Posts Tagged ‘story’

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?



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.



Publishers: Gorging on Authorial Hope Editorial Opinion


Friday, February 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

If you write a great literary fictional story, and if you're not famous or infamous, your chances of publication are minuscule.  Remember when writers sent their best to a publisher, waited three to six months for the usual rejection, and then sent the same work out again, and again, and again . . . always with the expectation that someone would some day believe in their talent?  There were galaxies of hope and expectations.  Besides, it didn't cost anything.  These writers believed they were being judged on quality . . . if they worked hard and learned their craft, they would be rewarded with publication and the possibility of recognition.  There were a few slicks (Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, for examples) that published a new writer occasionally, and many small, usually university, presses that had a few slots, but published infrequently, and had a tenuous circulation.  But, in reality, these were at least publishing resources  available where writers had a fair chance of a fair read and a fair reliance that some threshold of quality was being applied to the possibility of acceptance.  But that life is almost gone.  Authors have been slow to realize it, but both print and online publishing have shifted; literary magazine publishing is killing it's life source–good writers with talent who write imaginative fiction–by charging fees for submission cloaked in the guise of contests.

Of course it's true that it's not just contests that kill fiction.  There is the trend to publish memoir and nonfiction as "fiction."  But the need for income from submissions has significantly changed literary fiction.    In the past, magazines that published quality fiction encouraged submissions.  Most of what they published was agented fiction, or from famous authors, friends,  or celebrities.  Still, there were always a few slots for the undiscovered writer of literary fiction.  Now, even those few slots have been diminished by dangling the carrot of possible publication before authors in undisguised manipulation for profit.  Publishers are using competitions and contests to encourage volumes of submissions, both commercial and "nonprofit" presses, to simply make money.  The contest prizes are paltry, often less than what a magazine would pay after acceptance before the contest mining of fees of  fifteen to fifty dollars per submission was instigated.

Every publisher seems to reflexively say they receive ten thousand submissions a year.  Wow.  You can make $50,000 per contest.  Let's do more contests! Have a contest for under thirties, stories about dogs, tell us about your  family, or most recently a contest for six-word stories that will cost you $15.00 bucks per submission.  If it takes less than five seconds to read six words, that's a profit of about $10,800 dollars per hour.  Why not have a six-word story contest every month?  Forget the 5000 word limit and literary fiction.  Forget about traditional literary fictional stories of quality.  To what avail?  All this bloated submission activity fills the same number of limited slots available prior to contests (which skyrockets the odds against an author winning and/or getting published).

The  impact of these new contests on the great literary fictional story are more than transitory misdirections.  Consider the multiple groups that relate to the publishing of fictional stories in general: the publishers, the readers, the submitters of work to be published, and the subscribers (and donors) that represent a source of income.  Until now, publishers covered operating costs with subscriptions and gifts from donors, and to varying degrees, advertising.  Until recently, submitters were not paying to be read.  Now operating-income sources have shifted to what  have become  more dependable  and profitable submitter fees.  Subscribers and donors to magazines that published literary fiction were diminishing in numbers anyway.  So who cares?  No one but a few of the submitters and, with less intensity, the rare careful reader.   But the readers should recognize the effect on the publication of a great fictional story.   As publishers work to increase their revenue through submissions, they are openly trying to attract any style of writing, and have been willing to publish any style as fiction.  Specifically, memoir and "creative nonfiction" writing is sought and published as fiction, along with genre-based story writing such as mystery, sci-fi, and romance, partially in the belief that this is what will attract readers, but mainly because it makes a profit.  The effect on the literary fictional story writer is severe.  Well-written literary fiction with dramatic conflict and character based plot is not valued.  And with the new ways magazines fund themselves, good fiction has little chance of competing with contest winners who have been wooed with themes that work against the creation of great literary fictional stories.

This publisher effect on literary fiction has a painful irony; there are a significant number of readers who crave literary fictional stories as an art form who are ignored.  Almost surely, publishers could make profits by maintaining standards and morality to attract writers capable of creating these stories.  Such an effort would keep people reading for enjoyment, especially the serious reader.  It seems so necessary with the tidal-wave trends for story to be delivered on TV, film, and the switch of many former readers to methods of story telling like sporting events, where conflict and resolution, as well as the unexpected injury, defeat or death–are delivered for satisfaction without the use of prose media.  Yet prose remains, for some stories, especially those with significant meaning, the superior way to deliver the story.  Isn't it reasonable to ask publishers to resist the trends that story telling are taking, and support the quality of writing and story telling that talented literary fictional writers can deliver?

With equal impact is the loss of readers seeking great fiction.   The readers of magazines who want literary fiction have realized that present day fiction is not what they seek (they have to rely on the classics) and they have stopped buying subscriptions or reading publications that claim fiction but don't deliver.  This affects writers too.  Even for a good literary fiction writer who occasionally will get a significant fiction story published, the chances the story will find a significant readership have mostly disappeared.  And so the publishing industry is in more ways than just contests is extinguishing the literary fictional story as an art form.

