Imitations of style: Setting up the three acts

One of my writing classes this quarter focuses on structure in story. For assignments, we come up with a story and write it in the style of another piece of literature. Our options for this assignment included the Bible, Greek myth (Theseus and the Minotaur), fables (The Lion and the Mouse, The Dog and His Bone), and fairy tales (Cinderella, The Little Match Girl). It’s a 300-level Writing elective and the pieces we write are for practice, not eventual publication.

Overlooking the comma splices, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, confused homophones and a widespread lack of how to properly use “alas” (the editor in me never sleeps), my classmates have come up with an interesting collection of stories.

Some of the more entertaining ones are written in the style of the Bible — one about a bride planning her wedding, another about a student reading scary stories online instead of sleeping. But looking past the narrative, these stories all share a similar structure.

Act I

Each story begins with something to ground us in the story’s reality: setting or character. In these short stories, the exposition can last a whole page or simply be one paragraph. No matter how long, there’s usually some small detail that sets us up for actions later in the story.

Sounds like foreshadowing, right? But on a much smaller scale (especially since we’re working with short stories here, not novels). A single adjective with the introduction of a character sets up for a crucial action they make later on. If you tell readers “there once was a naughty boy named Jim,” that makes the promise that Jim will do something bad. But if you tell your readers Jim is a sweet little boy and he drowns a sick kitten later on, we’re not going to believe it.

Act I is all about establishing your authority as the writer. If we don’t trust that you own the story from the very beginning, we’re not going to stick around for the rest.

Act II

Here is where the tension lies. For books, most of the story takes place in Act II with its minor conflicts rising and falling, building up to the climax. In short stories, we’re probably still going to spend most of our time here.

Let’s say you start Act I describing the setting and introducing us to a character. Act II begins with the action or decision that starts this particular story. After working late one night with his father, the boy wakes up and discovers his dad has disappeared. Bam! Now we’re in the story of the boy’s search for his father. And all the little things that pile up to build tension — dad’s truck is missing, the house is a mess, the mailbox has been knocked over — make up the most of the story.

Tension builds in Act II. You can have your character development going on at the same time, but tension defines this part of the story. By the end of Act II, readers should feel like the tension can’t get any higher.


The final act begins with the inexorable surprise — the thing that surprises us, but we realize it couldn’t have happened any other way. Remember those tiny promises you made back in Act I? Time to make good on those.

Naughty Jim — who drowned a sick kitten because his father called him soft — finds his father has driven into a ditch and is badly injured. Rather than get help, Jim gets the truck out of the ditch, drives to a lake, and drowns his dad. Maybe a bit morbid and extreme, but it works if you set it up correctly. We wouldn’t believe it if “sweet little Jim” suddenly drowned his father. But we expect bad things of “naughty Jim.” And since his father taught him to kill things to end their pain, of course he’d kill his suffering dad!

The tension jacks up a bit higher in Act III, and then it drops down for the resolution. And that’s it.

I pulled these examples from one of my classmates’ stories. Though I simplified it to help explain the three acts, it’s one of the more successful and memorable stories.

Structure: The likely source of your problem

Ever start writing a new scene or paragraph and you get the feeling it’s just not working? Maybe you’re just not in the zone, or you’re hungry. You take a walk, make a sandwich, get some coffee, tell the dog to get off the kitchen counter… anything to get your creative juices flowing.

But before you do all that, take a look at what you wrote just before you started having problems. More than likely, there’s some structural issue there that’s messing you up.

On the smaller scale, this can be as simple as an out of place word. Maybe you’re writing a memoir piece and by the third paragraph, you start to sound like you’re looking down on the wastrels of the world, smoking a pipe in your overstuffed armchair by the fire. Look back to the first paragraph, and you notice you used the phrase “vigorous moments of exercise helped my mood tremendously.” Right there, you’ve set yourself up to echo the sound of that phrase later on.

If you’re trying to go for a lofty voice, then this example might not work for you; I took it from a memoir on of my classmates wrote. But let’s say you’re working on a novel, writing a scene where everything is business as usual until someone comes in, saying they have a problem.

Instead of writing it out, you think an easy fix is to have someone say, “Let’s talk about it.” Out of earshot for your POV character, of course. Then you don’t have to think too hard about the dialogue or setting up all the little details of the situation and can get right to having your characters solve the problem! Action, right?

Except you get to the “exciting” part and there’s no tension. Why? Because you skipped the setup. Instead of giving writers a scene in which someone is panicking and talking about a problem with some really big consequences, you took a shortcut. This amounts to, “Yeah, let’s go do the thing because bad stuff happens if we don’t.” And who wants to read that?

