Charles Daly


Category: Articles (page 4 of 7)

Story vs. Plot

E.M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel (put it on your list, it’s like a pocket MFA) outlines the difference between story and plot:

Story can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story.’

‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story.’ But ‘’the king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.


D-Day is a story. Saving Private Ryan is a plot (right there in the title.)

Ludacris’ lyric ‘so much money!’ is a story. Gucci Mane’s ‘So much money that I valet park my bicycle’ is a plot.

‘Don’t eat before you go swimming’ is a story. ‘Don’t  eat before you go swimming or you’ll get a cramp and drown’ is a plot. (It’s also not true.)

‘We’re going to build a wall between the United States and Mexico,’ is a rather ugly story. ‘…and Mexico is going to pay for it’ is a plot with a few holes.

I prefer JFK’s story ‘we shall go to the moon,’ and the plot ‘…not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.’

Be Like Elon: Learning From Outliers

Something I talk about a lot when I’m writing about not writing, are outliers. Maybe it’s a lingering case of ‘Hemingway did it…’ syndrome or I think I’ll find the right excuses for myself in the lives of my heroes.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to learn from extraordinary cases. I can’t always say what that difference is, but I know I don’t always learn the right way from the titans in my world.

A review of Elon Musk’s biography illustrates the right way to learn from an outlier among outliers. The article urges to us to borrow principles from Musk’s life, rather than looking for analogies to our own. They use the example of Musk’s tough upbringing. The lesson there isn’t to seek out a harsh new family, or think that you have some similar advantage because of your own sad childhood, but rather to study the way he handled adversity.  Elon sought out stress and misery (his words) at a young age so he could get comfortable experiencing these emotions. This paid dividends down the road. 

‘Embrace discomfort’ is a mature lesson. ‘Elon Musk hated school just like me’ misses the point. 

Struggling with Debt? Make ‘Supersize Me’

Morgan Spurlock is known for doing things nobody in their right mind would do, all in the name of non-fiction storytelling. In Supersize Me he lived off McDonalds for a month straight. For the series Thirty Days, he went to jail. Voluntarily.

But he took his biggest and least relatable risk off camera. After going into debt, to the tune of a quarter million dollars, trying to keep his production company afloat, he did what any sensible person would do: He made a movie.

Spurlock told the story on a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss show.

“Before we made Supersize Me…I was evicted from my apartment. I was sleeping in a hammock in my office. Every morning I would go to the New York Sports Club around the corner to shower and workout–I was in great shape because I didn’t have a choice. Back in the office, I still had people coming to work, so to make sure they could pay their rent and pay their bills, I took out credit cards. So I was basically paying their rent with credit cards, I was paying their bills with credit cards, I was paying credit cards with credit cards. I amassed like a quarter million dollars worth of credit card debt in about a year.

But I still had an office, I still had a business, I was still betting on us. When our first series got green-lit I had paid off about fifty thousand of that debt. When the show got canceled I had another fifty thousand in the bank. I could either pour that fifty thousand dollars into that bottomless pit of debt or we could make a movie… That film was Supersize Me and it changed everything.” 

Is this sensible advice for anyone? Absolutely not. Does hindsight change anything? After all, he’d probably still be in debt if he hadn’t taken that risk.

If you forget about the stakes involved, the emotional cache of debt in this country, and the dollar amounts in question, this becomes a story of self-belief.  This is what trying just one more time actually looks like. Here is a guy who burned his ships.  Spurlock calls it ‘betting on yourself.’

Clowns to the Left of me, Jokers to my Right

I’m still waiting on the Occupy movement’s  great American novel. We haven’t seen one come out of the Tea Party either, or Black Lives Matter, or the birthers, 9/11 truthers, or #freethenipples.

What if one of the requisite skills for art-making is the ability to tune-out a whole lot of background noise that seems urgent and important?

How is the peer pressure to give a damn about current events any different from all the other distractions?

When will you have enough faith in your artistic work to know it will outlast the latest hashtag call to outrage?

Picasso’s Bull and the MacBook Air

For a lesson in abstraction, check out Picasso’s lithograph series ‘the Bull.’ These eleven prints depict the entire progression from the busy detail of realism to the elegant bareness of abstraction. ‘The Bull’ has served as inspiration to the design team at Apple, whose team is required to study the series to learn the power of simplicity. 


‘To arrive at abstraction, it is always necessary to begin with concrete reality … You must always start with something. Afterward, you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.’ 

Pablo Picasso


Look at the second and third bulls after starting from a realistic figure, Picasso exaggerates the animal’s features and actually adds detail and complexity. This may seem to run counter to the end goal of minimalism, but he’s looking for what makes a bull a bull. That way he knows what details he must keep. The second and third drawings show us the bull of myth.

Writers often fall into the trap of trying to start with minimalism. They pen tight first drafts with nice clean sentences and minimal descriptions only to find that they don’t have much to work with when it’s time to cut. ’The Bull’ contains another lesson, the value of the all-inclusive rough draft.

‘A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case, a picture is a sum of destructions.’

–Pablo Picasso


Once you have depicted the ‘idea of the object,’ you can start to cut away everything that isn’t that idea. By the time Picasso arrives at his final bull, we still know what we’re looking at. The series shows us the choices he makes to get to the simplest figure that still is obviously a bull.

This is the principal driving Apple’s pursuit of a sleeker monitor and simpler mouse.

Once the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky found the theme to the screenplay he was working on, he would write it on a strip of paper taped to his typewriter so that nothing that didn’t serve that theme would come out of the machine.


The meta-lesson of ‘The Bull’ is that abstraction is hard.

