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

REFERENCES:
Preparing to Write the Great Literary Story
Momentum

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:
McDowell
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.

Narrative

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!

REFERENCES:

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

Creating Literary Stories

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

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Are you a storyteller? Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Every living human has a story to tell, and most believe they'll get around to it someday… and if they get around to it, they'll be blissfully successful even if totally unaware of what a story is and how difficult it is to do well.

Of course, stories can be how you want to think they are–memoirs, essay, non-fiction, history, character sketches, creative journalism, diary entries, or even letters, but the literary story (a written work that is considered lasting and of artistic merit) has proven to be the most long-lasting written form for the last few centuries. It's one thing to scribble away to get your story onto paper, even published, without attaining thresholds of excellence to please a reader– thresholds of engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment. If you love your characters, and thrive on pride in the content of your story, you owe it to yourself to do the best you can to succeed by creating a story with potential to be read, assimilated, admired, and remembered. Consider this.

Great stories:
1. Provide character and pilot movement through time organized by the author, and not described as randomly-displaced, disjointed events from reality revealed with obscuration of origin and meaning.
2. Are infused with drama.
3. Emphasize characterization.
4. Create plots with architecture and credibility, theme and meaning.
5. Narrate to provide effective story information, images, and ideation.
7. Excite with excellent prose.
8. Require imagination and creativity rather than just remembering and describing.

Wait, you say. I want to tell my story . . . a story about me, my family, my experiences, my friends and acquaintances . . . a memoir that comes from the heart and doesn’t need contrived structuring and superfluous overthinking. Well then, great, if that's how you feel, just do it do it and all the best. And if you're a good writer, your work may well be received and lauded. But for those storytellers dedicated to excellence in writing fiction as literature, great stories are created by diligent intellectual pursuit of knowledge about story construction and experience in writing effective, clear, logical prose. And most important, for excellence, fiction writers must have an unvarying desire to engage, entertain, and enlighten a reader. To write well and create a great literary fiction story is a path to lasting pride and satisfaction.

KEY REFERENCES (available  online free to read or download).
Literary Fictional Story
Author’s Attitudes
How Literary Stories Go Wrong
Conflict in Literary Fiction

"Facing Grace with Gloria", a short story by William H. Coles available free for online reading and listening… and download.

Illustration by Peter Healy

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What EM Forster taught us about flat and round characters and how to use it. Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

In Aspects of the Novel (1927), EM Forster wrote ideas, now cherished by many writers, about flat and round characters. Here are highlights of ideas expressed in the book.

Flat characters, in pure form, are constructed around a single idea or quality, are so consistent without change that they are easily recognized and remembered, may be summed up in a few words. not as great achievements as round characters, and are best when comic rather than tragic.  Contrary to many contemporary thinkers, flat characters are very useful to authors; they “never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.” The complexity of the novel “often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life more accurately.” “It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings” (except humor and appropriateness).

“All [of Austen’s] characters are round, or capable of rotundity,” are never caricatures, and are highly organized. A round character gives readers a slightly new pleasure each time they come into the story, as opposed to the merely repetitive-pleasure result of a flat character.

"The perfect novelist touches all his material directly, seems to pass the creative finger down every sentence and into every word. The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.” Rotundity achieves the novelist’s task of acclimatization and harmonizes the human race with the fiction.

Authors immersed in telling their own process fail to achieve effective characterization. “It is [author] confidences about the individual people that do harm, and beckon the reader away from the people to an examination of the novelist’s mind.  The novelists “who betrays too much interest in their own method can never be more than interesting; [they have] given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyze [their] own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.

Forster shares good advice and admirable thinking, and here is what the contemporary novelist has to build characters: description, internal reflection; action; conflict and resolution; emotional arcs; vibrant, purposeful dialogue; motivations and desires; narration; point of view, and change. Great characterization is the gift of complexity and construction a fiction author taps to create great, lasting, memorable, and meaningful characters that populate the best of literary stories.

The attitude and skills for the writer of great literary-fiction stories are: imagine and create, not just remember and describe.

RESOURCES

Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster (1927)

storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/

fictioneditorsopinions.com

A short story, “The Miracle of Madame Villard”. Available online free to read or download (and MP3) and suggested as examples of flat and round characters.

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Keep readers involved when writing literary fiction stories Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

If you write a literary story to engage, involve, and enlighten receptive readers, you should (1) as an author, know the story world well and create characters from their unique worldviews (2) create a narrator who is of the story world, not you the author, (the author creates the narrator with that narrator's unique worldview, experiences, and memory). Author as narrator is a habit that constricts creativity and promotes narrative description from a fixed reality rather than creating with imagination in a literary fiction story.

