Tag Archives: creative writing

Orca Blog for May 2022: Using Movies as a Guide to Storytelling

Congratulations to Catherine Gammon, who receives a one-year PDF subscription to Orca for being the first person to correctly identify the movie in the accompanying image. It is “Touch of Evil,” (1958) with Orson Welles and Charlton Heston.

There are many aspects of the movie CODA that made it the Academy Awards Best Picture winner for 2021, and I could go on for a while listing them. But one stands out as a great example of how to tell a story.

About halfway through I started to notice that the movie had not paused its forward momentum to offer background information on the characters or their situation. What? But a movie always stops somewhere to explain things. It’s one reason so many beginning writers get the idea that they need to explain everything in their short stories.

I’ve long been an advocate of using movies to foster better storytelling. In fact one of my favorite books on writing is actually a book on screenwriting, Story by Robert McKee. Good screenwriting technique is very similar to good storytelling technique, imho. Both involve a forward moving plot in which character motivation is revealed through subtext. This keeps viewers/readers engaged while simultaneously challenging them to discover motivation and meaning for themselves.

But while there are many such good practices writers can learn from the movies, there are also some bad ones. A lot of Hollywood movies are bad—just bad, absolutely atrocious examples of storytelling, relying on CGI, chase scenes, and other cliched tropes, terrified of challenging viewers to think, preferring to remake other bad movies. Even many decent movies begin with these tropes in an effort to lure in viewers. Apparently producers and directors believe that the majority of American moviegoers are too stupid to want anything more than mind-numbing visual entertainment. (That certainly seems to be where the money is.) And I’m not even talking about the parade of cartoons or cartoonish CGI flicks that are clearly designed for 12-year-old boys. Typical Hollywood opening #1: A group of people are gathered at someone’s memorial as a eulogy begins. Flashback to how we got there. (Alias: Unearned appeal to sentimentality.) Typical Hollywood opening #2: Someone is chasing someone else, either on foot or in a car, or both. (This one actually has a name, “Coming in Hot.” What is at stake? Who the hell knows? But it’s action, dammit, and audiences are mesmerized by action, even if there is no reason for it.) Consider a movie like No Time to Die, the latest James Bond flick. Once you get into it, it’s a deep exploration of a man facing betrayal and irrelevance. But how did it start? With an immediate series of explosions, car chases, and lots and lots of gunplay (which by the way is filled with its own sub tropes, such as the why can’t these highly trained killers ever hit their target?).

It’s important for writers to recognize movies that are going to help them write better as opposed to those that won’t. One way is to look for those tropes and understand when they have become cliched, or are being used inventively. Here’s a couple of websites that list some often hilarious tropes that Hollywood screenwriters get away with: 35 Movie Tropes and How to Avoid Them in Screenwriting (Industrial Scripts), and The Most Common Hollywood Movie Cliches (The National News), and one that discusses the difference between useful tropes and bad ones: Movie Tropes: Everything You Need to Know (Nashville Film Institute).

– JP

Orca Blog for April 2022 – Fiction is NOT Real Life

Our new issue is published! See the Current Issue page for details and excerpts.

We receive many stories in which the writer apparently believes that presenting the normalcy of daily life constitutes good fiction: people going through daily routines, doing their jobs, spending time with family, driving around, grocery shopping… Most emerging writers understand fiction as a representation of real life. In their writing they try to convey the lives of their characters through the events and details of the life they are familiar with. But let’s face it, most of us lead terribly boring lives. Why would anyone want to read about them?

It’s time to redefine what fiction is.

Fiction is not real life. Fiction is the illusion of real life. The difference is that it dwells in the critical moments that create meaning for people.

If you look at fiction that way, then good fiction must focus on the points of potential change in characters’ lives—points of intrigue and conflict. Doing this will immediately increase the tension and momentum of a short story. Anyone with even a basic creative writing education will recognize that I’m not saying anything new here. Great writers have been exhorting this for centuries. So how is it that so many beginning writers weigh their stories down with page after page of boring routine?

