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Extending and Advancing

Once again, Improvisational Theatre waves its hand from the back row – “Miss, miss!”

“Yes Impro, do you have something to contribute to this discussion on storytelling in flash fiction?”

“Extend and advance, Miss!”

Ah yes.

When I was an improviser, I was enchanted by Keith Johnstone’s concept of extending and advancing. Extending means staying with “what you’ve got” – elaborating, exploring, going deeper, resisting the pressure to move forward. Advancing means deliberately yielding to the narrative pressure and taking a step.

Inexperienced improvisers tend to rush the story – advance, advance, advance – without investing the time to evoke setting, build character, or enlist the audience’s emotions. Timed impro games (especially 1 and 2 minute games) often encourage this breathless rushing that leaves nobody feeling satisfied.

I think that, for writers, there’s a risk that flash fiction can encourage the same strategy – trying to pack in as much “action” as quickly as possible. However, the best flash fiction I’ve read – like some of the best improvisation I’ve seen – creates a sense of deep engagement, of taking its time, of bringing the reader/audience along.

My favourite improvisation exercise for developing extending/advancing skills is played in pairs.

Person A starts an activity (eg. “going fishing”), and Person B asks “What are you doing?”

A must check, and report what she’s doing right at this moment – “walking”, “breathing”, “sliding the worm onto the hook”, “swinging my rod backwards”.

Then B says “Extend … (that action)”. A lets go of whatever she’s vaguely intending to do in the future (eg. hook such a big fish she gets hauled into the water), and focuses on extending the identified moment of walking, breathing, sliding the worm, or swinging the rod.

All kinds of possibilities can develop out of any of these actions. From “breathing”, for example, A might find herself suddenly struggling for breath, or smell something foul or beautiful and start sniffing the air. A bug might fly up her nose, she might find herself filling up like a balloon, etc. etc.

B observes carefully, and encourages A to extend on her immediate action – “Extend trying to snort the bug out of your nose”. The story gradually develops – it does move forward – but with much more tension, physicality, emotion, and interest, than if A had simply ploughed ahead with the ideas she had in mind. It’s a little like a collected canter in dressage, where the horse is moving forward but in an “intensified” kind of way, because momentum is working against restraint.

After a while, if A starts feeling uncreative in her extending and the story hasn’t reached a satisfying conclusion, B might say “Advance”. This gives A permission to let something new happen.  The sense of release from the intensity of extending usually results in quite a big leap or twist. For example, since A has blown up like a balloon and is floating helplessly, the enormous fish might mistake her for a fly and leap up out of the water. This advancement is immediately reined in by the instruction to “Extend” (eg. “What are you doing?” “Being eaten by the fish!” “Extend being eaten”). And again we get a rich, satisfying, entertaining chunk of story.

I’ve noticed most if not all of my favourite flash pieces work the same way as the game Extend and Advance. The storyteller starts us off somewhere, and extends on what’s happening, tiny detail by tiny detail, developing the picture. Then there’ll be a leap, twist or turning point that’s quite dramatic, if subtle. Some stories are two-act (one turning point, maybe half or 2/3 of the way through), some are three-act (one turning point at the 1/3 mark, another around the 2/3 mark or later). After the turning point (advance), the dominant mode might return to extension, but the story usually seems to move more quickly because the details are now invested with new meaning.

Some exercises:

1. Look at several pieces of flash fiction by different authors (I’ve been looking at pieces up to 300 words, but the uses of extending and advancing are usually very clear up to about 1000 words).

Using a couple of different colour highlighting pens, mark each sentence according to whether it’s “extending” or “advancing”.

Notice where the points of advancement occur. Do they delineate “acts” in the story? What impact does each advancement have on what comes after? Does the author then go back to extending, or leap from advance to advance? Are there different degrees of advancement – big leaps versus small but significant ones? How does the author manage extending without becoming boring? How does she manage advancing without leaving the reader behind?

For this exercise it’s great if you can get some pieces you feel “work”, and some you feel “don’t quite work”, and analyse the weaker stories by comparing them with the stronger.

2. Write a piece of flash fiction. Give yourself a time limit (5 minutes). Start with a title, topic or idea (use a prompt from a writing site if you need one). Write the first sentence. Then “Extend” on the first sentence/idea. Extend and extend as long as you can, resisting the pressure to advance the story until you a. reach a satisfying conclusion, b. run out of time, c. start feeling uncreative, or d. have such a good idea for an advancement you can’t resist.

