Workshopping for Story and Narrative

By Shelley Evans, Sonya Huber, and Bill Patrick

You’ve got a terrific idea. It would make a great short story or perhaps even a novel. You know it would. Or maybe you’ve just finished that once-in-a-lifetime immersion opportunity, following detectives or migrants or crusading doctors for a year, and you have notes and photos and hundreds of hours of audiotaped interviews. Some structure will emerge as you transcribe, right? Or maybe a specific scene has already presented itself to you – an amazing scene, with characters and action and dialogue, one that almost seemed to write itself, but now you’re stuck. You’re not sure what the central dramatic question of your story really is – or even which story you should tell.

 

Sooner or later in the writing process, the problem of structure arises. Even though it remains largely invisible, structure both supports and expresses the truth of the story. In spite of this, structure is not often discussed or taught in writing workshops. Structural principals, reduced to quick formulas by Hollywood studio executives, are borrowed and used by writers searching for better momentum or a stronger spine. The principals behind those formulas need to be better understood and more artfully employed. Bill Patrick and Shelley Evans, experienced writers in a number of different genres and faculty members in Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing Program, have created a story development workshop for the programs MFA students to give writers strategies for transforming good ideas and promising scenes into workable plans.

This “big picture” workshop grew out of creative collision and conversation in the classroom. Bill Patrick explains:

This workshop idea grew out of the Screenwriting for Prose Writers workshop that I developed a couple of years ago. When Shelley first came to Enders as a visiting screenwriter last summer, she co-taught this screenwriting workshop with me, and we realized pretty quickly that our focus could be expanded. We saw how helpful a workshop based on story development would be for all the students in the program, no matter what genre they were working in.

Well, I love handouts, so I put together what I thought was a minimal story development checklist, and that spurred Shelley to develop her own list of questions for the students.When we offered it for the first time last residency, in Winter 2015/16, we had a poet, a nonfiction writer, three novelists, and a screenwriter in the workshop. We presented both handouts, and then I added a list of strategies during the workshop itself, and we all jumped in with both feet. All the students experienced breakthroughs on their projects during the brainstorming sessions, and Shelley and I were floored by what we witnessed.

The workshop itself elucidates some guiding principles of structure, and then uses them to practice building more intentional and effective narratives. Instructors lay out time-tested principles of dramatic narrative development, offer pragmatic tools that de-mystify the process of constructing plot, and help brainstorm a viable plan for whatever you’re working on.

Shelley adds:

Before I came to Fairfield, I was developing a course called Story Development at Harvard Extension School, where I have taught screenwriting for many years. My feeling was that students in my screenwriting classes and many of my novelist friends weren’t taking enough time with story, sometimes getting jammed up in really big story problems as a result. I wanted to teach story as a creative and flexible element of writing, just like language. Then I met Bill, who was already teaching a version of that course at Fairfield, only calling it ‘Screenwriting for Prose Writers.’ After my guest stint at Fairfield, I said ‘Let’s call it Story Development, to make it clear that it’s for novelists as well as screenwriters.’ And Bill said, ‘Why limit ourselves to novelists? Every writer who works with narrative needs these skills.’ Since Bill has basically written something great in almost every genre, I took it on faith. And I have been amazed by how helpful these principles are, even in non-fiction and poetry.

I imagine students would be better able to speak to the progress they made with their writing. For my part, I found it really inspiring to watch so many different kinds of writers apply these story principles energetically and enthusiastically to their own work, and with each other. It seemed to me that they all became more skillful at thinking about structure in a very short period of time.

Samantha Keller, a novelist and a student in the workshop, writes:

In terms of my own work, the workshop broadened my perspective on my novel and enabled me to see it as a whole, unlike traditional workshops where you look at things in a quite detailed and specific way. I came out with a clearer vision of what my book is about, who the main character is, and even some ideas about themes or events I could include, and others I should exclude. I’d definitely recommend the workshop. In fact I would argue that everyone should take it at some point during their MFA, just to give you that birds-eye-view on what you’re trying to achieve. I felt like I had to come up with real answers to some quite hard questions, but I left feeling more confident about the direction my novel is taking.

