Posts Tagged ‘story significance’

Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question Editorial Opinion


Saturday, September 7th, 2013
William H. Coles

Question submitted to workshop.

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to accomplish something? William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their lives. Let me know what you think? (Submission anonymous)

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this. It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds. The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery.

For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader, and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking. The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way. Do contemporary fiction writers create stories? It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve never had pleasure in reading Trevor or Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV. But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for modern reader and author temperaments.

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source. I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human. They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and primarily in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov. It’s not that they just lived in the past. They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again.

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories—for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness. And I have a mission: to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots. Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve. The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and like singing opera or writing sonnets, it would be a shame if the art form is lost.



Literary Stories Must Be Significant Article About Writing Better


Friday, December 4th, 2009
William H. Coles

Great literary stories have a purpose for being written. They say something and they say it well. Fiction is the best way to achieve this. It allows story development unhindered by descriptions of a set reality and provides unlimited choices in character motivations and actions that support the purpose and momentum of the story. Significance is not achieved when the fiction is loosely conceived.

The author’s conscious will has to be in control of the story creation, and not simply left to ideas that might bubble up from the unconscious or are discovered in the description of a life experience where the significance is tagged on late in the writing, like a stamp on a letter. Significance comes from planned story happening, character change to a new way of thinking and understanding (enlightenment about the human condition), and reader enlightenment, which when different from the character’s enlightenment is the source for important ironies.

Significance is often directly related to an emotional experience for a reader. Reader emotions vary from story to story in intensity and type (joy, fear, sympathy, love, anger, et cetera). Emotions are best evoked by total engagement in the fictional dream that requires inclusion of the reader in the story rather than simply treating the reader as a listener. This means showing why and how in scene or dramatic narrative and not simple describing real or imagined events or thoughts.

In essence, a story will never be significant when a reader finishes and has no understanding why the story was written and can’t remember characters and or what the story was about. A writer must master not only craft of interesting dramatic prose but the entangled process of purposeful storytelling.

 

From the essay "How Literary Stories Go Wrong" by William H. Coles




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