Is it, or is it not, irony?

William H. Coles

As a figure of speech, irony adds meanings to situations, develops readers’ interest, makes literature more intriguing, and commands use of imagination to comprehend meanings. Moreover, it brings life to both drama and literature.

Look to these well-known examples from Greek antiquity. Antony at Caesar’s funeral:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
For Brutus is an honorable man;

The first irony of Antony's speech is that he is unequivocally there to praise Caesar. Antony is, in fact, lying. This is a calculated tactic to disarm a crowd firmly on the side of Brutus when Antony takes the pulpit.

And second, Brutus is not an honorable man.

Here is another example where irony creates character far beyond simple narrative, the Greek drama Oedipus Rex (Sophocles):

“Upon the murderer I invoke this curse – whether he is one man and all unknown,
Or one of many – may he wear out his life in misery to miserable doom!”

The above lines are an example of verbal and dramatic irony. It was predicted that a man guilty of killing his father and marrying his own mother brought a curse on the city and its people. In the above-mentioned lines, Oedipus curses the man who is the cause of the curse but is ignorant that he is that man, and thus he is cursing himself. But the audience knows the truth–dramatic irony.

Typically, irony uses language:
(1) that signifies the opposite.
(2) in a situation that ends differently than anticipated.
(3) where there is a difference between appearance and reality.

Wayne C. Booth is a scholarly ironist. Here is an example from his book(1). In reading, consider these concepts: “ironic stroke, victimization, deliberate absurdity, circle of ironists, circle of inferences, intellectual dance.”

As my family recently walked toward the cathedral, highly visible before us, in Angers, a cement worker looked at us and said, at first without a smile “The Cathedral is that way”–pointing to it–“and the Palace of Justice is there” pointing to the sign on a building right before our eyes [that said]: “Palais de Justice.”
I knew that he intended an ironic stroke, though I could not at first be sure whether we were to be excluded as mere victims–stupid American tourists who would not recognize the deliberate absurdity of such obvious and uncalled-for directions. But we were clearly welcomed within the circle of ironists as I said, “Oh, yes, and the workers are here (pointing to them and the Americans are here (pointing to us). His laughter told me that he now knew that I knew that he knew that I . . . The circle of inferences were closed, and we knew each other in ways that only extended conversation could otherwise have revealed. Total strangers, we had just performed an intricate intellectual dance together, and we knew that we were somehow akin.

It may or may not be an irony that Booth’s book on irony is often difficult to comprehend. But the joy he transmits of being an ironist of quality stimulates further study. And the effects of irony and metaphor to better transmit significant meaning in literature, and in life, truly seem to make the effort to become an ironist worthwhile.

Booth explores five handicaps to ironic success in understanding literature: Ignorance, Inability to Pay Attention, Prejudice, Lack of Practice, Emotional Inadequacy. A challenge! But if interested, his book is worth the read for further understanding.

1. The Rhetoric of Irony. Wayne C Booth. 1974 [ISBN 0-226-06553-7]

The award-winning novel, McDowell.
READ reviews here.
Available on Kindle for a limited time–$0.99.
Available on Amazon, B&N, SILF, SHIOP, and audio.

McDowell by William H. Coles

Cover art by Anna Sokolova

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A Secret of Great Literary Fiction Stories as Art Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

We live by stories, descriptions of people and events, real or fictional, that inform or entertain. Stories are ubiquitous as air, essential as a heartbeat, and as varied in the telling as there are humans to tell.

The story as a fiction art-form in prose has evolved over the past few centuries, but recently has declined as literature, a regrettable fact emitting from failure of contemporary authors to strive for "art" in their "creative" writing. What is lost? Imagined fiction and literature as written works considered to have lasting artistic value. The loss of written story as an art form distresses few and those enriched by fiction-story as art increasingly must reach back to past authors. So what makes a literary story so unique?