Rah Gist, a poet, writes:

Coming into the workshop we prepared as usual, having read each other’s work and made notes of ideas for replacing words or reordering sentences, etc. What we did in workshop was light years beyond that—literally developing the story concept behind what made it to the page. It was like Bill and Shelley searched us, individually, for the creative pulse of our story and then we all tried tapping into it with a collective energy that at times produced pure synergy. I came into the workshop with poetry and stepped out with a clear vision for prose–a direction I welcomed and is still guiding my work. It was this flexibility that drew me to the workshop. I also gained a new appreciation for other genres (all were represented) and was supercharged by the energy of the group.

“Whatever the origin of the story idea, the writer has no story until (s)he has figured out a plot that will efficiently and elegantly express it. Though character is the emotional core of great fiction, and though action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence can have no lasting appeal, plot is—or must sooner or later become—the focus of every good writer’s plan.” –John Gardner

Image via Flickr here

Introducing Shelley Evans, New MFA faculty member at Fairfield!

Shelley Evans began teaching for us as a guest faculty member in Summer 2015, and we are thrilled to welcome her to our regular faculty in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA. She showed an amazing movie she wrote about the true story of a transgender teen’s murder, “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Arajo Story,” and we were wowed. Shelley teaches screenwriting in our MFA program and has also launched an innovative multi-genre workshop on storytelling with our co-director Bill Patrick.

Shelley Evans has written teleplays for ABC, CBS, Showtime, USA Network and Lifetime TelevisionScreen shot 2016-02-25 at 10.42.48 AM. Her produced scripts have starred, among others, Anne Heche, Sam Shepard, Josh Brolin, James Caan, Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen and Mercedes Ruehl. She has taught writing at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, New York University, and Boston College and is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America.

I asked Shelley a few questions about her writing process, and here are her thoughtful responses.

What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?

I was an extremely good student, which in many ways is terrible for writing. I spent my entire education learning how to follow rules– of conformity, punctuation, structure and rhetoric. Not surprisingly, my desire to write, which was strong in childhood, slowly waned. Some time after college I read Silences, by Tillie Olsen, which is about all the ways that we (especially women, and poor people, and people without resources) lose our voices. I was working as a secretary at the time, and I would sit in the stairwell during my lunch hour reading Silences and crying. It had never occurred to me that writers are made, not born, or that anybody with the dream of writing had a right to pursue it. Having had that revelation, I started writing and was almost immediately paralyzed. I was pretty adept at identifying bad writing, intimidated by good writing and completely without strategies for invention. My brother, who is an artist, once expressed amazement at that– the first thing he learned in art school was how to play. Many writers, perhaps with better imagination or more courage, develop those habits instinctively. I had to start from scratch, teaching myself how to brainstorm, to build and rebuild stories, to fail and to dream. Cultivating those habits has been time-consuming and often frustrating– how could I have spent so much time in school and learned so little? Much of my work as a teacher is devoted to exposing the gears and pulleys that drive the creative process: it really can be as simple as setting a timer for twenty minutes and writing without censoring yourself, or studying a great novel (or movie) to identify its major dramatic turning points. When I was young, there was a great silence around creativity, and a shared assumption that only certain people were creative. My mission is to open the trunk and share the toys, so that anybody who wants to play can join.

 What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?

Last spring, for the first time in my life, I took a writing job for the sole purpose of making money and I worked on that project until just before Christmas. The process was both strange and liberating. In the beginning I struggled to make the writing matter, pushing back against network demands that seemed unreasonable and sometimes misguided. I told myself that I was fighting for the good of the script, but at a certain point I realized I was actually fighting for my ego. I couldn’t bear to be involved in a project I didn’t feel proud of. At that point I finally let go and started thinking of myself as a story engineer, brought in to save a collapsing bridge, rather than an artist. As a result, the experience got much easier. But it left me unsettled– is it possible to write for hire without hurting our own work? Does our internal compass get too damaged in the process? In the world of streaming media, where the demand for content is growing, the answer to that question seems extremely important. We might be able to make a living as writers, but at what cost?

Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?

I started working in television because it’s a popular medium that reaches a large audience. I hoped I would have a chance to influence our collective cultural conversation. That turns out to be harder than I thought. But some time ago I worked on a script about a transgender teen named Gwen Araujo. It was a heartbreaking story with a surprisingly uplifting message about a family that supported a child against overwhelming external odds. I am constantly grateful for that project, both because it gave me the opportunity to meet Gwen’s amazing, courageous family and because so many people have told me they were moved by their story.