Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Excessive Pride and Self-Confidence as Motive in Storytelling: Characterization and Plot Example Article About Writing Better


Friday, August 12th, 2016
William H. Coles

An example of excessive pride and self-confidence in story excerpt from "Nemesis".
___________
After he was fired from his job as audiovisual technician, Fred demanded early retirement, threatening to sue, and received forty-percent of his salary. A pittance of what I’m worth, he thought. Fred’s dismissal humiliated his wife Veronica. “Get a job,” she said, irritated to have him perpetually at home.

“I think I’ll start writing a syndicated column for the newspaper,” Fred said, emboldened by his recently acquired disgust–through his intent viewing of TV extremist news–of how seriously deficient America had become.

“You’re lazy,” Veronica said.

“Lazy people do not reach my levels of success,” he said.

Veronica was thin and had a nervous tick that shut her left eye making her right eye widen and exposing the white of the globe as if in unilateral fright. She would leave Fred after twelve loveless years. “You’re a jackass,” she said.

“Don’t be your unreasonable self, Veronica. It only demeans you.”

“A halfwit,” she said.

“Now it’s name calling, is it?” Fred said.

“It’s not a name. I’m not addressing you. I’m telling what everyone knows. You're an incompetent, unemployed, self-absorbed, idiot–the only human in existence who has pride in his failures. And I hate you.”

In an instant Fred assessed the entire scene as some hormonally induced, paper-lantern feminine crisis not worthy of his attention. She’d come around. She always did.
____________
This excerpt is from the short story “Nemesis” about an arrogant man with excessive pride (hubris), failure to heed warnings, unshakeable belief in being right, inconsiderate of others’ views, and stubbornly ignorant of knowledge, who causes the death of the only love of his life. You can READ [5085 words] or LISTEN TO [34 minutes] the story here: http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/original-stories-william-h-coles/nemesis/

The Greeks knew excessive pride and self-confidence invited destruction (hubris–>nemesis). For the writer of stories, hubris is a human trait that can vitalize plot development and characterization. Look at these examples of hubris inviting destruction:

1. A famous athlete has extramarital affairs and said he thought that normal rules did not apply to him and that his excellence in his sport entitled him to whatever he wanted with no consequences. He lost respect of family, fans and sponsors and his career is ruined..

2. A president believes his status makes him invincible until his involvement in the illegal breaking and entering scandal forces his resignation.

And you might also enjoy these classical literature examples of pride and downfall: Oedipus Rex, All the King’s Men, Frankenstein.

The award winning novel McDowell incorporates full use of hubris that results in destruction of a famous doctor's career and freedom. He becomes a hunted convict that ironically allows new opportunity to regain some value to his life with unselfish caring for others. It’s a prime example of hubris and nemesis followed by a rebirth. It’s a good read. Available in all formats including audio.



Seven elements for writing fiction stories Article About Writing Better


Friday, June 17th, 2016
William H. Coles

For writers striving to improve the creation of fictional stories in prose, here are seven essential elements in creating stories.

The elements: Prose, Characterization, Plot, Narration, Setting, Imagery, Meaning/purpose.

Prose relates to diction, syntax, and voice. The intense poetic elements of lyric prose can be used to pleasing effects for a reader both as a secondary and prime element. For memorable stories, most readers prefer a distinct, often authoritative voice, for narrator and characters.

Characterization (creation of a fictional character) is most effective when developed by in scene action predominating over discursive narrative telling and when excellence of other elements is achieved: dialogue, narration, internalization, and voice.

Plot is all that happens in a story and is almost always dependent on a beginning, middle, and end and thrives of tried and true characteristics: character-based; momentum on reversals and recognition, mystery and suspense; and often linear, interwoven with emotional, character, and story arcs. Great plots provide conflicts early, both in story and among characters.

Narration is storytelling. Characters act out in fiction stories, narrators tell story, and authors create story with imagination and uniqueness. Point of view choice is tailored to the needs of story. Each point of view has advantages and disadvantages and must conform to reasonable story-related credibility and reliability, and adjust to requirements of suspension of disbelief. Authorial control of the narration through the narrator must be consistent in style, transparent (almost always no authorial intrusion), carefully chosen for story understanding and purpose, and meticulously crafted.