It's a wonder these contests that require these veiled fees for submission survive.  They blatantly mine the endless hope of a writer.  And it demeans those writers who succumb to what could really might be classified as a scam.  Writers feel foolish reading the winners of contests they've submitted to for a fee.  They feel humiliated when they discover that most contests are not anonymously read; judges are unknown and may not be consistent; there are no criteria for what is acceptable and what's not; there is no guarantee of being read, even briefly;  that there will never be oversight of the contests that should be provided by government; and that friends and  associates can (and do) win.

This is mining the lodes of hope buried in every writer.  Oh, those dreams of being interviewed on Oprah, those visions of royalty checks, those expectations of readings in Barnes and Noble with attentive listeners.  This is taking money from the addicted gambler yearning for a quick, but almost impossible,  reward  . . . money needed for food and housing, and to dress the kids warmly for school.  Fading reality.  Why is there not outrage from literary writers at this publisher behavior?

Publishers are losing any aura of altruistic professionalism.  If there were only some justice for all those writers affronted.  Certainly refusal to submit could trigger financial loss as justice for publisher's greed.  Maybe the Internet will develop ways for writers to be recognized without having to participate in lottery-like schemes.  It's the hope for the future, something that all writers should work to create–a system to connect writers with their readers without unfair financial loss to both.



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





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



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.



Literary Fiction Needs Writers Who Care About Story Editorial Opinion


Thursday, October 8th, 2009
William H. Coles

These are tough times for literature. Fewer humans read for pleasure; publishers seek a true story, usually with salacious innards; and writers have lost the art of entertaining through a prose fictional story.

Literary writers shun the advantages of fiction

In truth, contemporary literary writers mostly write for themselves.  They are a fraternal bunch, obsessed with the clever metaphor or the strident oxymoron, intent on telling the reader about meaning rather than allowing a story to reveal significance, and searching their own existence for material.   These writers find readers who are like themselves, like poets at a slam, and they have long ago turned away those readers who enjoy a great story well told that is meaningful and unforgettable. In contemporary writing, stories progress based on shocking turns in the plot, overwrought voice, and faulty ideation that results from writing from experience. Rarely does the contemporary story evoke enlightenment in what it means to be human.

At the core of the problem is intuitive writing.  Many contemporary writers, even those who are published as fiction writers, are often writing memoir, autobiography or creative nonfiction as fiction.  This blurs the value of true fiction that entertains the reader and demonstrates, through story action and character development, significant enlightenment about what it really means to be human.   Contemporary writers frequently use the “I” protagonist—it is intuitive and easier to write since it depends on description of events, often from experience, rather than creating an imagined story.  But it is ego dominant and detracts from substantial character development.  These writers tell stories they’ve experienced as they would tell the story to themselves, unable to create a story in the dramatic ways fiction has developed over the last two centuries.

How does the talented literary writer achieve purpose in a literary fictional story?   Admittedly, it’s like trying to capture butterflies with chopsticks.  Here are only a few essentials:

  • There must be a quality idea for a story.
  • The story must be thought out thoroughly before writing.
  • Action dialogue and setting in story are imagined as the story is constructed, for maximum effect on the reader and for remaining true to story quality.
  • The story is written as a matrix of emotions with related details added, each with a clear purpose for story beginning, middle and end; a story is not details thrown one by one into a still-water pond to see what will happen until the author loses interest.
  • Enlightenment should come from story action, not narrator or author telling.
  • Emotions should be embedded in in-scene action, not told with abstractions and modifiers.
  • Characters must grow with a logical progression of actions, emotions and thoughts that are essential to the story.
  • Characters should be credible, if not likable.
  • The reader must be allowed to believe in characters, setting and plot.
  • Stories should be structured on a clear timeline.
  • Stories should have a series of dramatic scenes that are interrelated.
  • Characters should have identifiable emotional progress and change.
  • Characters must have believable choices and freewill (no fatalism).
  • A story should have an unanswerable metaphysical question. This may not be expressed, but it has to be embedded in the development.
  • Narration of the story must not be authorial, but it must be in control of the author.
  • Something has to happen, and the ending must have some significance.

This is said assuming a writer has mastered craft and style in ways that provide energy, momentum and drama (conflict, action and resolution) to the writing.  Unfortunately today, craft and style that contribute to a good story and solid prose fiction are not strengths of many contemporary published authors.

Fiction as an art form needs sharp definition.  Fiction allows prose to produce the most enjoyable and memorable stories.  To continue to label other forms of legitimate writing as fiction will continue to rebuff readers who read fictional stories for pleasure; it will also fail to attract readers to prose as a pleasurable way to meet their story needs.



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




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