How to Write a Story: John Dufresne (Full Transcript)

Full transcript of author John Dufresne’s TEDx Talk: How to Write a Story @ TEDxFIU conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here. He is the author of the book “The Lie That Tells a Truth“. 

 

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John Dufresne – Author

Thank you very much.

I want to talk about how to write a story.

And the first commandment in the writing fiction is sit your ass in the chair. Some of us need Velcro Pants.

Thinking about writing is not writing. A story doesn’t exist before the act of writing.

You’re in your chair, but your central character will be at the end of his rope — a desperate man taking desperate measures.

Only trouble is interested. And everything you don’t want to happen to yourself or your family or your friends should happen to characters. You love your hero, but you keep putting obstacles in his way.

Writing a story is taking the path of most resistance. You dip your pen and the ink and you begin at the edge of a cliff.

You sit and try to express what’s inexpressible, and that makes you nervous. You know that every story is a failure. But you also know the writer is the one who is not stalked or even fazed by failure. And that makes you fearless.

You begin not knowing where you’re going to end up. But trusting in your imagination in the writing process to get you there. You write about what you don’t understand. What you don’t know is more important than what you know, because that’s what engages your sense of wonder.

You sit and you insist on meaning but not on answers. The point is not to answer but to question. Not to solve but to seek. Not to preach but to explore. And you also know this: that life is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.

No matter how luminous your prose, how fascinating your central character, if you don’t have a plot, a narrative shape, if your central character isn’t striving to accomplish something meaningful, then the reader will put down your story.

And the plot to every story is this: You have one central character who wants something intensely and goes after it, despite opposition and as a result of a struggle comes to a win or lose.

So you take that definition, and you let the plot do your thinking for you. It’ll lead you quite naturally to considerations of theme, setting, point of view and so on.

So let’s say, you begin. Let’s begin with a married couple, the Bells and with the requisite trouble in mind, you open with the death of their child, and you see if the marriage can survive the agonizing loss.

The Bell’s 20 year old daughter Hope has died. Now you don’t have to use an allegorical first name, and you may decide that doing so is heavy-handed. And if you do, you revise. You’re writing a first draft; nothing is carved in stone.

The Bells are home alone after the funeral, after the burial, after the distressing but obligatory reception for family and friends here at the house.

Alice is sitting on the sofa, slumped in the corner, teacup in one hand, tissues in the other hand. Grady sitting in a ladderback chair, elbows on his knees, staring at his folded hands.

Grady believes if he had been listened to, Hope would still be with them now. And he wants Alice to admit her role in what happened, and you wonder what did happen.

Grady says to Alice…when you write a story, you’ve got two choices: you can show or you can tell the right scene or summary.

Scene is vivid and intimate. Summary is distant and efficient. Scene is where the writer engages the imagination and the emotions of the reader. Everything important in your story should happen in theme and this looming expression of Grady’s resentment is certainly that.

So you begin as close to greatest pronouncement as you can when everything but the action is over. If this is a story about a marriage in trouble, you don’t need years of prosperity and bliss.

But before you can write the scene, you need to look more closely at the stage that you are setting, at the bereaved Bells in their living room. Because when people speak, they also act and you need to know the potential of the room and every detail in that living room will tell you about the people who live there.

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