Setting orients the reader to time, place, and physical and psychic distance from story action, environment, and obstacles to plot progression. Most stories provide settings through subtle integration in other elements avoiding extensive description. Other stories rely on the poetry of beautiful settings for maximum reader pleasure.

Imagery relies on imaginative prose with innovative yet absolutely accurate word choice within the boundaries set up by story development. Momentum in the writing with image-inducing prose should be pervasive to prevent reader disinterest.

Theme/purpose. Every story should engage a reader, entertain the reader, please the reader, and provide recognition or enlightenment (theme/meaning) so the reader will never see the world again exactly the way they did before the story was read. Fiction stories are not character sketches, memoir, biography, or journalism with untruths. And every story has to have more than an authorial catharsis describing authorial lives and events. Fiction is art that emerges from imagination and is created with skill and structure.

References:

Preparing to Write the Great Literary Story

Literary Fictional Story

Character in Literary Fictional Story



Imagination and Creativity in Literary Stories: A Guide for Writers Article About Writing Better


Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
William H. Coles

Imagination used in creative storytelling is the essence of literary fiction. Memoir is remembering and describing factual events. Traditional imagined literary fiction is ignored today–mostly for financial reasons–by publishing, publicity, literary-agents, literary-prize choices, and inadequate teachers of creative writing resulting in blurred barriers between memoir and literary fiction. As a result, the quality of both memoir and literary fiction has deteriorated in artistic achievement, impact, and memorability. Great literature is a cornerstone of cultural advancement and contemporary authors have responsibility to society to learn and create literary fiction and memoir to the best of their ability.

It must be noted great memoir does employ creativity in the describing, in the presentation, and the prose manipulation. Literary fiction, however, uses imagination in creatively building characters uniquely related to the story being told and creatively integrating characters and plot with a structured story created with a purpose to engage, entertain, and enlighten a reader through imaginative artistic creation. Learning the skill of effective characterization is essential to lasting success for an author of literary fiction.

To create great characters that vitalize motives and desires in purposeful plotting, authors must create by:
1) structuring stories, whenever indicated, with beginning, middle, and end.
2) creating mystery and suspense to sustain reader engagement and enjoyment as essential to allow reader to see the world in new ways from reading the story.
3) engaging the reader with credible and acceptable character thoughts and reactions that relate to being human in addition to reflexively reacting to situations.
4) creating scenes through conflict, action and resolution (dramatic) that show characters’ essential qualities and relate to overall story-plot purpose.
5) instilling believable and consistently changing motivations.
6) identifying core desire(s) that drive a character’s action in the story.
7) using effective narration to show story to the reader through images, effective metaphor, tightly constructed plot progression, and character and story related action.
8) writing in-scene “showing” (concrete) in proper balance with narrator telling of story (often abstract). In-scene showing adds an aura of truth that story could happen in the world established by the author and allows a reader to become involved to discover meaning unique to them.
9) allowing only judicious use of fatalism in plot construction; instead, depending on revelations of human strengths and weaknesses in shaping lives to provide energy for story progression and resolution.

To create successful characters, authors must think before they write. Scenes within a story–and the story itself–are units composed of interrelated parts. It is not sufficient to start a story and see what happens word by word, scene by scene, without a thorough knowledge of the whole story. Many authors pride themselves in discovering story as they go along as allowing the creative process to flourish, but imagination deserves better application to literary storytelling. Authors must not default to writing that is quality-deficient by defaulting to unfocused hyperactivity in their writing and proudly rejecting the need for experience and training in writing and storytelling, an error that bathes an author in hubris about their own authorial value as a human being and their creative abilities. All that happens in a great literary story comes from an imagined structure and formulation of related ideas before writing. Of course, every writer’s efforts relate to who they are and what they know. But that knowledge is used to stimulate imaginative use for story purpose. And imaginative changes in great fictional stories occur with both writing and revision, and changes are perceived before change as affecting and improving the whole, not camouflaging an errant part of the writing or just filling story space with extraneous ideas and images thought to be clever intellectual output of the author but unrelated to story.

Study of artistic creation can clarify an author’s approach to creating quality fiction. Look to the visual arts. To create a great oil painting, an artist does not blindly retrieve colors from a palette obscured from vision then apply random brush strokes to any surface that is handy. An artist has to have purpose that translates to some idea of the final product and how to achieve the form and appearance of that structure.

