Category Archives: Literary Criticism

On Stories and Storytelling (3)

(Last of 3 Parts)

One subject that I miss teaching  is Creative Writing. I consider it an ultimate challenge as an English and literature teacher to teach the said subject. It is quite challenging to lead a study of the different forms of discourse with the end goal of developing in the students the ability to write narrative, descriptive, expository, and argumentative compositions. What adds to the challenge is making the students understand the principles of stylistics, literary criticism, and linguistic and literary devices. As course requirements, I required them to submit a movie review, a short story analysis, two essays, and a short story.

When I created the syllabus for the course, I intentionally did not include poetry. It wasn’t just possible for me to cover both prose and poetry in one semester. It would  be difficult for them had I included a poem among those they should submit at the end of the term.

My students had struggles with writing stories. It was easier for them to produce essays. They just toyed with the movie review and short story analysis. Yes, it was easy for them to deconstruct a story and break it down into its different parts –  the so-called elements of fiction. But most of them had difficulty putting those component parts to  construct their own stories.

I told them that I had the same struggles when I began writing. My first stories then were terrible (I hope they are better now.) Writing a story is a skill that would require time to develop. I explained to them that the most famous and talented writers had to hone their craft over  a period of many years. Admittedly, I didn’t have statistical data to support that statement but it was (and still is) safe to assume that the literary greats had “burned oil in many midnights” before they attained their greatness.

I did not mention about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour-rule for it might just instantly extinguish any flickering hope of any one of them to become a writer. Perhaps some of them may have bumped into that idea later on. If during those times I have already known about Kaufman’s 20 hour-rule, I would not be mentioning it either for I don’t like to give them false hope that it would take that so short a time to become good at writing stories.

To become good at writing stories, you have to attain a certain degree of fluency or proficiency in the language you are using to write your stories. If saying that your sentences should be syntactically correct is a mouthful then let me just say that they (your sentences) should be correct and comprehensible.

You already have an advantage if the language you intend to use to write your stories is your native language. You very well know how important is vocabulary in writing. Consider this: Native-level fluency (this is from Wikipedia) is estimated to require a lexicon between 20,000 to 40,000 words.

But it doesn’t mean that being a native speaker of that language automatically makes one a good writer. If so, we could have had lots of Shakespeares, Hemmingways,  Tolstoys, Hugos, Tagores, Xuns, and Rizals.   Many native speakers of their own languages could not write a simple story or a poem.

Proficiency in a language is only one of the many skills you have to develop. There are other skills necessary to writing well including the ability to choose the right words to develop related ideas, organize those ideas into a cohesive whole, and to creatively combine and contrast those ideas. And as I reiterated in part 1 of this 3-part series… “Writing stories require that you should be able to knit together the elements of fiction within the frame of the plot, to make sure that the most important element of fiction – conflict – is laid down clearly and passes through exposition, complication, crisis, falling action, and resolution.” 

In short, writing stories is an art and I doubt if anybody could learn it in just 20 hours. Just developing proficiency in a language, if you are not a native speaker of that language, is not achievable in 20 hours.  However, you might think spending 10,000 hours to develop a specific skill would probably be too much – unless you want to acquire true expertise in a specific field. If you do it for 5 days a week, because you might need a 2-day break, that’s 4 hours a day in nine years. 

You probably would like to start developing your writing skills at least one hour each day. That’s what I have been doing. It works for me.

Prior to writing the short story, I would require my students to submit a 10-sentence story line of the story that they are planning to write. One time, when I was giving them examples of story lines off the top of my head, one of them asked me where am I getting ideas for my stories.

Before answering that question, I asked them to, again, define literature. Then one of them gave exactly the definition upon which I intended to anchor my answer to the question one of them asked  – “Literature is a faithful reproduction of life executed in an artistic pattern.”

I explained that what we read in stories mirror the things happening in real life. Writers draw ideas for their stories from the experiences of people around them and from theirs as well. That’s how I do it.

“Literature,” I added, “is an artistic expression of significant human experiences.” (I can’t recall anymore who said that.) That’s the reason why when we are reading stories or watching movies we feel like it’s our personal story being told.

I told my students that rarely do I borrow someone’s experience to write a story because my life itself is a fountain of many story lines.