Virginia Woolf, in A Common Reader, helps sort out the values of literature as art; in essence great literary fiction is about understanding humanity. Charlotte and Emily Brontë's books are Woolf's prime examples, classics of English literature. Charlotte, when she wrote about Jane Eyre, said the passion of " 'I love', 'I hate', 'I suffer' ", although more intense, was on a level of her own (Charlotte's passion). Having quoted this, Woolf proceeds to point out the difference to Emily's Wuthering Heights. In both books, settings carry emotion and "light up the meaning" of the books as powerful symbols of "vast and slumbering passions in human nature" that fulfill the needs of a reader better than words or actions "can convey." But it's humanity that dominates the telling, and it's where Woolf discovers differences between the two sisters that are revealing of the process of created fiction.

Woolf considers Emily the greater poet and points out the stature of her talent. "There is no 'I' in Wuthering Heights. The love is not [just] the love of men and women. The urge to create Wuthering Heights was not her [Emily’s] own suffering or her own injuries. "She [Emily] looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel–a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely 'I love', 'I hate,' but 'we, the whole human race', and 'you, the eternal powers …' "

Woolf is quick to point out "that it is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she [Emily] can make us feel what she had it in her to say at all." It is the "suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature and lifting them up into the presence of greatness that gives the book its huge stature among other novels." Emily "could tear up all we know about human beings and fill these unrecognizable transparencies with such a gust of life that they transcend reality." An artistry that many contemporary authors of novels seem incapable of achieving! Woolf continues: "For the self-centered and self-limited writers have a power denied the more catholic and broad-minded. Their impressions are close packed and strongly stamped between narrow walls. Nothing issues from their minds which has not been marked by their own impress. They learn little from other writers, and what they adopt they cannot assimilate. "…a stiff and decorous journalism", prose that is "awkward and unyielding." And it's not unreasonable to suggest to today's proliferating plethora of writers of fiction that such deft thoughts (of Woolf) are the necessary nourishment, now lacking, of every contemporary teacher of creative writing, most of whom sequester in academics, and their students.

So there it is. A major void in the skill of creating great fiction that has, and is, marring the future of established value of literature in the written word as art. What do you think?

Thanks for reading.
William H. Coles

The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf, in the essay "Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights." ISBN-13: 978-0156027786

Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016

Three award-winning, acclaimed, and popular short stories by William H. Coles
The Gift, The Necklace, Speaking of the Dead

gift necklace speaker

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Career planning for aspiring, literary-fiction-story writers. Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Plan #1

Want to be an author?
Just do it and enjoy.
That's enough for most of us! Writing is a pleasure and we don't have to be the best for all readers or achieve some impossible measure of success.


If you want satisfaction for: a) being the best author of the best story you can write that might persist for generations, b) creating stories that speak to contemporary and future readers about the complexities of being human, then you may want to write a fiction story as an art form that engages, entertains, and enlightens, and consider these questions to focus your writing career, even with modest expectations.

Plan #2

1. Why are you writing:
–to be known as an "author" or
–to write creatively and please a targeted group of readers?
No writer, no matter how great or accomplished, pleases even a small fraction of all potential readers, so perspicacious writers know who they want to please then develop their strategy for success with purpose. An enduring truth is creating great stories as an art form is no guarantee for fame and fortune, or universal appeal, but can be durably and reliably satisfying.

2. Do you have purpose to your writing? Do you want to enlighten, stimulate thought, create emotion, entertain?  Do you strive for your storytelling to be valuable for your readers rather than trying to impress them with the superiority of your intellect and creativity? Create excellence in your own way but maintain modesty.

3. Are you good enough to achieve your dream of becoming an author?  To avoid crushing your enthusiasm, try testing works-in-progress by seeking critiques by readers and teachers who are sympathetic to your writing style.  Submit for publication routinely but don't be surprised or depressed by multiple rejections that are the accepted norm regardless of an author's ability and, if considered selectively, can give insight to your level of achievement.

4.  Should you take courses?
            Creative writing workshops give mixed results; they depend inordinately on evaluations of your work by fellow students–novices, at times arrogant and condescending, who inflict imprudent opinion and detrimental criticism.  The value and reputation of MFA programs declines with the proliferation of conferred degrees in creative writing from academic settings struggling to survive financially. Consider carefully. Almost invariably, mentorship and/or self-study will value your time and accentuate your career far better than MFA programs with deficient teaching and time-consuming, defective scholarship.