Literary stories are like sculptures too. Consider how a Rodin-like sculpture might be made. To start, the sculptor has an idea of what is to be created—a nude male athlete, a woman holding her dying son, a lion. Sketches help adjust the overall early conceptualization of the final artistic product. A model is often constructed over a wire structural support and clay is added for form and detail and before drying, the model is molded, added to, or parts removed. Casts are made of the model. Bronze heated to liquid is poured into the casted mold, cooled to harden, and the mold removed to reveal the final sculpture that is refined with subtle smoothing and polishing. Not infrequently the result may not be right and the artist must start over again to avoid tinkering to make better a poorly conceived and executed project too impaired in the creation to reach required perfection.

This way of thinking is ubiquitous in artistic creation. Think of Michelangelo as an artist purchasing a block of Carrara marble. He did not awake one day, grab a hammer and chisel, sit down at the kitchen table while the kids were watching TV in the living room, and begin to chip away at the block to see what might emerge. He knew what he wanted . . . he had a plan. It’s sad that many writers force writing on schedules to fulfill their need to be a writer without a concept of a whole story, what the story is about, or why it is being written. These writers claim creativity is stifled by structure and imagined concepts but it is almost always a rationalization for their lack of ability.

Writing literary fiction of lasting quality needs the author to be aware of the creative process of accepted creators of art forms. Authors of fiction must hone the concept and purpose of story before writing begins; imagine what action will result in effective characterization, identify conflicts, mysteries, suspense; establish a timeline and prioritize story information in a logical and synergistic way.

In life, great architectural structures of beauty and usefulness are not accomplished by picking up random material and any tool available by the builders on their way to work that day. Why do most contemporary authors write driven by the will to succeed as a writer rather than creating works of literary art that will pleasurably affect other human beings with enjoyment and enlightenment? In reality, a rote process of ritual writing without purpose or destination, or without imagination or creativity, results in inferior artistic attempts. Art, including literary fiction, is not work for the artist but a proud accomplishment of imaginative achievement, and definitely not a random collection of disparate ideas and memories.

Writing literary fiction of lasting quality requires awareness of the process of imagination and structure. Authors of fiction must hone the concept and purpose of story before writing begins; imagine what action will result in effective characterization; identify conflicts, mysteries, and suspense; and establish a timeline and prioritize story information in a logical and synergistic way.



Eight Fundamentals for Writing Fiction Stories Article About Writing Better


Wednesday, February 4th, 2015
William H. Coles

Eight fundamentals for writing fiction stories.

Prose
Characterization
Plot
Narration (POV)
Setting
Imagery
Meaning/purpose
Drama

There are many ways to think about the writing of great fiction stories. Both readers and writers can benefit by thinking of eight fundamentals and appreciating the interaction of the elements in an individual story. For the reader, appreciation of authorial skills can be enhanced and admired, and for writers, learning to determine strengths and weaknesses in the creation of the different elements can be valuable to balance story for an effective presentation.

1. Prose relates to diction, syntax, and voice. Lyric prose with intense poetic elements can be used to pleasing effects for a reader both as a secondary and prime element, but clarity, accuracy, and concrete over abstract provide most effective prose for significant storytelling. Most readers prefer a distinct, often authoritative voice for narrator and characters.

2. Characterization is a key element for a literary story and is often most effective by in scene action predominating over discursive narrative telling. Its importance in story development in the great stories is unique and individual and requires talent and practice. Dialogue, narrative, internalization, flashback, diction, memory, voice are opportunities for character development in effective ways different, and at times superior, to characterization in film or in drama. Almost without exception, great stories integrate characterization and plot progression to create character-based fiction.  And each, at least, primary character has a recognizable core desire that contributes to solid logic of character motivations and reactions.

3. Plot is all that happens in a story. For great stories plot is almost always structured with a beginning, middle, and end; frequently is character-based; depends for momentum on reversals and recognition, mystery and suspense; is primarily linear; and is interwoven with emotional, character, and story arcs. Great plots provide conflicts early, both in story and among characters.

4. Narration is storytelling. Characters act out in fiction stories, narrators tell story, and authors create story with imagination and uniqueness. Point of view choice is tailored to the needs of story. Each point of view has advantages and disadvantages and must conform to reasonable credibility, reliability, and requirements of suspension of disbelief. Authorial control of the narration through the narrator must be consistent, complete, and meticulous.

