Posts Tagged ‘William H. Coles’

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.



Letter to a Student: Career Advice Editorial Opinion


Monday, July 28th, 2014
William H. Coles

Dear Patricia,

I've made no comments on The Tangerine Affair, a delightful story that you've presented very well. To critique it would imply something is wrong with the novel or the writing. Consider your novel finished. Put it away or send it out. Don't tinker with it anymore and give full attention to your next work. As your career progresses, you'll change and you'll look back at this as an early piece and you might find things you would have done differently. But that's okay. That's what making your career as a writer is all about—continuous improvement. Don't get trapped into endless mostly useless adjustments of completed work when your talent should be focused on new, exciting projects.

As you move on into the next stage of your career, remember these principles in writing fiction we've discussed. Does something happen? Too many stories get stuck on musings, internalization, or lengthy descriptions or subjective opinions. The result is static prose fiction.

One technique overused is authorial treading water. Things like. "He wouldn't have done this on any other day. He wasn't that sort of person. And he wouldn't have looked at Leonora the way he was now. That would be out of character." OR "No snowflake is the same. That's what he'd been told. Trillions of snowflakes and not one like the other. Well, those little unique devils were falling at this very moment, and he stuck out his tongue to catch a few and let them melt. They all tasted the same! (Nothing happens here. And the sentences don't build character sufficiently or advance plot at all.) Treading water is a common way for bad writers to fill up a page when the words and thoughts have no clear relation to story.

Is the timeline clear? Look for stories fitting into a recognizable timeline that progresses logically and fits to story length, style, and content. In general, you can't tell a saga in two paragraphs with success. And it's difficult (even though tried fairly often) to put a few minutes of story time into a full-length novel. There are subtleties, learned by practice, in thinking about a timeline that fits a story that the writer should be aware of for his or her specific story.

Are emotions primarily shown rather than told? Find places where the impact of a character's emotion on the reader can be enhanced by concrete action. For example. "She cried." (A nonspecific general statement, rather abstract, and could be boring in many contexts.) What if something like this were done? "With her head down, her eyes hidden behind her hands, she choked back a sob to hide her pain." [Not great. But note the specifics. A try for imagery too. It does improve the reader's experience by showing . . . providing more for the reader than telling in generalities such as "she cried." Showing takes more story time and is not always the best choice when uptempo story pacing is needed; still, when appropriate, action to express emotions should be considered.]

Is the pacing right? Pacing is a rhythmic sense to the writing that makes reading and understanding of story and prose easier. Ask: is the writing well paced? Are the events well paced? Are even the emotions changing in the story well paced? In determining pacing, it's helpful to think about importance to story and characterization and amount of time spent on a segment. (I think you'll always do this naturally.) Is a point where action or emotional shifts are too slow or too fast? Are there illogical plot deviations? Is there a clear progression of happenings in the plot and subplots and does every action have a purpose in the story. Don't succumb to deviations from story no matter how well written you think a deviation is.

CAREER ADVICE

Patricia, you've progressed very well in the tutorial, and I hope you'll continue to focus energy and passion on developing the career you want. Everyone is different in what they desire, what they can achieve, and the ways they'll use to be successful. But here are some thoughts I hope will be useful, thoughts to help you make your decisions about what to do and how to do it your way.

Who you are as an author? I see writers with two different motivations. First, writers want to be published, famous, make a living doing what they like to do. Second, they want to become the best writers and storytellers they can become. This striving for excellence is a lifelong endeavor for those with talent. But writing solely for fame and wealth can work against writing to write great stories to please readers. The need to be famous, or even present oneself at a cocktail party as a "published author," can consume one to a point where the desire to be a great writer writing excellent fiction is buried. In reality, few of us will be famous or rich from our writing, so it is important to not let the desire for recognition keep us from always improving, force to market, and impel us to embellish our worth and success in embarrassingly inappropriate displays. Not to be too discouraging, the quest for being really good but never letting recognition dominate our career can be the most rewarding goal if we can keep ourselves in balance. We have to erase any trace of narcissism, and look to selfless dedication to the creation of writing fiction as an art. Surprisingly, for many, striving for excellence can bring the fame and fortune we all want and have every reason to persist in obtaining as long as it doesn't injure our quest for excellence.

Be confident. Believe in yourself. But always strive to keep getting better. Don't rest on admiring what you've done, and don't let obstinate arrogance erase any chance of your being recognized as a good writer.

