Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

Effect of Discursive Narration on Literary Story Editorial Opinion


Sunday, November 30th, 2014
William H. Coles

Narration of literary fictional stories today allows wide latitude for authors on technique and style. Traditional, successful, memorable, literary stories depend on strong imaginative characterization, dramatic plots with conflict and resolution, and identifiable purpose for the story being told so some enlightenment occurs about the human condition gleaned from the story presentation. In the past, stories were structured for momentum and engagement, and there was careful attention to story logic and credibility for the story world created. Authors wanted to please readers. Prose was dedicated to accurate use of the language, attention to the advantages of correct grammar within story context, and readability with acceptable punctuation and rhythmic flow. But this storytelling has faded.

Contemporary writers have little or no conscience to follow traditions in literary storytelling. Stories with beginnings, middles, and ends are becoming less common and fiction has shifted to memoir about authorial self with a few falsehoods to be called fiction, simple character sketches, or description of events-happened with journalistic rigor void of imaginative influence. Authors reject dramatic conflict at all levels of story delivery for character development and story pleasing plotting. And even in fiction, the author often dominates the storytelling with subjective intrusion rather than using an objective narrator or character delivering balanced credible story and character detail in dramatic scenes. Descriptions of people or events that happened does not produce the same effects on readers as creative imaginative storytelling that engages, stimulates, enlightens, moves, and entertains.

Contemporary writers commonly default to discursive rumination for the major portion of “story” delivery, a technique that may divert attention, meaning, momentum, or understanding of authorial purpose for the story. And when using discursive rumination, authors will often abandon story to soliloquize, seek authorial catharsis, or proselytize.

Modern writers often restrict storytelling to first person point of view and narration. This places limits on internalization, credibility, veracity, size and quality of world view available to the narrator, and expansive imaginative writing. Not all stories are suited to first person narration, and the quality of fiction published and available to read has dwindled.

The message is not trivial. Many contemporary readers enjoy modern “literary” writing dependent on discursive rumination, but the true value of literary story development with imaginative structure and characterization is often lost. The writers careful to avoid obvious authorial dominance and intrusion in the storytelling add imaginative and meaningful enhancement to their work that authorial dominance and intrusion does not allow. Of course, authors are always present in some way in a literary work of fiction, but the most effective authorial presence is transparent, like a hint of mint in a pitcher of tea, the touch of orange/red diffusing through the blue sky above the horizon just before sunrise, the sound of an individual cello in full orchestra . . . sensations present and enjoyed and always gently and uniquely pervasive . . . but never rife.

Readers preferring traditional storytelling seem to reread the classics today. Traditional literary fiction is being written, but it is rarely accepted by agents, editors, and publishers; as a result, great stories in the traditional sense are not available and as a culture, we are losing an art form, a loss that diminishes the creative heritage of our generation.



Fertilizing Imagination Article About Writing Better


Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
William H. Coles

There is no science to guide a writer to strengthening his or her imagination.  But here are a few practical ways to hone what the writer has been genetically given as imaginative potential.

Live to experience and discover.

A rich life reliably stimulates imagination.

Learn to live actively, not passively.

Reading is active.  Watching TV is predominantly passive.  Listening to music is passive.  Creating original music by composing and/or playing an instrument is active.   Looking at travel photos of France is passive.  Two weeks of backpacking in the Loire Valley is active.

Learn as much about everything you possibly can.

Disparate ideas and unlike associations seem to sprout new images and ideas.

Examine metaphysical questions.

Who are we and why are we here?  Is there an afterlife?  Why do we suffer?  Who is God?  Is there an ultimate truth?  Why is there no justice?  What is beauty?

Musing on the unanswerable helps with character development and significant story meaning that intertwines plotting.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses.

Determine as truthfully as possible how you fit into a world with billions of other unique, vastly different human beings.  This may require painful self-examination.

Practice imaginative writing.

1. Study the great literary creations of the past, and carefully filter out any useless or harmful dogma of contemporary teaching.

2. Explore daily metaphors . . .  the timing of delivery, acceptability, and the logic and credibility.

3. Learn the use of clear and accurate language in all communication, and expand vocabulary with image provoking words and active verbs.

Learn to structure stories and create characters imaginatively.

Discover the reason for success of stories and characters in all forms of storytelling and all prose genres, and then imaginatively create your own new and immediate ideas for success in literary story fiction.