5. Setting orients the reader to time, place, physical and psychic distance from story action, environment, and obstacles to plot progression. Best stories provide most settings through subtle integration in other elements avoiding extensive description.

6. Imagery relies on imaginative prose with innovative yet absolutely accurate word choice within the boundaries set up by story development. Momentum in the writing with image-inducing prose should be pervasive to avoid loss of engagement of the reader.

7. Meaning/purpose. Every story should engage a reader, entertain the reader, please the reader, and provide recognition or enlightenment (meaning) so the reader will never see the world again exactly the way as before the story was read. Great fiction stories are not character sketches, memoirs, biographies, or journalism with untruths, and every great story has to have more than an authorial catharsis describing authorial events and characters with description and discursive rumination.  And for significance, authors create a moral framework for the story world that helps define character actions and thinking, suggest meaning, and enhance logic of the drama.

8. Drama keeps a reader's interest, moves the plot, and builds character.  Drama is conflict the precipitates action and requires a writer's ability to insert action in scene, in dialogue, and in narrative description.  Drama also can move the reader to feel the story and the characters.

Summary.  Writing fiction that is character-based with dramatic plots and meaning is an art form requiring both talent and diligent hard work and self evaluation.  Studying and learning the skills to use fundamentals effectively is essential in becoming a successful storyteller, but also useful in revision of early drafts to seek balance in the presentation and consistency in the writing.

 



Creating Effective Scenes Article About Writing Better


Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
William H. Coles

In writing scenes, three primary elements of great fiction writing and storytelling are functioning pervasively: setting, characterization, plot movement.  One will predominate, but the three are always integrated, all contribute to the effect of a good scene, and every element is specifically acting in the story being created and developed; no extraneous or unrelated ideas or images are used.        

Setting 

Readers need orientation to time and place.  Once time and place are established in a story, readers need to be updated in any scene where place of story action has changed, or where significant change in time has occurred.  And in a scene, attention to concrete clues that aid in reader visualizing scene are important.  These aids in visualization can be in dialogue, in dialogue attribution, or in narrative, and need to be carefully chosen to not call attention to their contribution but to provide useful subtle reminders that help visualize and orient the scene. 

For example of developing concrete imagery:

“Don’t do that!” he said while eating.

Better.

“Don’t do that!” he said taking a bite of his cheeseburger.

Better (if pace and context are appropriate).

“Don’t do that,” he said.  With a serrated cutting knife, he sliced his cheeseburger and thrust half of it at her. 

Concrete modifiers can help establish setting and stimulate images too. 

The car went around the corner and made her sick.

Here is a revision to meet the opportunity to develop scene and action.

The Porsche convertible cornered on the two-lane country road and the twisted seat belt cut into her bare shoulder, her hand covering her mouth as she retched.

Characterization

Fiction writing develops characters.  Narrative telling should not dominate, He was really tired and felt like taking a nap type of writing.  Instead, develop a character’s immediate state of general constitution for the reader through action.  He stumbled over a fist-size rock, his fatigued muscles unable to keep him balanced, and he fell forward, his hands outstretched to protect him, but his weary arms collapsed and his face hit the gravel

Internalization can be used for characterization in a scene too.  She detested superbly fit people.  She thought of all it took to maintain good health as narcissism close to sin.

And dialogue should be a source of characterization by what is said, how it is said, and the credibility of syntax and word choice being credible for the character speaking.  (Dialects can be used, but are usually effective only when used sparingly without calling attention to the writing.)  Samples of different characters speaking of the same thing:

“I do not care for apricots.”

“Apricots taste funny sometimes.”

“Apricots have a sweet yet tangy taste.  Not my favorite.”

“Them orange things taste like shit.”

“Apricots suck.”

“Growing apricots is a waste of time.”

“I wouldn’t pay one cent for an apricot.”

“You can use an apricot instead of lime for a tempting twist to key lime pie.”

“Apricots make me sick.”

“I saw the new crop of apricots at the store today.  They brought back sweet memories.”

“I can’t forget the texture of apricot.  Disgusting really.”

