Archive for July, 2010

Engaging a Reader in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
William H. Coles

Engaging a reader is crucial for a good writer.  It is a complicated process with different levels of engagement that require different skills and talents.  A story about a truck running through a guardrail and caught so it is suspended above a concrete slab two-hundred feet below, with driver and passenger trapped in the cab and bleeding from wounds, grabs the attention . . . a level of engagement.  There is curiosity about the outcome . . . a level of engagement.  For some readers, there might be fear when imagining the worst outcome . . . also a level of engagement.   This engagement is responding to circumstantial information about an event.  The prose is a description of what actually happened.  The engagement is similar to a comic book or graphic novel.  Images are stimulated by prose.  There is intellectual curiosity about what will happen and how the dangerous predicament will be solved.

In addition to images formed, engagement in this scenario may also be dependent on syntactical dramatization within the prose itself, clear transfer of ideation from author to reader, and the degree of importance to the reader about the information delivered.  It is journalistic in the sense that the reader is being told what has happened.

In writing a memoir, this journalistic type of engagement and reader responses are much the same.  A memoirist is intent on describing people who lived and experienced events and felt what they felt.  It is historical information described and positioned so drama is created by description of conflict and the positioning of information, so tension is generated when story information is presented to the reader.

In great literary fiction, reader engagement is different from journalistic (creative) nonfiction and memoir prose.  Fiction may be stimulated by past events and characters who lived; but the story-prose of literary fiction is created to engage the level of the responsive reader to lock the attention with minimal deviation, and to stimulate the reader to sympathize with characters, and at times be involved emotionally to a degree beyond the emotional involvement other types of fiction elicit.  The reader who enjoys literary fiction wants to know what will happen to a character they know well through intense characterization.   Involvement is less description of what happened and more what might happen.  And although there are created, journalistic-style circumstantial events in all fiction, the elements of created emotional conflicts and advancement and resolution of feelings have the prime impetus to move plot in literary fiction.

In addition, to achieve maximum engagement of a reader, characters must be credible; they must seem real; all happenings must be logical for story and plot; and all information about the story and characters must be reliable, or if not reliable, the reader must be aware of the unreliability and not puzzled or unsure.  Level of achievement of these goals in the story writing is proportionally related to engagement and satisfaction of a specific reader.

Engagement of a reader at this level also demands meticulous narration so the reader is always aware of who is telling the information and that the narrator is consistent for the context so the reader engagement of attention and emotion in the story is not broken.

Nonstory-related ideas and opinions must also be eliminated from the prose to prevent breaking the dream of involvement that fiction can evoke.  And errors in writing, such as wrong word choice, fuzzy or inaccurate metaphors, or grammatical errors must not be present.  Equally important for great literary fiction, the story and the characters must seem real–that is, to exist or be able to exist in a reader's mind–the very reason that book covers often contain the blurb "based on a true story" or "based on the life of ———."

John Gardner popularized the idea of a fictional dream into which the literary reader is immersed.  It is valuable, but only partially true to the involvement that certain readers have in great fiction.  Great fiction provides new perspectives — like looking into a stereoscope and discovering a three-dimensional change in the photo; being caught in an unsolvable,  dangerous dilemma . . . between a rock and a hard place and the space is closing in; in need of resolution of a longing or desire; and almost always in need to solve something–a puzzle, or a mystery, or an enigma.

Engagement of a literary reader by a literary author in a great literary fictional story is extremely difficult to do and is rarely achieved by the millions of writers who attempt it in various degrees.   Most writers default to nonfiction or genre fiction, often with impressive successes.   Unfortunately, great literary fiction cannot be created without adherence to the basics of what literary fiction has accomplished through engagement in the past.  Even more significantly, writing good genre fiction and memoir and thinking it is, and promoting it as, great literary fiction will fail to meet the expectations of the literary reader, and the writing will come off as inferior and boring.

The goal of agents and publishers is to make money.  Great literary fiction well written does not have blockbuster potential in today’s marketplace of diminishing serious readers of great literary stories for engagement and enlightenment.  Wouldn't it be great, for those readers still enjoying great fiction, if one or a few publishers were to emerge who are willing to accept reasonable profits and publish accomplished writers writing great literary fictional stories that engage readers with intensity and emotion?




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