The Danger of Overuse of 1ST Person Narrative in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Thursday, February 4th, 2010
William H. Coles

Many unsuccessful writers fall into the trap of first person point of view, the path of least resistance that leads to mediocrity in many stories from a failure of the author to form a story in the most pleasurable and significant way.   This is really memoir writing, even when authors believe they are imagining a story, because writers insert themselves into the story to become the first person storytellers.

Example 1.  1st person.

I was happy that fateful night.  I'd been watching Survivor, turned off the TV, and tiptoed back to the baby's room.  The door was open.  The moonlight filtered in through the window near the crib, and I could see from the way her feet were caught in the twisted blanket that she was motionless.  I ripped off the blanket.  Her skin was pale.  Her eyes opaque and unblinking.  She was not breathing.

Example 2.  Look at a different narrator approach to the same scene (also overwritten for contrast).

The moon was almost full in a cloudless sky, and all but the brightest of the infinite stars were dimmed by the cold pewter light that filtered through the window into the nursery, creating weak lifeless shadows of the newly decorated, painted chest of drawers on the white shag carpet.  Karen opened the door noiselessly.  Cindy must be asleep; there had been no sounds over the electronic monitor from the nursery to their bedroom.  The blanket in the crib was wadded and covered the small lump of a child.  She placed both hands on the edge of the crib and looked down.  She stripped off the blanket.  Cindy was face up with one leg caught at the ankle in the space between two crib slats.  She wasn't moving.

Example 3.  Or another.

"Check Cindy," Karen said sleepily, her head buried in her pillow.

"You go," Henry said, the blanket pulled up to his eyes, his back to his wife.

Karen turned away from him. "I always go."

Henry put his feet on the floor and felt for his slippers. "Goddamn it," he said.

"Lighten up, asshole," she said, almost awake now.

Karen was acting a little too prima donna-ish for him.  Okay.  She'd had the baby.  She said it often enough.  She was bitter and depressed, and she thought it was his time to suffer.  But it was not right to aim her frustrations at him.  She'd slipped into a victim mentality placing blame on him, as if he were a stranger who had raped her.

At the end of the hall, he listened at the half open door too see if Cindy were awake.  There was no sound, and he entered softly, his heart now beginning to feel the joy he always felt when he was near his daughter.  She had recognized him on sight for the past few months, a smile lighting up her face.  Last Saturday she'd said "Da Da," for the first time, before she even said "Ma Ma."  He shuffled to the crib.  Cindy lay face up, her mouth parted, her lips still.

These examples show how alternatives need to be tried to be true to the story.  In reality, no matter which is preferred, none of the above could be used for a story; they are not quality writing.  The characters have not been developed in the mind of the author. But the examples serve a purpose.  There is a difference among them, and the first person "I" may feel more intimate, but also has the feeling that scene information is being filtered through a single, not too objective, personality.  In the second, the third person gives the feel of  narrator (not identified) who has nothing to gain by not being as accurate as possible.  This carries it's own intimacy, in this case, simply by knowing the narrator is not trying, even unconsciously, to sway the reader unreasonably about the happening.  In the third example, there is an expanded purpose for the segment.  Now the action of finding a dead baby as primary is complicated, and for the right story purpose, complimented, by revealing simultaneously the souls and emotions of the mother and father.   Nothing is right or wrong; these are three of many different ways of narration of a story scene.  But some of the restrictive aspects of 1st person are illustrated.

This idea of narrator choice is crucial for writer success.  Reader identification through the well-chosen and sophisticated-crafted narration of well-developed characters is an essential perquisite for:  dialog that shimmers with the appropriate thoughts and attitudes of the character for the moment, setting that supports plot and characterization, and accurate prose choices that support the story as a whole.  These elements need to have formed characters and meaningful plot in place, followed by revisions that are purposeful and directed.  Still, most readers take away different feelings and reactions to these different narrative approaches.  The third one especially develops relationships between Henry and Karen, which could be awkward in first person POV because of what the 1st person narrator can reasonably know, see, hear, (taste and feel) and experience making  observations and disclosures an objective narrator can deliver impossible. There is also a subtle difference in the subjective telling (I was happy, for example) in the first person example that seems at first to be an advantage because of "immediacy," but may not be as effective for the story as objective third person more objective, dispassionate "showing" of the scene (rather than telling emotional states–so easy in first person), which helps avoid sentimentality.

