Periodic Table of Storytelling

This is one of the reasons I avoid trolling the internet when I have work to do. I’m liable to find delightful time-wasters like this.

The final project of Computer Sherpa for a Visual Design class, this Periodic Table of Storytelling is endlessly intriguing and enlightening.

The table can be found here, with working links and an explanation: .

It looks like the Periodic Table of Elements that we each encountered at least once in school, but instead of basic elements of matter, these are basic elements of storytelling. Click on any element to see the name of that aspect of storytelling. For example, click SUS in the rightmost column, and you’ll find: Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Then, go to to read more about that basic element.

Warning, once you start, you’ll find it’s hard to stop. has done a fantastic job of defining and illustrating these storytelling concepts. You’ll look up and realize you’ve been lost in Wonderland for hours!

Enjoy, and drop the creators a line to let them know you’ve visited. They’ll appreciate it, I’m sure.

Metaphor and Insight

One aspect of descriptive writing is the use of simile and metaphor.

Simile is the “like” description: The child’s laughter was like music to her ears.

Metaphor is the “is” description: He is a volcano. Consequently, people tiptoe around him, fearing an eruption.

While similes are easier to use for most writers, metaphor has a great deal more power. As Sallie McFague beautifully put it, “A metaphor is a word used in an unfamiliar context to give us a new insight; a good metaphor moves us to see our ordinary world in an extraordinary way.”

As you edit your first drafts, try to find those places where you can strengthen your language, imbuing it with power through the use of simile and metaphor. This requires looking at the world as though you’ve never seen it before and describing what you see in new terms, with new references. That copse of trees bordering the lane? An military rank of sentinels, their heads entwined and interlocking, guarding the path below.

Most often, simplicity is key. It isn’t a matter of using a thesaurus, but of seeing the world in new ways, with new images. Typically, with metaphor, a well-known object is compared with a less-well-known object, creating a vivid link and new vision in the reader’s mind. Play with language. Re-imagine your world. Don’t settle for reality.

If You Want to Write, Read!

During my class last week, I asked my students how many of them read fiction regularly. About half the class raised their hands. I said that each one of them should have raised their hands, because the best way to learn to write well is to read. By reading quality writing, a writer absorbs a sense of language, learns how to punctuate, and gains a grasp of sentence pacing.

I had one student semi-argue with me in private that if writers read, they are wasting their time, time better spent writing. I agreed that if writers choose to read when they have the time to write, they might be avoiding the harder task, but we agreed that, given the option of reading versus watching television, a reader gains more by reading. (Though I do believe that television can teach writers how to write pithy dialogue and how to plot a story.)

Still, I insist that writers must read. Expand your horizons. Read in a variety of genres. And as you read, think. Notice punctuation and sentence structure. Look up vocabulary you don’t know or remember. Ask yourself why sentences are punctuated as they are. If you read a sentence that makes you pause, ask yourself why it did so. If it was because of a particular observation or turn of phrase, write it down. If it was because you were suddenly aware of the writer, ask yourself why that happened and how it could have been avoided.

Read voraciously, and always keep your mind working. It’s okay to get lost in the story, but never lose sight of the fact that reading is an opportunity to learn.

Help your readers to use their senses

Tonight I begin teaching a two-week writing workshop at UCSD Extension on “Writing with the Senses.” It may seem obvious that a writer should write with the senses, but many new writers neglect that aspect of storytelling. Others overdo it, writing about every wrinkle and twitch to the point where we lose focus of what is happening in the story.

Meg Gardiner writes with great control, a necessity when writing thrillers. But she doesn’t forget to incorporate the senses. Here is an excerpt from her book The Memory Collector: Tang was a sea urchin, small and prickly. She wore a black peacoat, black slacks, black boots. Spiky black hair. Jo knew that beneath the barbs, she had a heart—a cautious, well-guarded heart. But reaching it could result in cuts and bruises. She liked Tang enormously.

The sea urchin image sells the rest of the description, and tells us a great deal about Tang.

Another writer who weaves the senses in his writing is John Morgan Wilson, as in this excerpt from Simple Justice: The city was golden, blinding, blasted by heavenly light. It was one of those days that made nipples rise and minds wander and bodies shiver with sensuality and inexplicable dread. The kind of day when the heat wrapped snugly around you but sent an ominous chill up your back at the same time, like the first sexual touch in a dark room from a beautiful stranger whose name you’d never know.

Days that make nipples rise? Wonderful line!

