Friday Fictioneers – Breakfast

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PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

I hated the way he slurped his shake—a bubbling of gastric juices. By some malign alchemy he could transform even the sweet vanilla pods of Madagascar into anger. Every slow suck was a rebuke.

“Pissant little assholes,” he rumbled round the straw. “Ungrateful.”

No need to ask who he meant. It didn’t matter Pop was angry with the whole world.

The rictus of a smile painted on my face, I raised my shake in a toast, “Happy Fourth.”

He squirted ketchup on his fries as if that might drown them, and glowered. “Yeah.”

I sighed. “Pass the freedoms, Pappy.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

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117 The Shape of Stories

Stories have structures, or arcs as authors like to call them. When we think of stories in this way, we can begin to see story-types.

The simplest stories

There are two very simple structures. They’re so basic they don’t really qualify as satisfying stories.

simplest stories

In Rags to Riches, everything gets better. In Riches to Rags, everything gets worse. Though few self-respecting authors would tell such a naïve tale, politicians tell them all the time.

The simplest viable story

Freytag

This is the Freytag triangle. It follows Aristotle’s injunction that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end (the Three-Act structure).

The beginning comprises the exposition and the inciting incident. The exposition phase introduces essential information about the characters and setting, while the inciting incident launches the action.

Tension rises in the middle as the protagonist struggles to achieve something. There is a turning point. And tension falls towards the resolution.

In the ending, the problem is resolved and there is a denouement where all the loose ends are tied up.

There are many ways of structuring a story, but the Freytag triangle is a classic on which a lot of others are built.

The W Diagram

This is essentially a Freytag triangle with a high point where everything appears to be resolved before the rug is pulled out from under the protagonist and a new trial begins.

W Diagram

A complex story like a novel may have several hills and valleys. There may also be subplots with arcs of their own.

 

 

multiple arcs
Hacktext

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories

In a humorous talk, the writer Kurt Vonnegut outlined the shape of stories, based on his rejected Master’s thesis. The diagrams and text from Vonnegut’s talk here are from Mcclure.

Vonnegut Man in a Hole

Vonnegut Boy Meets Girl

Vonnegut Cinderella.jpg

Machine intelligence analysis of story shapes

Researchers from the Universities of Vermont and Adelaide tried to test Vonnegut’s idea using machine analysis of sentiment in 1,327 Western stories. They found the stories grouped into 6 basic types. The diagrams here are from Munson Missions.

six story arcs

For those of you who like to understand method, read on. For those of you who don’t care, skip to the Hero’s Journey. These shapes were generated by analysing the words in the stories and scoring them for the degree of happiness they convey. Words like love and laughter score high, while words like terrorist and death score low. You can check this out yourself at the authors’ Hedonometer site.

Before you get too excited about this, consider the following sentence:

“Trekking through the vale of tears, dark, clammy and terrifying, we were ambushed by the monster and killed it for all of you.”

Almost every word here in unhappy, but the overall sense is one of hope. The meaning of a set of words depends on context and not just the words by themselves.

The shape generated by a machine intelligence, of course, depends on the method used. Compare these two shapes for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This comparison was done by Kirsten Menger-Anderson.

Hamlet plot Hedonometer

Hamlet plot sentiment

The first was generated by the Hedonometer. The second by another machine intelligence routine that rates sentiment (positive or negative). They don’t look much alike.

The Hero’s Journey or Quest

Heros journey linear

The Hero’s Journey is among the most commonly used story templates. It derives from the work of Joseph Campbell, who believed all stories, at root, followed the same archetype. George Lucas used it to structure the first Star Wars movie.  In Act 1 the protagonist receives the call to adventure and is assisted by a mentor to accept the challenge and move into the “special world”.  In Act 2, the protagonist is subjected to a road of trials, before winning the reward and starting back to the everyday world. Act 3 follows the road back where the protagonist delivers the reward.

For those who don’t like straight lines

The quest structure, such as the Hero’s Journey, can be represented by a “there and back” circle.

Heros journey circular

Stories that loop back on themselves are very satisfying. Though, since a circle contains no change, a spiral may be a more appropriate shape. The diagram below was made by John McPhee to illustrate the structure of his Travels in Georgia

McPhee Spiral

And finally

Tears of Boabdil structure 3

This was the structure diagram I constructed while writing my novel The Tears of Boabdil to try to capture the layering.

Are there any major story arc devices I’ve missed out? Let me know.

Friday Fictioneers – Bel Canto

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PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

Beyond the footlights, the audience is an unseen expectant mass. Zeina El Hefny commands the stage, her coloratura notes easily ascending the runs and trills of Handel’s score to hit a high F.  She has made it, all the way from Cairo to the heart of Europe. But how she missed her own civilised bathroom and its bidet!