These examples represent a necessary process of trial and error that is limited by first person narration alone because of restrictions in the narration.  First person narration produces: tethered imagination, limitations of distance, dominant internalization, limited point of view, and troublesome credibility problems for a reader requiring extension of suspension of disbelief, which often contributes to inferior storytelling . . . and poor quality fiction.  Yet, it is amazing that more than almost three quarters of all contemporary literary "fiction" stories are written in first person.  Admittedly, it is, after all, the easiest and most natural way for a human to tell a story, but for a large number of stories, it is not the most effective path to great, memorable fiction as an art form.


This is an excerpt from the essay, "Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer," by William H. Coles.

MORE.  To study more on 1st person POV, read the essay "1st Person POV in Literary Story," by William H. Coles







Style of Writing and Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Monday, January 4th, 2010
William H. Coles

There is a common belief that the best literary writing style is invisible to the reader.  This has a fundamental, but not all-inclusive, truth to it.  In writing great literary fiction, the reader should be engaged in the story in ways that leave no mental space to consider the writer's style type or quality.  Yet the style of writing and story telling should register with readers so that at the end of the reading, they  know they've had special, unforgettable reads that are unmistakeably due to the author's style, personality and skills.

Style is a way of using language and forming an effective, pleasurable story.  So, style really is everything a writer does in creating:  thousands of ideas and choices; hundreds of associations and comparisons; myriads of opinions, images, feelings . . . all dependent on the writer's intelligence, experience, education, memory, imagination and creative integrity.  Writing great literary stories is creating as only you, the writer, can, from the uniqueness of your personal existence as a human, and your time in the existence of all humanity, that contributes to a specific conscious era of thought and abstract reasoning.  It is the opportunity for writers to create their own style that provides fresh ideas and beautifully original stories – only they can create – for readers.

Almost all writers succumb to the influence of successful writers before them.  Reading the works of an author, appreciating the style of writing, and then incorporating that writer's style in your own writing is not, however, the way to achieve memorable, great writing and storytelling.  A careful reader will always feel the impression of another author in the writing, and publishers mistakenly feel that marketing blurbs such as, "He writes with the grace of Chekhov, the perception of Cheever, and the bite of Flannery O'Connor," will convince a reader they are about to experience  a great writer.  Not at all.  Such comparisons may sell books to readers who love these authors, but it is not a valid signal for that great literary fictional story, uniquely created, that will be remembered by many for generations.

Writers need to strive to find expression of their own individuality in life on the page and in their story telling.  That is where excellence is achieved, reader pleasure  generated, and memorability instilled.  And it does not come from copying the style of a favorite author.  The opposite, in fact.  The influence of another author can be so dominant that some authors do not read when they are in the creative process.  An author reading Flannery O'Connor, for example, especially if the author likes Flannery O'Connor, can shove the writing process and product into "the style" of O'Connor.  This, when perceived, even subconsciously, by a reader, is never useful and destroys the uniqueness of a writer's style for greatness and sustainability as a great piece of writing.  Of course, in learning, writing in the style of a favorite author is essential to develop as a writer, and a writer should be able to test the effectiveness of a story or a passage or a line of dialog by practicing writing the passage as he or she might imagine other authors would approach it.  But in the final work of art, the style must be created from the core of a writer's individuality . . .  his or her unique style.

Aristotelian thinking applies here.  Historians, he said, write about what has happened.   They describe the past.  Writers (the poets) write about what might happen  next.  These are the imaginative, dramatic creators of great literature.  It is in creating what might happen that the literary fiction writer develops that unique, enjoyable, informative style that fertilizes greatness.

William H. Coles





Meaning in the Literary Fictional Story Article About Writing Better


Thursday, November 19th, 2009
William H. Coles

Meaning in fiction is often conceived as an element of writing that may or may not be inserted into a story, like a plastic baby doll in a Mardi Gras king cake. But meaning, its presence or lack of, is ubiquitous in a literary story, like the taste of sugar in a meringue. Writers seem to disagree, or at least not seek uniformity, on what meaning actually is in a story. Some seem to believe meaning equates with morality; others seem to think that it is equated with significance and, as a result, subsequently means ponderous and difficult, perceived attributes that make them avoid meaning altogether. For some, meaning has an existential twist—the worth of life. In speaking of great literary stories, however, it is most helpful to agree that for meaning to be memorable and to last in the human consciousness, a great literary story has meaning embedded in a defined environment: a story that is character based, has a beginning, middle and end where something happens to the character who progresses through time, and at the end of the story, the character and the reader change to see life and humanity in new ways. In Misery (sometimes translated as Heartache), in a few pages Chekhov reveals change in a character that focuses and enlightens the reader about grief and humanity, aspects of love and grief they had not thought of for some time, if at all. It is an awakening for these readers. And it provides unique satisfaction.