Part 1

Part 2

On Stories and Storytelling (2)

(Second of 3 Parts)

Obviously, the conflict is the problem to be resolved in a story. If you are familiar with literature, you know that there are three categories of conflict – man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself. Janet Burroway  proposed that the following should be included – man vs society, man vs God, and man vs machine. We may also refer to them as sources of conflict.

Sometime ago, in one of my literature classes in the Philippines, I told my students to watch the movie “Titanic.” That was when our topic was “elements of fiction.” Students would prefer watching movies over reading short stories or novels when dissecting stories.

When I asked them to identify the central conflict in the story, most of them answered “man vs nature.” You would understand why that was the answer given by them –Jack and Rose (and all the rest of the passengers) have to survive the sinking of the ship.   They were surprised when I told them that there’s a dual conflict in the story. There are two sources – “man vs nature” and “man vs man.” While the star-crossed lovers try to figure out how to stay away from the icy water of the ocean, they also have to contend with an extremely angry Cal  and his loyal minion Lovejoy.

That’s how clever some writers are. They push their readers or audience closer to the edge of their seats – to the edge of the cliff of excitement – by inserting a conflict within a conflict. With that, they make the “rising action” more intense. When a writer uses multiple sources of conflict, with all the conflicts equally significant, I call it “layered conflict.” (I am not sure if I was the first to call it this way.)

What if the one who wrote the script for the “Titanic” added an extra layer of conflict? Let’s say that somebody steals the necklace (“Heart of the Ocean”) and Rose asks Jack that they have to do everything to take it back. Let’s say that the thief is a hardened criminal who is willing to kill just to keep what he has stolen. Would the story be more exciting if while the lovers are trying to survive the unfolding sea tragedy, they have to pursue the one who took the expensive jewel and at the same time hide from Cal and Lovejoy?

I told my students that it will be easier for them to explain the conflict of  a story by starting with a guide question. In the case of the dual conflict in the Titanic, the questions should be: Will Jack and Rose survive the anger of Cal? Will they (also) survive the sinking of the ship?

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In another class – Literary Criticism –  I taught my students how to trace symbolism in stories. I also used the movie Titanic for the activity. It was easy for them to pick the necklace and explain the symbolism behind it – that the jewel is a symbol of Rose’s heart and her love for Jack. They gave nothing more about symbolism after the necklace.

So, I told them that for symbolism, they should not focus only on objects. The story – the writer – may try to convey a meaning through events in the story. For example, I  asked them if they could see any meaning beyond the band continuing to play while the ship is sinking. What about the sinking of the Titanic? What does it convey?

I told them that the decision of the band to continue playing while the ship sinks conveys two things. Firstly, it shows the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Secondly, that there are people that when confronted by whatever is inevitable, they could face it courageously.

And what does the sinking of the mighty “Titanic” symbolize? It shows how helpless mankind is against the forces of nature.

Part 3

Part 1

On Stories and Storytelling (1)

(First of 3 Parts)

Do you really know what a story is?

Answer the question before sliding your eyes down to the next line.

Done?

Okay, read on.

Just like you, I know what a story is. I can assure you of that.

Let me begin by saying that I love stories. I am so fascinated by them. Very likely that my having earned the degree Bachelor of Arts in English and my having completed the academic requirements for the degree Master of Arts in English contributed to that. The two main fields of studies (major) in both degrees are English language and literature, but more on literature. We studied, among other things, the different forms of literature – prose and poetry, the body of literature of selected countries, literary criticism, philosophy of literature, and creative writing. Just imagine how many stories I had to read when I was enrolled for subjects like Short Story, Novel, Drama, and Shakespeare. To enhance my understanding of the stories I was reading then, I had to watch their screen adaptation (especially of Shakespeare’s famous plays) if they happened to be available. In short, I became interested with stories, not as a hobby. I studied them. I taught Literature and Literary Criticism when I was teaching in the Philippines. By the way, I worked so hard to become a writer as well. I write dramatic monologues, short stories, novels, and plays. Check my website for some of my works – madligaya.com.

