Posts Tagged ‘Narrator’

Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion


Thursday, September 20th, 2012
William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.



Engaging a Reader in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
William H. Coles

Engaging a reader is crucial for a good writer.  It is a complicated process with different levels of engagement that require different skills and talents.  A story about a truck running through a guardrail and caught so it is suspended above a concrete slab two-hundred feet below, with driver and passenger trapped in the cab and bleeding from wounds, grabs the attention . . . a level of engagement.  There is curiosity about the outcome . . . a level of engagement.  For some readers, there might be fear when imagining the worst outcome . . . also a level of engagement.   This engagement is responding to circumstantial information about an event.  The prose is a description of what actually happened.  The engagement is similar to a comic book or graphic novel.  Images are stimulated by prose.  There is intellectual curiosity about what will happen and how the dangerous predicament will be solved.

In addition to images formed, engagement in this scenario may also be dependent on syntactical dramatization within the prose itself, clear transfer of ideation from author to reader, and the degree of importance to the reader about the information delivered.  It is journalistic in the sense that the reader is being told what has happened.

In writing a memoir, this journalistic type of engagement and reader responses are much the same.  A memoirist is intent on describing people who lived and experienced events and felt what they felt.  It is historical information described and positioned so drama is created by description of conflict and the positioning of information, so tension is generated when story information is presented to the reader.

In great literary fiction, reader engagement is different from journalistic (creative) nonfiction and memoir prose.  Fiction may be stimulated by past events and characters who lived; but the story-prose of literary fiction is created to engage the level of the responsive reader to lock the attention with minimal deviation, and to stimulate the reader to sympathize with characters, and at times be involved emotionally to a degree beyond the emotional involvement other types of fiction elicit.  The reader who enjoys literary fiction wants to know what will happen to a character they know well through intense characterization.   Involvement is less description of what happened and more what might happen.  And although there are created, journalistic-style circumstantial events in all fiction, the elements of created emotional conflicts and advancement and resolution of feelings have the prime impetus to move plot in literary fiction.

In addition, to achieve maximum engagement of a reader, characters must be credible; they must seem real; all happenings must be logical for story and plot; and all information about the story and characters must be reliable, or if not reliable, the reader must be aware of the unreliability and not puzzled or unsure.  Level of achievement of these goals in the story writing is proportionally related to engagement and satisfaction of a specific reader.

Engagement of a reader at this level also demands meticulous narration so the reader is always aware of who is telling the information and that the narrator is consistent for the context so the reader engagement of attention and emotion in the story is not broken.

Nonstory-related ideas and opinions must also be eliminated from the prose to prevent breaking the dream of involvement that fiction can evoke.  And errors in writing, such as wrong word choice, fuzzy or inaccurate metaphors, or grammatical errors must not be present.  Equally important for great literary fiction, the story and the characters must seem real–that is, to exist or be able to exist in a reader's mind–the very reason that book covers often contain the blurb "based on a true story" or "based on the life of ———."

John Gardner popularized the idea of a fictional dream into which the literary reader is immersed.  It is valuable, but only partially true to the involvement that certain readers have in great fiction.  Great fiction provides new perspectives — like looking into a stereoscope and discovering a three-dimensional change in the photo; being caught in an unsolvable,  dangerous dilemma . . . between a rock and a hard place and the space is closing in; in need of resolution of a longing or desire; and almost always in need to solve something–a puzzle, or a mystery, or an enigma.

Engagement of a literary reader by a literary author in a great literary fictional story is extremely difficult to do and is rarely achieved by the millions of writers who attempt it in various degrees.   Most writers default to nonfiction or genre fiction, often with impressive successes.   Unfortunately, great literary fiction cannot be created without adherence to the basics of what literary fiction has accomplished through engagement in the past.  Even more significantly, writing good genre fiction and memoir and thinking it is, and promoting it as, great literary fiction will fail to meet the expectations of the literary reader, and the writing will come off as inferior and boring.

The goal of agents and publishers is to make money.  Great literary fiction well written does not have blockbuster potential in today’s marketplace of diminishing serious readers of great literary stories for engagement and enlightenment.  Wouldn't it be great, for those readers still enjoying great fiction, if one or a few publishers were to emerge who are willing to accept reasonable profits and publish accomplished writers writing great literary fictional stories that engage readers with intensity and emotion?



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








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