Many beginning writers tend to assume that meaning imparts a thou-shalt-not-kill or do-not-commit-adultery message; but a simple, clear change in perception about how the world and humanity is viewed can be significant and transfer meaning that has impact. To achieve this, there is a change in the way the reader (and the character) perceives the world after reading (and, for the character, acting in) the story. This is, of course, the beautiful potential fiction gives to a writer, and that nonfiction can not achieve because of the restrictions of the necessity in describing what happened.

So this meaning, which can be associated with Joyce’s epiphany although it probably needs broader thinking to be effective for a contemporary writer, is essential for a story to have impact, be remembered, and persist on to future generations of readers.

Useful meaning for writers occurs in a variety of complex ways. As scary as it may seem, metaphysical questions are essential in literary fiction where it is not sufficient for the reader to simply discover who killed whom, or if the crack in the dam will rupture and flood the village. In essence, the development of every fictional character directly or obliquely addresses difficult, unanswerable metaphysical questions such as: Who are we? Why are we here? What should I do? At the core, great literary stories deal with what it means to be human and the anguish of confronting omnipresent metaphysical questions. Where do I go when I die? Is there a God? Does God care about me? Why do I suffer? Readers learn from seeing how fictional characters struggle with their humanity, their lack of perfection, their doubts and fears. It is reasonable to conclude that any well-written literary story that is memorable will be significant in what it demonstrates through story action about enlightenment of the human condition. It often is not simply right/wrong morality, politics, or issues of conformity. Rather, it most frequently considers moments of grace, illuminating thoughts, or revelations of the significance of actions among humans. It always deals with human interaction on a concrete level in the story line with metaphysical abstractions permeating the prose. And it is always best expressed through dramatization.

Rarely is meaning determined in a story before the writing begins. The perceptive writer sees the meaning in every good story as a process of discovery from inside, not predetermined and inserted. And, for respect of the story, the writer then allows the discovered meaning to permeate and solidify within the prose, but avoids hammering the reader through overly forceful prose focused only on meaning.

Meaning often requires the complexities of fictional prose to transfer maximally effective meaning to the reader. When a reader is engaged, the reader feels rather than just contemplates. It is imaginative character development and plot construction that permits fiction to engage a reader in a story with meaning. Nonfiction, and fiction dependent on description of happenings without imagination, does not engage with the same potential of fiction for significant meaning.





Imagination in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
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.)

Summary.

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



Great Fiction Is Creative, Not Intuitive: Getting Started Article About Writing Better


Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
William H. Coles


Story in fiction is special.  For the right story – one that is remembered and passed on to future generations – fiction is the best and most uniquely imaginative way to deliver a story.  But few contemporary writers write fiction created in the imagination for maximum lasting story effects on the reader.  The trend is to tell you, the reader, about me, the author, and the trend erodes the longstanding value of great, well-written and engaging literature.  As a result, there is little doubt the literary fictional story is disappearing and readers who love good fiction can only turn more and more to rereading the classics.  There may not be a cure to the defection from reading great fiction, but a possible vaccine would be for writers to write enjoyable stories well enough to be remembered.

There are differences between a writer and a storyteller that can be synergistic, but not ignored.   A writer often writes and uses story to suffice the urge to explain what happened; a storyteller needs to make his or her story interesting, entertaining and enlightening, and uses the process of writing to create imagined scenes that will best suit the reader.  The writer needing to write searches for inspiration through soul-searching until she or he finds something in their background to write about; the storyteller searches for the best way to form and narrate the imagined story – with a purpose – that she or he can’t wait to create on the page.