5. Is your vocabulary commensurate with your aspirations? Improvement in vocabular is a necessary, lifetime endeavor for all writers.  Do you have the time and the will for improvement?

For maximum, lasting pride and self-satisfaction in telling fiction stories, discover who you are as a writer, learn to imagine and create, know what you want to achieve, and focus intently on improvement of craft and storytelling.

Thanks for reading. William H. Coles


Essays on Writing
Mastering the Power of a Literary Fictional Story
How Literary Stories Go Wrong

New.  PODCAST. 33 award-winning short stories of William H. Coles for your listening pleasure. (Provided without cost.)


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Improve storytelling by flexiblity in writing style Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

A few literary-fiction storytellers effortless adjust to setting changes, different narrator perspectives, and point of view shifts. Most writers must work to develop changes in writing style when story scene requires improvement for reader acceptance. Her are a few skills that might be considered.


A. More elaborate prose.

Helen wanted commitment—meaning us married and settled in her seventeen-room, early twentieth-century house in town with tennis court and three-car garage.  She believed if we changed the furniture and decorated with art we chose together, we could be happy newlyweds.  But every time I stepped into her house, memories of her ex-husband rustled around me in the walls like trapped rodents.  He was a sixty-four-year-old famous, successful neurosurgeon who was cavorting around Florida with his twenty-four-year-old office receptionist, who Helen and I thought too overweight and shaggy to be attractive to anyone but a lecherous older man still in midlife crisis. In truth, I could never replace her ex in his former home even though Helen insisted she had erased him from her life.  But I suspected she longed for the life they had created together, a life of almost constant in-home entertaining and guest-admiration, a life of uncramped comfort in her echo-filled interior permeated with shelved, walk-in closets, and eight-burner kitchen stove surrounded by acres of counter space.  Although I never confronted her, I knew she wanted legitimacy for our relationship to recreate her previous high-society life.

A. Less elaborate prose.

Helen believed we would be happy newlyweds living in her mansion. But for me, memories of her ex-husband, a sixty-four-year-old neurosurgeon cavorting in Florida with his twenty-four-year-old office receptionist, rustled in the house walls like trapped rodents. I could never replace her ex in his former home, even with her longing for legitimacy of our relationship to recreate her previous high-society privileged existence.


The Baker's Grand Bakeoff Prize was won by me. (Passive–object emphasis)

I won the Baker's Grand Bakeoff Prize. (Active–subject emphasis)

Use of passive tense or active tense can, at appropriate times, change the effect of prose on a reader.


The packed cable car left Fisherman’s wharf with a bell clang and a screech of steel on steel. Most of my fellow students carried birthday gifts for Mr. Faraday and in my right hand I clutched I a rolled white-paper banner that I had painted with purple-ink greeting and blue and red stars  The cable car nosed down after we turned onto Powell and we shifted our weight to remain as close to upright as possible; I teetered on an outer step of the car holding a hand rail while being jostled between a muscular middle-aged man in a skin-tight cyclist suit and aerodynamically sleek helmet and a reeking, unshaven, wrinkled old man in a torn, too-big, woolen overcoat.  Without warning, rain pelted my face, and I knew by the squishy feel of the banner it was ruined.

        Comment. Image-evoking nouns, adjectives, and action verbs, often enhance setting and characterization if maintenance of story momentum permits. Good judgment is necessary. Don't overdo imagery when it is not effective for the story, but also, don't fail to be competent when imagery is needed.

Thanks for reading! William H. Coles


Essays on Writing

What To Do for Writer's Block


The Golden Flute

The Golden Flute by William H. Coles

The Necklace

The Necklace by William H. Coles

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What To Do for Writer's Block Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

All literary fiction writers have problems with productivity related to ability and individual writing strategies. Writer’s block is a common term but it really doesn’t define a specific problem or suggest a consistent or dependable way to solve and proceed. The symptoms can be devastating—staring at a blank screen or page jilted by inspiration with quashed creativity. Here are famous authors' solutions that might just squiggle your own path, for better or worse, to recovery.