The answer, I think, is twofold. First, the American educational system is obsessed with teaching children to not be creative. It’s not just approaches like standardized testing, it’s an emphasis on conformity and accountability, which translates into the societal requirement that we at all times explain ourselves. Children are taught to write essays, works that adhere to a specific form and which rely on factual evidence to support a thesis. I remember those days, coming back from summer vacation, and our first assignment was to write an essay on how we spent those days. No teacher ever instructed me to use my imagination and write a short story about that time. I’ll wager no teacher has ever instructed a student to do that. We carry those early lessons with us into adulthood, but we have to let go of them when we write creatively. The result is fiction that reads like those grade school essays—relying on explanation instead of subtext. It’s fiction that refuses to explore character and avoids taking chances.

Second, many writers have misinterpreted the creative writing maxim about establishing their characters’ “known world.” That doesn’t mean including details of their morning bathroom routine (and yeah, I’ve seen that). I can often tell when a writer is layering mundane detail in an effort to make their characters seem like regular, identifiable people. But this also postpones the story’s tension, and that price is too great when lit journal readers are looking for the story’s hook. It also says the writer does not trust the story to increase tension as it develops. It says the writer has one idea in mind, and that’s the climax of the story, and if they reveal that right away the story will be over in a couple of pages. And so they keep the tension low, expecting the reader will slog through until the “surprise” of the climax. From an editor’s standpoint I can tell you that never works. Start your tension high and trust yourself that you can make it go even higher. Give yourself that challenge and you may be surprised at what you’re able to create—a story not just with higher tension, but also with far greater character depth because the stakes for the character have increased.

And never forget, fiction is also entertainment, no matter how serious its subject. You have to get people to want to read it. What is it about presenting a scene in which characters butter their toast and have a cup of coffee, and then head off to work that makes some writers think it is interesting to other people? Live stream my morning routine to the world and 90% of the audience will move on to something else within thirty seconds—most of the rest will be asleep. (Yes, there’s that one percent who will be engrossed. I feel sorry for them.)

Break out of writing about the normal world. People read fiction to escape their daily reality. Focus on the abnormal, the points of tension and change, and your fiction will stand out.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Jo-B from Pixabay

Orca Blog for November 2021 – Breaking the Rules

Editors and teachers have a standard toolkit when advising writers what not to do in their stories. We Orcans do as well when we offer feedback for submitters—things like lots of exposition, dropping into backstory, etc. But in looking at the stories we’ve chosen for our new issue we were struck by what seemed to be the same errors we often advise writers not to make. For example, we have a story in this issue that begins with several pages of exposition before it gets to any interaction between the protagonist and another character, and even then it’s only in passing. It’s another few pages before there is a true conversation. (And no, we are not going to tell you which one it is; you’ll just have to read the issue.)

Did we goof? Did we somehow miss all that exposition? Or are we simply talking out of both sides of our mouths when we prepare feedback?

None of the above.

Sometimes stories break the rules and get away with it. Looking at the selections for issue 8, there are several that, at a casual glance, appear to do exactly what we tell writers not to in our critiques. Yet they transcend those apparent flaws, turning a good story into a great story. How? The short answer is they create a world in which the reader is immersed. “Good” stories may be technically structured according to literary convention, but the problem is that their elements (characters, theme, plot, etc.) are often easily discerned and separate from each other, as though the writer has prepared a mental checklist of requirements and is making sure to cover them: setting, background, stakes, etc. When you’re reading you still think of them as writing, which makes the story feel somewhat contrived. A reader can never shake the feeling that someone wrote it—the author is always present, delivering packets of information. The “great” stories blend the elements into a single, complete experience, allowing the reader to immerse as though into another world. The author vanishes; it’s as though she never existed and the story simply took place.*

That blending is done by creating connections among the various aspects of the story, as well as to the reader’s perception. Every sentence of a great story dives deep into character, connecting what is written to an aspect of character desire or motivation. The sentences are thoughtful, creating the world of the story through precise sensory detail. These are not descriptions of what happens to be visible in this world, which in lesser works are presented as though seen by a stranger. Good description (what the well-known critic James Wood calls “telling detail”) is focused on what matters to the story’s characters. In a great story the characters are, to a certain extent, avatars for the reader. They are the means through which the reader participates in the story. So by connecting every aspect of the story to the character, the writer makes a connection with readers, allowing them to become part of the story rather than passive listeners.