So you go back, find that spot where the structure’s faulty, and write that scene out as you should. Fix the transitions to that scene you were struggling with later on, and suddenly the excitement’s there!

For those of you who wag your finger at those of us who edit as we write, you can absolutely try plowing your way to the end, then come back and find all your structural issues. I took that approach when editing the first draft of a sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. After addressing the problems in the first few chapters, I had to completely rewrite everything else. Once the first part worked, the rest just didn’t make sense.

Doing this kind of editing as you write might delay you in moving forward, but it will make sure you go in the right direction.

9 Types of Artist Bios Students Write

I’ve been editing the biographies people submitted to accompany the accepted submissions to Port City Review. There’s about 63 of these and the quality ranges from only needing a comma fix to me setting aside part of the day to rewrite them. The entire selection I’m working with comes from SCAD students only, but they’re from various backgrounds and fields of study. So here are your 9 types of artist bios.

  1. I’M A TEXAN AND IT’S THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD. I’ve gotten a few of these, all girls and all closer to 19 years old. They like sunshine and live a life of dream. Whatever that means.
  2. BOW BEFORE ME, TINY-MINDED PEASANTS. Some people like to brag about their degrees/awards/gold star they received in first grade without giving any other information. Must not be much to these people beyond their awards.
  3. I’M JUST STARTING OUT AND DON’T KNOW HOW MY WORK GOT ACCEPTED. First- and second-years let you know they don’t actually know what they’re doing, are still discovering who they are and what they like to do, and talk about their sincere hope to pursue art for the rest of their life.
  4. HERE IS MY FORMULAIC BIOGRAPHY. Nothing sticks out about these people. They’ve got their name, field of study, work they like to do and where they came from.
  5. F*** YOU AND YOUR DIRECTIONS. We asked for a 3-5 sentence artist bio by a certain date and you gave us a 500-word explanation of how complicated and deep the message of your work is. Oh, and you sent it long after the deadline. Even then, you only did it because we threatened not to publish your work because you can’t follow directions. Now I get to turn your manifesto into a 3-5 sentence paragraph and you have to deal with what I write.
  6. I’M ARTISTICALLY GIFTED AND FUNNY. They’re not just going to give you the basics of their life; you also get a story and a giggle that sick out in your memory. In addition to number 5, I remember these people the most because they mentioned running as fast as their tiny legs could carry them or escaping from a lab instead of being born the normal way.
  7. I’M SO INSPIRED AND DOESN’T MY WORK INSPIRE YOU? These bios are all about the food/weather/scenery/pet/gambling addiction that inspires their art and what they want their art to inspire in others. In other words, they wrote an artist statement instead of what we asked for.
  8. I’LL JUST USE WHAT I PUT IN THE ‘ABOUT ME’ SECTION ON ALL MY SOCIAL MEDIA. Like the Texans of number 1, these sound more like they belong on Tinder or Twitter. Not sure how many people you think you’ll pick up with this bio in a magazine, but you do what you feel works.
  9. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT AN ARTIST. You like to throw in words like “chiaroscuro” to describe your work. If anyone who didn’t go to art school (or knows the word for whatever reason) read your bio, they’d probably think your work is more complex than it really is because they have no idea what that word means. Congratulations! Your work has light and shadows.

I’m sure there are other kinds of bios out there, but these are the kind I’ve been editing. Does yours fall into any of these categories?

Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?

I’ve been looking around for The Abomination to continue my series of posts heckling my first attempt at a novel, but I misplaced the manuscript while cleaning this summer. Like most objects of extreme evil/stupidity, it’s bound to turn up. However, I did find a detailed critique from the one person who actually read the first draft of my second novel attempt. One of the points of what was wrong with it was “Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?”

This story had very few side characters. Good, bad — zilch. The few it had only existed as long as they were in the main character’s line of sight. Out of sight was out of the novel.

Aside from creating a few logical flaws (a large ship should have a skeleton crew at the very least, not just the only two people in the world opposed to mass genocide), it got boring. The whole thing became about the main conflict between the main protagonists and antagonists — dramatic, to be sure, but overbearing without side characters to provide well-timed distractions.

Side characters are a great source of conflict. In a perfect (or halfway decent) novel, no one gets along perfectly. Real people don’t, either. There are love triangles all over the place. Not all are the traditional sort:

Fighting over affections. With any blend of genders, you can have two people in love with the same person. Whether they started out as friends or enemies, everything from personal hygiene to physical prowess becomes a competition.

Fighting over attention. Not all triangles involve love. Maybe you have two candidates for a promotion and both want to impress their supervisor. Maybe the sorcerer from Over the Mountains needs a Chosen One and he’s holding tryouts.

