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Literary Fiction Needs Writers Who Care About Story Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

These are tough times for literature. Fewer humans read for pleasure; publishers seek a true story, usually with salacious innards; and writers have lost the art of entertaining through a prose fictional story.

Literary writers shun the advantages of fiction

In truth, contemporary literary writers mostly write for themselves.  They are a fraternal bunch, obsessed with the clever metaphor or the strident oxymoron, intent on telling the reader about meaning rather than allowing a story to reveal significance, and searching their own existence for material.   These writers find readers who are like themselves, like poets at a slam, and they have long ago turned away those readers who enjoy a great story well told that is meaningful and unforgettable. In contemporary writing, stories progress based on shocking turns in the plot, overwrought voice, and faulty ideation that results from writing from experience. Rarely does the contemporary story evoke enlightenment in what it means to be human.

At the core of the problem is intuitive writing.  Many contemporary writers, even those who are published as fiction writers, are often writing memoir, autobiography or creative nonfiction as fiction.  This blurs the value of true fiction that entertains the reader and demonstrates, through story action and character development, significant enlightenment about what it really means to be human.   Contemporary writers frequently use the “I” protagonist—it is intuitive and easier to write since it depends on description of events, often from experience, rather than creating an imagined story.  But it is ego dominant and detracts from substantial character development.  These writers tell stories they’ve experienced as they would tell the story to themselves, unable to create a story in the dramatic ways fiction has developed over the last two centuries.

How does the talented literary writer achieve purpose in a literary fictional story?   Admittedly, it’s like trying to capture butterflies with chopsticks.  Here are only a few essentials:

  • There must be a quality idea for a story.
  • The story must be thought out thoroughly before writing.
  • Action dialogue and setting in story are imagined as the story is constructed, for maximum effect on the reader and for remaining true to story quality.
  • The story is written as a matrix of emotions with related details added, each with a clear purpose for story beginning, middle and end; a story is not details thrown one by one into a still-water pond to see what will happen until the author loses interest.
  • Enlightenment should come from story action, not narrator or author telling.
  • Emotions should be embedded in in-scene action, not told with abstractions and modifiers.
  • Characters must grow with a logical progression of actions, emotions and thoughts that are essential to the story.
  • Characters should be credible, if not likable.
  • The reader must be allowed to believe in characters, setting and plot.
  • Stories should be structured on a clear timeline.
  • Stories should have a series of dramatic scenes that are interrelated.
  • Characters should have identifiable emotional progress and change.
  • Characters must have believable choices and freewill (no fatalism).
  • A story should have an unanswerable metaphysical question. This may not be expressed, but it has to be embedded in the development.
  • Narration of the story must not be authorial, but it must be in control of the author.
  • Something has to happen, and the ending must have some significance.

This is said assuming a writer has mastered craft and style in ways that provide energy, momentum and drama (conflict, action and resolution) to the writing.  Unfortunately today, craft and style that contribute to a good story and solid prose fiction are not strengths of many contemporary published authors.

Fiction as an art form needs sharp definition.  Fiction allows prose to produce the most enjoyable and memorable stories.  To continue to label other forms of legitimate writing as fiction will continue to rebuff readers who read fictional stories for pleasure; it will also fail to attract readers to prose as a pleasurable way to meet their story needs.

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