Or consider Michael Chabon, who sometimes gets carried away, but writes delightful lines like these in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: Peril Strait is a jumble of boats, a fuel pump, a row of weathered houses in the colors of rusted-out engines. The houses huddle on their pilings like skinny-legged ladies. A mangy stretch of boardwalk noses among the houses before wandering over to the boat slips to lie down. It all seems to be held together by a craze of hawser, tangles of fishing line, scraps of purse seine strung with crusted floats. The whole village might be nothing but driftwood and wire, flotsam from the drowning of a far-off town.

I was inexplicably delighted when I read “a mangy stretch of boardwalk noses among the houses before wandering over to the boat slips to lie down.” Who SEES a boardwalk that way? But it’s a perfect description.

As you read, ignore those prohibitions that echo in your mind about not marking in your books. When you see a strong description, highlight it, or write it in your writing journal. Learn to embrace writing that brings the senses alive. Not only will your own reading become more enjoyable, but you’ll find yourself looking at the world differently, as a writer should.

Bouchercon 2010

I’m heading to San Francisco later this week for Bouchercon by the Bay, the World Mystery Convention, where, every year, readers, writers, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, and other lovers of crime fiction gather for a long weekend of both education and entertainment.

I love writer conventions. The cast of characters who attend these events are enough to keep a writer scribbling in her notebook for hours without pause, and the cast includes writers as well as aficionados of the genre. All are welcome, and the majority of people are outgoing, well informed, well read, and just so happy to be there.

Days are filled with selections of panels, featuring top writers such as Lee Child and Laurie R. King, to new authors, such as Rachel Brady and CJ West. The panels are typically entertaining, generally informative, and rarely a waste of time. The one-on-one with authors are always delightful.

I go this year not as an author, but wearing my EDITOR cap, and laying down lots of business cards. There are hoards of want-to-be writers roaming the halls, and I can help them prepare their manuscripts before they make their assaults on agents and publishers.

A huge plus to this year’s convention is the presence of Meg Gardiner, friend and award-winning thriller writer. I would gladly skip all the panels and activities for time with her, especially if it includes a cocktail with Laurie R. King!

The piece de resistance, however, is that on Sunday my daughter runs the half-marathon in San Francisco, on Saturday we get to see our son at Santa Clara University, and my husband is joining us for all the activities. A mini-vacation with a focus on writing. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

Writing with the Senses

I just saw “Inception,” a movie that cannot be easily described with mere words. As such, I realize that I should use it as an example in my next writing class at UCSD Extension: Writing with the Senses.

The movie was a feast for the senses of sight and hearing. The other senses had to be left to the imagination: smell, touch, and taste. Visually, the movie was stunning, and overwhelming. How does one adequately describe the streets of Paris rolling up and over one’s head, so that the slate roof tiles of one stone building lay atop another and cars made ninety-degree turns UP as the avenue bent? or how two characters battled in a zero-gravity hallway, scrambling for handholds as they maneuvered for chokeholds? It can be done, but it won’t be easy…finding the exact words to build the vision in the reader’s mind.

That’s the power of writing with the senses. Learning to use words to bring sight, sound, taste, smells, and touch to the reader’s mind, to create images that will elicit sensory memory in the reader. My workshop at UCSD will be only two meetings, but long enough for the students to get a taste of what it means to write with the senses.

The Interview Process: Open Yourself to Surprises

I gave an assignment this week that sent my students into a most unexpected spiral. Their task was to conduct character interviews, one with each of two characters they were creating. This turned out to be much more challenging for them than I had imagined. In the past, students have caught on quickly to the idea; not so this week.

The idea of the interview is for the author to get to know a character. When we create characters and decide who they are, what they look like, and what they will do in the story, we leave no room for surprise. We are dictating everything about the characters, and risk making those characters flat and predictable.

But through the process of interviewing our characters, we can open ourselves to surprise. We can learn things about our characters that might be useful in the story, facets that will add depth and color to our characters.

Interview your characters and make them answer your questions. You’ll know the answers, of course, but in the process of interviewing, you may come up with some questions about aspects of that character that you had never considered. Perhaps you have a character who is a photographer. She is a photographer because you need her to be so for the story. But after interviewing, you may find out that she became a photographer because she was cripplingly shy as a child and finally discovered, in high school, that she could participate in activities if she hid behind a camera, present but unseen. This insight might come in handy later in your story when this character has to step forward and make a stand (as you had already planned). It would give both you and the reader insight into the inner struggle before she acts, giving greater depth to the action and greater interest for the reader.

That is just one example of how sitting down and interviewing your characters can lead to bits of character knowledge that can strengthen your story and your writing. If you simply say that characters “just are,” you lose the chance to be surprised. Talk to your characters, and never let them off the hook with the difficult questions. You’ll grow as a writer and your characters will live.