If a., read over the first draft and decide what else the story needs. Did an advancement creep in without you even noticing? Did you extend all the way to the end, but nothing much happened? Is it a good story but a bit “samey” in terms of pace, tone, etc.? Use the concepts of advancing and extending to rewrite.

If b., pretty much the same as for a. Did you reach a conclusion? What does the story need? Go back and rewrite, using the concepts of advancing and extending.

If c. or d., allow yourself to Advance. Now you’ll have to decide whether (and what) to extend. Maybe the path to the end of your story is now in a series of advancements, like stepping stones. When you run out of time, start your rewriting process, paying particular attention to the concepts of advancing and extending.

When you’ve rewritten your piece to your satisfaction, go through the finished story with your highlighters and identify the sentences that extend and those that advance. Ask yourself the questions from 1.

I know this is a very analytical exercise, but it should be quite an informative one 🙂

 

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Filed under Fiction Techniques, Narratology, Writing Exercises

Ground rules

Someone has pointed out that I should clarify a few issues, if this blog is to work as a forum.

1. Writing exercises. Feel free to suggest exercises for the benefit of others. If they are your own original exercises, say so. If you got them from somewhere else, make sure you (and I) won’t be breaching copyright or annoying anyone if you post them here. I imagine most teachers won’t mind having one of their exercises cited occasionally, if you acknowledge them (and encourage other users of this blog to buy their books). A link to their book or blog would be helpful. But please don’t get us into trouble by posting material without appropriate permission.

If you use an exercise you found on this blog, for example in your own teaching, please do acknowledge the person who posted it. And if you’d like to encourage your students to visit this blog and join the conversation here, they’d be very welcome!

2. Your own writing. You’ll notice I’m not posting examples of my own writing, even my own responses to the challenge exercises. This is because many competitions and journals frown on material that’s already been published elsewhere, including on writers’ forums or blogs. If you do want to post samples of your own writing as “Comments”, feel free, but be aware of that reality.

That’s it – short post tonight! Let me know if you’re finding the posts a bit long – I can always break them into installments if that will give you a better blog-reading experience 🙂 Happy writing!

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Colouring In

Describe that sky!

My writing buddy Kathy has blogged an interesting post about using colours in your writing. She expressed a concern that she tends to use colour-words too much (I don’t think she does). But it got me thinking about my own love of colour, and the relationship between colours and words. My first novel is called Blue : that says something right there 🙂

Maybe I’m a lazy reader – maybe my imagination doesn’t create scenes from the written word as actively as someone else’s might – but I need the writer to supply colour-words to help bring a scene visually alive. Kathy quotes from J.M. Coetzee: Through a window he glimpses the Shaw’s backyard: an apple tree dropping wormridden fruit, rampant weeds, an area fenced in with galvanized-iron sheets, wooden pallets, old tyres, where chickens scratch around… I can see it, but do you know, more vividly I can smell it. I wonder what difference colour-words might have made to my imagined sensory experience of this scene: an apple tree dropping brown worm-ridden fruit, rampant bitter-green weeds, an area fenced with galvanized-iron sheets rusting at the edges, wooden pallets, old tyres, where dirty white hens scratch around…

I’m currently reading The Siren’s Sting, by Miranda Darling, in which the author works hard to show us what her protagonist is seeing: The strange light of storm weather had turned the lagoon an opaque shade of jade green and fingers of red now shot out from an invisible setting sun…The palazzo just opposite was painted a deep rust red, with green shutters and green and white striped poles marking its water door... She was shown to her room, a small golden chamber with red velvet curtains overlooking a busy canal… While I also appreciate the author’s diligence in filling in the other senses – she tells us about the sound of heavy rain in the street, the feel of damp evening air on her protagonist’s face, and evokes the aromas of meals in various Mediterranean restaurants – it’s the colours that bring the story to life for me.

I’m often frustrated in the search for the perfect word for a colour. How, without becoming tedious, do you describe the exact colour of wet sand-flats at low tide just after the sunset pinks and oranges have faded but before it’s dark? The colour of the eastern horizon at that moment? The exact shade of deepening blue half-way up the sky, where the evening star is beginning to shine? We probably all envision/remember those colours slightly differently. If I want the reader to see a moment as my protagonist sees it, do I go hunting for obscure terms that are meant to describe a precise hue but probably don’t for every reader (bisque, aquamarine, brown madder)? Do I go all Taubmans and try to evoke that colour in the reader’s mind by describing something else in the world (Bell Pepper, Hot Frog, Lime Leaf, Honeydew, for shades of green)? Or do I try to mix words like you mix paints (blue-green water, apricot-brown sand, seaweed that’s greenish gold shading into orange with flecks of lemon yellow)?