*Maya Angelou: “Writing is like any art or sport. Practice makes perfect. Inspiration will only come if you push yourself to keep putting pen to paper."  *Neil Gaiman: “Put it [your writing] aside for a few days, or longer, do other things, try not to think about it.”  *Mark Twain: “Outline, outline, outline!”  In essence, break your “complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks,” and then start on the first one.  *Ernest Hemingway: “…  keep some inspiration in reserve. “Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day.” Let your subconscious work all the time. “But if you think about it  …  you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”  *Hilary Mantel:  “… clear your mind …  because your mind is overwhelmed by … thoughts … that are crowding your brain. You need to create a space for your inspiration to fill.”  (For detail, see Nicole Bianchi)

You’ll have to judge which and how many strategies might work for you, but here are some thoughts on creativity and desire that may help.

So resolving "writer's block" is more than just the need to plug in your nonfunctioning computer or routinely do hundreds of undisciplined “writing crunches” … or, for that matter, to stop thinking. Consider that inability to create may be a symptom of who you are as a writer and what level of accomplishment you’ve achieved. Are you writing for excellence in creating fiction story as an art form or are you writing to be published to convince others you are an author? And are you intensely dedicated to the life-long learning of writing literary fiction and storytelling, and analyzing (not copying) the great stories you admire that have lasted as art forms?

And think about the immediate. Are you objectively conscious of the daily effect your emotional and/or psychological states have on your productivity. If you can believe life's minicrisies or drained physical or mental energy contribute to difficulty in generating innovative creativity, don’t be hard on yourself by blaming your troubles on a lack of ability and determination but accept that the individual, day to day process and success of creative writing is always in flux and will be influenced by your emotional state. To weather the inevitable breakdowns that seem to affect all of us, you might try this type of thinking.

Actually, finding a solution to loss of creative productive fiction that is personally satisfying and artistically accepted takes years to develop, like what a professional classic pianist must go through to practice superb technic and perfect performance to create individuality in interpretation and sound, and learn from extensive analysis of other artists how to generate an admirable career. So, as authors, we might respond to the often inevitable expected downtime in our creativity by savoring our "writer's block" writing time to study these skills: writing of craft; developing clear effective prose; analyzing secrets of other writers; improving story structure and character-based dramatic plots, and always looking to other nonwriting personal-skills that require: concentration, mental and physical coordination, focus of attention on individual thinking and skill improvements, and that accumulatively produce synergistic success in reaching goals. It is true writers achieve success in what they do as well as recover from obstacles by delicate adjustments of who they are and with truthful self-awareness.

Make sense? Your comments would be appreciated. How do you respond to “writer’s block”? How do you use breakdown time resulting from loss of productive, creative storytelling?

Thanks for reading. William H. Coles


*Coles, a fiction writer: The Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer

*Coles, author’s attitudes: Author’s Attitudes

*Nicole Bianchi on writer’s block: 5 Famous Authors’ Strategies for Conquering Writer’s Block

Thirty-four award-winning fiction stories
By William H. Coles

Suchins Escape

Illustration by Peter Healy for Short Story "Suchin’s Escape," by William H. Coles

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A Fiction-Writer Changes Style with Image-Words Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

What if the writer can, with words, create images in a reader’s mind that primarily stimulate setting and character in a fiction story. It’s a matter of choice, imagination, purpose, and style, and very individual. Using basic-story information of plot momentum, let's augment basic story action-information with setting and characterization with authorial style changes as examples.

They went to the birthday party of a man. Is it appropriate to develop setting and character in scene or narrative when the plot purpose is to simply move characters to a party? Will it inhibit or captivate a reader’s interest? Consider these examples.

Examples of style change with use of imagery.


The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked through the valley. The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. 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.

2) BASIC PLOT information but DIFFERENT IMAGES. A different fiction-prose style.

The packed cable car left Fisherman’s wharf with a bell clang and a screech of steel on steel. Most of my fellow students had some colorfully wrapped birthday gift to give to Mr. Faraday. I teetered on an outer step of the car holding a hand rail while being jostled between a muscular middle-aged man in a skin-tight cyclist suit and aerodynamically sleek helmet and a reeking, unshaven, wrinkled old man in a torn, too-big, woolen overcoat.  The cable car nosed down after we turned onto Powell and we shifted our weight to remain as close to upright as possible.  Without warning, rain pelted my face, and I knew by the squishy feel of the rolled white-paper banner that I had painted with purple-ink birthday greetings was ruined.

