Posts Tagged ‘story meaning’

Authors Competing with Story for Reader's Attention in Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

Friday, June 15th, 2012
William H. Coles

To simplify a complex subject in order to identify a basic problem that needs to be addressed to improve literary fiction in general, consider there are two ways to deliver a story in literary fiction.  (1) Authorial dominated prose narration and (2) story-specific reader engagement through developed storytelling.  

An author has a story to tell.  The inexperienced writer writes with the false confidence that all that is needed is a description of the story–just write, feel free, get it on the page.  The result?  Narrative description in story present and back story without incorporating drama–conflict, action, resolution–and engaging the reader in scene to experience the story.  But what is often needed is the telling of story in a series of interrelated scenes (which are stories and mini stories with beginnings, middles and ends) that are dramatized with conflict, writing with momentum, and with characterization developed with in-story-present action as much as possible and not simply narrative description of things happening in past (or imagined to have happened in the past.)

This authorial dominance in fiction writing has isolated two sets of authors: (1) one set wants to show he or she is a great writer, believing authorial fancy language and flights of ideation will produce an equal effect a great story can generate); (2) one set wants to create the best literary fictional story within their capabilities, and let that be the focus of author-admiration, admiration that comes from great storytelling, reader perceived after the reading of the story is complete, enjoyed, and remembered.

Many wannabe fiction writers simply use the label of fiction to layer poetic; lyrical, if you will; metaphorical; abstract; static prose on the reader, expressing authorial ideas not related directly to story and characterization, with the purpose of keeping the reader's attention on the author and the author's self-perceived prose skills.  Story suffers.  Great literary fictional stories do not need authors competing with good storytelling by having the author relentlessly calling attention by writing hyperbolic, over intense, strained prose unrelated to story while ignoring the energy and drama of story.

The way to stop authorial dominance competing with story in the creation of a great literary stories?  Learn basics of storytelling–based on historical development of fictional stories; use narration that uses narrator and characters without authorial intrusion, strive for prose that promotes easy understanding of story and characterization, work for theme and meaning in story rather than admiration of poetic performance.

Recommended Readings:

The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self

The Three Pillars of Literary Fiction: Engagement, Entertainment, Enlightenment

Academic Fiction: A Distinct Genre

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.


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