Facts about Fiction 3

 From The Brain Rummager by Brian Barratt

 Making it Interesting

Suppose someone wrote a piece with the tile "A Walk in the Forest" or "The Surprise". Imagine the story started like this:

It was a summer day. A breeze blew through the trees. The birds flew among the branches. A lot of flowers were on the ground. Two people walked through the forest, stopping to listen to the birds or to look at the flowers. Sometimes they left the footpath and looked at the bushes. Then they saw something unusual. In front of them was an object. They stopped walking. They were surprised.

It isn't very interesting, is it? Check "the three ingredients" of good story writing:

Characters: We are told nothing about them.

Atmosphere/mood: The forest itself has no atmosphere. "An object" arouses no interest in the reader's mind. The single word "surprised" doesn't tell us about the real feeling the characters experienced.

Setting: A mere list of items makes it sound like a very uninteresting place. Where are the details?

Here's a second version. For a start, let's make the title more interesting. We don't yet know how this story is going to end, but it might have a title such as "Well Worn Paths" or "If you go down to the woods today".

It was a delightfully warm summer day. A pleasant breeze wafted gently through the glowing green leaves of the towering trees. High above, the chattering birds busied themselves, darting jauntily among the branches. A lush profusion of brilliantly coloured flowers carpeted the rich earth. Really, who could wish for a better day?

Anna and Carl, on the last day of the school holiday, made their way through the forest, pausing here to listen attentively to the song of a familiar bird, and there to admire an especially fine show of some wildflower that they recognised. At times, they wandered from the well-worn footpath and explored the straggling bushes that were scattered in clumps beneath the trees. Then, as they sauntered along, happy and carefree, something unusual came into sight something they had certainly never seen before. Just ahead of them, half hidden behind a thick mass of undergrowth, was an extraordinary object. They stopped in their tracks, eyes wide with astonishment.

Do the "three ingredient test" again:

Characters: We know their names. We can work out that they are school children or teenagers.

Mood/Atmosphere: The general atmosphere is bright and happy. The children are "astonished" by the "extraordinary" object.

Setting: Small details bring the description to life.

Go through version 2 again. Identify and discuss what makes it so different from version 1.

Now read version 3, which might be titled something like "Dark Fear" or "Beyond the Thunder":

It was too hot for comfort, and we could hear thunder in the distance. The huge trees groaned as gusts of wind attacked them. Greedy birds were squabbling and fighting somewhere up in the dark branches. The tangled profusion of undergrowth edged over the footpath and made progress difficult.

"Anna, why did we have to come here on a day like this?" grumbled Carl, my little brother. "It's scary."

"It wasn't my idea," I retorted. "Grandma Grumps said we had to go for a walk. Anyway, the weather forecast said it would be sunny".

We stumbled along, startled occasionally by the squawk of an unseen bird, or delayed when clawing plants hooked into our shorts or socks. Then, just when I thought we were near the end of our less than pleasant "walk in the woods", something dark and menacing came into view.

There, just ahead of us, half hidden behind a clump of bushes, was an extraordinary object. We stopped in our tracks, mesmerised by fear.

Characters: We know their names, how they are related, how they speak, who is telling the story, and that they have a grumpy grandmother.

Atmosphere/mood: It's unpleasant, even menacing. The kids are tense. Dialogue tells us more about them. The "extraordinary object", whatever it is, causes a strong reaction.

Setting: The weather and the forest are described by actual details or by hints.

In versions 2 and 3, compare the choice of words and the way they influence the story. Look closely at verbs, adverbs and adjectives and at phrases. Is version 2 overdone, with too much description?

Note that version 3 has description, action and dialogue (speech).

Read as a writer, and work out how you can apply your findings.

  Copyright 2005 Brian Barratt. This material may be copied or printed only for use by students in school classrooms

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