Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer prize winner, wrote: Writing for Story – Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction to teach authors his methods. Franklin illustrates his technique with annotated versions of his two essays: “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” and “The Ballad of Old Man Peters,” the first of which won the 1979 Pulitzer prize. The goal of his technique is to impart knowledge and truth to readers. To paraphrase Franklin:
The secret to professional writing is a fusion of learned craftsmanship with artistic vision born of experience. The successful writer is the one who grasps the separate parts of their story and sees how those components work together to produce a compelling and dramatic tale.
Franklin’s writing process consists of three parts: outlining, roughing in the draft, and polishing. Outlining concerns the conceptual associations between the character and action which, for a short story, consists of a time sequence of five major focus narratives: the beginning complication focus, three development focuses which constitute the story body, and the ending resolution focus. Roughing in the draft (i.e., the structural level) involves the internal makeup of major focuses: sequence, emphasis, pacing, and orientation of action. Polishing entails good grammar, word usage, imagery, and principles of sentence and paragraph structure. More details of this process, abstracted from Franklin’s book, are described next. First, he describes the object of his process: the story.
Content of a Story
A story consists of a chronological action sequence that a captivating character undertakes and/or endures to solve a complication that they face. The flow from the complication’s introduction, through the action events, to the resolution constitutes a fiction story’s plot or a non-fiction story’s structure.
The resolution results, often, from a character’s flash of insight as to how to solve their problem rather than directly from the action. A story is said “to work” when a real character struggles diligently to solve a significant problem that confronts them, overcomes the problem, and becomes a changed character as a result.
Active images, built on action verbs, are the focuses of action. They are the smallest possible unit of story. Collections of these units form minor focuses. These join via simple transitions to form larger focuses glued together by increasingly complex transitions. Transitions guide the reader through changing times, places, moods, subjects, and characters. These larger focuses combine to form several major focuses that compose the principal subunits of stories.
There are typically five principal subunits in a short story and more in longer form copy. Each subunit has a specific role: the first is the complicating focus. The complicating focus consists of a series of subfocuses that grab the reader’s attention, introduce the characters, and reveal the complication that the story depicts. As examples, jokes may consist of a single image that doubles as a major focus whereas a psychological novel may consist of hierarchical image aggregations at multiple levels.
The next three development focuses (i.e., the story body) describe the actions that the character takes to resolve the complication. These are longer than the first or last focuses but easier to write. The first developmental focus enters deeper into the story and the third (last) developmental focus carries the story to the brink of the resolution.
The climax of the last developmental focus (at its end) is where the character has a “moment of insight” when they realize what they must do to solve the problem. Screenwriters call this flash of realization the second plot point. The complication is the first plot point.
The resolving focus which ends the story can be long or short but reads very quickly. This is possible because the necessary background has been laid and the character has made choices and taken actions to get them to this point. All that remains is the character’s psychological or physical action to clearly solve the problem.
The saga is a variation on the five focus short story. Sagas consist of a major complication and resolution; but, instead of having three developmental focuses it has five, more or less, interlinked substories (or episodes) with their own complications and resolutions. These episodes interlink by presenting the complication (or cliffhanger) of the next substory either before or after the resolution of the current substory. This preserves and reinforces the tension of the story as a whole.
The Writing Process
The practicing writer is concerned with three hierarchical processes: outlining, roughing in the draft, and polishing.
Outlining is based on complications and resolutions. There is one statement for each major focus (e.g., typically five for a short story) and every subfocus. Use a subject, active verb, and object (i.e., noun-verb-noun form) for outline statements to reduce the story to its essentials. In storytelling, the dramatic action that makes your point comes at the end of each section where the climax belongs. So each outline statement represents the focus ending.
The most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. The outline centers on this growth and change so that it will emerge as the story’s backbone. The outline presents the story’s drama via action that proceeds from complication to resolution.
The main advantage of constructing the outline first is in discovering structural flaws before any text is written. Structural problems can be simply resolved without wasted effort and emotional commitment. The outline is the psychological roadmap of your story and brings out eternal truths.
Expanding the outline’s focus statements into rough copy marks the halfway point in story creation. Most of the creative work of the story is complete at the start of this stage. At the structural level, word choice is important only at dramatic high points.
This is where the writer constructs transitions, scene-settings, action sequences, and other products that enable the reader to slide through the story. Phrase order and sentence rhythms are not critical when roughing in the draft narrative.
Three Types of Narrative
There are three major types of narrative: transitional, preparatory, and climatic. Transitional narrative switches scenes and keeps the reader oriented. Preparatory narrative comes next and sets the reader up to understand the ensuing dramatic scene. Climactic narrative evokes the reader’s emotions via detailed action descriptions. After the climactic narrative ends, transitional narrative moves the reader to the next time and place so preparatory narrative can hasten them to the next climactic scene.
Transitional narrative enables the reader to negotiate a story’s twists, turns, and changes without getting disoriented or lost. Good narrative makes the reader forget their reality and step into your character’s world. It establishes the time, place, character, subject, and mood at the story’s start and maintains “threads” of continuity through focus changes to the story’s end.
Three Transition Types
There are many types of transitions. Three major ones are: the break, the flashback/flash-forward, and the stream-of-consciousness appeal to emotion. The break transition breaks all five threads with typographic symbols, jars the reader, and is therefore weak. The cinematic equivalent is a fadeout or commercial break.
