News flash: fiction is fiction by John Sandel

John Sandel
Tara Samuel and John Sandel, co-founders of the Script Kitchen. (Photo by Petrea Burchard.)

The Rose City Sisters welcomes guest contributor John Sandel. He and Tara Samuel are the co-founders of the Script Kitchen, a small class devoted to helping writers develop stories.

John wrote features for a living, starting in 1996, for clients like the producers of Revenge of the Nerds, Tom & Viv and Arlington Road. Since the writers’ strike of 2007, he’s produced and directed small projects, including his own. He serves on the board of We Make Movies as Director of New Business. Now, on to the guest post!

Boy, the interwebs have created a huge playground for storytellers. Email, ebooks, EPUB, SmashWords, CreateSpace, Facebook…(and Twitter: one hundred-forty characters in search of a purpose).

The web is our water-cooler, the new cistern for the global village. And hey! Everybody has a tale to tell. No wonder we have flash fiction; brevity = virtue. And it’s ancient. Before we corralled electrons into cages—back even before Johnny Gutenberg moved nations with type…flash fiction was being shared around the fire. (You never knew when the Cossacks—Saracens, Mongols, whatevs—would come thundering through the village again.)

Soooo, we have this enormous conversation—this raucous caucus—going. And you want to get people’s attention.

Bad news: everybody’s talking at the same time.

Good news: most of it’s just noise.

So it’s simple…to rise above the chaos, have a good tale to tell.

But what’s a “good story”? How do you know when you’ve got one?

Well, flash fiction is just less prose, so it shares its audience with War and Peace. Same rules apply. I teach a class where we identify the rules of good storytelling and practice ’em. It’s called the Script Kitchen, because this is Los Angeles.

(If this were New York City, I’d call it Prospectus 101; if it were Washington, DC, I’d call it the Congressional Record—but never mind.)

The Script Kitchen has a simple premise: stories are like food. You want people to eat, so give ’em the good stuff. Know what goes into it—make your cake with sugar, not salt—and they’ll come back for more.

Our original school for storytelling is our families. As a kid, you learned everything you needed to know to be a spellbinder…but you forgot. You weren’t listening; you were playing with your food.

But think back…how many times has Uncle Charlie had everybody’s attention around the dinner table, promising a hot one about “what happened that time the office manager came in drunk” … and he gets going pretty good, up to the point where everybody saw the gin bottle in the guy’s desk-drawer…but then Charlie trails off into details and private asides, ’til he’s not saying much of anything, and someone says, irritably:

“So? What happened?”

And Charlie says “Oh. She sent him up to Human Resources. Pass the butter.”

Charlie forgot his ending, or doesn’t know he needs one—he’s not a trained storyteller. In the Script Kitchen, we train folks and send ’em out to conquer the interwebs. And that brings up …

RULE NO. 1: Know your ending.

This is, literally, the first job of the storyteller. You don’t have to know your ending before you start—though that helps—but you have to know it before you deliver your tale, on the web, on the subway, on vellum, whatever.

(Uncle Charlie didn’t follow that rule, so folks got annoyed. Guess who’s not sitting at the head of the table next Thanksgiving!)

Now, we’re not talking novels, here (though you can bet that, at some point before he sent The Sun Also Rises to his editor, Hemingway knew how it would end). Novels take so long to write that you’re allowed a certain amount of wandering around—to be a tourist in the world you create. Shorter forms? Same, but less so. Audience patience is like a retractable leash.

But at some point, you have to know how it will end. After all, that’s what the audience is paying you for—even if your only wage is butter for your roll.

RULE NO. 2: Give us a hero.

Not someone heroic, but someone in the foreground, the one I should pay attention to. Make sure your opening sentence describes that person doing something. Ask yourself: why this person? Why now? Then get your hero to the ending (which you already know).

What happens in between? Through what swamps of fire, marriages of doubt or packages of madeleines does your hero shoulder? That all’s up to you, but they’re determined by …

RULE NO. 3: Your middle is your meat.

In the Script Kitchen, we spend more time fussing over the middle of students’ stories than any other part. Once they’ve decided their ending and are sure of their hero, they’re like cooks, squinting at their recipes, bending over their bowls, mixing, mixing…

When they get their ingredients right, the story gels. We get an interesting person suffering vividly, all the way to a satisfying ending.

And you gotta know these three basic tasks apply to all stories. Keep them in mind while you read others’ work—classics or no—and you’ll see them in operation in every “good” story.

Other exhortations of craft have come from different writers, down through the years. Henry James admonishes us to get “miles and miles behind the character.” Kurt Vonnegut tells us to “always start the story with the main character wanting something badly.” Raymond Carver says we must “start the story as close to the end as possible.”

One of the exercises we do in the Script Kitchen incorporates these rules and is directly applicable to flash fiction. It’s a building-block technique I use every time I have an idea for a story. It tests whether a story idea will survive expansion to a larger form.

It’s iterative. It’s simple:

1. Pick a story:
“John Goes to the Bank”

2. Tell the story in a sentence:
After he had lunch, John went to the bank, made a deposit and drove home. (Yes, that’s a complete story.)

3. Break the sentence into 3 parts: Beginning, Middle & End:

B. After he had lunch
M. John went to the bank, made a deposit and
E. drove home

4. Do the same for each resulting phrase: find the Beginning, Middle & End. Write each result as a full sentence:

B. John went into the kitchen, got out cold cuts, sandwich bread, condiments & a drink, made a sandwich and ate.
M. John got his bank deposit together, grabbed his wallet & keys, drove downtown to the ATM and made his deposit
E. John got back into his car, jetted into traffic and drove uphill to his house, where his dog sulked on the porch.

5. Repeat

For a short story, you might stop this process when you have, say 5,000 words. For a novel, 90,000…but usually, it’s used to generate an outline.

“Flash fiction” means you can stop way short of those goals, but it follows the same rules. Audiences want a great opening. They want a meaty middle and a tasty ending. Everything we teach in the Script Kitchen applies to our newest, briefest story form.

Remember: when you starve people, they’ll hate you. But feed their imaginations—give people all three courses—and they feel fed. That’s how to get ’em coming back for seconds.

For more more information about The Script Kitchen, visit the Facebook Page, get the class PDF, or email John and Tara.

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