Among the reasons contemporary writers don’t produce great fiction are:

  1. Faulty thinking about story
  2. Fiction that ignores the valuable complexities of fiction
  3. Laziness that defaults to intuitive writing
  4. A cathartic need for writers to write about themselves

With any one of these failings, the easy, noncreative approach to writing a story often emerges and the writers fall to description and telling rather than imagining and showing. The resultant prose is more memoir or autobiography than fiction, yet it is accepted and published – and read – as fiction, dulling the reader’s expectations of what real fiction can achieve.   There must be a purity of purpose to please the reader.  The storyteller discovers a story idea and then begins to create a series of scenes with vividly imagined characters to entertain the reader and change the reader’s way of thinking.  This creative prose is literary fiction.

Often, it is easy to tell intuitive writing in the first few sentences.  It is often first person, with the usual character/narrator/author separation collapsed into one – a memoir descriptive style.  Here are examples of various styles and different narration . . . some intuitive “memoir” based subjective fiction, and others closer to creative objective fiction.  Note that objective fiction is neither void of emotions nor boring.  The opposite, in fact, occurs as emotions are expressed in action, rather that telling, for more impact.

A scenario.

A writer has been fascinated by his or her  grandmother who delivered the writer’s mother out of wedlock, and whose father was never disclosed by the grandmother or known by the family.  The writer researches the circumstances, remembering family comments and opinions.  The writer has been disturbed by the effect of an unknown father on the mother and believes it is the  reason for her failure to achieve in life that later resulted in depression and dementia.  The writer sits down to tell the reader about the events and the emotions.

 General comment.

The fiction writer in control of his or her craft might well look at this scenario with these thoughts:

1. There needs to be more significance to the premise that withholing the identity of the father caused mother's decline.  Possibilities.  The mother (child of grandmother) has a serious geneticly transmitted defect with looming physical or mental manifestations that need to be identified for some action or treatment.  Or, the grandmother does not know the father because she was promiscuous and ashamed.   Or, the grandmother was raped by a serial killer and the family wonders what lurks inside them (probably too much but could be toned down for effectiveness, that is, the father could have done something seriously wrong without illegality – maybe something morally wrong).

2. The scenario, as it stands, especially if delivered in first person POV, is inherently sentimental.  There needs to be objective narration to filter out inevitable sentimentality.

3. The time line is a problem.  Grandmother’s conception, delivery, silence and then the family's worries decades later.  Chronological, in-scene narration will give a story covering decades.  If back story is the preferred technique to deliver information, story telling will become awkward because of what the narrator can know and not know. Decision needs to be made early to be effective.

4. Story idea may be, or at least border on, cliché.  To be effective, innovation in plot progression will be needed to keep fresh and original.

5. Always a thought of incest in this situation.  Needs early decision to rule it out or keep it as  a possibility.  Exposition of the information will be tricky no matter what technique is used.

6. The writer might try to use third person, with a distinct objective narrator telling story at time different than author real time – keeping the author out of the narration, but establishing credibility and reliability for the narrator.  Which characters will be used for internal reflection will need to be established early.  Which character will change, and be responsible for valued enlightenment, needs to be established.

7. Overall conflict needs to be defined as well as conflicts for each scene.

Here is a story-start.

Grandmother was crusty even when she was young.  She was sixteen when she delivered mother and her hair was the color of harvest wheat in the sunshine that waved in the breeze of my great grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania in the late eighteen hundreds.  The delivery was in her bedroom, with only her mother and a neighbor in attendance.  How afraid she must have been so young, but she never talked about the birth, or the pregnancy.  And when my mother arrived, and as she grew up, grandmother treated her with a distant sense of obligation, void of doting and barely associated with maternal pride and love.

Comment.  Accept, first, the awkward exposition, overwriting, telling, and poor writing in general.  Then carefully note the narrator.  At first glance, this might appear to be third person narration.  Actually it is first person without use of “I”.  This is immediately established in the first sentence.  The narrator is communicating directly to the reader, and the narrator is related to characters.  Later there is the use of “my.”  The narrator is probably the author.  With this established, note how difficulties pop up.  Much of the detail is almost surely conjecture – fear, never talking about birth or pregnancy.  How can the narrator know she never talked about it?  How she felt in the moment?  The narrator is loosing credibility because the writer has failed to choose the most effective narration for this story.

Another story-start example.

I am independent and secretive, but not to the extreme my grandmother was.  She never let on to me or anyone who fathered my mother, and I prayed, even at bedside when she died, she might reveal my grandfather.  Who really was he?  What had he become?