Fighting over Object of Power. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed was after the One Ring — no shortage of conflict there. And how many people wanted to get the four stones in The Fifth Element? A lot. Or maybe the Object of Power is a floppy disc or a cell phone.

Fighting over property. Take your pick from large and small scale: land, livestock, jewelry, keys, pens, staplers, seats in the cafeteria… As a bit of a possessive freak, I can assure you that even touching something someone has claimed can begin a duel to the death.

Fighting over nothing. Ever disagree with someone just to spite them? They might be right, but damned if you’ll admit it! Your characters can be that way, too. Maybe that guy slept with your hero’s sister’s gardener and now the hero hates that guy no matter what he does. Or he just doesn’t like people who smell like chicken and have beards.

A well-placed diversion from the main plot gives depth to all your characters — readers see them in a less critical situation — and a breath to your readers. It might even add tension to the main conflict. If your character’s embezzlement scheme is about to be discovered, she really doesn’t want to argue about all the pens she borrowed and never gave back to that guy in the office who will not let her leave until all his pens have been returned.

Just make sure you’ve set it up throughout the story and have her dump all her stolen pens into a safety deposit box or something. Then it will make sense.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction”: A waste of time

Considering the less than memorable experience of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” it seemed like “Age of Extinction” would have to try very hard to be the worst Transformers movie. But with a humorless look at the American government, inconsistent characters and some cheap CG effects, a movie has never seemed more effortless.

The American government turned on its former allies and hunts down Autobots and Decepticons alike, melting them down to raw materials so Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) can create an American army of Transformers — which only transform into tacky and ostentatious sports cars. Meanwhile, broke garage-inventor and lousy father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) restores a half-dead Optimus Prime and drags his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) into the fight between the Autobots and the CIA.

At the head of the CIA team hunting Autobots is James Savoy (Titus Welliver), a rude caricature of an American government agent. When Cade tells James the CIA can’t search his property without a warrant, James screams, “My FACE is my warrant!” Sure, the Patriot Act would allow James to search Cade’s property since the Autobots are considered terrorists, but his line was a tasteless mockery of the real CIA. Coupled with the American government’s desire to keep wrecked Autobots out of the hands of any other country that might benefit from the technology, the movie ends up feeling like a long-winded insult.

Cade, who starts out as a man struggling to attain his dream and handle his teenage daughter, devolves into a muscled redneck with a gun, shouting repeatedly at his daughter’s secret boyfriend, “You’re not going to p***y out on me, are you?!” Where did that come from? Maybe it’s a side effect of whatever steroids gave him the strength to go mano-y-mano with Lockdown without turning into gut soup.

Nicola Peltz provides the movie’s quota of long legs in short shorts and cleavage, but not much else. When Megan Fox filled the role, at least she could do something useful like hot wire a tow truck and get Bumblebee out of the line of fire. Peltz’s character amounts to “My life is over!” and “I can’t do this! I’m going back to the ship!” Nevermind that everything on Lockdown’s ship is trying to kill her and she was already halfway to safety.

If only the graphics and action could cover up the script’s shortcomings. Made for 3D, there’s no shortage of cartoony debris and robot swords aimed at the screen. It’s also liberally seasoned with unnecessary slow motion sequences. But even if the whole movie played at normal speed, it would still be too long. The runtime is 165 minutes (two hours, 45 minutes), but there’s not enough to engage the average person’s attention past the first hour. At least this is the only Transformers movie without a scene partway through the credits, so there’s no reason to stay past when the screen cuts to black.

Reader-response time on The Thieves of Traska excerpt!

As I mentioned earlier this week, I wrote a brief scene in The Thieves of Traska that has me conflicted. While writing it, I didn’t go into too much detail because the action and violence wasn’t the focus. But that little editor voice we all have in our heads won’t let me proceed until I figure out whether it reads like it should, or like the writer downed too much coffee too late in the day and just blazed through before bed. And it also shouldn’t read like I’m putting Claire through the wringer just to win some sympathy points.

That’s where you all come in! Please read through the scene and leave a comment!


A shadow moved through the light seeping through the cracks around the door, and before Claire could reach for it, the door swung open. With his arms crossed, the muscles built by years of hard labor bulging ominously, Reed filled the doorway. His lips were pressed together in a thin line, his face almost as red as his hair.

A lump formed in her throat. Had she really hoped he wouldn’t already know what she’d done? Stupid. Reed always knew what she was up to.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

Cold fear trickled down her spine. She almost wished she was back in the windowless cell. “I came home.” She winced inwardly; she sounded weak even in her own ears.

“You think I’d let a lying thief sleep under my roof?” He crossed the distance between them in three strides and took her by the shoulders, shaking her. “Do you?” She shook her head mutely. She knew where she’d be sleeping tonight. “Filth like you belongs in a gutter.”