That, to us, is the difference. Reading these stories is a lot like watching a movie—it just happens, it doesn’t feel like reading. There is a wholeness to a great story—a sense that the world of the story is fully developed, that it is populated by people who are more than just characters, but are actual people you might meet. The illusion of reality is immersive and captivating.


* There is an analogy to this in the world of documentaries that some of you may have noticed. For decades the standard style for documentaries was to have voiceover narration, leading the viewer through the events of the story and often to a preconceived conclusion. In recent years, however, many documentaries have been made without a narrator. Instead, the historical or investigative information is presented through the perspectives of a variety of people who either participated in the events, or are experts on the subject. This allows viewers to form their own opinions about what happened, just as writers try to get them to do in fiction.


Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Orca Blog for October 2021 – The Risks a Writer Must Take

At Orca, as at many other journals, we get a lot of stories about dysfunctional families / relationships, friends and relatives dying in car crashes or from cancer, Alzheimer’s…etc.

I suppose this is nothing new. I imagine that in the early days of literary journals editors received hundreds of parchments in which friends and relatives were killed in oxcart crashes, or died from consumption[1]. It’s difficult for lit journal readers and editors who handle dozens of submissions every week, to summon the curiosity to read too many of these stories through to the end. It’s not that we mean to be disrespectful. But it’s a normal human reaction, when faced with the same idea over and over to take that idea less seriously as time goes on.

It could be an issue of curiosity and risk.

Without the curiosity that leads to creativity writers tend to produce stories that merely attempt to validate the worlds and lifestyles in which they live, whether they intend to or not. We see this in everything from beginning writer submissions to the fictions that appear each year in Best American Short Stories. They are, in one sense, comfortable stories—deep but not too challenging, reaffirming what the writer and their readers already believe. Obviously many readers prefer that. But in our experience we sometimes find those stories cliquish and divisive, offering settings and characters from circumstances to which most people will never be privy. The “best” of these stories exemplify a style of writing, one still taught in most MFA programs, that stresses a particular aesthetic—the one we see every year in BASS—lush language and conflicted characters, but also steeped in an intellectual arrogance that sends a subtle message of “you will never be like us.”

For myself and the Orca staff, the key to powerful fiction is the exploration of possibilities, however unusual or extraordinary they might seem. And that’s where the curiosity and risk comes in. It helps if, like me, you were perpetually on the outside while growing up—never part of an “in” group in school. You were always imagining how things might have been different, and always wondering about the why of things—certainly two traits that incurred the risk of further alienation. But that was during one’s formative years. As a mature, adult writer you get to embrace that difference. Ted Lasso had something to say about this, by the way.

That kind of writing is more than just entertainment and self-validation. It has the potential to lead to deeper connections among ideas, and that, in turn, is the process by which understanding and empathy are created. Those stories are the ones that stay with a reader long after the ending.

Here are a few strategies that may help foster the imagination:

  • In fiction every major character should have goals and desires, and therefore barriers to the achievement of those goals. But it’s much more than just having an antagonist or a difficult situation. In his book on screen writing, Robert McKee talks about creating a series of barriers, each one more imposing than the last, and each one created in part by the solution to the previous barrier. These raise the story’s tension as it approaches the climax. If you push yourself to create a new barrier each time one is overcome, chances are you will soon find that the difficulties facing your characters are far more imaginative than you originally planned. That’s a good thing, because the greater the difficulties, the better readers are able to see what your characters are really made of.[2]
  • A particular strategy you might try comes from the world of philosophy. Although some philosophers dismiss the idea of a reductio ad absurdum argument, it can be very useful for fiction writers. This is an approach that tries to ridicule an argument by taking it to an extreme conclusion. For example, I was once thinking about the effect bad parents had on the intellectual growth of their children. The ridiculous extension of that thought was that children should be matched with parents of a similar intellectual capacity, even if it meant taking kids out of their homes and placing them with other families who were better matched[3]. In real life this is Draconian. But in the world of fiction it’s one hell of an idea. Just imagine the emotional turmoil such a process would cause when the time came to send a child away forever. And yes, the story was picked up almost immediately.
  • Test the law of opposites. When your story approaches a turning point, it’s normal to let the plot adhere to a conventional resolution. But suppose your character chooses to do the opposite of what you planned (and what the reader probably expects)? This may not be supported by what’s come before, but who says you can’t revise what’s come before? 
  • Play “what if” whenever possible. For every plot development, consider alternatives to the path you originally had in mind. What might happen instead? Never assume that something will happen just because it usually does. If readers can predict where your plot is going, they are far less likely to be engaged in the story.