How do you handle colour as a writer (and experience it as a reader)? I’d be keen to hear other people’s thoughts.

And just so this post contains some exercises:

1. Find a passage you’ve written, that contains visual description. Have you used any colour words? What happens if you take them all out? Put more in? Work at making the colour words more precisely descriptive? Stick to the simplest colour words possible (red, blue, green)?

2. Write a para or two describing a scene but without using actual colours – instead try to evoke lights and shades, as if the scene were a black-and-white photograph

3. Write a short scene between two characters, without using any colour words. Then see where you can add visual detail, including colour. Does this pull the scene in any different direction?

4. Play with synaesthesia – using words from one sensory modality to describe something in another. Particularly try this with colour words – a green breeze, the white hammering of rain


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Space and Distance – some writing exercises

The Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize is closing soon, and I’ve been reading the Judges’ Comments from the past few years. I’m struck by their interest in the “spaces” and “distances” within a story. The distance between two characters whose backgrounds and trajectories are too disparate to allow them more than a brief connection (Felicity Castagna’s “Next”). The distance between the protagonist’s understanding of her situation, and the reader’s (Krissy Kneen’s “Steeple Chase”). And the idea that these spaces are full of forces (attraction, repulsion, compulsion, momentum) and resonances, as the narrator of Catherine Harris’ “The Real Thing” explicitly attests.

I’ve been studying Creative Writing for a year, and there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on how to work with space and distance between characters or viewpoints within a story. So I’ve made up some exercises for myself. I’ll be delighted if you try them too, and post your results and/or discoveries. And if you have any exercises to suggest, for the benefit of other readers, please do put them forward – I love the idea of writers experimenting together. Most of the exercises below will require several paras and might even lead to a whole story; some might only yield a para or two, but it’s all fun and stretches the writing muscles!

1. An exercise in parallel lines and the space between 2 characters. Establish 2 characters in the same place. Variations: a. they’re strangers, versus they know each other. b. Take each character’s POV in turn, versus use one character’s POV, then repeat the exercise from the other character’s POV (thanks to Trent Jamieson for the latter exercise). c. The two characters never notice each other yet each one’s situation bounces off the other in a way that’s satisfying for the reader, versus the two characters notice each other but only fleetingly, versus some key moment occurs between the two characters, versus they come into some interaction which leads to the story’s conclusion. We may be left expecting them to have further contact, or not

2. An exercise in triangles. Have 2 characters interact and establish the space/distance between them, then a third character enters and transforms that space/changes that distance

3. An exercise in the emotional charge of space. Establish a space between 2 characters, then an event, utterance or action changes the meaning of that space from positively-charged to negatively-charged, or vice versa. Variations: the change comes from one of the characters, versus the change comes from something outside the two characters

4. An exercise in motion. Establish 2 characters in motion who try to stop and connect. Variations: they succeeed, versus they are helplessly carried on past their separate trajectories

5. Another exercise in motion. Establish 2 characters as stuck, with dead space between them, then a. bring the space alive, and/or b. put one or both characters in motion

6. An exercise in interaction. Establish 2 characters who have different understandings of the space/distance between them. As a result of their actions/interaction, this space/distance changes

7. Another exercise in triangles. Create a space between 2 characters and an object, and have the fate of the object alter the space between the characters

8. An exercise in characters in places. Establish a physical place or space. Have a character come into it and establish a relationship with it. Then another character arrives and alters this relationship

9. An exercise in confined spaces. Put 2 characters in a confined space and have them develop a relationship defined by the space. Variations: a. they’re in the space willingly, versus against their will. b. They know each other beforehand, versus they don’t. c. They feel the same way about the space and their situation (positive or negative), versus they don’t

10. An exercise in isolation. One character wants to be alone/distant, the other tries to penetrate that aloneness/bridge that distance

11. An exercise in temporal space. Establish 2 characters waiting for something

12. An exercise in strange/foreign/alien spaces. Have 2 characters interact differently with a space which is strange/foreign/alien to both of them

13. An exercise in manipulating the distance between characters. Have 2 characters move from extreme distance to extreme closeness and back again (or the other way round)

14. An exercise in irony. Have 2 characters be most distant when they seem closest, and/or vice versa

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