Rejection. About your fear of rejections. I hate rejections and negative comments about my work. We all do. I have had hundreds of rejections for short stories, and been turned away by more agents and publishers than I care to remember, but I've learned never to believe a rejection is proof that I'm no good. All writing affects people in different ways. Every writer has a readership. The trick is finding those readers. And while you're trying to find your readers, don't let a rejection make you feel bad. Rejection probably means your searching for publication success in the wrong places with the wrong people. I've approached agents and paid for individual conferences with editors and agents at a writer's conference, for example, to be rejected and discover the agents had a "complete" list and were not seriously looking for new clients. Even more perturbing, many of these agents attend the meeting for money and free travel. And there are thousands of other reasons for rejection. It doesn't fit the goals of the editors, subject matter isn't liked, too tragic, I-like-happy-endings, etc. All things that have nothing to do with you the writer. So never take rejections from from the majority of agents, editors, and publishers to heart. Send work out expecting rejection, and accept that most rejections fail to address what you're trying to accomplish for your specific reader. In the main, submit, expect rejection, throw rejection out of your mind, form a new plan, and move on.

Publishing: a rapidly changing industry in decline. Commercial publishing is in a mess. Books are too expensive. Fewer people seek entertainment and information in print. And publishers have a poor reputation about their selection and treatment of authors whom they often abuse. It's hard for an author to get recognized, picked up, and promoted. Many literary fiction works are published through who-you-know, word-of-mouth, cronyism, favoritism, etc. with little or no regard for writing or storytelling quality. An agent at a writer's conference on a panel to discuss publishing said: "You'll never get published if you don't have a platform [usually meaning fame, even notoriety, in a career different than fiction writing]." She continued, "I've just taken on an author who wrote a biography about his investigations that won him a Nobel prize. The topic was hot and time sensitive. But he would only accept me as an agent if I would publish his novel. A dreadful novel, but I wanted his sellable biography. And I sold his novel to obtain the biography." It was a discouraging revelation (outrageous really) about the state of commercial publishing (and integrity of agents) for the writing and reading of quality fiction. For fiction writers, finding a commercial publisher is harder than for other forms of writing.

But if traditional publishing is the way you crave to succeed, you'll do best by getting to know people who will refer you and introduce you. Of course write query letters, but consider composing and sending out queries is time consuming, and very inefficient. And today, the prominence of the internet is opening amazing possibilities for getting your work read and finding your readers, even while looking for a traditional publisher. The internet has not gelled into a predictable medium for writer's yet, but it's getting there, and I'd look at that possibility if you have time. For many, use of the web to distribute work is still not considered "legitimate" and may not deliver the personal satisfaction of having a traditional publisher (for some, even small ineffective houses suffice), but the internet can be unbelievably successful for having your work enjoyed and recommended. It takes time to find the possibilities that are best for you, but you may want to explore as many as possible.

All the best in your career. You're doing great and I know you'll achieve what you desire! And thanks for participating in the tutorial. It's been a pleasure to work with you.

All the best,
Bill Coles



Creating Effective Scenes Article About Writing Better


Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
William H. Coles

In writing scenes, three primary elements of great fiction writing and storytelling are functioning pervasively: setting, characterization, plot movement.  One will predominate, but the three are always integrated, all contribute to the effect of a good scene, and every element is specifically acting in the story being created and developed; no extraneous or unrelated ideas or images are used.

Setting

Readers need orientation to time and place.  Once time and place are established in a story, readers need to be updated in any scene where place of story action has changed, or where significant change in time has occurred.  And in a scene, attention to concrete clues that aid in reader visualizing scene are important.  These aids in visualization can be in dialogue, in dialogue attribution, or in narrative, and need to be carefully chosen to not call attention to their contribution but to provide useful subtle reminders that help visualize and orient the scene.

For example of developing concrete imagery:

“Don’t do that!” he said while eating.

Better.

“Don’t do that!” he said taking a bite of his cheeseburger.

Better (if pace and context are appropriate).

“Don’t do that,” he said.  With a serrated cutting knife, he sliced his cheeseburger and thrust half of it at her. 

Concrete modifiers can help establish setting and stimulate images too.

The car went around the corner and made her sick.

Here is a revision to meet the opportunity to develop scene and action.

The Porsche convertible cornered on the two-lane country road and the twisted seat belt cut into her bare shoulder, her hand covering her mouth as she retched.