Each of the above might fit a variety of characters, but even more significant, many would not be consistent with most characters.  Authors need to be able to create dialogue from within the worldview, intellect, experiences, and memories of the character they are creating dialogue for.  For characterization in great fictional storytelling, it is imperative to write outside the authorial self when creating effective dialogue credible for character.

Plot Movement

All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the scenes that are the steppingstones of a reader’s journey through a fictional story also have their beginnings and ends.  Everything in storytelling is pushing to the end, and specific a end for each story, each scene, and scenes and stories depend on plot progression.  The writing creates happenings that advance the plot (and grow the characterization).  So in scenes, no matter what the predominate purpose (setting, characterization, plot movement), the action starts, advances, and stops.

Consider this scene whose primary purpose is setting, yet is developed with plot momentum (and a touch of characterization) from beginning to end.  First, the less effective, then the revision.

The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked though the valley.

Any movement perceived is really implied. Now with action:

The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead. He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed, by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the floor and shoved it forward. The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it reached the first turn.

Good writing is essential to convey momentum in scene.  Compare:

There was a bird on a limb. Static.

The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action.

The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. A lot of action.            

As an author creates scenes, a sense of momentum also needs to be at every level of the writing—even paragraphs, sentences, and words.  Success depends mainly on vocabulary.

For example:

1) Verbs

Look for different degrees of action in the following: (Note how action is related to specificity.)

ate–swallowed

moved–walked

understood—discovered

told–described

told—elaborated        

went—drove

lay—reclined

cooked—fried

cooked—poached

killed—bludgeoned to death

began—ignited

NOTE: Use of certain verbs may convey a degree of action or a type of action that does not suit the scene or the narration. (Example: “His humor ignited her admiration” should not, in most circumstances, replace, “She smiled at his joke.”) Authors need tasteful and accurate verb choices to develop pleasing writing styles with momentum.

2) Nouns.

It is particularly useful in description of settings, or any narrative in a story, to choose nouns that have energy. Here are nouns that have different energies.

rock–hawk

telephone pole–computer

road–river

shadow–glitter

3) Adjectives.

Adjectives restrict a noun, or a verb form.  Compare adjectival forms and their effectiveness for lively writing.

motionless steamroller

waiting steamroller

tilted steamroller

rusted steamroller

 

dead acrobat

breathless acrobat

plunging acrobat

immortalized acrobat

revered acrobat

decaying acrobat

perspiring acrobat.

Note: Adjectives are not equal in effect in a specific context, each has a different energy relationship to a unique noun.

4) Adverbs.

Examples: Talk (verb)–-incessantly, often, irritatingly, lovingly, uncontrollably, loudly, softly.

NOTE: that every one of these adverbs could be replaced by a construction that showed rather than told. Example: For ”loudly,” an author might use, “When he shouted, little Jennie winced and covered her ears.”  Probably too many words for too little effect. In this instance, maybe the adverb is better: “Jake spoke loudly to her.”

Final thought.

Here is the message.  For every effective story in fiction, a writer needs to create scenes with effective elements: setting, characterization, and plot movement.  For further reading click here.



Frequent Failures of Contemporary Writers: Story and Character Editorial Opinion


Thursday, June 12th, 2014
William H. Coles

Workshop Question

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to  accomplish something?   William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short  story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What  are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their  lives.   Let me know what you think?  

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this.  It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds.  The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery. 

 For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader through the channel of story and characterization , and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking.  The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten.  Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way.  Do contemporary fiction writers create stories?  It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve rarely had frequent pleasures in reading Trevor especially, or even Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events (even imagined) and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV.  But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for many modern reader and author temperaments. 

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source.  I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human.  They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and mainly in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov.  It’s not that they just lived in the past.  They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again. 

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness.  There is an acute need to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots.  Academics is failing to teach great sotrytelling and even adequate writing skills defaulting instead to “write about yourself and what you know” and encouraging “innovation” (especially in the short story).  Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and, I would hope, find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve.  The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and, like singing opera, writing sonnets, telling tales effectively, it would be a shame if the art form is forgotten and lost.

 

 



Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Monday, December 30th, 2013
William H. Coles

Creating a fictional character needs to serve the story being told, and in some way needs to attract and hold the reader’s interest, a connection that may not be likeable or sympathetic but must strong enough to engage the reader to produce at least some satisfaction in having read and acquainted oneself with the character.

