Story in fiction is special. For the right story – one that is remembered and passed on to future generations – fiction is the best and most uniquely imaginative way to deliver a story. But few contemporary writers write fiction created in the imagination for maximum lasting story effects on the reader. The trend is to tell you, the reader, about me, the author, and the trend erodes the longstanding value of great, well-written and engaging literature. As a result, there is little doubt the literary fictional story is disappearing and readers who love good fiction can only turn more and more to rereading the classics. There may not be a cure to the defection from reading great fiction, but a possible vaccine would be for writers to write enjoyable stories well enough to be remembered.
There are differences between a writer and a storyteller that can be synergistic, but not ignored. A writer often writes and uses story to suffice the urge to explain what happened; a storyteller needs to make his or her story interesting, entertaining and enlightening, and uses the process of writing to create imagined scenes that will best suit the reader. The writer needing to write searches for inspiration through soul-searching until she or he finds something in their background to write about; the storyteller searches for the best way to form and narrate the imagined story – with a purpose – that she or he can’t wait to create on the page.
Among the reasons contemporary writers don’t produce great fiction are:
- Faulty thinking about story
- Fiction that ignores the valuable complexities of fiction
- Laziness that defaults to intuitive writing
- A cathartic need for writers to write about themselves
With any one of these failings, the easy, noncreative approach to writing a story often emerges and the writers fall to description and telling rather than imagining and showing. The resultant prose is more memoir or autobiography than fiction, yet it is accepted and published – and read – as fiction, dulling the reader’s expectations of what real fiction can achieve. There must be a purity of purpose to please the reader. The storyteller discovers a story idea and then begins to create a series of scenes with vividly imagined characters to entertain the reader and change the reader’s way of thinking. This creative prose is literary fiction.
Often, it is easy to tell intuitive writing in the first few sentences. It is often first person, with the usual character/narrator/author separation collapsed into one – a memoir descriptive style. Here are examples of various styles and different narration . . . some intuitive “memoir” based subjective fiction, and others closer to creative objective fiction. Note that objective fiction is neither void of emotions nor boring. The opposite, in fact, occurs as emotions are expressed in action, rather that telling, for more impact.
A writer has been fascinated by his or her grandmother who delivered the writer’s mother out of wedlock, and whose father was never disclosed by the grandmother or known by the family. The writer researches the circumstances, remembering family comments and opinions. The writer has been disturbed by the effect of an unknown father on the mother and believes it is the reason for her failure to achieve in life that later resulted in depression and dementia. The writer sits down to tell the reader about the events and the emotions.
The fiction writer in control of his or her craft might well look at this scenario with these thoughts:
1. There needs to be more significance to the premise that withholing the identity of the father caused mother's decline. Possibilities. The mother (child of grandmother) has a serious geneticly transmitted defect with looming physical or mental manifestations that need to be identified for some action or treatment. Or, the grandmother does not know the father because she was promiscuous and ashamed. Or, the grandmother was raped by a serial killer and the family wonders what lurks inside them (probably too much but could be toned down for effectiveness, that is, the father could have done something seriously wrong without illegality – maybe something morally wrong).
2. The scenario, as it stands, especially if delivered in first person POV, is inherently sentimental. There needs to be objective narration to filter out inevitable sentimentality.
3. The time line is a problem. Grandmother’s conception, delivery, silence and then the family's worries decades later. Chronological, in-scene narration will give a story covering decades. If back story is the preferred technique to deliver information, story telling will become awkward because of what the narrator can know and not know. Decision needs to be made early to be effective.
4. Story idea may be, or at least border on, cliché. To be effective, innovation in plot progression will be needed to keep fresh and original.
5. Always a thought of incest in this situation. Needs early decision to rule it out or keep it as a possibility. Exposition of the information will be tricky no matter what technique is used.
6. The writer might try to use third person, with a distinct objective narrator telling story at time different than author real time – keeping the author out of the narration, but establishing credibility and reliability for the narrator. Which characters will be used for internal reflection will need to be established early. Which character will change, and be responsible for valued enlightenment, needs to be established.
7. Overall conflict needs to be defined as well as conflicts for each scene.
Here is a story-start.
Grandmother was crusty even when she was young. She was sixteen when she delivered mother and her hair was the color of harvest wheat in the sunshine that waved in the breeze of my great grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania in the late eighteen hundreds. The delivery was in her bedroom, with only her mother and a neighbor in attendance. How afraid she must have been so young, but she never talked about the birth, or the pregnancy. And when my mother arrived, and as she grew up, grandmother treated her with a distant sense of obligation, void of doting and barely associated with maternal pride and love.