Characterization

Fiction writing develops characters.  Narrative telling should not dominate, He was really tired and felt like taking a nap type of writing.  Instead, develop a character’s immediate state of general constitution for the reader through action.  He stumbled over a fist-size rock, his fatigued muscles unable to keep him balanced, and he fell forward, his hands outstretched to protect him, but his weary arms collapsed and his face hit the gravel.

Internalization can be used for characterization in a scene too.  She detested superbly fit people.  She thought of all it took to maintain good health as narcissism close to sin.

And dialogue should be a source of characterization by what is said, how it is said, and the credibility of syntax and word choice being credible for the character speaking.  (Dialects can be used, but are usually effective only when used sparingly without calling attention to the writing.)  Samples of different characters speaking of the same thing:

“I do not care for apricots.”

“Apricots taste funny sometimes.”

“Apricots have a sweet yet tangy taste.  Not my favorite.”

“Them orange things taste like shit.”

“Apricots suck.”

“Growing apricots is a waste of time.”

“I wouldn’t pay one cent for an apricot.”

“You can use an apricot instead of lime for a tempting twist to key lime pie.”

“Apricots make me sick.”

“I saw the new crop of apricots at the store today.  They brought back sweet memories.”

“I can’t forget the texture of apricot.  Disgusting really.”

Each of the above might fit a variety of characters, but even more significant, many would not be consistent with most characters.  Authors need to be able to create dialogue from within the worldview, intellect, experiences, and memories of the character they are creating dialogue for.  For characterization in great fictional storytelling, it is imperative to write outside the authorial self when creating effective dialogue credible for character.

Plot Movement

All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the scenes that are the steppingstones of a reader’s journey through a fictional story also have their beginnings and ends.  Everything in storytelling is pushing to the end, and specific a end for each story, each scene, and scenes and stories depend on plot progression.  The writing creates happenings that advance the plot (and grow the characterization).  So in scenes, no matter what the predominate purpose (setting, characterization, plot movement), the action starts, advances, and stops.

Consider this scene whose primary purpose is setting, yet is developed with plot momentum (and a touch of characterization) from beginning to end.  First, the less effective, then the revision.

The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked through the valley.

Any movement perceived is really implied. Now with action:

The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead. He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed, by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the floor and shoved it forward. The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it reached the first turn.

Good writing is essential to convey momentum in scene.  Compare:

There was a bird on a limb. Static.

The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action.

The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. A lot of action.

As an author creates scenes, a sense of momentum also needs to be at every level of the writing—even paragraphs, sentences, and words.  Success depends mainly on vocabulary.

For example:

1) Verbs

Look for different degrees of action in the following: (Note how action is related to specificity.)

ate–swallowed

moved–walked

understood—discovered

told–described

told—elaborated

went—drove

lay—reclined

cooked—fried

cooked—poached

killed—bludgeoned to death

began—ignited

NOTE: Use of certain verbs may convey a degree of action or a type of action that does not suit the scene or the narration. (Example: “His humor ignited her admiration” should not, in most circumstances, replace, “She smiled at his joke.”) Authors need tasteful and accurate verb choices to develop pleasing writing styles with momentum.

2) Nouns.

It is particularly useful in description of settings, or any narrative in a story, to choose nouns that have energy. Here are nouns that have different energies.

rock–hawk

telephone pole–computer

road–river

shadow–glitter

3) Adjectives.

Adjectives restrict a noun, or a verb form.  Compare adjectival forms and their effectiveness for lively writing.

motionless steamroller

waiting steamroller

tilted steamroller

rusted steamroller

dead acrobat

breathless acrobat

plunging acrobat

immortalized acrobat

revered acrobat

decaying acrobat

perspiring acrobat.

Note: Adjectives are not equal in effect in a specific context, each has a different energy relationship to a unique noun.

4) Adverbs.

Examples: Talk (verb)–-incessantly, often, irritatingly, lovingly, uncontrollably, loudly, softly.

NOTE: that every one of these adverbs could be replaced by a construction that showed rather than told. Example: For ”loudly,” an author might use, “When he shouted, little Jennie winced and covered her ears.”  Probably too many words for too little effect. In this instance, maybe the adverb is better: “Jake spoke loudly to her.”

Final thought.

Here is the message.  For every effective story in fiction, a writer needs to create scenes with effective elements: setting, characterization, and plot movement.  For further reading click here.