Comment.  This is using the “I” protagonist as a “narrator” to tell the story.  It will be limited because the narrator is limited to her or his world, and the reader must decide whether to trust this “I” . . . Is the story credible?  Is the narrator reliable?  The question will loom: Why is this POV chosen if it is not memoir, or written from life experienc?  If it is not fiction, the story may be limited in effectiveness.

This next example.

I’ll never forget my mother’s face the night grandmother died.  Grandmother had never divulged who fathered mother, her only child.  And my mother had been haunted by the insecurity of her unknown genetic heritage.  As grandmother lay conscious, but near death, I knew my mother prayed for an answer to her often asked question.  But grandmother passed quietly, without a word, and I could see the anguish on mother’s face.

Comment. The purpose of this passage seems to be exposition of the mother not knowing her father.  The “I” narrator here is awkward because it ignores the opportunity to dramatize with action and conflict a scene perfect for the talented writer to make an impact on the reader – and without sentimentality.  In this opening paragraph the writer (who is again the narrator and the “I”) is asking the reader to sympathize with the mother.  But there is nothing earned.  Nothing happens, and there is nothing for the reader to attach to and legitimately feel when the writer asks for belief in the “anguish.”

 Another story-start example.

The old woman lay motionless under crisp white hospital sheets, only her shriveled face visible with dusty gray hair splayed on the pillow.  Her mind was sharp, she  refused to speak, and she could hear every word, even in the corridor and the next patient's room.

The younger woman, an only child, had been by her mother's bedside for days.  She didn’t care really; she had grown to despise her mother over the years.  Now, glaring at her, she suspected her mother could hear her, and hated her for refusing to acknowledge she was even there.  This would be the last opportunity to know who her father was.  Her mother knew, had always known, and here she was at that moment when truths should be flowing, still refusing to divulge it.  She would try to convince her to speak now.  What difference does it make? she would say. Why not speak just the name, so that all the questions she and her children carried with them, laden with fear and guilt, could be justified or cleared up?  It took only a name!  Why can’t you do that?

Comment.  This is in third person POV using both characters inner thoughts as told through a narrator, who is probably created independent of the author (but by the author, of course).  It begins to set up conflict, yet it does not engage the reader as much as needed.  This could be improved by some interaction and responses, improved setting details, and  effective, expressive dialogue, maybe with an additional character.

Last example of a story-start.

I was with mother in the room where granny died.  I don’t think Mother did not care she was gone.  At least the expression of her face didn’t change.  Granny had never revealed mother’s father, my grandfather.  She was stubborn to the end, although we all believed she knew exactly who it was and probably where he was if he were still alive.  Mother’s life had been irrevocably changed by the mystery, and after Granny’s death I could see she still failed to find her self worth, always wondering what half of her genetic heritage had done to her.  So I determined I would find out.  Learn the truth, to give my mother a chance to enjoy her later years.

Comment.  This choice of narration pushes the reader away, although the author would believe the intimacy – an illusion, really, of intimacy – will entice the reader to read on.  But there is a glaring lack of dramatically developing conflict with this approach, often as a result of some egoistic urge in the writer, that continuously brings the focus back to the “I” when the real story is between mother and daughter – or whatever is chosen, children and mother, mother and new lover, etc.

Summary

 The lessons are plain.  First, none of these beginnings really succeeds.  Not enough thought has gone into them.  Second, certain essentials must be kept in mind.   Story ideas have to be good – as original as possible – and weighted with significance.   Choice of narrative technique is critical for story success, and first person POV must be used sparingly when it might lead to memoir description of life experiences, which can thwart development of some effective fictional stories.  Finally, stories require creative imagination; stories need to be thought out before writing; and stories must have dramatic conflict.

Writing the fictional literary story is not easy, but the rewards for reader and writer are maximally satisfying.


Additional resources: Narration1st person POV, Interview with Lee Martin.



Creating Effective Dialogue Article About Writing Better


Saturday, August 22nd, 2009
William H. Coles

 

Dialogue seems difficult for many fiction writers.  To be effective in fiction, dialogue must serve more than one purpose.  Characterization, plot advancement, revelation of emotional states, advancing imagery, providing movement to story, marking a timeline and introducing conflicts to be solved are just a few objectives.  Take a simple example of a snippet of conversation that occurs in real life.

"Would you like some sushi?"

"Yes."