Imagined and creative storytelling inspires mystery, suspense, pending discovery, moral perplexity, and surprise in the story world. And in every good story, something else is going to be discovered or happen.  Don’t create so nothing can happen. Don’t let the ideation, dialogue, or imagery of your fiction descend to inaction. Involve the reader’s mind with options and opportunities, obstacles to be conquered, solid stimulating imagery, and the unexpected. When you ignore opportunities to engage your readers, you commit your style to cliché and stereotypes. Here are examples of ways to keep readers involved.

EXAMPLE 1

“Lock that damn dog in the garage.”

“Okay.”

Comment: Response kills action and suspense.

“Lock that damn dog in the garage,” George said.

“He bites!”

Comment: Response inserts possible danger … and adds suspense.

“Lock that damn dog in the garage,” George said.

“Mother would never allow that.”

Comment: Response adds to characterization.

Note: sometimes no direct response adds suspense by allowing the reader to wonder.

EXAMPLE 2

Claire led the police to the bathroom. Harold’s torso was submerged, his head back on the edge of the tub.

“Where are the goddamn the winnings?” Claire screamed, gripping Harold’s arm near the shoulder.

“He’s dead,” the cop said.

She dropped to her knees and sobbed.

Comment: Don’t kill off characters when they may supply mystery and suspense and keep plot moving. What if the author used–

“He’s breathing!” the cop said, awkwardly struggling to apply CPR.

She shook Harold again. “You creep. Where’s the lock-box key?”

Comment: When character’s die, character development stops, removing opportunity for suspense and mystery.

EXAMPLE 3  You can infuse mystery and suspense in descriptive narrative.

He hit the tennis ball out.

Comment: The action is closed. But there is opportunity to keep the prose alive.

He hit the ball with a soft touch and the ball arched over Jeremy’s head, descending toward the backline.

EXAMPLE 4

He didn’t believe in God. Or heaven.

Comment. Character’s ideas are shut leaving no opening for change. Provide uncertainty .

Could he ever believe in a God that would allow him to be falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, and be doomed to live without faith in devine justice? It would be hell. Could he bear it?

EXAMPLE 5 (Keep prose active and vibrant–with a sense of in the moment.)

Imageic language enhanced with motion and conflict maintains a reader’s interest word by word. In writing, the reader’s mind is active in creating and forming images. Basically, successful authors don’t create still-life images, they paint action scenes that intrigue and engage the reader with images that live on the page.

–Static. Not effective. There was a bird on a limb.

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

–A lot of energy with action and imagery. The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. 

MESSAGE. Great literary fiction stories are living works of art. The reader is involved. Memoir, creative nonfiction, biography, character sketch, essay, will not, by nature, provide imagined work that engages a reader with the potential of a literary fiction story.

RESOURCE

https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/

STORY EXAMPLES

The Miracle of Madame Villard

Speaking of the Dead

Thanks for reading! William H. Coles

Speaking Of The Dead by William H. Coles

“Speaking of the Dead” A Short Story by William H. Coles.
Illustration by Betty Harper

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Fictional Dream, Literary Style, and Storytelling. Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Improve writing of fiction stories.

Literature (written works of superior, lasting quality as an “art form” and fiction (imagined story and characters) are specific concepts that vitalize a writer to engage, entertain, and enlighten readers and achieve acceptance and endearment of the writer as storyteller and master of written works.

Engagement of a reader is a beneficial authorial achievement; invariably readers enjoy and learn from stories they feel a part of. To improve the skill, writers must find and correct individual strengths and weaknesses compatible with their style. No golden rules exist; but essential creative ideas abound in the talented writer.

Quality in-scene narration can be essential for a writer to capture the reader and give space for the reader to participate in the conflicts, characterizations, enlightenments that the fiction story can provide. Space means creating, for example, through action, dialogue, resolutions, morality, discovery, a character that one reader might say, wow! I love a story about a faulty hero while another reader might simultaneously think about the same character, an antihero is exactly what provides reality and credibility here. Written story-works provide opportunities for readers to build their own unique, internalized interpretations of characters and story (created and directed by the author, of course) that satisfy and please by discovery.

John Gardner introduced the concept of the fictional dream, an idea that has been inspected, interpreted, dissected, revised, and often ignored for decades. Basically, a writer creates a dream for the reader that is like submerging into an oceanic fictional world where characters and story absorb the reader without forcing the reader to leave the dream and "break the surface" back into reality.