Frequent Failures of Contemporary Writers: Story and Character Editorial Opinion


Thursday, June 12th, 2014
William H. Coles

Workshop Question

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?  

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 through the channel of story and characterization , 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 rarely had frequent pleasures in reading Trevor especially, or even Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events (even imagined) 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 many 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 mainly 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.  There is an acute need 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.  Academics is failing to teach great sotrytelling and even adequate writing skills defaulting instead to “write about yourself and what you know” and encouraging “innovation” (especially in the short story).  Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and, I would hope, 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, writing sonnets, telling tales effectively, it would be a shame if the art form is forgotten and lost.

 

 



The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor from Goodreads


Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
William H. Coles

No matter your opinion of Flannery O'Connor's collected work, discovering the author's life will bring you to new understanding through this collection of O'Connor's letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald.

O'Connor, a devout Catholic in rural protestant Georgia, remained unmarried, became seriously ill, and died at an early age. Writing was her life. Having the privilege of knowing O'Conner's mind–her thoughts, her fears, her doubts–will forever change your reading of her works and may even mystify you as to the loyalty of her readers and the sustainability of her stories. A reader's gem.

A writer's resource. And every reader's fountain of empathy for a life lived.



Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Monday, December 30th, 2013
William H. Coles

Creating a fictional character needs to serve the story being told, and in some way needs to attract and hold the reader’s interest, a connection that may not be likeable or sympathetic but must strong enough to engage the reader to produce at least some satisfaction in having read and acquainted oneself with the character.

Great characters of classic literature almost always have a touch of hero in them.  In the story world, they exude qualities such as persistence, morality, perseverance, determination, strength, confidence, intellect, and/or unfailing expectations that things are going to turn out all right, qualities that rise to above average.  These characters, in fiction, show resistance to the status quo, often in the face of insurmountable odds that involve conflicts in which the character must use skills, and often develop additional skills, in order to succeed.  Success and failure, of course, will vary from story to story but it’s the struggle, the quality, and the authorial delivery that grab the reader.  Readers generally want to root for a character who succeeds by using imagination and hard work.  If the author of fiction writes to evoke reader sympathy without significant reader engagement, there can be unwanted consequences.  Sympathy comes from empathy for the plight of others.  When a static character is in a dire, and often unjustly deserved, state and narrative description is used to tell of past events and feelings, empathy is harder to attain.  For the inexperienced author in this context, the danger of failure to create for desired reader response is sentimentality rather than empathy–and even bathos–by the reader for the character and the situation.

The difference between a static character described to evoke a sympathetic reader response and a character in a struggle with desires and motivation aimed at solving a problem enmeshed in intellectual, emotional, or physical conflict that evokes reader empathy results in two opposites that, by being aware of them during story construction, can improve a writer.  Basically, the writer’s choice is inaction told versus action shown.  (The comparison is like the difference in viewing a tableau vivant of Manet’s nude in the park or attending a theatrical production of Richard the Third, the “My kingdom for a horse.” guy.)  And for the success of most fictional stories, these differences are not just points on a sliding scale; instead the choice is either or, and for good fiction and good stories to reach greatness, a choice must be made, or at least considered, to where the story creation is effectively under authorial control. 

In most effective stories about victims, the character rails against the circumstances to improve his or her lot.  Authors often fail to reach story potential of acceptance, enjoyment, and memorability by allowing the character to wallow during excessive authorial narrative descriptions of the injustices, and by forcing the reader to make judgments about the credibility of injustice in the circumstances and accepting the character’s response to the person or event that caused his or her (the character’s) present state of existence.  Consider two situations with different character responses. 

Read the entire essay.



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.



Story Beginnings (13): What Engages You? Article About Writing Better


Saturday, May 18th, 2013
William H. Coles

Below are thirteen story beginnings of less than sixty words all from award-winning stories.  Which engages you the most and makes you want to read on?  Which engages you the least?  Analyze why, to find principles applicable to your own writing.