The important thing is not to settle for the conventional, traditional, predictable. Don’t be afraid of exploring a tangent. In fiction all things are possible. As a writer you just need to have the confidence that you can make those possibilities believable. In taking that kind of risk, you may transform your fiction from the kind that editors pass over to something that piques their interest.

– Joe Ponepinto



[1] What people used to call cancer

[2] From Kurt Vonnegut’s book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, in which he listed eight rules for writing a short story.

[3]This is what I mean by thinking about things the other kids never did. Any more questions about why I wasn’t popular in high school?

The End May Only Be the Beginning: Infusing New Life Into Your Fiction

A special mid-month blog by Senior Editor Joe Ponepinto, posted on publishing industry guru Jane Friedman’s site. Joe discusses a writing technique he uses to keep fiction from becoming predictable and uninspired. Big thanks to Jane for sharing this.



Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Orca Blog for September: To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story

Orca’s September blog is hosted by Jane Friedman. It talks about taking the writer out of the story—one of the techniques that makes a story truly literary. It also discusses the characteristics of a story that speak to an editor’s subconscious aesthetic. Pretty important for writers who want to be published in lit journals (especially ours).

If you’re not familiar with Jane Friedman, you should be. A former editor at Virginia Quarterly Review and publisher of Writer’s Digest, she’s gone on to become one of the most knowledgeable and influential publishing experts in the business. Her email newsletter, website, and books provide writing and publishing advice helpful to writers from beginners to established pros. Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). You can subscribe to Jane’s newsletter on her site…after you read the blog, of course.

Big thanks to Jane for sharing the blog with a wider audience.

Here’s the link: https://www.janefriedman.com/to-avoid-rejection-take-the-writer-out-of-the-story/


Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

Orca Blog for June: Asking for Feedback, a Micro Guide

Have you ever shared a draft with friends and colleagues to see what they think and been disappointed with the feedback you received? Conversely, have you ever read a friend’s manuscript and been unsure of how to give them actionable critiques?

Feedback can be uncomfortable on both sides of the fence: we feel put on the spot, we aren’t sure how to articulate how we felt, or we aren’t even sure whether what we have managed to articulate is useful! I’d like to share a couple strategies to reduce this stress and optimize your results.

Gather volunteers

Hey! I was hoping you could read the attached story and let me know what you thought! Thanks so much! 🙂

Don’t send this email unless you already have an ongoing critical relationship with the recipient; surprises are for your stories. An email like this out of the blue can cause many people to panic. What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t give the kind of response they’re looking for? Your email may get a quick “Great job, this was a fun read!” or it may get relegated to the deep recesses of your friend’s unread pile. Instead, ask your friends and colleagues if they’d be willing and interested in reading and critiquing your work in advance of sending them your latest draft. This way they are prepared and have a chance to bow out gracefully if they haven’t the time or inclination.

Ask specific questions

Are you wondering whether the dialogue works? Whether the twist on page 20 is too out of the blue? Ask! It’s much easier for someone to give you useful feedback when it’s specific. Sending your story along with 1-3 specific questions you’re trying to answer will help your reader target their commentary in a way that they and you both feel is useful. “Did you like it??” doesn’t count —it may be what you want to know, but it’s not very useful as you head into your next draft.

