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Beauty and the Building of Character in a Literary Story

Article About Writing Better
William H. Coles

Appreciation of beauty is individual and it is never universally true to everyone.

The fundamental question is: what makes anything seen, heard, felt, tasted–beautiful?

Leo Tolstoy, the writer, spent the last fifteen years of his life pondering the aspects of art and beauty. (What is Art?) He believed beauty to the senses came from imagination and creativity. Perfection in the act of creating beauty (in the creation rather than the judgement) was important for beauty, but not critical. He was convinced originality was essential, and he decried imitation and that, with beauty, there was a transfer from creator to recipient of a memorable emotion, a passion, a meaningful connection, a genuine pleasure, was a one of his profound ideas.

I’m a fiction writer of literary fiction story (imagined story with prose of lasting artistic-merit and character-based, meaningful plots). Early in my 20-year-long career literary career, I became convinced that determining what is beautiful to an individual character improved the story and the quality of characterization.

So how can that work? Concepts of beauty make a character more believable and credible, significant and memorable for a literary story. Each major character created for the story, often referred to as “round” characters, is enhanced by giving the character’s sensitivity to elements of beauty by dialogue, thoughts, and actions, that are unique and original for each character.

For effective character development an author needs concrete rather than abstract images, images with thought and action, to avoid using the abstract word “beautiful.” “She thought it was a beautiful portrait.” does not give specific information to a reader. The construction is passive and “beautiful” is abstract.

Here are techniques to build character with prose using action, thoughts, passion to avoid the word “beautiful.”

She wanted to touch the smooth dry surface of his oil portrait as if it were really him. [Action]

The towers, turrets, and massive proportions of the castle captured her attention and she retreated a few yards to take it all in. [Thought, Action]

I’d never seen a portrait so moving: the vibrant blue-eyes, the delicate mouth, the turn of the head. What talent to create something so real and original. [Passion]


Beauty in life gives pleasure at no cost, no obligation. It makes us aware we are something more than flesh and bone that craves food, water, and sex. As humans we are born with the potential to appreciate beauty … but it must be developed to contribute to the whole achievement of a self-worthy human life. And it’s more than memory tucked in a crevasse of the cerebral cortex, it’s an enrichment of the soul deep within, so unique and personal that only each of us know, experience, and understand. And what is beauty for us stays with us as part of our non-physical part of existence.

Thanks for your attention.

Announcement: I have published an online course — Creating Literary Stories. I’d appreciate your telling those who might be interested.

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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

-Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice
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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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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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.


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



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.


“Lock that damn dog in the garage.”


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.


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.


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.




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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