Tag Archives: writing fiction

The Quotable Dennis Bock

dennisbockCanadian author Dennis Bock has penned many highly acclaimed books, including The Ash Gardens. His most recent work, Going Home Again, was short-listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He also teaches creative writing.

As former or current students in the Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, many of us in the 11th Floor Writers writing circle have taken a course or two with Dennis, who teaches, among other courses, “Writing the Literary Novel: Master Class”.

When it comes to offering advice to his students, Dennis doesn’t pull punches. He’s honest and direct, and often says things that linger in our thoughts long after class has ended. As a token of our thanks to Dennis, we’ve compiled a list of our favourites to share.

On storytelling

“I’m a huge fan of something actually happening. Make your character do something.”
“Always dramatize.”
“Always create scenes.”
“Mention all the people in the room at the outset of a scene.”
“Don’t be obscure –mysterious or cagey is not attractive.”
“Never rely on abstractions.”
“Take the reader out of the story sometimes – don’t keep them stuck in the present.”
“Be wary of putting too many plot threads.” (e.g.,“I’m confused,” said a character in one of our stories.
“So am I,” replied Dennis.)

On character

“Send your character up a tree and have him figure out how to get down. This makes your story much more interesting.”
“Don’t be afraid to take risks with your characters.”

On the narrator

“The narrator’s purpose is to give the reader a sense of what will happen, a sense there is a story, and a sense of urgency.”
“The narrator recounts something when time has passed and can comment and add wisdom on the subject.” (Similarly, when introducing a new character).
“The narrator knows the point of the book and should drop this in early on.”
“Find the narrator’s voice to keep the story focused.”
“Establish that the narrator is dead immediately.” (Only when your narrator is dead, of course!)

On dialogue

“Dialogue should be made up of only how the speaker thinks and talks. No information dumping and no stage direction. ” (i.e. “It’s 4:30,” he said.)
“Don’t use dialogue to advance the story.”
“Avoid non-words like ‘huh’ in dialogue.”

On the reader

“A reader will like a fighter, not a sufferer.”
“You have to earn the reader’s confidence.”

On writing

“Keep on writing.”


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How to Hook Your Reader

Every scene, every plot, every novel that is to be successful follows an arc of some kind.  A work of fiction typically unfolds with scene setting exposition, followed by a rising action, a climax, and brief falling action to wrap up the plot.  Although not all successful pieces of literature have followed this formula, it is one that has proven potent for as long as stories have been told.  Each scene of your work should follow a similar pattern, echoing the rising and falling actions of the larger body.  Below is a summary of six cyclical points necessary to intensify your plot, engage your reader, and hold their attention through each scene and chapter.

The Set Up

  1. Goal––Begin with a specific/definable goal your POV character wants.
  2. Obstacles ––Set up obstacles or conflict your character must face before reaching their goal.
  3. Disaster––Don’t let them have their goal right away.  Let the reader see them struggle.

The Consequences

     4. Reaction––Show your characters emotions and actions as a result of the Disaster.

     5. Dilemma––Force your character to wrestle with his next move.  There will be no good options to choose from.  Let them deliberate.

     6. Decision––The decision should involve risk and a slim chance for success.  This decision leads into the character’s next goal, conflict, disaster, and so on.


These six steps produce the foundation for realistic and psychologically viable responses from your character.  When one fails, one doesn’t just jump on the next bus.  We stew, we agonize, and then we plot anew.  These struggles and successive approximations toward the characters goals are captivating because they are human; they inspire empathy and hope within the reader.  For optimal results use these steps in a cyclical fashion, increasing the risk and dilemma as you rise to meet the climax of the broader arc of your main plot.

M. B. Russell

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We’re all different

It fascinates me how the writing each person brings to our group is so different from everyone else’s. We share, obviously, a common language, and, from our background in University of Toronto writing classes, most of us have access to a common body of writing technique – the ‘craft’. Yet our work is so varied. I also observe that each of us is driven to write. We’re not searching for inspiration; we each already have a story, fiction or ‘true’, that we want to tell. The problem sometimes, as Andrew said last month, is getting down to it. 

As an aside, I wonder about my colleagues’ writing spaces. The Guardian newspaper in the UK once ran a series of little vignettes in which established authors shared a photo and some notes on where they wrote. I used to pore over those photos, looking for clues to their genius, ideas that I could copy. They mostly had a study or office, with objects that grounded them and perhaps gave a cue to their writing muscle that when they sat down there it was time to start writing. Although, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Hilary Mantel writes at least some of her work in the shower. Presumably not on a laptop. 

Personally, most of the material for my novel so far was written on the subway. Pieces of it came to me while I was walking, often up to the subway on my way to work, and I’d have to scribble the words down as soon as I could. Makes me wonder about Jane Austen, writing at the table in the family’s drawing room. Did her family just ignore her, like my fellow commuters ignored me? Who needs a room of their own? 

I’m trying to be more disciplined now as I map these pieces into a structure, and fill it all in. It’s instructive here to read how established writers work, what their method or style of writing is. Again, there are so many variations. I was thrilled when a writing instructor at U of T said one author wrote their scenes on index cards then shuffled and assembled them – kind of what I’ve been doing…  And apparently Margaret Atwood plays with the order of her chapters by printing them out and shifting the piles around. But some writers have everything plotted out before they start filling in. It seems that J.K. Rowling spent five years planning the Harry Potter books. That was after the inspiration just came to her – on a train journey. 

What is surprising is how many well-known authors write longhand, at least for their first draft. Even with a specific type of pen, like Amitav Ghosh, or in particular makes of notebook, like Michael Ondaatje. 

Someday I’ll ask my group where and how they write. And when. In our time together we’re usually too busy reviewing and discussing each other’s stories. After all, that’s what it’s all about.

Theo Kempe

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