This is unacceptable in good fiction.  It is flat, useless writing.  If, indeed, the purpose for the story is to indicate the acceptance of sushi, a more effective way of making the point might be narrative:  She took the sushi.

But there is also opportunity here, depending, of course, on context, what has come before, and what will come in the story and the prose.

"Would you like some sushi?  I prepared it myself."

"My Grandfather was tortured on Okinawa."

A lot is now happening.  The giver has positive emotions and is offering a special gift, which would indicate a liking for the recipient.  The recipient has a dislike for the Japanese, because a relative was tortured (even killed, maybe) during the Second World War.  Time is indicated in that two generations have passed.  The recipient seems unreasonable in the response.  And the response is not logical, given that sushi is a food, and not a product of, or related to, participants in World War II.

This is taking advantage, primarily, of characterization, and indicating emotional valences in the scene.  It locks in a time period.  But there is another aspect of dialog that is useful and relates to drama.  It is the most often ignored opportunity, and the most often needed for story momentum.  It is conflict.

In real conversations, conflict is avoided as the easiest way to get through life.  But in creating a fictional reality, readers need conflict for interest and for movement and knowledge that the conflict action and resolution will deliver.  For example:

Real conversation.

"Look.  You'll hit the ball to the green if you line up more to the left and bring the club back farther."

"Good idea.  I'll give it a try."

But in fiction, the response has to be different.  It has to have purpose to be dialogue rather than conversation.  So the answer might be:

"Bring the club back farther."

"I've tried that.  It never works."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Your back-swing isn't so great."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Who the hell are you to be giving me advice?"

If this type of dialogue does not work for the story, then almost always the purpose for the attempted dialogue segment is better expressed in narrative, or even internalized in character thought.  The point being that poorly conceived and written dialogue on the page is deadly for story and style.  And if an author is simply describing dialogue from an imagined or real event, the advantages of created dialogue with a purpose in a fictional story will be lost, and the story will not reach its potential.

So much of fiction today is memoir based in conceptualization – a first person narrator telling what happened to them is common – that it is replacing creative fiction that is created for the enjoyment of the reader, rather than the pleasure of the author, and that grows from the techniques of structure, imagination and meaning.  The unhappy result is that great dialogue seems to be a diminishing accomplishment among authors.

Here are examples of dialogue from classic literary novels that multitask purposes in dialogue in the story's best interest, are enjoyable, and are alive.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

"Now he is here," I exclaimed.  "For Heaven's sake, hurry down!  You'll not meet him on the front stairs.  Do be quick; and stay among the trees till he is fairly in."

"I must go, Cathy," said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion's arms.  "But, if I live, I'll see you again before you are asleep.  I won't stray five yards from your window."

"You must not go," she answered, holding him as firmly as her strength allowed.  "You shall not, I tell you."

"For one hour," he pleaded earnestly.

"Not for one minute," she replied.

"I must–Linton will be up immediately," persisted the intruder.

Wow.  Note how the use of reversals, surprises, and opposition are employed.  And the insertion of will-it-happen? when he says, "But, if I live, I'll see you . . ."  And the conflict and action.  A great on the page performance.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"But who did he tell it to?  You and me?"

"And Porfiry."

"What does it matter?"

"And, by the way, do you have any influence over them, his mother and sister?  Tell them to be more careful with him today . . ."

"They'll get on all right!" Razumikhin answered reluctantly.

"Why is he so set against this Luzhin?  A man with money and she doesn't dislike him . . . and they haven't got a penny, I suppose?"

"But what business is it of yours?" Razumikhin cried with annoyance.

Again, reversal, conflict, opposition, emotions emoting, and information flowing by.  Dialog can do so much when written well, the information and ideas to be expressed well chosen, and the use appropiate for the time and happenings in the story.  There is also application of a general useful rule:  Try not to answer questions, especially with definitive answers.  "Do you like it?" followed by "I like it," does not work well.

 

It may be easy to see the worth of the examples, but difficult to know how to apply the ideas to your own writing.  When reading fiction for pleasure, look for flat, uninteresting dialogue that stops story momentum and breaks that unique fictional dream that envelops the reader.  Then you might imagine how, using the information already presented, you might create more dynamic dialogue that works.

Great dialogue is rarely inherent in writers and requires practice and attention throughout a career.  Without exception, for great literary stories, effective dialog, well written and tastefully used, is essential.