A handful of our favorite questions:

  • What is your favorite part of the story? This is fun to talk about and usually gets people primed to give you honest responses. Readers will be more comfortable if they can give you some positive words off the bat.
  • What do you feel is missing or unclear? Were there parts you felt like skipping over? Is there anything you wished there were more of? These are good for identifying deficiencies—maybe a character or plot point needs further development. The implied reverse questions are also a fair ask.
  • Do the climax and resolution make sense? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in getting to the climax of a story that we forget that our readers have to buy into the plot that gets them there.
  • Is the main character sympathetic? Stories often fail because readers can’t identify with or sympathize with the main character. Asking them to consider this aspect can be very helpful.
  • Is the dialogue in this scene realistic? Sometimes we tend to make dialogue too explanatory in an effort to make things clear. But dialogue needs to sound natural, like people actually talking.

– Renee Jackson

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

Orca Blog for May: The Problem with “I”

Lately I’ve been rejecting a lot of fiction submissions written in the first-person point of view. So many that I’ve begun to ask why—what is it about these stories that’s turning me off?*

First-person has long been an excellent choice for conveying a character’s individual view of the world. Examples like James Joyce’s “Araby,” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” are classics that quickly come to mind. More recently some of George Saunders’s stories as well.

When done well, first person offers a glimpse into a character’s inner psyche. But remember that it’s also often referred to as the unreliable narrator; that psyche is tempered by motivations and long-buried embarrassments, which are suppressed in the name of ego, the image a character presents to the rest of the world. That person’s past is usually revealed through the story’s subtext, the signs and symbols within action and dialogue that serve as illumination of the character’s soul, and place it in relation to the reality that surrounds it.

That conflict between characters’ inner and outer worlds—how they relate to other people and experience growth—seems to be missing in some of what comes in through our submission portal. The result, especially when presented in first-person, are stories that exhibit a deliberate ignorance of the world. They are self-indulgent, sometimes self-aggrandizing. And for sure, they lack subtext.

First-person is, on its surface, the easiest POV to write. Just adopt a persona and a situation, and off you go. Maybe that’s why we get so many. No need to worry about other characters too much, since the story is about this one person. I think that’s the problem, though. One of the attractions of stories written in third-person POV is their world building. The characters are part of a world, not isolated from it. They must react to its demands, relate to other characters—in short, participate. So many of the first-person stories we get seem to want to escape from that. They seem narrow, limited, not fully formed.

Some of this seems to be a function of our times. In a culture in which every person is encouraged to express his or her inherent “specialness,” it’s easy for writers, especially younger ones, to misinterpret that to mean to the exclusion of others.

One writer who I admire, Rachel Cusk, has shown how the opposite of self-indulgence can make first-person POV truly work. In her Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) she has created a first-person narrator who remains primarily in the background, letting other characters tell their stories, and barely even reacting to them. It’s incredibly refreshing to read these novels, in which Faye (the POV character) acknowledges the world and perhaps more importantly, her place in it.

It seems that such engagement with the world is what’s needed now, both in fiction and reality. You have to live in the world. So do your characters. Give them the opportunity to do that and maybe your first-person story will find its way into our pages.

– Joe Ponepinto

*Note: I am aware that writing a blog about the shortcomings of the first-person POV in first-person POV is something of a literary oxymoron. But it seems unavoidable, since the nature of a blog is opinion. So bear with me.

Photo credit: shannonkringen on Visualhunt.com CC BY-SA

Orca Blog for July: Watching a Movie Like a Writer

Quote of the Week: Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story

As much as I try to educate writers about writing through writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this painfully true in the last week when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!

This seems to be how most people live now; they understand and think through image, not words or concepts. Even some writers understand writing better through images. And I believe most writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the storytelling craft.

Visual media has a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. (And keep in mind that a primary goal of writing is to create an image in the mind of a reader.) It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into images. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer. There’s no need to parse meaning to create images—that part is done for you, and allows for immediate identification with the characters in the story.

Writers need to know both ways of communicating. Which is why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.

The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Not surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.

McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through a series of inciting incidents and turning points, and how that tension is heightened by creating gaps between the viewer’s (reader’s) expectation and the actual results of actions.

Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the first inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much poor writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)

Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.

– JP