A house light sparks off a tiara in the Royal box.

A stray thought sparks off Zeina’s mind as she regards the opera-goers. “All these people smear their shit around their arses with bits of paper.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Gone Technical

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PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

That sage who said it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, Robert thought, had never visited an airport. There comes a point where you can’t manage another sushi portion, another trip round duty free. Where it becomes problematic to stop yourself smacking the doting parent beside you who won’t control their children. Patience of Job or what?

He reached the end of his book and wondered about starting the next. Surely, they’d be boarding soon!

At last! The mannequin behind the desk tapped the microphone. Robert gathered his bag.

“We regret the delay to your flight. Plane’s gone technical.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers – Deception

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PHOTO PROMPT © Valerie Barrett

The chandelier resonated with marching boots on the parade ground. The salon walls shook as heavy vehicles rumbled onto the quay.

The author buried his head in his hands. “I can’t create in this din.”

“How about,” the brigadier-general suggested, “we toss a corpse into the sea, pockets stuffed with secret plans for an invasion at Calais?”

“You don’t understand fiction do you?” the author said in withering tones. “The enemy will see through that in a second. We need to misdirect them from the Normandy denouement, sprinkle-in clues so readers are forced to work out the Calais conclusion themselves.”

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. This one is a belated 75th anniversary tribute, of course, to the unsung heroes of D-Day You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Just a Small One

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PHOTO PROMPT © Ceayr

When the glass shattered, everything stood still. Dad’s greenhouse!

“Joel!” Dad sounded anxious.

Joel knew soon the tone would change to anger. “It was just a pebble, Dad. A small one.”

But Dad didn’t get angry. He put his hand to his mouth and gazed at the heavens.

“Just a small one,” he said. “A one gram microsatellite. Accelerated to a quarter the speed of light.”

He whipped out his calculator, punching the keys in panic.

“Jesus Christ! There’s no way of slowing it down. Impact of a small nuclear explosion on collision. How will the aliens understand? What have we done?”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

116. Story analysis apps under review

I’m a geek. I love tech. But I’m not an easy sell. The world is full of artificial intelligence that isn’t as intelligent as you’d think. I previously put the literary analysis website Who do you write like?   to the test and found it could not accurately identify James Joyce as himself.

This month, I put two more literary tools under the spotlight—Fictionary and Autocrit. They’ve reinforced my view that, while algorithms are pretty good at copy-edit-level text analysis, they aren’t yet up to the job of structural analysis. I’m sticking with wetware for that task.

Fictionary

Fictionary is a web-based program that claims to provide a structural assessment of your book. According to its website it:

  • Automates visualisation of your story arc
  • Evaluates your story, scene-by-scene, against 38 story elements
  • Guides you through an edit of plot, character, and scene
  • Offers tips for rewrites

The service costs US$20 a month or $200 a year. I used the 14-day free trial.

Fictionary runs only on Google Chrome or Safari browsers and requires the Word docx format.

In my test, it felt buggy. The upload cut-off the first two chapters of my novel. This happened even on a second attempt. Manual corrections of some lists (such as characters) didn’t take.

The programme provided this visual of the arc for my novel.

Fictionary Star Compass arc

For comparison, this is the story arc Fictionary generated for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Fictionary Christmas Carol arc

Pretty much the same. The story arc is a template, rather than an analysis of the text.

My own schematic of the chapters in my book looks nothing like this template arc. My cumulative diagram (below) is more like a roller coaster. It shows the number of stimulus/response pairs in each chapter (a proxy for dramatic intensity) and whether the protagonist’s emotion is positive or negative (a proxy for advances and setbacks).

star compass cumulative plot

This didn’t give me confidence that the algorithm was smart enough to parse my book. And it isn’t. The part indicated as the inciting incident isn’t the inciting incident and the climax isn’t the climax. You have to feed it with lots of coding. As you do so, the programme offers editing hints. These are all generic rules of thumb, rather than deep analysis of the text.  Examples are:

  • What is the purpose of this scene?
  • What type of scene is this (dialogue, thought, description, action)? Variety is important
  • Anchor the beginning of a new scene so the reader doesn’t get lost
  • Provide a hook for the scene

You have to divide your manuscript into scenes, code each scene, pick out your characters from a list of proper nouns, and provide lots of other information. I wasn’t convinced that this was any advance on doing the analysis myself.

 

Autocrit

AutoCrit analyses your work to identify areas for improvement, including pacing and momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice and repetition. You can also compare your composition to that of popular authors.

This screenshot shows the summary for my book.