WHC



Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops Article About Writing Better


Friday, January 9th, 2009
William H. Coles

Although creative-writing fiction-workshops vary greatly, the general format is a student manuscript critiqued by fellow students under the direction of a leader. Exercises generated from prompts may be added (at times, workshops may focus exclusively on exercises and omit manuscript review). Required reading of famous authors may be discussed, but this is surprisingly infrequent. Lectures are rare:  didactic teaching is replaced by a loose Socratic method where questions to students may be abstract – "What did you think of this?" – or based on personal preference rather than writer improvement – "Did you think the serial killer was a sympathetic character?” Student readings may be allowed for short periods, typically around five minutes. Readings by faculty and known authors are common, but rarely do they present effective fictional stories.

The predominance of workshops for teaching creative writing has not improved the learning opportunities for students seeking to write imagined, significant stories that provide enlightenment and a very special enjoyment for the reader. Improvement is needed in how workshops are structured and how they are marketed, to assure students of a valuable education. Presented below are principles and rationale that need to be adopted and advertised to better train the serious writer of literary fiction.

1. No student critiques.

Students critiquing manuscripts rarely contribute to improving the skills of the writer whose manuscript is under scrutiny. Personal taste in topics, character types or settings frequently is the source for comments generated from students and is not helpful. Many students cannot create a well-written work of fiction, and they will grab one rule they think is the key to improvement and apply it relentlessly to their critiques. This results in comments such as, “Outrageous deviation from point of view here,” or “Narrator intrusion! Delete!” In other words, students tend to apply a cherished, self-satisfying rule without understanding the complicated process of writing fiction.

Invariably, students’ critiques make the writer feel bad and inadequate because students (untrained and often unsuccessful in writing) tend to be inaccurate and unfair in their perception of why they think a story doesn’t work for them.

Students also tend to be competitive; they want to succeed in being the “best critiquer” (perceived as harsh) and compete by comparing the manuscript under discussion to their own writing and dissing anything that does meet what they are creating – an attitude that justifies (and they think glorifies) their own work. This often results in meanness, which is never helpful.

Student contributions to fellow writers are most valuable as alternative ways to accomplish a clear purpose to the writing, and to improve and assure pleasant and positive effects on the reader. Leaders must direct comments to be constructive without condemnation, and should be experienced, and trained, in conducting a workshop. There should never be, even implied, a this-is-wrong attitude to teaching that is so common in today’s workshops.

Careful vetting of student’s work and experience is essential before being accepted for admission. Alternates should be selected to fill in if a student must cancel his or her attendance.

Workshop participants need to be diverse in thinking, age, education, background and gender.

2. Emphasize fictional story.

Workshops must emphasize writing story and creating fiction (imagined) rather than encouraging descriptive prose of personal life experiences or opinions. Emphasize story structure, emotional arcs, core character desire and character driven plots – plus, and most importantly – effects on the reader. Instructors should deemphasize right voice and consistent tone, while stressing the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and suppressing the latter. The curriculum should also systematically present major skills of fiction writing:  clarity, momentum, conflict, dialogue, transition, timeline, pacing, objectivity, narration, and others.

3. Eliminate ineffective gimmicks and prompts.

Gimmicks and prompts are rarely effective as techniques for initiating and sustaining the writing of great stories. Fiction must thrive on discovering something to say, then using the written story to create emotions and intellectual enlightenment in the reader. Prompts and gimmicks do not do this well. Almost always, prompts call for descriptions of characters and events from experience, which results in telling, not showing, and supplants fiction with memoir. Of course, reality can, and often does, stimulate the best-imagined fiction. But reality should not be the source of a fictional story; a fictional story has the imagined elements that provide the dramatization so important in successful fiction. Writing from experience alone hinders drama, blunts conflict and restricts meaningful resolution; so prompts that depend on personal events should not be encouraged. Instead, seek emotional motivational elements and core desires that are at work in a personal experience, discover what these elements and desires might contribute to a story with significance and meaning, and then learn how to structure the story from the imagination for maximum effects on the reader.

4. Temper the importance of the craft of prose.

The craft (skill in doing something) of prose should be an essential part of workshop experience, but should not override the importance of structure (story, scenes and prose elements). Leaders must strive to teach easy-to-read, momentum-packed prose, and always tie prose into a definitive story-purpose for everything that goes on the page.

(more…)




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