Comment. Accept, first, the awkward exposition, overwriting, telling, and poor writing in general. Then carefully note the narrator. At first glance, this might appear to be third person narration. Actually it is first person without use of “I”. This is immediately established in the first sentence. The narrator is communicating directly to the reader, and the narrator is related to characters. Later there is the use of “my.” The narrator is probably the author. With this established, note how difficulties pop up. Much of the detail is almost surely conjecture – fear, never talking about birth or pregnancy. How can the narrator know she never talked about it? How she felt in the moment? The narrator is loosing credibility because the writer has failed to choose the most effective narration for this story.
Another story-start example.
I am independent and secretive, but not to the extreme my grandmother was. She never let on to me or anyone who fathered my mother, and I prayed, even at bedside when she died, she might reveal my grandfather. Who really was he? What had he become?
Comment. This is using the “I” protagonist as a “narrator” to tell the story. It will be limited because the narrator is limited to her or his world, and the reader must decide whether to trust this “I” . . . Is the story credible? Is the narrator reliable? The question will loom: Why is this POV chosen if it is not memoir, or written from life experienc? If it is not fiction, the story may be limited in effectiveness.
This next example.
I’ll never forget my mother’s face the night grandmother died. Grandmother had never divulged who fathered mother, her only child. And my mother had been haunted by the insecurity of her unknown genetic heritage. As grandmother lay conscious, but near death, I knew my mother prayed for an answer to her often asked question. But grandmother passed quietly, without a word, and I could see the anguish on mother’s face.
Comment. The purpose of this passage seems to be exposition of the mother not knowing her father. The “I” narrator here is awkward because it ignores the opportunity to dramatize with action and conflict a scene perfect for the talented writer to make an impact on the reader – and without sentimentality. In this opening paragraph the writer (who is again the narrator and the “I”) is asking the reader to sympathize with the mother. But there is nothing earned. Nothing happens, and there is nothing for the reader to attach to and legitimately feel when the writer asks for belief in the “anguish.”
Another story-start example.
The old woman lay motionless under crisp white hospital sheets, only her shriveled face visible with dusty gray hair splayed on the pillow. Her mind was sharp, she refused to speak, and she could hear every word, even in the corridor and the next patient's room.
The younger woman, an only child, had been by her mother's bedside for days. She didn’t care really; she had grown to despise her mother over the years. Now, glaring at her, she suspected her mother could hear her, and hated her for refusing to acknowledge she was even there. This would be the last opportunity to know who her father was. Her mother knew, had always known, and here she was at that moment when truths should be flowing, still refusing to divulge it. She would try to convince her to speak now. What difference does it make? she would say. Why not speak just the name, so that all the questions she and her children carried with them, laden with fear and guilt, could be justified or cleared up? It took only a name! Why can’t you do that?
Comment. This is in third person POV using both characters inner thoughts as told through a narrator, who is probably created independent of the author (but by the author, of course). It begins to set up conflict, yet it does not engage the reader as much as needed. This could be improved by some interaction and responses, improved setting details, and effective, expressive dialogue, maybe with an additional character.
Last example of a story-start.
I was with mother in the room where granny died. I don’t think Mother did not care she was gone. At least the expression of her face didn’t change. Granny had never revealed mother’s father, my grandfather. She was stubborn to the end, although we all believed she knew exactly who it was and probably where he was if he were still alive. Mother’s life had been irrevocably changed by the mystery, and after Granny’s death I could see she still failed to find her self worth, always wondering what half of her genetic heritage had done to her. So I determined I would find out. Learn the truth, to give my mother a chance to enjoy her later years.
Comment. This choice of narration pushes the reader away, although the author would believe the intimacy – an illusion, really, of intimacy – will entice the reader to read on. But there is a glaring lack of dramatically developing conflict with this approach, often as a result of some egoistic urge in the writer, that continuously brings the focus back to the “I” when the real story is between mother and daughter – or whatever is chosen, children and mother, mother and new lover, etc.
The lessons are plain. First, none of these beginnings really succeeds. Not enough thought has gone into them. Second, certain essentials must be kept in mind. Story ideas have to be good – as original as possible – and weighted with significance. Choice of narrative technique is critical for story success, and first person POV must be used sparingly when it might lead to memoir description of life experiences, which can thwart development of some effective fictional stories. Finally, stories require creative imagination; stories need to be thought out before writing; and stories must have dramatic conflict.
Writing the fictional literary story is not easy, but the rewards for reader and writer are maximally satisfying.
Additional resources: Narration, 1st person POV, Interview with Lee Martin.