Keep your eye on the ball: Jerry Cleaver’s fundamentals of writing

“When Jimmy Connors was the height of his career, he was playing in a close match and missed a shot. As he was walking back along the baseline to get set, he was mumbling, scolding himself, about what he did wrong and what he had to concentrate on for the next volley… Well, it was the thing they told him the day he went on the tennis court for his first lesson… “Always keep your eyes on the ball.”” p.59 Immediate Fiction

In the novel I’m working on I’m trying to move a character from the DMZ after a crazy incident involving North Koreans wandering across the DMZ unopposed. (Because you know that never happened.) On scene I was working a MP is puts the hero into a jeep and then a train heading way south. Now at the moment I’m roughing it, just trying to write faster than my doubt can stop me, but already I feel that nagging knowledge that this scene is going to take a lot of work to make it better. And even as fast as I’m forcing myself to write, I can already feel the worry of how am I going to finish this thing?

Better. 
Finished.

These are dangerous words because they’re filled with ambiguity. What exactly is “better” in fiction? It’s kind of like porn I guess, we know it when we see it. The same goes with “finished” which is even more frightening when we consider quotes like this:

 “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” –Truman Capote

Well, before we should crawl under the mollifying blanket of self-pity, in comes Jerry Cleaver, the author of Immediate Fiction purposes that there are answers that for that all elusive better, the ever distant finished, and the stench of shitty writing. And they can be found in the fundamentals.

The Cleaver Fundamentals:

For Cleaver starts off his description of the fundamentals in the same way we have heard it before:

“In its purest form a story is just three elements: conflict, action, resolution.” P.25

Now this isn’t revolutionary. It’s not even remotely different from about 99% of writing books out there. (If you find a book on writing, and it doesn’t mention these three aspects, or even better, denies it, please send the book to a rival author and find a way to suggest that this books is the most influential book on writing ever made.)  Anyways, Cleaver does something wonderful with the old knowledge:  he clarifies what is Conflict, as compared to dramatic Conflict.

You see the problem is that Conflict is poorly defined. What exactly is conflict? Well we could start with a nice synonym like “trouble.” Makes sense, let’s test it out…

Bob loves cookies. Bob’s wife eats the last cookie.

This is trouble. But it isn’t conflict, at least it’s not the kind of conflict that makes me want to sit up from the dining room table and slap people.

And here’s where Immediate Fiction steps away from the common: Cleaver defines dramatic conflict:

Want + Obstacle= Dramatic Conflict.

Want: 

  • Determine/driven
  • Desperate to make things change
  • “Life and death.” If he can live with things as they are, or there’s a choice, this is a false want.
  • Must push to the limit (Ahab. Atticus. Brutus. They didn’t pussyfoot around. They went to the limit.)  

Obstacle

  • Must be as determined/driven as the want
  • What would happen if the character ignored the obstacle, should be seriously harmed, destroyed-emotional wreck, ruined in some way. 

This is nice and basic. This is useful. By using this we can look back at the example involving Bob and his cookie fetish, and say that it isn’t dramatic conflict because it isn’t life and death. Bob could be determined and driven to get more cookies, but that would just involve walking out to his stash of cookies in the glove compartment or at worst, driving down to the grocery store. And so far, there’s no real obstacle.

To make this better, to make this dramatic conflict, we could…

  • Create the situation where the wife has hidden the keys and locked Bob in the house, forbidding cookies until he has lost weight.
  • Maybe something cliche` like a post apocalyptic world where cookies have gone extinct.
  • He has a medical condition where he needs cookies.

Anyways, this does gives some tools to look at whether or not the conflict is dramatic or not. Let’s look at the second part of the fundamentals.

Action:

  • “Activity is not action”  p. 53 
  • Dramatic action equals a direct attack on the obstacle or a defense against it
  • Thinking, planning, wrestling with a decision can be action as well.

I sincerely wish that I had learned “Activity isn’t action,” earlier. I’ve had many stories where a lot time was spent writing and crafting scenes that were of some activity, but not necessarily of action. For example, characters in a diner talking about stuff and trying to expose the idiosyncrasy of a character–the odd way they eat their spaghetti, the way they sniff their food. This has nothing to do with the conflict, and odds are more depths of the character is exposed by their attack or defense on the obstacle than eating spaghetti.

The final part of the fundamentals is of course the resolution (which I think Cleaver makes pretty clear.)

Resolution

  • The character wins or loses. (This is related to the conflict of the beginning.) 
  • “When you’re having trouble ending a story, it’s because you don’t have a real beginning, a true conflict. The secret to endings is: the end is in the beginning.” P.26

That’s pretty clear.

Something I’m trying to remember as I grow as writer and I’m stuck, or I feel that I can’t finish the story is simply to keep my eye on the ball.

The Deliberate Practice: 

  1. Take a scene from a story that you really like and look for the Conflict (want + obstacle), action, and resolution.
  2. Consider the fundamentals, choose one of the following situations, and write for thirty minutes.
    • A high school girl working up the courage to ask out a guy
    • Someone crashes into your car on the highway. They’re your favorite celebrity. (Shouldn’t be a struggle, right.)
    • A homeless man sees a man on the street drop his wallet.
  3. Look at the latest draft of something you’re writing that just isn’t working. Look at what you wrote and highlight the sentences that fulfill the fundamentals. (Can’t find it? Congratulations then you know what the problem is.)
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