Autocrit summary Star Compass

This score of 80.52 is described as being in the 75-85 territory of best sellers, perhaps a little hard to believe since I haven’t finished editing. George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones gets a tally of 79.99. However, Autocrit is measuring something, since a much earlier draft of my novel achieved lower at 71.39.  Another novel, the one I’m most proud of, scored 84.96.

The indicators the program is using to create the scores are those in the bottom diagram: repetition, pacing, dialogue, word choice and “strong writing”. This latter category includes overuse of adverbs, consistency of tense, showing versus telling, clichés, redundancies, and filler words. Which means this isn’t really a structural analysis. It’s a copy editor with a beguiling summary screen.

 

Copy editors

If AI is not yet smart enough to perform a structural edit, it’s invaluable for the more mechanical copy editing process.

I’ve been using ProWritingAid since 2015 and I swear by it. ProWritingAid analyses your text and produces reports on areas such as overused words, writing style, sentence length, grammar and repeated words and phrases.

So, how does ProWritingAid compare with Autocrit?

  • Autocrit ran significantly faster than ProWritingAid. The latter took two-and-a-half minutes to analyse 75,000 words, compared with around 30 seconds for Autocrit.
  • Autocrit was not as effective at finding repeated phrases.
  • Autocrit highlighted overuse of passive voice, whereas ProWritingAid found this to be well within target. On closer examination, Autocrit is using frequency of the verbs to be and to have as proxies for passive voice, and is thus less accurate here.
  • Both programs flagged overuse of “filler” words. Autocrit found the main culprits to be “that”, “very”, “seem” and “really”. The list of overused words made editing easy and allowed me to bump up my style score in Autocrit from “too much” to “average”. But again, ProWritingAId is doing something more complex and my filler score dropped only slightly, from 47.1% to 46.8%. ProWritingAid suggests that no more than 40% of words should be “fillers”. In my defence, Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” speech from Hamlet scores 53.4%.
  • Autocrit gave me a pass for frequency of adverbs (which it measured at 11), whereas ProWritingAid flagged the 12 it found as borderline. Neither program states what an acceptable rate is, though the Hemingway program uses a threshold of under 1% of words.

Autocrit adverb score

  • Both programs okayed my readability, though they produced different values for the Flesch reading ease score (83 in ProWriting Aid and 78 in Autocrit).
  • Neither was very accurate at detecting show-versus-tell issues, which is unsurprising because word or sentence analysis is unlikely to be very sensitive on this problem.

Overall, the two programs have broadly similar features, though Autocrit is much more expensive. You get a year’s subscription to ProWriting Aid for the cost of two months with Autocrit.

Autocrit ProWritingAid comparison

The bottom-line verdict

  • No algorithms are yet sophisticated enough, despite overblown marketing claims, to replace a human editor for structural edits.
  • Copy editing of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word-use can now be automated.
  • Autocrit and ProWritingAId do a pretty good job of copy editing. Auotcrit’s uniqueness is the comparison with published fiction. ProWritingAid offers a more complex analysis and better value for money

Free Alternatives

Some of the features of the copy editing programs are available in free software. Grammarly and After the Deadline will review spelling and grammar. Hemingway will assess readability scores, and detect overuse of adverbs and passive voice.

Friday Fictioneers – Bears

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PHOTO PROMPT © Susan Eames

No. I won’t.

No, I can hear you perfectly well from where I am. You may say I’m up a tree without a paddle. But you can skedaddle. Just how much use do you suppose a paddle is in a tree, eh?

I can see for miles and miles and miles. As many coconuts as I can eat. And no bear’s going to get me. Jagulars maybe. Strorny good droppers, jagulars, as Pooh remarked. But not bears. You, on the other hand, are extremely vulnerable to roving ursines.

So, which of us would you say is crazy?

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories at the link below

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Friday Fictioneers – Gizmo

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PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

Oh, you may say it’ll never catch on. But I fear its terrible appeal. The young folk like it. They spend hours sending messages back and forth to each other.

In my day, we spoke to each other, danced, played. If there were stories to be told, we recited them. Now we are become shallow, relying on this infernal invention while our memory withers.

No, I say writing will corrupt us all. Nothing will be the same again

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Selkie

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PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Jamie’s eyes were fixed on the sea loch. Never on me. The brine- and shellfish-scented wind ruffled his hair into a halo and stirred the water. Out by the headland, a vortex formed.

“Look,” he shouted, pointing, “it’s Nessie, the monster.”

A grey head broke the surface. I knew it for a selkie, because I’d seen the shed sealskin once on the beach. A selkie, here to take a comely lass’s form and carry poor Jamie away under the sea.

Turn to me, just once, I silently willed him. Only once and I’ll save you.

He didn’t. I walked.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here