She closed her eyes when he drew his hand back. She felt each stinging blow, felt the blood on her face, and eventually the cold ground under her cheek. One eye cracked open, searching for Reed’s blurred outline in the darkness. He was there, one hand around her ankle as he dragged her to a nearby tree. Without a word, he propped her up against it and tied her hands on the other side of the trunk. It was always the same whenever he caught her stealing; he’d make her return whatever it was, then she spent the night tied to this tree. In the morning, she’d go back to work in the fields.

She rested her head against the tree, clarity slowly returning. “Reed,” she croaked. “What happened with Garrison?” Silence stretched on so long, she thought he’d already gone inside. Then she heard his voice right in her ear.

“I told you he was arrested.” He paused. “Did you see him while you were in jail?” She nodded weakly, wincing at the bark grating her face. “I would have thought they’d hanged him already.”

“Tomorrow,” she said. “The jailor said he’d hang tomorrow morning.”

“Good. There’s a rope for every mangy thief in the world. I’m glad he’s found his. And if you ever try stealing anything ever again, I’ll put the rope around your neck myself.”

She heard quiet footsteps and sighed in relief that he was leaving. Darkness was starting to drag her under, and she welcomed it. Rest called to her, and not even the pained cries and sounds of fighting nearby would keep her from it.


Callous: Why I didn’t want to be a writer

Elementary teachers love to predict the careers of their teachers students.* Several pegged me as a writer even during that time when I insisted on being a scientist. I liked to tell stories, like the one I wrote for some fourth grade English assignment. I couldn’t tell you what happened in it, but I remember it centered on a knight and a farmer. That story stands out in my memory because I decided I never wanted to be a writer after I wrote it.

This decision had nothing to do with the story itself; apart from my terrible handwriting and issues with spaces between words (“tome” and “tothe” frequently appeared where they shouldn’t have), there wasn’t anything really wrong with it. I didn’t want to be a writer simply because my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mullenax, had a callous on her finger.

She was tall and largish in the way many elementary teachers are, with gray hair streaked with silver down to her shoulders and the crooked yellow teeth of a habitual smoker. I rarely remember seeing her wearing something other than a denim overall-dress over a white T-shirt.

Mrs. Mullenax didn’t like me for a number of reasons. Every time we started on math, I got a headache and asked to go to the nurse (in retrospect, this was likely dehydration or hunger). Sometimes I would slip out of the classroom with the other cool girls and hang out in the bathroom (just to stand around giggling, then hide if anyone else came in). And sin of sins, I wouldn’t shut up about New Mexico.

I was born there, in what I remember as a land of cracked dirt, scraggly bushes, vacant lots, black widow spiders, stucco walls and mountains. The year I started fourth grade was my first year in Virginia (the second time around; I was born in New Mexico, moved to Virginia, then back to New Mexico, then back to Virginia when I was very young). Virginia had tall, bushy trees surrounded by swampy terrain, brick houses, an unusual affinity for sports and frightening pride in its history.

I couldn’t stop pointing out the differences, both in landscape and education. Mrs. Mullenax used to pull me aside and say, “Stop talking about New Mexico. You aren’t there anymore.”

The day she graded that English assignment, she called us to her desk one by one to go over our grades. When she called my name, I sat next to her and beamed at her praise for my story. Whatever happened between that farmer and that knight was enough to make her think I would be a writer one day. I would have gone forth completely neutral on the subject if she hadn’t held up her right and in front of me and said, “And you’ll get one of these, too.”

She had old hands, the knuckles wrinkled by a lifetime of curling and uncurling. Dry, cracked skin covered her palms and split around her nails. On the inside of her middle finger, just beside the nail, was the most grotesque dome of flesh. Cracks surrounded the layers of flaky white skin. It looked like some foreign object crashed into her finger and got stuck there.

That gross thing could grow on someone else for all I cared. I wanted no part of writing.

In high school, I noticed my callous for the first time. The years of handwritten homework gave birth to my own knot of skin just beside the highest knuckle on my middle finger. At first, I thought it was a blister. The little bump was smooth like skin over bone, innocuous and obscure. You wouldn’t see it at first glance. If you noticed any abnormality, you would probably think I just broke my finger long ago and it healed that way.

But here was this thing I never wanted, quietly cushioning my finger with every word I wrote. I chose to be a writer long before I saw it. Sure, if I stopped writing by hand and drawing, it would eventually soften and disappear, but why would I? Calloused hands have always been a sign of a hard worker. Small and subtle as it is, my callous is like a secret. My hands may be soft and well-maintained, but the signs of hard work are there if you look close enough.


*The original sentence had the word “teachers” repeated by mistake. I do what I can, but nobody is perfect.