little over creative with the verb to say and then it just becomes over dramatic. When you're writing dialog, first of all, you don't need to say say in every single line of dialog, especially if there's just two people in the room, we figure out very quickly who's talking and who is not, one person is the other, and you can tag dialog with actions. If a character takes an action and then speaks, you don't have to say he picked up the fork and then he said. You can just say he picked up the fork and then the next line of dialog, if it's on the same line, that's them. You need to use all of those things to be creative with giving us the dialog of what's going on but you don't need to be really creative with is fine in a hundred different ways to say he said, he yelled, he grunted, he sighed, he moaned, all that stuff. Just calm down with that, say what you got to say. Most of the time, we're just saying things to each other and that's really what's at the heart of it. You don't need to over dramatize stuff. What you do need to be clear about is the staging of it and how are they moving and how are they relating to each other because that, more than the actual dialog, is going to tell us about what's really going on in the scene. Because for every word of dialog spoken, there is a subtext to it, and there's something that's really being said. Just like when you are upset about something, you may be saying, "No, I'm fine," but the way that you say I'm fine is going to tell us a lot more than what the words you're actually saying. There are some words that feel very unnatural and those are especially words that you want to stay away from. Even something as simple as responded, I mean, you could say responded, stated, replied. People don't really say he stated, unless they're talking about on a forum, like as a medic we would say that all the time on legal medical documents but people don't walk around saying he exclaimed and he stated stuff like that. It's really, again, just say what's going on. Never say sarcastically. I know I should never say never and I don't like the word never especially in writing but if you have to tell me as the reader that the character says on it sarcastically, there's some other failure happening there. I should know, I should know either by the context of the scene or the way that the character is saying the phrase, but you don't want to tell me to that degree. You don't want to have to sit me down and be like this is exactly what's happening, he said it sarcastically. That's too much. The more that the reader can make the connections ourselves, the better off you are as a writer. This comes back to what I was saying earlier. If you trust yourself as a writer, if you trust the story you're telling and the way that you're telling it and you trust the reader to understand what's going on, then you can step back some and really let the story do the hard work. Think about the times that you deploy a lot of detail and use them with intentionality. If you're trying to ratchet up tension and every little moment matters because there's a bomb about to go off or whatever, then do that. If you're doing it all the time, then again, that's not going to matter when it comes down to it. We're not going to have any reference point to things slowing down or moving faster. All of these elements are things to keep in mind when you're reading your own story. Look it over, circle all of the verbs to be, think about why they're there, make sure that you have a good reason for them being there. Underline every time you use the passive voice, interrogate it, probably change it, unless you have a really good reason for it to be there. Put a star next to every adverb, make sure it's there for a good reason. Your prose will get better and better as you do this more and more and it becomes a part of your process, so that while you're writing, you'll catch yourself why has it ever been there? I really don't need it, get it out the way. Now, I don't want you to think too much about editing while you're writing because that gets you into a very cyclical kind of perfectionism that doesn't really help a lot. But if it becomes natural to you, then it's just part of your process and you can keep flowing, that's good. Do not be a perfectionist when you're writing a story. Be a perfectionist when you're editing. I guess, I don't really believe in it at all, but if you have to, that's when you need to be really getting everything right. In general, you're not going to write the perfect story, and if you think you wrote the perfect story, you're not going to respond well to edits when people figure out what's wrong with it. It's not a good way to roll thinking that you did this thing perfectly. Trying to do it perfectly is also kind of a mistake. Just write the story. Write the best story you can write. Do it well. Realize that it's still not perfect and then get it better when you get feedback on it. Which reminds me, always get feedback on your stories. Find beta readers, people you trust. Skillshare has it set up so that you can post your stories and you can comment on other people's stories. Do that, take part, have conversations, be in dialog, take their notes, give notes to them. That's how you get to be a better writer and then get to be a good literary citizen. 9. Closing: So, we're bringing it all together. Remember character, conflict, context, craft, they all function in relationship to each other, they all need to find some balance. What that balance is, is dependent on what the story you're trying to tell is. There are some very character-driven stories and that's what's going to matter the most. All those elements still need to be poping, they can't just fall apart but they may get less emphasis than the character. There's other stories that are really about the world and the characters are just pons almost in that larger world. They still have to be awesome characters with full humanity and want things, but it's really the world that we're focusing on and that's the general thrust of the story. Craft has to hold it all together and there always has to be conflict no matter what. That has to be clear, understood, and in-depth in every single story. Always think about how they relate to each other. Remember, that character and what they want, their motivation and their desire is what's going to be the engine that fuels and pushes us through and that's really going to give us the depth of that conflict. The world that they live in may also be fitted into that conflict, if we're really doing our homework right. Then craft is going to hold it down and keep us reading, and keep us interested. The confidence of your writerly voice, the way that you take our hand and lead us through things, that's why we're going to follow through and want to find out what's going on. Try to use these tools diagnostically. Again, when I was on the ambulance that was our job. That's really the job of the paramedic is to diagnose a patient. So, understand what's going on. That might be because something's wrong with their lungs, or something is wrong with their hearts, or they just had a bad breakup and now they can't breathe. All of those are possibilities. If you treat the wrong one, then you could kill them. So, you need to be understanding of what is the fundamental issue beneath the manifestation of it. Maybe the characters are really not feeling very alive, you need to be able to understand it. So, use this as a tool when you've written your story, go back and think, does this character really come to life? Do I have any reason to really believe in who they are as a human being? Do I know them in-depth on some level? Have painted them with some quick strokes that really tell me about who they are? Do they want something? Does what they want to connect to the conflict that's at hand? Do they exist in a world that feels believable? Do my sentences really worked to tell the story and enhance it and give clarity, or are they just getting in the way? Ask yourself these questions, use this diagnostically, if you're bored reading your own story, you better figure out why, there's a problem. Use the Project workspace and share your work, share with me, share it with your fellow students, again take the critique, give their critique, be in conversation with it, know that you can only get better, some of it is just learning which critique is going to really speak to your work and which isn't. I always try to ask myself, is this note bringing the story deeper and closer to its own heart or is it taking it away? That's really what it comes down to with edits. So, you'll get a lot of feedback and some of it will be great but it won't be for your story, and some of it will be terrible, that's just how it is. You have to learn how to discern which ones to listen to and that takes practice. So, go out there and write stories, write terrible stories and then make them better. Then write great stories and then make them even better, and keep writing. If you get stuck sometimes you have to take a walk and put it down for a little while, which is cool but then come back and then finish it. Sometimes you just need to push through, set that timer, then just write, put the words down and then you'll have something. So write it and then you can edit it. Mostly, try to have fun. We bring a lot of stress to the process, anger, and shame, and everything else, it has no business being in the process. Try to get rid of that, take a moment to set your space up right, be at piece a little bit, put on the music you need to put on, make that cup of coffee or tea and really enjoy the process, make it a ritual, do whatever it is you need to do to set your space and time aside to get your writing done. You might not have a door that you can close like Stephen King tells us, but you still have to figure out a way that you can close a little door in your own head so that you can be there, even if it's just for five minutes, get those words on a page and then five minutes will add up because you might get five minutes 20 minutes later. Get that time in. Do what you need to do and write your story.