I am so fascinated by the art of knitting together the elements of fiction within the frame of a plot – of how to make sure that the most important element of fiction – conflict – is laid down clearly and passes through exposition, complication, crisis (commonly known as climax), falling action, and resolution. Gustav Freitag, a nineteenth-century German critic, laid this down in what came to be known as the Freitag Pyramid. Crisis – or climax – is at the top of the pyramid. The exposition and complication constitute the rising action which ultimately leads to the crisis. Thereafter is the falling action which leads ultimately to the resolution or the denouement. There are stories (movies) that abruptly ends when the climax is reached. In cases like this the crisis implies the resolution. The resolution is left for the readers to deduce.

When a series of events is not laid down in the conflict-crisis-resolution arc, they are but just that – series of events, not a story. Conflict, crisis, and resolution (call  them together as plot) are the necessary features of a story. A narrative, to be classified as a story, requires more than setting, character, theme, point-of-view, tone, and style. No matter how short or long a story is, there should be a conflict, conflict that progresses from the time it is revealed (exposition), becomes complicated, reaches a climax (referred to as crisis earlier), slows down to a falling action, and makes a full stop at the juncture called resolution. Am I right? A writer, as I articulated earlier, may stop raising the action right after reaching the climax to let readers imagine how it ends or create the kind of ending they desire.

In movies (or films), cliffhanger endings have become so popular. In cliffhangers, it can be argued that the story does not immediately end after the climax but somewhere between the falling action and the resolution. There was no clear resolution. It can be argued also that cliffhanger endings are applicable only in the case of  standalone movies, not of the serialized ones like the Star Wars, Avengers, and the like. When for example Thanos (in Avengers: Infinity War)  snapped his fingers and some of the Avengers were reduced to dust,  we were like left hanging and wondering why all those heroes we used to seeing alive and victorious in previous Marvel movies died or disappeared. But it’s not a cliffhanger ending per se because we know that that movie is the 3rd part of the main 4-part Avengers series. We know that the last part of the series is forthcoming. All the Avenger movies, together with all the other standalone Marvel hero movies in previous years, are all part of one whole story.

You might ask, “Where are the events in Avengers 3 located in the Freitag (plot) Pyramid?” It’s in the complication (or rising action part), far away yet from the climax. Your next question might be – “Which part of Avengers 4 is the climax?” It started the moment Tony Starks snapped his fingers and said “I am Iron Man” and culminated at the moment Thanos slowly turned to dust. All the events that followed are parts of a very clear falling action and resolution.

What do you think, am I right not to consider the endings of serialized stories as cliffhanger endings (because of the imaginary “To be continued”)? 

An example of a movie that had a climax and a falling action but the resolution was not clear and the audience need to decide what to think about it is  the way the movie “Don’t Breathe” ends. (I hope you have watched that movie too… and in case you haven’t, I am sorry if  this part of my article will now serve as a spoiler. Just skip reading the rest of this paragraph and proceed to the next one instead in case you’re planning to watch the movie.) The climax of that movie came at exactly the 1:20:43 mark. The blind man, after Rocky hits him repeatedly in the head with a crowbar, falls from the 1st floor of the house to the basement. Part of the falling action shows Rocky coming out of the house alive with the blind man’s money. Later she could be seen with her sister leaving Detroit for California. The movie ends showing that the blind man alive. He survived. And I was left formulating my own resolution… or is a sequel (or a prequel)  being planned?

I used to teach Literature, Creative Writing and Literary Criticism in the Philippines. One of my students once asked this question: Should all stories have conflict?

If you were me then, how would you answer?

Do you think a series of events stitched up together in any form can be considered a story without a central conflict?

From Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction: A Guide To Narrative Craft”:

“And story is a form of literature. Like a face, it has necessary features in a necessary harmony… Every face has two eyes, a nose between them, a mouth below; a forehead, two cheeks, two ears, and a jaw. If a face is missing one of these features, you may say, ‘I love this face in spite of its lacking nose’, but you must acknowledge the in spite of. You can’t simply say, ‘This is a wonderful face.’

The same is true of a story. You might say, ‘I love this piece even though there’s no crisis action in it.’ You can’t say, ‘This is a wonderful story.’

Fortunately, the necessary features of the story form are fewer than those of a face. They are  conflict, crisis, and resolution.

Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, necessary because in literature, only trouble is interesting.”

Let the foregoing paragraphs be my answer to the question “Should all stories have conflict?”

If  a narrative has no conflict, don’t call it a story. Call it a face without any part that should be there – eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, or forehead.

Part 2

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