3) The above image-detail may be too much and exaggerated for some stories, an unacceptable style. Here using same plot basic information, people going to a party, is the same story development WITHOUT IMAGERY that emphasizes characterization.

All the students were crowded into the bus. We silently resented the trip to our professor’s pretentious and unwelcoming mansion for his birthday celebration to pronounce our fallacious– but demanded–admiration for him. When we arrived, dense rain fell us as we stepped from the bus and the celebration banner I had painted was ruined and I threw it under the bus, happy not to have to exude feigned respect.

Take Away.

With careful thought and considered judgement, images in a fiction-writer’s story can delineate style, build characters, and stimulate setting visualization. But it may be easy to overdo in some styles to the detriment of story momentum and loss of reader engagement.

Stories that use images to stimulate setting visualization and enhance characterization.
Speaking of the Dead
The Miracle of Madame Villard



Speaking of the Dead
The Miracle of Madame Villard

Speaking Of The Dead by William H. Coles

Speaking of the Dead, a short story by William H. Coles
Illustration by Betty Harper

The Miracle of Madame Villard

The Miracle of Madame Villard

The Miracle of Madame Villard, a short story by William H. Coles
Illustration by Peter Healy

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The effect of passive voice on your fiction-writing style. Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

If your fiction prose-stories don’t attract readers, one culprit may be nonjudicious use of the passive voice related to style and craft proficiency. To moderate style, a writer needs to know passive construction and understand both the effective and often-detrimental uses of passive.  Here’s a concise, valuable overview.

EXAMPLES: Compare the effects of these two passages:
The inscriptions on the gravestones were obscured by darkness but the marble was still cracked by Jason’s hammer-strike as a photograph was taken by a hidden camera.

Darkness obscured the gravestone inscriptions but Jason cracked the marble with a hammer strike as a hidden camera took a photograph.

A common purpose of passive use is to change the focus of attention in the sentence from the subject to the object.

Active:  The whale swallowed Pinocchio.  An ACTIVE sentence emphasizes who did something (the doer).
Passive:   Pinocchio was swallowed by the whale.  In the PASSIVE, the object becomes more important than the "doer" and the “doer” of the action becomes  the subject.

Also in the passive,  the "doer" (1) may not be revealed or (2) may be revealed with the use of “by” followed by the “doer”.

Active: The intruder murdered the woman.  (The intruder is the subject “doer”; woman is the object.)

Passive: The woman was murdered.   (Object becomes the subject, the “doer” is not revealed.)

Passived: The woman was murdered by the intruder. ("Doer" is revealed at  sentence end using "by" followed by the "doer" noun.)

In essence, passive is often used when the FOCUS is on:

1) what happened–focus is on the object:

Passive. I was attacked by a stranger.  Compare active:  A stranger attacked me.

2) who carried out the action.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe was painted by Manet.

3) how the action was carried out:

The solo was played beautifully.

OR when the “DOER”:

4) is unknown.

The cathedral was built in 1245.

5) does not want to be identified

Murders were committed.

Other uses of the passive.
Promotion of indirect objects, idiomatic combinations, prepositional passives, content clauses, impersonal passive, adjectival uses, double passives…

Undoubtedly, most successful prose-fiction storytellers don’t need to spend too much time worrying about the details of passive tense. They default to creating by instinct. But for some literary fiction styles, unnecessary overuse of the passive may be detrimental; the passive may be weaker, wordier, and more indirect than the active which is direct and vigorous. And a passive has potential for erasing who performs the action therefore avoiding the agent’s responsibility for the action.  [Example: Crucial statistics were deleted from our files.]

Although avoidance of the passive has been advised by many teachers of writing, the passive is often the better choice for clear expression: when the actor is unimportant, unknown, or needs to be hidden; when the focus of the sentence is on what is being acted upon; to maintain point of view; or simply when it sounds better. (see Bryan A. Garner and Joseph M. Williams below).

