A Little Light Writing Challenge

I was watching a review of a movie recently.

I read and watch reviews, but I have little respect for those that write the ones that are extremely critical of story flaws.

Simply put, when I see someone dissect a story, tear it to shreds and be a snot about it, my first thought is, “If nothing out there measures up to your standards or is worth a shit, then by God write one that is great and show us all how it’s done. If you can’t, then stop tearing apart those that actually try.”

OOOH! Now I remember what I was reading, it was a feminist tearing apart Disney’s Brave as being a horrible piece of shit. That’s what it was, got it.

Please note, I’m not labeling the critic a feminist, it is what she labeled herself. I don’t tend to slap labels on people, myself.

Except asshat, that one I throw around quite freely. Perhaps too freely.

Anyway, the saying goes, “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, criticize.”

Actually, it goes “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach. And those that can’t teach, teach gym class.” But never let the facts prevent you from delivering a good line.

So, I really liked Brave. And I didn’t understand a lot of the reviews I saw about it. Mostly when I heard refrains along the lines of “Tired old princess story I’ve seen a million times before”, and I kept wondering, “When did we see that same movie? Ever? Because I want to see those, too.”

Many reviews about it mentioned “this type of story.” Meaning the princess story.

And I’ve been looking around, and noticing other such terms and labels used in criticism. Talking about types of stories.

“Oh, this was a decent example of the buddy story.”

“Oh, this was a fairly boring version of the classic fish out of water story.”

It’s been making me wonder about writing, and where people are coming from.

This may surprise you, but I tend to be very analytical about some things. I examine beliefs, my own and others, I examine how things work, I try to get at the understanding of the why, in order to better appreciate the how.

I also write a lot. Some of this, which you do not see, is the writing of fiction. Stories. Stuff what I done put on this here hard drive.

When I write, I do not set out to write a certain kind of story. I don’t really even know about that stuff. I don’t chart it all out ahead of time.

I’ve heard before that there are no new stories, everything has been done, and it’s becoming clear to me that a lot of people have spent a lot of time doing the dissection and analysis of the structure of the story.

Perhaps that is what some folks think it takes to write a story, or maybe it’s what critics use to prove something isn’t original, by comparing it to similar things the author might never have even heard of. Who knows. Maybe it’s very helpful to know what everyone thinks are the only types of stories in existence, so you can choose which one you’re doing this time. Again, really? Okay, I’m not that educated, what do I know. I’m winging it every day, what do I really know.

When I write a story, it’s because I get an idea for something that seems cool to me, including a vision of the people or personalities involved. I want to know more about that story, so I write about it. If it turns into one of these tired old devices, then that’s just the way it works out.

Just because that’s how I’ve been doing it, doesn’t mean I can’t try something else.

What if I actually tried to write a story the way critics describe them?

What if I picked a format, and then intentionally tried to write a story like that?

That’s when I thought to myself, “I haven’t seen fresh creative writing from some of my blogging friends in, like, forever. This feels like a joint venture. Writing challenge time!”

So here is the challenge.

You pick a type of story, and then once you have the type picked out, write a short story of that kind. Then critique yourself.

How did writing that way feel? Was having a structure or framework in mind helpful to you in bringing the story to life, or did you feel restricted or hemmed in by self-imposed rules?

I am going to pick the fish out of water type, and if you’d like to do the same, go for it. Or pick any other type of story structure that suits your fancy.

I am going to sit down at some point this weekend, and try to intentionally write a fish out of water style short story.

When I’m done, I’ll post it here along with my own self-critique.

See, the thing is, I think critics are full of shit. I don’t believe that writers sit down and go all coldly analytical about what they’re going to write about, create flowcharts and graphs, count numbers of male characters versus female characters, brown lizard people versus green lizard people, dogs of small size versus dogs of large size, numbers of night time scenes versus daytime, inclusion of types of food or whatever the hell kind of bullshit I read about.

I think writers get a story stuck in their head, and sit down to get it the hell out of there and onto a surface, any surface where they can look at it in peace.

Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe most writers do sit down and graph everything out in advance, try to write something to cater to a particular audience, then go back and flesh it out.

Really, what the hell do I know? I just peck at the keys, and you can tell I’m a Druid by how well I can mangle.

If you’re interested in taking part, just for fun, I think it would be great to see some more of the wonderfully creative, powerful writing that I saw last time we did a challenge. I also think there is a good chance I’ll learn something new from this exercise, about myself and my writing. So, fuck it, it’s worth it for that alone.

As always, if you do write something, please let me know so I can link to it and feature you here.

Good luck!

P.S. Just to be clear, it doesn’t have anything at all to do with World of Warcraft. Whatever inspiration guides you… once you pick a structure, that is.

I’m actually leaning towards doing a storytime. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done up a proper storytime. We’re about due for more personal anecdotes and embarrassment around here.

16 thoughts on “A Little Light Writing Challenge

  1. When I write fiction, I tend to have the big ideas rattling around in my head, along with key characters. I plot out large arcs and how they intersect with the character development I want, and then start filling in the details around the key points and intersections.

    …there’s a bit more to it, and I’ll write up a blog post on it, but it’s remarkably similar to how I animate, either in 3D or 2D. Must just be how I’m wired.


  2. On the dissection and analysis of stories:

    Yes, many people have spent MUCH time on this very subject. It’s called literary criticism, and if you’d like an excellent overview, I recommend Critical Theory Since Plato, by Hazard Adams. (If you want something shorter and less daunting than Hazard’s tome, you could do worse than E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.)