Writers often break a reader’s fictional-dream with correctable errors such as: non-sequiturs, lack of logic or credibility, grammatical errors, inappropriate metaphor, misspellings, inaccurate word choice, faulty ideation, and–a most common correctable error–poor narrative choice or delivery. Story narrators provide crucial story information outside a character’s knowledge or capabilities such as exposition, pre-scene setup, anecdote, commentary, back story. To maintain a reader in the fictive story-dream, narrator-information is discreetly infused in scènes and narrative passages without calling attention to narrator presence.

Examples. The scene: an inexperienced pilot goes into a death spiral killing himself and his passenger.

1) She prayed when Harry gripped the Cessna’s throttle so tight his knuckles turned white; the engine whining on the edge of a power stall, the wing dipping to pull us into a death spiral. Harry moaned, frozen in fear. Her eyes stared to the side window where views of the earth alternated with the clouds in terrifying disorientation. And then, in an instant and with inexplicable surprise, she felt nothing—her senses stripped.

Comment. 3rd person POV. In-context, reader concentration and story involvement maintained.

2) She never wanted to take this flight. Heights terrified her. And she was sick from the erratic lurches they were experiencing. The engine whined as the nose of the Cessna rotated up. Harry had less than 35 hours of instrument training, a death spiral from loss of control could kill them. They were less than 3000 feet from the ground. The wing dipped, the plane plunged twisting toward the earth to impact a few seconds later, exploding, dark fuel-smoke whorling upward . . . the world turning silent.

Comment. A narrator describes action and exposition–the reader is an observer–blocking potential for a fictional dream.

Caution. Even though the concept of fictional dream is not well understood and is subject to different interpretations and acceptance, awareness of the fiction dream helps authors to engage, entertain, and enlighten a reader by mastering storytelling narrative techniques and writing competency.

READ story examples of fictional dream FREE online or PDF download:

The Amish Girl  (short story)

Dilemma  (short short)

Crossing Over  (short short)

The Amish Girl

“The Amish Girl” a short story by William H. Coles

Illustration by Dilleen Marsh

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How funny are you?

William H. Coles

How funny are you? Do you make people smile and laugh? Is anyone void of humor?

For fiction writers, these are not trivial questions. A literary writer builds and molds character to an imagined story. Since most characters need some aspect of humor, what is humor all about for a writer?

I  interviewed  two comedy professionals (husband and wife): Kevin Nealon, film actor, TV (Weeds, Man with a Plan), standup comedian, and in cast of Saturday Night Live (1986–1995, 174 episodes) and creator of memorable characters such as Hans, Mr. Subliminal, and Weekend Edition; Susan Yealey, television actor and show host, film star (Mascots), comedy series, (Parks and Recreation, Rules of Engagement) who trained at USC film school and the Groundlings in LA.

I started with the question–can a human exist without a sense of humor?

Humor is an elemental way humans release tensions–the body needs to have that sense of release–and humans use humor to connect with each other. Probably all humans have at least the potential for a sense of humor. It is obvious that humor varies relating to background, social perceptions, geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, to name a few essentials.

It's probably no surprise that surprise is at the core of the instigation of the humor response. You can find it in a misunderstanding, or a misdirection: stimuli based on expressing something we never thought about before, often in a form of syntactical manipulation. And it’s always based on the design to surprise.

Misunderstanding–This woman was in a dress shop and found a dress she liked. “Could I try on that dress in the window?” she said. The shop assistant looked up: “Sorry, Madame, you’ll have to use the changing rooms like everyone else."

Misdirection–A CEO stands before his company’s shareholders to honor an employee for twenty-five years of loyal service. Today we would like to thank Albert for his service to our company. Albert is someone who does not know the meaning of impossible task, who does not know the meaning of lunch break, who does not understand the meaning of the word no. So we have taken a collection and bought Albert a dictionary.

[Simple examples, neither a Yeagley or Nealon joke.]

And of course humor is timing too.  Subconsciously, a comedian knows how people think, knows how long it takes for them to process something, knows the direction they are thinking, and then lays the punchline, or whatever, at that moment when you know recipient is processing something in a different way.

It's complicated so take pleasure in the reading THE COMPLETE YEAGLEY/NEALON INTERVIEW (FREE).  Read how these comedians comment on humor and develop humorous stories using the elements above… and much more.

AND YOU CAN READ A SHORT STORY BY WILLIAM H COLES (FREE) with serious content where humor is embedded for relief and distraction–FACING GRACE WITH GLORIAA half-crazy vagrant easy on untruths and skilled at the art of scam meets a young woman whose father died in a river crash of a commercial jet. She thinks her father was a hero and seeks to find the truth; the vagrant lets the girl believe he saw the crash to scam her but changed by caring and a wash of moral integrity, allows the girl to believe in her father's heroism.