In summary, knowledge and controlled use of the passive in literary fiction stories can improve a writer’s style with clarity and focus on verb, subject, object emphasis that improves reader engagement and understanding.

Thanks for reading.
William H. Coles

Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. pp. 676–677. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
-Williams, Joseph M. (2015). Bizup, Joseph, ed. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (5th ed.). Pearson. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-321-95330-8.

STORY IN FICTION by William H. Coles

Books by William H. Coles

Looking for a good book of literary fiction?
TRYThe Surgeon’s Wife by William H. Coles
[and other novels and short stories: McDowell, Guardian of Deceit, The Spirit of Want, Sister Carrie, Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016]

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Why Select Stories Succeed Best as Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Great literary fiction storytelling as an art form is not for all readers, and its success is not measured solely on volume of commercial book sales but rather the number of readers moved or enlightened by characters and story, usually about what it means to be human. Many of the literary stories that have lasted into new generations of readers have important, common characteristics; here are the principles.

1. Characterization.
The fictional humans that populate successful literary fiction seem real to the reader, either in the context of the reader’s world, or the story world created by the author. It is the creation of these “real “characters to be moved by as well as to move story events that assembles character-based story and plot in most successful literary fiction.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “. . . they [characters] live and are complex by means of their effect upon many different people who serve to mirror them in the round. . ." When considering “. . . the permanent quality of literature . . . think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains . . . a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values.

2. Author’s role.
Woolf taught us: “Always in imaginative literature, . . . characters speak for themselves and the author has no part . . .”  In effect, there is no “I” in most great literary fiction. Woolf, in  A Common Reader, gives Emily Brontë as an example; “. . . she was inspired by some more general conception. The impulse which urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel [Wuthering Heights]— a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely ‘I love’ or ‘I hate’, but ‘we, the whole human race’ and ‘you, the eternal powers . . .’ ”

3. Narrative voices.
Contemporary stories depend on particular action to keep a story moving. In developing character, there is often a shift from “. . . the actual body with all its associations and movements . . .” to the general, [abstract], more poetic prose. Woolf suggests, for literary fiction, the need for a voice that combines action and poetics without interrupting the movement of the story whole, a voice “similar to what the choruses of Greek drama supplied–the old men or women who take no active part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception. Always in imaginative literature, where characters speak for themselves and the author has no part, the need of that voice [similar to a chorus] is making itself felt.

To some extent, memoir and creative nonfiction have invaded the realm of imaginative literary fiction melding memoir and biography with fiction as literature. The dissapearance of classic-fiction stories is at least partially due to academics failing to educate writing students to the intricacies of the great, successful literary fiction of the past.

Thanks for reading. William H. Coles.

References: Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader ISBN 978-0-15-602778-6; Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader ISBN 0-15-602816-6

Illustration by David Riley for the short story “Nemesis”, by William H. Coles

Thirty-four original stories read by the author.

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When to use backstory in literary fiction Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

In general, in fiction, backstory should only be employed to advance the front story.  For excellence, the concept is almost always required in short stories but is also useful in the broader sweep of a novel.

Example 1. Scene: no backstory. Story momentum intact.

The curtain parted just far enough for Maria to step forward into the spotlight and then closed.  She bowed to the audience applause and cupped one hand in the other in a gesture of formality.  She nodded to the piano player who, after a pause, started playing to guide her to the always difficult major-seventh opening note of the aria.  The first flush of the piano introductory chords expanded out over the audience.  Maria listened for the cue to pinpoint her starting note, it was coming . . .oh, no! but the pianist skipped the refrain with her critical cue note she must have.  Would he still recover, do it right?  She glared, tried to make eye contact. He plodded on.  The audience turned into a thousand hostile critics instead of an adoring group of friends she liked to imagine.  He’d circumnavigated to return to the intro. He was seven bars from her entrance.  It was coming!.  God!  She took a deep breath, searching her memory for some clue to her starting pitch that had now escaped her the strain an impending failure.

Example 2. Scene with backstory (italicized). Same story but momentum interrupted by backstory.