All stories are available for free at www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

1. After a six-hour drive north from Toronto, John Hampton arrived at the family home of his departed wife, Grace, and her daughter Candy, both dead six days.  The house was dark; his sister-in-law, Ruth, greeted him in a nightgown and robe, and knee-length woolen socks . . . she led him toward an attic room.   Speaking of the Dead

2. His sweet troubled son, alone in his second-floor room, he and his wife sitting downstairs irritated by the bass thrust of the loud music.  They didn't know he had taken a loaded shotgun and while sitting on the bed, placed the barrels under his chin and pushed down on the trigger.  Dilemma

3. My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker.  And never at night.  But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile maker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn't even know I was bearing down on her . . .  Inside the Matryoshka

 4. Most of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset.  My God.  Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door.  She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts.  The Golden Flute

5. In 1959, a week after her seventeenth birthday, Catherine missed her period in February, and then in March.  By late April she was not sleeping well and most of her waking hours were spoiled by nausea and hating everything she ate.  Her mother Agnes made an emergency appointment with Dr. Crowder.  The Gift

 6. One summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags.  “They’re a danger.  Think of the disease,” Mom said.  The War of the Flies

 7. The wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin.  Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley.  Father Ryan

 8. My Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse.  Aaron, my older brother by two years, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back.  Dr. Greiner's Day in Court

9. I was fifteen, never in love, and yearning to leave home when a red, two-seated convertible drove up to our gate.  The driver’s door opened, and a girl of twenty-two with a perfectly shaped, light-skinned body emerged in a see-through dress that showed almost everything, and I imagined the rest.  The Stonecutter

 10. Associate Professor William Possum was looking for student Denise Witherspoon, this attractive, slightly overweight, moderately intelligent woman who was destroying his class.  Denise had caused five angry letters, two dropouts, and a formal complaint that said she “made an evening of anticipated learning a dreadful experience.”   The Perennial Student

 11. “I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said.  She said this often.  She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn.  Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.  The Activist

 12. In college, I had been attracted to my roommate, Peter Townsend.  But after fifteen years of marriage to Amanda, my thoughts of Peter had faded, until I heard a rumor that he would interview for Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University where I was a professor of botany.  Curse of a Lonely Heart

 13. My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two-lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from.   On the Road to Yazoo City



Why Should a Serious Fiction Writer Use Second Person Narration? Article About Writing Better


Friday, December 28th, 2012
William H. Coles

More than a few editors see stories with second-person narration as trendy these days.  You enter the church; you kneel at the altar.  You stare into the downcast eyes of the statue of The Virgin, and you wonder if she's listening. Some readers accept this without question as good, and innovative writing. 

Others find it irritating.  Rob Spillman, Editor of Tin House, said: "I have a pet peeve against the second person that I call the second–person accusatory: 'You are walking down the street.'  I go, 'No, I am not walking down the street!'"[1]  Spillman reflects the views of many.  Using the second person the author constantly confronts the reader assuming the reader will react positively, presumably thinking the reader will be drawn into the story, but requiring increased suspension of disbelief (for narrator credibility and accuracy) for the reader to actually enjoy the story.

David Lynn, Editor of the Kenyon Review, recently presented [2] an erudite explanation of the use of second person in a story he was proud to have selected for publication.  “Ezekiel” by Segun Afolabi.  It starts:

You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. You see their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. You cannot count how many people are in the boat, but you estimate at least thirty, perhaps forty. When it lay near-empty you couldn’t imagine how all of you would fit inside. But here you are, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies. “Move your leg,” the woman beside you says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition—six or seven months, you think. You couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. You wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then you remember—it will be roughly only one week before you reach dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.

Mr. Lynn confesses usual dislike with the use of second person as a narrative choice but provides a number of interesting observations on second person narration, ideas that may be held by many academicians.  (Quotes extracted from David Lynn's analysis of "Ezekial.")

The second-person narrative successfully emphasizes his lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making. The “you” sets him apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.

“You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other.”  Such syntax could, of course, be a sign of mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill. Or, as soon becomes evident in this story, it may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation.

So the awkwardness and confusion of the language heighten the nightmarish qualities of the scene itself.

In reading the story I soon realized that the author is indeed marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.

Mr. Lynn points out many other aspects of the writing to admire.  But these extracts provide insight to second-person narration that impressed and pleased him as an editor. (See article.)

At the core, Mr. Lynn's admiration specifically saw use of second person providing:

1) Second-person narrative successfully emphasizes author lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making.
2) the “you” sets the author/narrator apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.
3) Mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation.
4) Awkwardness and confusion of the language heightened nightmarish qualities.
5) Author marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.

For creation of classic literary-fiction stories (it is true, "Ezekial" seems to be a memory-based "fictional" story), a number of essentials need to be considered to reach memorability and acceptance as great writing and storytelling: clarity of the prose narration, solid imagery that stimulates and engages the reader's imagination, clear ideation, unique and sophisticated character development with some reversal of thought and understanding, theme and meaning, and providing entertainment and enlightenment for the reader.