A flashback, if necessary, is best located immediately after the complication. It is used only once in short or medium length stories. The flashback’s danger is that it forces the reader to break with their experience of time flow, disrupting several threads and weakening others. It is a point of confusion for the reader.
The last transition method is psychological: a stream-of-consciousness emotional connection (e.g., rhyming, common movement, etc.) The human mind is easily directed by exploiting its emotional engine. Psychological transition is a very useful tool to associate images not usually brought together in order to display enduring truths.
Preparatory narrative follows a transitional narrative to prepare the reader intellectually and emotionally for a dramatic highpoint. An example of preparatory narrative is strong scene-building and character-strengthening text, preferably incorporating action, to help the reader understand and enter into the story.
Foreshadowing is a powerful technique used in preparatory narrative. It unobtrusively inserts details early in a story that enable later dramatic scenes to be told without explanation of background details which would distract the reader from the ongoing drama.
Climactic narrative expresses a story’s dramatic action and accounts for almost all of a story’s emotional impact. Climactic narrative focusses tightly on events and supporting details. It never tells how a character feels or what he or she does; it shows what happens, what the character does in response, and what happens next. The proverb: “actions speak louder than words,” reflects this understanding.
In climactic narrative, you see generalizations described with detailed action that would be explicitly stated in preparatory and transitional narrative.
Creating the Rough Draft
Start at the ending of a story in order to know what to foreshadow. Write the end of last developmental focus where your character’s point of insight occurs; then write the transitional and preparatory narratives that set up the first scene of the resolution. Finally, write the rest of the resolution scenes to the end.
Next, write the story complication (i.e., the first plot point); introduce your characters, set up the situation, and bring them face to face with the problem. Capture it in as few pages as possible. Once you have the beginning, write successive developmental focuses until you’ve completed your (short) story.
Whenever your story seems to be going wrong, stop, go back to the outline, and read it carefully. Determine why you deviated and modify the story or outline accordingly. This process of refining the story per the outline and outline per the story is called calibration. Once the story and outline match (and you like the story) stop.
Pacing and Intensity
Pacing consists of transitions leading to smooth preparatory narrative cascading into dramatic scenes. Pace is determined by how rapidly the narrative moves from climactic point to climactic point within a major focus.
Intensity is built by closely focusing on the characters and surroundings. The interplay between pace and intensity is complex and can produce a variety of effects.
Cutting Dead Wood
A critical part of the rough draft process involves throwing away words. Remove unnecessary text, no matter how well written and, therefore, distracting, if it doesn’t fulfill Chekov’s law (i.e., a shotgun described as hanging over the mantel must be fired by story’s end.)
Unless you are willing to redefine the story to incorporate the distraction and remove aspects of the original story, the dead wood must be removed.
At this point, the rough draft is finished. Take a few days off to let your subconscious process what you’ve written before conducting a read through.
The Read Through
The read through should ask questions that a reader would ask: who is the character, what happens to them, what does he or she learn from the experience? What does the story make you feel?
Look for errors: is a transition too long, is a scene shortchanged, does a flashback come too quickly after the complication because the transition is too short, etc. After you make any necessary structural corrections then you can retire the outline.
Polishing converts rough copy into clear, active, and integrated narrative that moves the story along without intruding into it.
The rules of polish are straightforward and not abstract. They are, however, one-part: logic, prejudice, authority, and tradition. The three rules of polish are: do it consciously, read and apply Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and read good writing voraciously.
Polish – Procedures
Polishing procedures, as opposed to rules, are similar to those for outlining and rough composition. Polish your story without regard to sequence, concentrating on the most critical scenes first and working from focus to focus in the order of their importance.
Once a story is completed, the lead or narrative hook is easier to rewrite. The lead helps the reader transition from their world to that of the character by establishing (or starting to establish) the story’s five threads.
Polish – Imagery and Sequencing
Polishing principles divide into image clarification and image sequencing. To achieve image clarity, make proper word choices and use strong verbs which cohere the words around it in only one way. Sequencing organizes the flow of paragraphs, images, and words to unfold the story image-by-image in a way that best accomplishes the story’s structural (i.e., dramatic) goals.
Complex sentences laden with prepositions and qualifiers alert the writer to inadequate or inessential images. If the copy seems confused, reorder the images as necessary, and rewrite them into new sentences. If the order of two images isn’t important (i.e., one doesn’t build on the other), one of them needs to be discarded.
Rhythm is important in sequencing. A series of long sentences, establishing a slow rhythm, may be broken by a short terse summation thereby adding impact to the conclusion. Rhythms such as blank verse can add psychological effect.
To sum up the results of Franklin’s process: active images build upon one another to reach an evocative statement at paragraph’s end. The drama drops off through a minor transition, if necessary, and starts rising again in preparatory text. Successive paragraphs rise and fall building towards the climax of a small focus consisting of that focus’s most dramatic images. This focus ends with a statement that summarizes the focus’s drama.
Small focuses transition one to another in sequence. Each one peaks with a dramatic summary statement. These small focuses build toward the major focus resolution where the focus statement is demonstrated. The narrative then passes through a major transition to start the next major focus. At the end of the story, the final few images of the narrative resolve the story’s complication and the story ends.
We heartily recommend Franklin’s method and urge you to read his book yourselves to discover his annotated essay examples and the numerous nuances that we, by necessity, left out.
Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction, by Jon Franklin