The curtain parted just far enough for Maria to step forward into the spotlight and then closed. She bowed to the audience applause and cupped one hand in the other in a gesture of formality.  She nodded to the pianist who started the intro.  She had met with him briefly yesterday.  A dull sullen young man, but attractive with dark brown eyes and an inerasable black shadow of a dark beard shaved hours ago.  She had carefully explained how she needed the refrain in the intro before the aria.  She could only start when she heard the fifth to orient her to the nonchordal tone the composer insisted on using.  She thought he had understood. And they had practiced, in the short time available, all the passages religiously.  Now he’d forgotten the refrain.  He finished the intro and went directly to the aria.  Panic rose in her.  She could never hit the crucial major seventh so unique to this composer . . . but she had to go forward.  She felt the audience’s expectant stares, heard their breathing.  When she sang the note, the pianist’s head jerked toward her.  He knew what he had done.

To build as a significant dramatic happening with impact, the scene needs momentum. Backstory stops the momentum as a result of authorial lack of purpose. Indeed, if information about the accompanist—attraction, dislike, lack of respect for his talent, etc.—is important to the story, it should be skillfully embedded outside this action-scene. As is, it represents an author intent on just writing—filling a space with written words–rather than dedication to structuring and creating a story for the purpose of engaging, entertaining, and enlightening a reader.

Thanks for reading

Preparing to Write the Great Literary Story

Suchins Escape

Suchin’s Escape, short-story illustration by Peter Healy

Looking for a good book you can’t put down? Try these novels by William H. Coles:
Guardian of Deceit
The Spirit of Want
The Surgeon’s Wife
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016

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Action and Imagery Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Concepts for making your story writing better.

A story in fiction, to be admired and remembered, needs, among many, these essential elements—action, conflict, and active imageic-words.

In-scene storytelling is often more effective to engage and involve readers than telling-narration. The first example tells of a happening in narrative; the second, for comparison, is written in scene.


Harry flew a kite at the beach to entertain his invalid son but the kite got away, and Harry seethed with anger.

Many writers would think that changing from past to present tense would provide immediacy of action. Harry flies a kite at the beach to entertain his invalid son but the kite gets away, and Harry seethes with anger. From a reader’s pleasure-view, not much improvement. And, in fact, in-scene reader involvement can be well established in past tense (without inherent problems of present tense), and is usually preferable, at least here.

Compare in scene

Here is the same scene with the idea expressed using expanded, selected word choice; insertion of active (rather than passive) construction; and use of concrete imagery… all bolded to emphasize.

A wind gust elevated the dragon kite and the string ran through Harry’s hand fast enough to hurt.
        “Let me do it, Daddy,” his son Raymond said as he limped to Harry’s side. The boy held out his hand that, when awake, trembled from a congenital palsy. Could he hold the string? Fly the kite? He wanted to so badly.
        “Hold tight,” Harry urged, placing the string in the boy’s hand. The kite dipped then suddenly soared, the string taught again.
        The boy cried out. “I dropped it.” Harry reached out but the kite had lofted too far to grab the trailing string.
        The kite disappeared, driven out to the sea by the force of the wind.
        “I didn’t mean too,” the boy said, “Please don’t hit me.”

Note the words:

Active verbs: elevated, ran through (hand), hurt, limped, trembled, dipped, soared, dropped, lofted, disappeared, hit.
Concrete nouns: gust, palsy, string, sea.
Concrete modifiers: dragon, taught, trailing.

To improve as a fiction writer and storyteller:
1)  ritualize use of a dictionary and Thesaurus to search for the right words;
2) develop in-scene writing techniques (to replace narrative telling); be concrete–not abstract; keep perspective close to the action; keep characters’ sensations in their senses—sight, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling;
3) avoid passive constructions; and
4) rigorously seek the right balance for the story being told between narrative and in-scene telling.

Thanks for reading!


What do you do to make scenes come alive in literary fiction?
Keep readers involved when writing literary fiction stories

Creating Literary Stories

Looking for award-winning fiction books to read? By William H. Coles! TRY…
Guardian of Deceit
The Spirit of Want
The Surgeon’s Wife
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016

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