• Show Your Characters Confronting Brick Walls

    by Charles Euchner on December 20, 2012

    An excerpt from the recently updated edition of The Big Book of Writing, available as a comprehensive guide to writing (click right) or in sections (click images below).

    In 2008, a computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University named Randy Pausch attracted national acclaim with his “last lecture.” Dying of pancreatic cancer, Pausch spoke with joy about life and learning, family and friends. As his journey ended, he celebrated life.

    Pausch talked about “brick walls,” the barriers that we all face in our everyday lives. Those brick walls could be trivial (a traffic jam) or profound (a cancer diagnosis). Rather than lamenting them, Pausch called them essential parts of our growth and development:

    Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people.

    What happens to your characters when they hit brick walls? How do they deal with barriers? Do they get angry or accept facts? Do they embrace responsibility or cast blame? Rational calculation or creativity? Team spirit or scapegoating? Do they hit the wall again and again, without changing their approach? Do they give up, admitting defeat—or try something new? Do they devise a strategy to climb over the wall? Do they seek help from others?

    By facing a series of crises—brick walls—heroes and other characters stretch themselves to accomplish extraordinary feats.

    All of literature’s great characters—Odysseus and Oedipus, Hamlet and Macbeth, Don Juan and Tom Jones, Jane Eyre and Carrie Meeber, Santiago and Tomas, Oblomov and Ivan Denisovich, Rabbit Angstrom and Holden Caulfield, to name a handful—battle both external and internal foes to realize their potentials. Each faces daunting problems with limited powers.

    “We only think when we are confronted with a problem,” John Dewey reminds us. That’s the story.

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    Asking Questions

    December 12, 2012

    An excerpt from the recently updated edition of The Big Book of Writing, available as a comprehensive guide to writing (click right) or in sections (click images below).
    We can ask two kinds of questions, This-or-That questions and W questions.
    This-or-That questions offer specific options. For example: Who was the better writer, Hemingway or Fitzgerald? W questions [...]

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    Make Even Analysis Suspenseful

    November 20, 2012

    An excerpt from the recently updated edition of The Big Book of Writing, available as a comprehensive guide to writing (click right) or in sections (click images below).
    If you can turn an analysis into a suspense story, you’ll own the reader. And you’ll be able to offer a balanced and powerful critique.
    When you pose a [...]

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    Edit By Reading Aloud, Forward and Backwards

    November 7, 2012

    An excerpt from the recently updated edition of The Big Book of Writing, available as a comprehensive guide to writing (click right) or in sections (click images below).
    Until modern times, most people experienced great literature—or even news reports—by listening to others read. This oral tradition, in fact, produced the greatest works of literature. Storytellers would [...]

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    Bill Gates on College: What’s the Answer?

    November 1, 2012

    In his blog The Gates Notes, Microsoft founder Bill Gates reviews Academically Adrift, the important new study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.
    Arum and Roksa gathered data from  2,000 students in their first two years of college. Gates notes:
    The dismal results presented in Academically Adrift are based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test in [...]

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    Writing Is a Code, As Simple as 1-2-3

    November 1, 2012

    “Writing,” Margaret Atwood says, “is a code.”
    I agree. Like other skills — carpentry and plumbing, politics and the law, acting and music — writing requires understanding the inner logic that most people don’t see. And it requires mastering some simple “tricks of the trade” to apply that inner logic.
    So what’s the secret writing code? And [...]

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    Two Uses of Twos

    October 27, 2012

    An excerpt from the recently updated edition of The Big Book of Writing, available as a comprehensive guide to writing (click right) or in sections (click images below).
    When Noah filled the ark with pairs of animals, he had a specific purpose: Allow the reproduction of the species. Writers use pairs for two different reasons—to show [...]

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