Great characters of classic literature almost always have a touch of hero in them.  In the story world, they exude qualities such as persistence, morality, perseverance, determination, strength, confidence, intellect, and/or unfailing expectations that things are going to turn out all right, qualities that rise to above average.  These characters, in fiction, show resistance to the status quo, often in the face of insurmountable odds that involve conflicts in which the character must use skills, and often develop additional skills, in order to succeed.  Success and failure, of course, will vary from story to story but it’s the struggle, the quality, and the authorial delivery that grab the reader.  Readers generally want to root for a character who succeeds by using imagination and hard work.  If the author of fiction writes to evoke reader sympathy without significant reader engagement, there can be unwanted consequences.  Sympathy comes from empathy for the plight of others.  When a static character is in a dire, and often unjustly deserved, state and narrative description is used to tell of past events and feelings, empathy is harder to attain.  For the inexperienced author in this context, the danger of failure to create for desired reader response is sentimentality rather than empathy–and even bathos–by the reader for the character and the situation.

The difference between a static character described to evoke a sympathetic reader response and a character in a struggle with desires and motivation aimed at solving a problem enmeshed in intellectual, emotional, or physical conflict that evokes reader empathy results in two opposites that, by being aware of them during story construction, can improve a writer.  Basically, the writer’s choice is inaction told versus action shown.  (The comparison is like the difference in viewing a tableau vivant of Manet’s nude in the park or attending a theatrical production of Richard the Third, the “My kingdom for a horse.” guy.)  And for the success of most fictional stories, these differences are not just points on a sliding scale; instead the choice is either or, and for good fiction and good stories to reach greatness, a choice must be made, or at least considered, to where the story creation is effectively under authorial control. 

In most effective stories about victims, the character rails against the circumstances to improve his or her lot.  Authors often fail to reach story potential of acceptance, enjoyment, and memorability by allowing the character to wallow during excessive authorial narrative descriptions of the injustices, and by forcing the reader to make judgments about the credibility of injustice in the circumstances and accepting the character’s response to the person or event that caused his or her (the character’s) present state of existence.  Consider two situations with different character responses. 

Read the entire essay.



Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question Editorial Opinion


Saturday, September 7th, 2013
William H. Coles

Question submitted to workshop.

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to accomplish something? William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their lives. Let me know what you think? (Submission anonymous)

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this. It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds. The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery.

For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader, and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking. The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way. Do contemporary fiction writers create stories? It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve never had pleasure in reading Trevor or Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV. But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for modern reader and author temperaments.

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source. I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human. They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and primarily in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov. It’s not that they just lived in the past. They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again.

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories—for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness. And I have a mission: to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots. Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve. The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and like singing opera or writing sonnets, it would be a shame if the art form is lost.



Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion


Thursday, September 20th, 2012
William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.



The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self Editorial Opinion


Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
William H. Coles

In Brooklyn, in a rock-bottom economy, a sixty-one year old unmarried mother will be evicted from the apartment she has lived in for eighteen years.  She is a college graduate but lost her job as a magazine writer more than a decade ago.  For more than a year she has failed to find a single ad hoc writing assignment or editing job.  Even a token payment on the more than $10,000 in back rent could delay action, so she appeals to friends and family: her 24-year-old daughter–an unsettled, unemployed, college dropout who takes family welfare money and disappears into a social strata the woman does not approve–refuses to assist; a life-long friend tries unsuccessfully to mortgage her house to help; the husband of her dead sister is amused by her predicament and refuses to help.  Methodically, she applies to New York State, the county, and the city for relief assistance.  The employees she deals with are presented stereotypically as  either incompetent, uncaring, or vicious in their refusals.  

            In the end, the protagonist refuses a $9,000 dollar loan from the city–she expected an unencumbered grant–and she turns down employment as a receptionist that Social Services has arranged because she feels it is beneath her dignity and not commensurable to her educational achievements.

