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Imagination in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Literary fiction is critically dependent on the appropriate use of the imagination. Yet, much of contemporary fiction seems void of imaginative input, either because the author lacks imagination, or – and more likely – does not use imagination effectively.

One trap for an author is to use imagination in characterization that becomes bizarre in the search for the unique.  As a working example, consider a thirty-year-old unwed mother.  She has brown eyes, auburn hair and a ruddy dark complexion.  So far, a rather ordinary character.  Many authors will mistakenly seek alternatives in traits or description, thinking the unique character is one that is markedly different.  One commonly used trick is to give the character a disease the author thinks the reader won’t know about – such as von Willebrand Disease (a bleeding disorder) or retinitis pigmentosa (blinding eye disease).  Or even more out of sync with good character development, is to make the character look odd.  Give the mother a Mohawk hair cut, hair in the ears, an amputated hand or foot, vitaligo (a skin disease of color irregularities).  These are all attempts to make the character different, but they ignore valid strength in characterization that comes from learning about the character’s soul, morality, adaptive capabilities, kindnesses versus meanness and cruelty, etc.  This in-depth type of characterization is best developed dramatically, through conflict, action, and resolution, and developed usually through the character's behavior and prose telling.

So, to apply this idea to our mother character above, we might imagine situations that would reveal a lot about how she thinks, what she believes, who she is.  Let's make her pregnant in the first trimester.   She doesn’t care for the father of the child, who is in prison on an assault conviction (implies, maybe, bad genes); she has been fired from her waitress job because of arguing with customers over their “demands for service” and has no income to support another child; and she doesn’t like mothering the child she has.  Now she considers abortion.   But she is pro-life: she’s demonstrated against abortion and has been arrested but never charged.  She was even peripherally involved in an abortion doctor’s beating.

Now the imagination is making the situation complex, and simultaneously giving the reader lots of information about the character that makes her unique, without relying on awkward description.   The imagination is now being used effectively.

The same thinking can be applied to plot and dialogue.

In plot (everything that happens in story) authors often apply imagination through thinking that the imagined unexpected event will provide surprise that will satisfy the reader.  In general, surprise is important in literary fiction (using change and reversal), but is of the essence in genre fiction (the priest murdered the choir soloist?  I would never have guessed that!).  But in literary fiction, plot twists cannot be fatalistic (predetermined and inevitable), that is, twists that are out of control of character choice and will.   Plot twists in literary fiction  must be credible and logical, and within the context of the emotional arcs of the story and all the conflicts that propel the action in the literary story.  (In a plot with alien body snatchers, characters are reacting, and the aliens come out of the blue, so to speak.  In literary fiction, the beast is often within the characters: there is free will, with choices to be made and decisions that succeed or fail.)  Characterization in literary fiction requires more concentration by the reader to appreciate the nonfatalistic logic of the plot progression, but it is more satisfying to many literary story readers.   To achieve this, the author must use imagination in plot structure that is controlled and involves the characters, not just acts on the characters like a giant meteor killing off dinosaurs.

In dialogue, authors also must apply imagination that heightens the effect of the dialogue on the reader, not just seek the unexpected.  This means imagining the responses of dialogue so that the emotional valence, the physical and mental environments of each character, the voice of the character, and the information already delivered in the plot are all consistent with what is said.   An example:

“I hate the way she does that. Always with her nose in the air as if she is better than us.”

“I don’t know.   Maybe she is better.”

“She’s famous.”

“She’s smart.  I think she sees the world pretty much as it is.”

“She thinks you’re an asshole.”

“Really. You know that?   I mean what she thinks.  How could you know that?”

“Everyone knows.”

Comment. Note the exposition error in this dialogue. “She’s famous,” is the author’s need to transmit information.  It is something both these speakers would know and would not need to say, especially in heating-up discourse.

The dialogue is not bad in that it has conflict that is reasonable and between the speakers.  Note also, the conflict is not description of something else.

Example of inferior dialogue:  What if the dialogue went like this?

“I hate the way she does that.  Always with her nose in the air as if she is better than us.”

“Give her a break.   She’s alone.  Her husband left her.”

“Really.  I didn’t know that.   Is it for good?”

Comment continued.   This is really fill dialogue.  Exposition about the husband leaving (that may not even be important to the story line).  But also the dialogue is not working. It lacks imagination. It is without significant conflict between the speakers, unrevealing of opinions and feelings essential to reader’s understanding of the character. It does not expose the emotional and intellectual innards of the characters in significant ways that advance plot.  If dialogue takes on this aura of false purpose, then the information is better delivered in narrative passage, internal reflection, or even, rarely, setting or description.

Business schools have perpetuated “thinking outside the box” as a path to innovation.  For the fiction writer, who must thrive on imagination, the concept might be more useful if stated: “almost never think inside a box, any box.” Fiction writer’s fight cliché, sentimentality, and stereotypes and try constantly to engage a reader through logical and credible surprise told with fresh original prose in stories with momentum.   Their most effective tool is their own unbridled imaginations.   (Note how this separates fiction from memoir and nonfiction where imagination for story and prose is hobbled from needs to adhere to past reality.)


Imagination is essential in literary fiction for effective prose and story, and should not be limited to simply altering description for surprise. Knowledgeable use of imagination in characterization, forming plots, and in creating effective dialogue can make an author’s storytelling prose more acceptable and enjoyable for the reader

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