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Exercise: Au naturel

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 22 Jul 2001
Reposted on: Sun, 10 Aug 2003
Reposted on: Sun, 13 Mar 2005

A key element of story telling is conflict. In any story, there has to be a goal, and something blocking that goal - hence, conflict.

There are several types of conflict. This exercise deals with "person vs nature".

Literature provides many examples of this type of conflict. Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe are classic examples. More recently, books like The Eiger Sanction and A Perfect Storm have included conflict against nature. Nature, in those books, takes many forms: a whale, a desert island, a mountain, a storm at sea. The protagonist may need to fight off dinosaurs, as in Jurassic Park, or learn to find the necessities of life, as in Robinson Crusoe.

(Note that one of the examples above is non-fiction - these principles don't apply to fiction alone.)

Of course, those works also included other types of conflicts; in fact, in current literature a conflict against nature is often used to reflect or illustrate an internal "person vs self" conflict. Even so, of course, the external conflict, and the corresponding risks, must be real, and must be dealt with in the real world. (The people presented in A Perfect Storm were at sea because of various financial and personal pressures, but once that storm hit, they had to deal with that - finances and personal issues became secondary issues at that point. The *goal* of those individuals was bringing in a good catch of fish to make up for a poor season. The storm was the obstacle in their way. The *conflict* lies in the conjunction of goal and obstacle. Of course, at a certain point the goal changes to something more important: basic survival - but it was the goal of bringing in the fish that led to the conflict.)

So the exercise: in 300 words or less, present a character in conflict with nature. (Other forms of conflict may be present.) Remember to show us how the character got into this situation (what goal was being pursued?) In dealing with nature, remember also to involve the senses - if your character is caught in a storm, make us *feel* and *hear* that wind!

It is not necessary to resolve the conflict within the submissions; the important thing is creating the conflict.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 30 Jul 2001

Another busy week on this list - 19 submissions and 108 critiques.

We saw all forms of conflicts with nature: weather, geography, animals. We saw people willingly take a risk; people forced into action, people caught by surprise. There were phobias, and recklessness.

It obviously was a challenge to fully involve the senses, a secondary aspect of this exercise. I would comment that going from an abstract concept to an effective scene is a challenge for most of us. The key, I think, is learning to visualize the scene. It's one thing, for example, to have a hiker fall into a pit. It's another to put oneself in that hiker's position - to feel the injuries from the fall, to touch the stone wall, with no handholds to allow climbing out, to sense the humidity and the heat or the cold, to see the light dimming as the sun sets, while strange sounds rustle about. (See the difference in effect between the last two sentences?)

As well, many submissions saw other conflicts, conflicts against self or against others. Sometimes, the other conflict was stronger, and the cause of the encounter with nature (even negatively, in the need to get away which we saw in a number of submissions.)

All in all, a successful week. I hope we all learned something about this topic, and of course, we all are here to keep learning - the goal of the exercises is not to produce a perfect piece of writing, but to learn more about how to write more effectively. I think the submissions and critiques this week were very successful at meeting this goal.

(By the way, there was some discussion about the word limit on the exercises. I'll just comment quickly that the goal was not to fully develop or resolve a conflict, but to present it. 300 words is about a printed page: after reading the first page of a novel or short story, I expect to have an idea of the underlying conflict, and the character's motivations. This will be developed in thousands or even hundreds of thousands of words, of course - but even then, a story is a series of smaller conflicts within the main goal or conflict, so the ability to quickly evoke a conflict is an important one.)

Thanks as always to everyone who participated!

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: August 17, 2003

An interesting week as always, with a broad variety of natural dangers: snakes and storms and bees and bears and so on.

Looking over the submissions as a whole, though a couple of things struck me.

First off, in several submissions, there was no real conflict against nature; the conflict was person-versus-person, with nature only there as a complication. I'm left wondering how far divorced our lives are from nature, when even in an exercise focused on nature some of us can do little more than use it as a backdrop...

The same thought came to me as I looked at how the submissions met the secondary goal of involving the senses. Some did this very well, but in others there was no sensory details, or hardly any (and sometimes "told" - look for the dreaded "is/are" construction...) The threat was, in many cases, presented as external; pain or the physical effects of fear or effort were absent or barely hinted at.

(On the other hand, it was amusing to me, on getting back online for the first time in two days after the blackout, that the first post I saw was a submission -- about the blackout. A reminder, I guess, that even if we too often ignore nature, nature still is out there just waiting for a breakdown in our infrastructure...)

So to conclude, this was obviously a challenging exercise for many of us - and of course, those are often the most useful. I would recommend that participants take another look at their submissions now, to see how present nature was, and how much the threat or danger was shown through immediate sensory details, how much through abstract or "telling" narrative...

Don't worry, we'll get back to this one and give it another try!


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.