    While often in popular media, ‘criticism’ has come to mean ‘critique,’ that’s not quite criticism’s purpose. Its purpose is to figure out what makes a work of art successful (or not), and why. (I’m vastly condensing, here.) It’s not that criticism exists to coldly and cerebrally dissect a story and break it down into its components. It’s that when a story isn’t working, criticism is the toolbox full of tools you’ll need to figure out what isn’t working in it, why it’s not working, and how to get it working again. This is why literary criticism and critical theory are mandatory requirements in every university creative writing program.

    As a short example, let’s take why critics so often bring up the ‘type’ of story, in their reviews of a book or film.

    If you want to figure out if a work’s successful, it generally helps to know what sort of work it is supposed to be in the first place. For example, The Lord of the Rings is a story, and a rather successful one. However, strictly speaking, it’s a failure as the specific form of story called a novel (and so have been most of its imitators). It fails as a novel, because it was never written as one; it’s actually a modern version of the storytelling form known as the epic. The interlacing narratives, the breaks into poetry and song, the peculiar diction — all of those things a lot of modern readers skip, to, as they put it, ‘get on with the story’ — those are all characteristics of the epic. The Lord of the Rings has much more in common with the Kalevala and Beowulf than it does with a Dickens novel. So when a critic describes a story as ‘a buddy story,’ you know one measure of the story’s success is going to be how well it meets the criteria of the Buddy Story. The Epic of Gilgamesh is, amongst other things, a buddy story; so is Lethal Weapon. They’re wildly different on the surface, but they’ve got a lot of things in common; they share the same basic pattern.

    Identifying the type of story isn’t necessarily about proving a story isn’t original. Because, as Harold Bloom pointed out, nothing is. Which brings me to plots. It’s been said there’s only two plots; only 20; only 36; only 69. You can come up with your own arbitrary number. But here’s the thing: a plot is a pattern of human behavior. Humans haven’t changed very much at all, and neither have our patterns. It’s not a bad thing to stick to a pattern. We instinctively like them. If something in a story doesn’t ring true, it’s most likely because one of those patterns of human nature has been deviated from. Knowing those basic patterns can help immensely when your story’s broken, and you want to fix it. That’s when you reach for the toolbox of critical theory.


  3. I actually think that mostly the critics are right in their analyses. Their mistake is assuming that most of us care about the technical and/or literary aspects of the film beyond what it takes to make it “good”.

    Brave is an excellent example. Yes, the critics are absolutely right that it is a princess story very similar to what we’ve seen before. Nothing really new unless you want to count that this princess rejects the suitors for a more modernist/feminist view of young womanhood. Which really isn’t new either, just not always explored in this specific type of story. But you know what, who cares? A reviewer I respect highly, Bob Mondello, who does reviews for NPR put it really well (paraphrased, ’cause I heard it a long time ago): Sure, Disney/Pixar really isn’t breaking new storytelling ground, but they tell this type of story because it’s a winner for them and it wins for a reason. We like to hear it and they tell it well. And sure, it doesn’t break any new technological barriers like they so often have, but it’s still the best technology currently used. Go see this movie. You’ll be glad you did.

    Personally, even if Brave wasn’t a new paradigm of storytelling or technology, I do think it broke new ground for Disney. My wife & I were talking just yesterday about how in the vast majority of Disney Princess movies, there is no mother. And if there is a mother figure she’s a wicked stepmother type. And yet here in this movie, not only is there a mother, but a loving, involved mother. The story does a great job exploring mother/daughter relationships. And gets father/daughter pretty well too, I’ll add. Being the father of a Disney Princess infatuated 5 year old. Even if that’s been done before, I like that story. Disney did an amazing job telling it. I loved Brave.


  4. Pingback: On Feathered Wings « Awaiting the Muse

  5. Oh, Bear, you are so wonderful at setting down challenges and kicking us in the writing-pants! I have had no time this weekend, but I am thinking on this, be sure.

    My one question would be, do you have a source with some “cliche” story types like you illustrate with the Buddy story, the Princess story, and the Fish out of Water story? I did find this, which I might use for inspiration:


    Does anyone else have some ideas? I would hate to write the same story as Bear, you know? 🙂

    ~ Effy


  6. i cant find my old journal. when i find it i will post a story. that i can critic. the auther. has no touch with reality.

    id like to post the poem i put on cover of my journal tho. its why i think we write.
    i dont know author iv looked many times. keeps comeing up unknown.

    Stranger stop and look.
    from the dust of ages lift this little book.
    turn the tattered pages.
    read me do not let me die.
    search the fadeing letters finding some were in the broken binding.
    all that once was I.

    that imo is why we write :).
    if i can find my journal. i have an original story. never been written before.
    ill try to compy too challenge:)


  7. And…good critics, and there are some, actually work in tangent with the artist, and strive for deriving deeper themes. The hacks are the ones who toss out cliched themes and paint it as “insight.” Glad you called bullsh*t on that one. We little humans love our stories, our universal themes, and it is the artists who keeps us human. Can’t you just see Ock the Caveman Critic, hanging out the Lascaux caves, saying, “Oh, that bison? Your lines are too stilted. This won’t last.”


  8. I need to write more. Typically, I’ll just compose in an email and then let it sit in draft for a while, and then delete it. Mostly backstories for D&D characters I’ll never play… but with a bit of wrangling, I could probably expand out into an actual short story.

    My last was a coming of age story… Maybe I’ll try that again.

    Thanks for the encouragement BBB 🙂


  9. ” I think writers get a story stuck in their head, and sit down to get it the hell out of there and onto a surface, any surface where they can look at it in peace.”

    A million of this. I’ve often found that the best stuff I’ve written is the stuff that won’t stop bashing itself against the inside of my skull until I write it down. The story keeps telling itself to me over and over and over again until I submit to the demands and write.


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