             The writer has more than adequate skills.  The entire 6800 word story is well paced.  The prose is more than adequate and although the work is "fiction," the story is based on perceived personal injustices and frustrating experiences in life of the author that have left her angry from a vague but very real ingrained sense of being discriminated against and mistreated.  The author was deeply involved in her plight and with her writing, fully expected a reader to be involved in her anger and her despair.  Her writing purpose was to vent . . . to expose a perceived crass, cruel, social system and the greedy cruelty of a landlord.   But she couldn't step back from the story to create a story with credible characters and reliable narrator that would promote valid sympathy and understanding.   The secondary characterizations of welfare and social workers, family and friends, were skewed to stereotypical, single-minded, ogres.  Motivations were also difficult to accept.  She wrote on the premise that living in an apartment for eighteen years entitled a tenant continued occupancy without paying rent.  And finally, the author-protagonist refused to take work, or accept assistance, without sufficient reason. A story created without objectivity by an author writing for self and ignoring the needs of the reader that a well constructed and reasonably delivered fiction story could provide. 

            How does a writer lose his or her way?  There are no rules.  Judgment changes with the progression of society and the maturation of the writer.  And even more daunting, there are thousands of decisions to make about appropriateness and effectiveness of story elements to create a story as an art form.  A great literary author doesn't make many mistakes, allow even a few contradictions or inconsistencies, or think illogically.

            How might this author have created a more acceptable story?  Primarily through objective characterization, writing through a broader understanding of the desires, actions, and motivations of all involved, and letting the outrage emerge in the reader–rather than being told to the reader–so as to avoid unsubstantiated victimization.   

            All writers need to write from a broad view of the world.  They need to incorporate points of view that allow consistently objective creation of characters so the story is accepted and achieves a reader-identified purpose.  They need to avoid excessive use of authorial subjective voice and create stories through accurate and unique character voice and story worlds.   

            Great fiction is imagined, character based, dramatic storytelling in perfected prose that is remembered, reread, and imbedded in the literary consciousness of readers sufficiently to pass onto future generations.  It is sad, but the few contemporary writers who might achieve greatness can fit in the back of a mini van. 

            The most common failure among writers is just inadequate ineffective prose–prose that is unclear, purposeless, arrhythmic, uselessly ungrammatical, and with non sequitur ideation.  Without well-written prose, great fictional literary stories cannot be created . . . no exceptions.

            Those writers who learn to write well, and creatively, often fail in storytelling, succumbing to many pitfalls–a result of insufficient learning and practice that results in failure to embrace:

1. Structure.  Ignoring necessity of a definitive beginning, middle, and end, with full control of information release and prioritization of scenes and action and internal reflection.

2. Emotional arcs.  Inability to maintain character thoughts and feelings in a logical progression that ends in change and enlightenment.

3. Drama.  Insufficient skill to infuse conflict, action, and resolution at all levels of writing and storytelling.

4. Purpose.  Writing without story purpose and ignoring meaning and theme, and a significant message.

5. Characterization.  Failure to creatively construct characters with a connected series of actions, thoughts, and feelings.

6. Reader satisfaction.  Failure to provide engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment for reader in story structure and delivery.      

            The rare writers who accomplish creative prose and effective storytelling are not guaranteed success for greatness.  At this level, an author needs to be more than who they are: they need to understand the world and humanity and how they fit into it; they need to be able to write from their characters' worlds to create effective, entertaining, meaningful stories; they need to write with a definable and consistent moral cobweb in their fiction; they need to suppress arrogance, acting with humility in creating their stories.  And authors must never write to achieve an imagined, famous image as a writer, or to fulfill the dream of financial riches from their work; with little doubt, writing is not a reasonable or practical way for most humans to attain fame and fortune. 

            Writers must understand humor . . . what about an individual molds his or her humor–or prevents a humor response–that produces pleasure and understanding in a reader.  Finally, writers must seek to define what they feel is beauty in the broad context of their generation.  Beauty is subjective and individual, but an author's matured understanding of why people and things are beautiful to specific characters enhances characterization and imagery specific to a story that promotes great stories.  Where is beauty in art, music, literature, life, religion, nature, science?  In essence, defining beauty helps crystallize understanding of human nature.

            But most of all, authors need to develop understanding and supportive attitudes towards others, including their readers.  And they need to write stories with a purpose–without limiting themselves to their own lives and attitudes–to convince readers of opinions or evoke emotions.  They need to enlighten readers through exceptionally imagined and constructed characters, and strive for meaningful credible enlightenment.  In essence, literary authors are challenged to reach beyond their own limitations, and write from a broader understanding of humanity and the world we live in.

 




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