Thanks for reading. What does humor mean to you?
All the best.
William H. Coles


Susan Yeagley and Kevin Nealon interview


Illustration from "Facing Grace with Gloria"

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Mastering the Power of Literary Story Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

A writer’s imagination in fiction opens the gates to creating great literary stories. To shape great literary stories, authors master skillful characterization and apply centuries-proved story structure that has matured from creative writers of the past.

Most writers today dream of a writer’s life style and acclaim; they write for admiration, fame and fortune. Nothing wrong with that; it brings successful careers for many. But some writers want to create stories that last into future generations and will provide understanding of  the constantly-evolving meaning of being human. Literary fiction stories can uniquely portray thoughts and emotions, nature of love, core human desires, sense of morality, transmit the soul of their generations with lasting penetrating impact that visual storytelling modes (such as film, video) often lack.

How can a writer today achieve memorable meritorious stories about events and people as great literature? So many of the past great fiction writers–Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Bronte(s), Sophocles, Hemingway, Faulkner, Homer, Austen, Conrad, Melville, Forster, Woolf, and so many others–reveal how humans live and how life changes them. There are no secret formulas but there are commonalities that generate power to move readers and propel stories to evolve with mankind into future generations.

 

Elemental Truths For Learning to Create Great Fiction

1) WRITE WITH PURPOSE. Does the writer want fame and fortune, or engage, entertain, and enlighten readers in significant and individual ways by imaginative and skillful story presentation.
2) THEME AND MEANING. Theme is recurrent ideas; meaning is significant ideas. Lasting stories contain both.
3) CHANGE.  Characters change as stories progress and so do readers after reading a great story. Examples: enlightenment (discovery or experience a new way of thinking), a shift in morality, a reversal in thinking, a coming of age.
4) DRAMA. Drama is conflict, action, resolution and is useful in many levels of story writing, character development, plot, scene construction, and prose. Dramatization is the major skill for characterization, especially with skills in writing in-scene, dramatic conflict and action.
5) UNIQUE AND FASCINATING CHARACTERS.
—a) Major characters’ CORE DESIRES, which they rarely know and keep secret.
—b) Logical and credible MOTIVATIONS.
—c) Sense of  MORALITY dramatized.
6) STRUCTURE.
Almost all great stories are structured in the telling: beginning, middle, and end and paced story-related ideas and happenings only.  In literary stories consider:
—a) Carefully considered TIMELINE for credibility and comprehension.
—b) CHARACTER-BASED PLOTS. Character desires and motivations, strengths and weaknesses help drive story plot (with less reliance on fatalism or serendipity).
—c) Emotional ARCS (e.g. angry–>loving).
—d) Logical and credible ideas and happenings SEQUENCED with transitions.

Thanks for reading. For more on creating literary fiction stories, see www.storyinliteraryfiction.com, a resource for writers with more that 1.5 million views and/or look at Creating Literary Stories: A Guide for Fiction Writers.

The Surgeon’s Wife.
Award-winning novel set in New Orleans by William H. Coles.

Illustrations by Betty Harper

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Achieve character-driven plots in literary fiction. Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

To be admired and be successful, literary writers need the skill of developing character-driven plots, important because the purpose of literary fiction is to provide new awareness or reawakening in the reader about something significant–-i.e. meaning–usually what it means to be human. To nurture significance in a story that is character-driven, the character should be created through action and description so the literary-story plot makes its interesting turns from the character’s strengths and weaknesses, desires and motivations.

In the great literary story, the character always changes. Something happens that will never allow character to be as they were before (an enlightenment). This is not easy, and writers must be careful not to always depend on real, fatalistic happenings (autobiographical material which is often presented in narration as fiction). Writers must find what drives the character and then present the inspiration to the reader in action scenes and objective, active prose (Tears ran down her cheeks), rather than subjective abstract, often static, prose (She felt so sad! She cried.) Characters built with imagination-stimulating action scenes rich with conflict and resolution illuminate the character and engage the reader. And these characters integrate into the story so the plot results from their actions, rather than their acting as a ventriloquist’s dummy. In fiction prose, character-based plotting is a gift of storytelling for writers and readers. So, as writers learn to know their characters (and respect or even love them), they can restructure the story so the character-based plot results from character-action scenes.

Choice of point of view (POV) is important; the right choices contribute to story success. Single, multiple, 1st or 3rd, each has advantages and disadvantages. Using different POVs (and the voices that are associated with story information delivered through these POVs), can provide enhanced story-impact. In addition, narrator and character purpose (and function) in the story needs to be identified. Why this story? Why this character?