In second-person narration, there is a barrier set between the author and the reader.  When "you" is used instead of a first person or third person pronoun, there is little accumulation of valid characterization because the "you" is unanchored in an identifiable narrator, and the reader becomes dependent mostly on narrative description since internalization, action, and dialogue are now attributed to a hazy unidentifiable story presenter.  And it is often unclear, whether the author is using "you" as a singular entity, or to a "plural you," which would suggest an even more diffuse identification of who the story presenter is, and more than a little author arrogance in believing that all the world will believe as he or she does.  And, as Mr. Lynn points out, there is, with second person use, a lack of narrator control of the story.  However, for great fictional stories a strong identifiable narrator presence in control of the storytelling is almost always an advantage.

This issue of unclear narrator eroding characterization is best shown by example. 

Second person

You are insecure about Helen's meaning.  You see her raised eyebrow as questioning your authority, so you pull the trigger.  You are pleased at the puzzlement in her last look.

Almost surely the reader won't relate to this pronoun . . . accept responsibility for the "you's" thoughts and actions.  And if the reader accepts the convention of "you," characters fail to take on form and personality; the reader is left floating in a confused, awkward telling of a story and knowing of the characters involved.

First person

I'm not sure what Helen meant.  But her innocent look inflames me, and I pull the trigger, happy to see the surprise in her eyes as the life goes out of her.

Third person

He does not know Helen's meaning.  He is incapable of understanding a soul so trusting and pure.  Her pleading gaze he takes as mockery and he pulls the trigger; he smiles at her stare of surprise and disbelief as she dies.

In both 1st and 3rd person, action and thoughts allow the reader to know a character, a feat essential for good fiction.

Marginal writing aside, in these variations using 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person narration, 2nd person does not allow any assumptions as to how the narrator felt or why he or she acted.  Both 1st and 3rd person support the storytelling better.  It is hard to imagine storytelling situations where the failure of understanding the choice of narration, the clumsiness of the prose and syntax required, and the inability to use 1st or 3rd person would be an advantage.

Here is a version of the first two paragraphs of "Ezekial" with the only change of replacing the "you" pronoun (and adjusting tense where necessary) with a third person pronoun.  No other alterations are made.  Study the differences.  Evaluate the "obscurity and the awkwardness" differences on the effective imagery of this story in the original and the altered. Where does second person work or not work for you, and why?  See if there are things to learn about your own fiction writing and storytelling. 

He sails at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. He sees their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. He cannot count how many people are in the boat, but he estimates at least thirty, perhaps forty.  When it lay near-empty, he couldn’t imagine how they would fit inside. But he was, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies.
     “Move your leg,” the woman beside him says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition—six or seven months, he thinks. He couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. He wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then he remembers—it will be roughly only one week before he reaches dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.

Second person use with past tense is natural where a character or the narrator address another character and it is made clear to the reader.  [I know exactly what you did.  You climbed the tree to see the nest and you pushed the fledglings out!]  But if the narrator is addressing the reader with the "you" in a scene context without clarity as to whom the "you" is, the reader may again feel confronted, and fail to connect with story and character.  [You ate the fish raw.  You felt nausea.  You wondered if you'd ever eat fish again.]

"We" use is not always first person plural in the hands of the ambiguous-intent writer.  "We" can suggest "me" [the narrator] and "you" [the reader] with the same confrontation and reader-as-character effects.  [We bought the ticket, we slide it in the slot, we watched the gate open thinking we might never return.]  The purpose for such use and construction seems amateurish, calling attention to the author, and not supporting the story.

When writers who write to please readers write in second person, they risk alienating the reader, risk confusing the reader, risk failure to develop strong characters, and risk clouding motivations, desires, and cause and effect of characters in the telling of the story.  Yet, the trend seems to be developing a form that pleases more than a few contemporary readers who strongly support use of second person narration.  Every writer will have to evaluate and make decisions based on their own goals for telling fictional prose stories.  However, for quality literary fiction that persists in the literary consciousness of English readers, second person narration may not be a lasting or dependable tool.

 

[1]  http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/interviews/spillman-rob-interview/

[2] David Lynn,  "Why We Chose It"  Kenyon Review  September 11, 2012




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