A too-easy criticism of modern art is, ‘that looks like something my kid could draw.’ But the final bull in this series isn’t just a stick figure that looks like a bull, it’s the end product of an exhaustive study of what a bull is and what it isn’t followed by deliberate choices to give us something that wouldn’t work if anything was added to it or taken away.

Anyone can (over) write reams of purple prose. Anyone can chop their sentences to bits like a bad Hemingway impression. Getting it just right is hard.   

Abraham Lincoln once closed a letter saying ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter.’

Lessons from Jim Harrison

Last Saturday, we lost Jim Harrison. He was one of America’s literary treasures, and perhaps our greatest craftsman of the novella.  On the page, Harrison was best known for Legends of the Fall. His extracurricular activities included gourmet cooking and eating, raising many dogs,  fly fishing,  and chilling with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Anthony Bourdain, and Jimmy Buffet.

When I was an undergraduate, he was the writer I wanted to be. Here are few things I gleaned from that episode of hero-worship:  

Nobody Wants to Read About Landscapes and Food–Unless they’re Written Brilliantly

Someone said Jim Harrison is to food what Henry Miller is to sex. His details are out of this world. The trick is, he knows when to be sparse and economic, and when to linger on every sensation.

New York is a Distraction 

Harrison was well aware of the advantages of being a non-New York writer–peace and quiet for one. According to his obituary in the Times, he had ‘little but contempt’ for the city, and was not afraid to question New York’s cultural prominence. He told The Paris Review, ‘The Upper East Side of New York was constitutionally the most provincial place I’d ever been.’ Also, he found Hollywood paid much better.

Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t go to College…

Jim Harrison did, but his degree was delayed by frequent road trips and romances. He used college to get his hands on the books he needed to teach himself the craft of novel writing.

Living Well is what Matters

He broke up his writing days with cooking and eating with friends. He collected wine and recipes for woodcock, grouse, and birds I’ve never even heard of.  His  memoir includes strip clubs among his lifelong obsessions.

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The Notebook — Man vs. Monopoly Man

You can learn a lot from a less-than-classic movie. As a storyteller, it’s easier to learn what not to do from a bad story than a good one. If something bugs you about a story, take a closer look at what isn’t working and why. It’s great practice for asking better questions in your own work.
The thing that bothered me about The Notebook wasn’t Gosling envy. Gosling’s character and I actually have the same problem–Allie’s father. But my beef with the guy is strictly a matter of craft. Allie’s rich father is a caricature, not a character. He isn’t just rich, he’s the Monopoly Man.


The Monopoly Man is part of a larger problem with the movie, one that has relegated it to the shallow end of a genre that includes classics like The Bridges of Madison County, among others. The problem is that The Notebook doesn’t trust the audience. So it uses types, like the Monopoly Man, and tugs at our sense of pity (Alzheimer’s is sad stuff) instead of developing real conflict and convincing forces of antagonism. In other words, The Notebook tells us how to feel. That’s what irks me about the notebook. That’s what I’m going to try not to do when I write conflict.     

But I digress–here’s the ‘why didn’t you write me?’ scene.

The Notebook – Why didn’t you write me? HD VERSION!

A Scene From The Notebook. I Encourage People To Buy This Movie, It’s Really Great. 🙂 Enjoy! =)

Book Reviews by Readers Range from Clueless to Insane

Gustav Flaubert said ‘I try to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is constantly beating at its walls.’  He could have been talking about Goodreads. The shelves are your own personalized ivory tower, while the reviews are the tide of shit.

Just the thought of rating books kept me off Goodreads for years. I was too cool to mix social media and reading. No wifi in my tower. When I finally got on, I told myself it was just a reading list and ignored the reviews.

One day I decided to look down and see what the rabble had to say. I started reading the reviews. What I found was hilarious.    

Read my review of the reviews at Broke-Ass Stuart.


Writing Software for Grownups

From 12 Christmas Gifts for Writers at Broke-Ass Stuart.

Microsoft Word is the Huffy bike from Wal-Mart of word processors–it’s a fine place to start, but you need to upgrade when you’re ready for long distance.


For screenwriters and playwrights, the industry standard is the very expensive and very worth it Final Draft 9. FD9 formats your screenplay as you type, has space to plot every aspect of your story and character arcs, and even virtual index cards for step-outlining that are integrated with the script.

Scrivener is the real deal for real novelists, and an affordable alternative ($45) to Final Draft 9 for screenwriters.

Scrivener has ‘cork boards’ for outlining. There are daily word count targets based on your deadline. Scrivener is for big projects and all the notes, outlines, character sketches and miscellany they entail. It has space for illustrations and maps of your story world. There’s a template for multi-part novels–Anna Karenina could’ve fit neatly into Scrivener’s Russian doll of folders.

When you’re project is complete, Scrivener lets you compile your work into a variety of manuscript and ebook formats.

15 Tips For Novella-ists

Writer and  ‘recovering newspaper journalist’ Maggie Down shares 15 tips for writers from novella author,  Panio Gianopoulos.

Panio believes in writing 500 words, five times a week* and cautions writers not to talk about the first draft while writing. My favorite tip was number eight:

If you’re worried that it’s boring, it probably is.

Followed by Maggie’s take:

Writing is transparent. When I really struggle with a piece and force myself to slog through it, then it reads like drudgery. And when I bore myself? That’s a good indication that readers will be bored too.

In the spirit of tip number 15, support other writers, I urge you to check out Panio Gianopoulos and Maggie Downs (who was in last Sunday’s New York Times) and read all 15 tips over at Maggie Ink.

*Also Graham Greene’s number. He wrote on legal pads and drank whiskey afterward.

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