Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ask O Wednesday: What Can I Learn about Writing from the Ancients? Part 2

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

This week we’ll finish our discussion of the … “progymnasmata.” (Isn’t it a cool word? Makes you sound smart.) Remember what it is? The method of copying the masters the ancient Greeks used to teach writing.

A couple more ways those old dead Greeks helped me:

When I read, especially when I’m thinking progymnasmatically (why not make it an adverb?), I like to scrutinize the way the author structures her scenes. What are the beginnings, middles, and ends? How does she transition from one to the next? When does the conflict start? Is it resolved in this scene or left hanging till later?

In The Young Unicorns, author Madeleine L’Engle seems confident that her readers will catch the backstory in her scenes. She often waits until a few paragraphs down to show the location, and since her books are fantastical, she doesn’t immediately reveal whether what’s happening is real or imagined. In this book, the children encounter a genie—or at least they think the tall, burley, robed man is a genie. Since I know her plots sometimes break the limits of reality, at first I thought the genie was real, but then by the end of the scene, I wondered if he may just be a New York thug, but I was not totally sure.

I haven’t done it yet, but imagine how I could emulate this scene. Since it’s my natural tendency to explain everything (I fight this, but it’s a battle!), copying Ms. L’Engle’s strategy for only revealing when absolutely necessary would be a great exercise, for me. I’ll try it if you do!

Meet Mrs. . . .
Characters. Recently my husband and I watched the movie, The Great Debaters. The female protagonist is strong and feisty, yet also compassionate and intelligent. I thought, Why can’t I come up with someone like that? Rather than reveling in my feelings of inadequacy, I made a list of what I liked about her. Then I took a closer look. How did the screenwriter, director, and actress portray those traits?

I picked an exemplary scene, then rewrote it with my own character, closely following the events, just tweaking to make it my own. How this opened my eyes! I felt—experienced—how the heroine’s words, actions, even subtle movements created the character I admired.

What else could we apply the progymnasmata to? Story arch, description, tone, voice, point of view, everything! Who knew thinking like the ancient Greeks could teach me about writing Christian fiction in the twenty-first century?

If you try this, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear.

Don’t forget to leave your writing questions in the comments or on my website at

Happy Writing and God bless!


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