When recreating a story in revision in a series of action-conflict scenes and carefully constructed narrative transitions, a story with a vibrant character evolves that affects the plot action that is the skeleton for the story. Character-based. Note, this is not slotting the character into the plot maze, it’s allowing the character’s human strengths and weaknesses to move plot. The writer discovers how character desires and traits result in plot progression.

All this is not easy, but to achieve character-based story-plotting places a writer on the path of writing with significance . . . plus pleasing the writer’s targeted group of readers.

Thanks for reading.

EXAMPLES OF SHORT STORIES with character-driven plots (FREE online):
Facing Grace with Gloria
Homunculus
The Gift
The Activist
Inside the Matryoshka

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Genre Disses Contemporary Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

At a recent writers’ workshop-conference for thriller and mystery writers taught by two bestselling authors in their genres, the state of contemporary literary fiction was dissed as being self-serving and small. Who wants to hear about another dysfunctional family or an abusive childhood, or my extraordinary recovery from drug addiction? Why is there no resolution in literary fiction? (There is often no conflict.) Why is contemporary literary fiction always, in some way, about me, the author, without objective storytelling and characterization?

Most literary-fiction writers in the audience silently agreed–a majority of academically-trained literary writers fail to create adequate stories . . . and fail to achieve narration that can engage and please any reader who is not related to or trained in academics (private or college/university workshops or MFA programs). In the discussions, genre writers and reviewers found fault in the "littleness" of contemporary “literary” writers' conceptualizations of story and failure to address the major issues of today's global society. Academic-generated “literature” writing has decreased the acceptance and respect readers have for fiction as literature as an art form and bears little resemblance to the literary fiction as evolved in the past.

Genre depends on strong plot and is viably commercially but does not develop character in-depth with literary, psychic, psychological prose, and plot, at risk of losing plot momentum, suspense, and thrills. Genre writers often describe characters and plots with catastrophic, or the threat of catastrophic, results or familiar tried-and-dependable plots that easily trigger emotions. And, to be sure, these hard-earned stories are worthy of praise for significant accomplishment.

In contrast, today’s few but dedicated literary-writers depend on the power of classic fiction techniques–Chekov, Tolstoy, Conrad, Forster, Homer, Austen, Hawthorne, Melville, and the like, when literary imagined-fiction did deal with broad, important human, social, and political issues of the times . . . stories created through meticulous character development, character involvement in plot momentum, and character and reader enlightenment as an equally effective, and often better, way for prose to deliver understanding of human change in well-presented social and political environments. Almost all published contemporary "literary" stories are written by academically-trained "literary" authors who believe they're writing works of lasting quality and artistic merit but are actually the source of declining interest and rejection of "literature." The fault lies with academic teachers who have generally failed in teaching the creation of enthusiastically-accepted, traditionally-created fiction in favor of, or at least in addition to, encouraging nonfiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, biography, celebrity platform-based writing (that is not infrequently labeled literary or general fiction). In academic teaching, there is an emphasis on me, the author, and writing by remembering events and people to describe rather than imagining and creating story and character. The literature-of-self. The commercial decline of "literature" is a result of weak storytelling touted as "literature" and marketed as "extraordinary" and "bestseller" but written by "academically" trained writers rarely, if ever, tutored in storytelling and characterization skills of past literary greats.  And if traditional publishers and agents could occasionally focus on: storytelling with character-based, dramatic plots; intense skillful characterization; and theme and meaning in the traditions of the past, literature might again be admired as art that would have longevity and could be commercially self-sustaining.

At the conference, two genre authors widely read and with impressive commercial success had identified a problematic fact without a solution and conference participants felt a loss of literature-as-an-art-form. If literary writers are to assist in establishing literature as art again, they will soon have to seek better training in creating effective prose and learning compelling storytelling. And those writers will not be judged alone by commercial success but by the significant impact of story and character on receptive readers. Writers seeking success in literary achievement will need to analyze and determine how the great authors of the past they admire achieved memorability and significance and then seek a trained teacher who writes well and is a gifted educator willing to mentor the student in writing excellence in literature using the techniques of past generations adapted to the contemporary needs and wants of readers of literature.

William H. Coles

RESOURCES: (free) online essays.

Academic Fiction: A Distinct Genre
Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence
A reviewer's perspective (Viga Boland)  McDowell 

Speaking Of The Dead by William H. Coles

Speaking of the Dead,” a short story (available online, free) by William H. Coles with a character-based plot, focus on characterization, inherent meaning about being human, and a theme of forgiveness.

Illustration by Betty Harper

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