Essays – How Literary Stories Go Wrong
William H. Coles
In literary fiction, the author creates, through imagination, a story that causes some enlightenment or change in thinking about the human condition. If the author is successful, the story is unforgettable. The enjoyment for the reader comes from sympathizing with the character(s), sometimes without liking, and finding satisfaction in realizing how character traits drive the plot progression.
In today’s publishing environment, genre and commercial fiction survive. Literary fiction barely hangs on, but for a limited number of readers, literary fiction is still the most enjoyable reading and provides levels of satisfaction for them that commercial fiction cannot. For the serious writer, literary fiction is not memoir, nor creative nonfiction, nor dependent on autobiographical material, although these techniques are commonly used and are accepted in what is now published as primarily “nongenre,” or mainstream, fiction. But these techniques erode the imaginative decision process to choose the best action and details for characterization, and the most effective and credible motivation for plot energy. Devoted writers find literary fiction difficult to craft but representative of high achievement. And when the characterization and the plot depend more on reality of what has happened rather than the imagination, the writer loses an artistic edge of excellence in her or his writing. These writers tend to depend on prose manipulation to write, and fail to grasp the advantage of characters well imagined and plots motivated with innovative desires and frustrations.
Symptoms of unsuccessful literary stories
1. Failure to engage the reader.
The success of a literary story requires engagement of the reader, not just in the story action, but with the protagonist. The reader wants to experience what the character experiences, and must sympathize and relate to the character as early as possible in story development.
2. Too clever prose.
Great literary stories are a series of events with conflict and action that result in meaningful resolution through enlightenment or change in existing thought. The author achieves this through accurate word choice; logical thought progression; concrete, fresh images; and perfectly chosen metaphoric enlightenments. Never is the story improved when accuracy, logic, freshness, or right metaphors are compromised by the author slipping into the cleverness (often with lyricism, abstract ideas and pseudo-unique words and phrases that are unclear) of prose becoming more important than the story. This does not mean that there are not readers who seek and enjoy expansive prose. And lyrical prose can be beautiful in clear, image-filled and significant ways. But too clever prose is inflated, expanded, baroque prose and directly opposed to succinct, purposeful, story writing. When creating great literary stories, there is little use for writing that becomes a showcase for an author in love with his or her skills in manipulating the language. Great writing is words that are like notes whose pitch and positioning produce a melody that evokes a human effect, and the quality and value of the effect is consistent whether presented by a symphony, or rap star, or jazz combo, or monastic modal organ recital. In writing, great words form a melodic-like impression that is remembered for life. It is that core melodic value we seek in writing, and the tendency to overdo, or sublimate, the presentation of that melody, will erode the value of great fiction. Clever prose is, of course, mostly a subjective evaluation, but when clever prose becomes irritating, most readers will agree on the feeling and stop reading, or at least lose concentration.
3. Excessive and Static Details
Setting is essential for story. Excessive description of setting is not. And when description is excessive, it is almost always static. For clarification of static, compare the examples below. Example A is static. Example B is active.
A. The small black bird with the brilliant red wings and inquisitive yellow eyes perched on the white picket fence just out of reach of the tabby colored cat with a scar on his leg and his one eye half-closed and scarred from some long ago fight.
B. The red winged blackbird glided in for a landing, and the battle-tested tabby cat leaped up, claws out, and caught only the edge of one of the bird’s wings to scratch a feather loose that floated down to the garden path as the bird safely landed on the fence a few feet away.
Use of too many adjectives, adverbs, or extended, vague metaphorical comparisons can deaden the desired effect of a story, and should be avoided in favor of action verbs and nouns that provoke images.
4. In-Your-Face Attitude.
When characterization and plot motivation begin to fail to produce effective and meaningful stories, there is often a dependence on voice and a character’s attitude to try to make the story stand out. The writing filters character thinking and speech through an in-your-face, often counter to existing convention and authority, and confrontational — usually descriptive — narrative. Even when done well, the effect is limited. In literary fictional stories, characterization develops when deeper character traits are dependent on action, response to events, and in-scene development for credibility. In-your-face narrative tends to be most useful in a character sketch, and is rarely useful to develop a character who acts with strong, credible motivations to drive the plot in significant ways — ways that are the skeleton of literary stories.
Fatalism means plot predictability. In fiction, predictability is what the reader of genre fiction expects. Murder, investigation, justice. Man woos reluctant woman, they fall in love. Terrorist threatens the White House, terrorist thwarted. In literary fiction, plots are character driven, that is, the plot’s action results from the freewill decision-process of the major characters. Rather than ferreting out a murderer, a reader learns motivations and desires (the how and why) that must be understandable and credible for the reader (the hard part). Life may seem — and could be — predestined and fatalistic. Fiction, however, moves ahead on the foundation of human foibles, and is exciting and unpredictable — never predestined.
6. Need to Shock
Too many failing stories feel the need to fulfill — often a realistic need for some readers — the reader's expectation for a shock. Horror films provide a shock to delight those who enjoy shock. But in literary fiction, the process of producing a shocking action, or revealing often visually uncomfortable detail, is too far from effective character development and character driven plot for meaning. Even if shock may have an effect in a literary story, it cannot be the major element of an effective story construction. Innovation, surprise, uniqueness, are all elements of good writing, but in literary fiction, stretching for shock by detailed description of an alien-like animal devouring a human small intestine is not the sort of technique that will lead to anything more than a temporary value that detracts from the creation of a great literary story.
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. It cannot simply be left to ideas that might bubble up from the unconscious, or that might be 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 simply describing real or imagined events or thoughts.
In essence, a story will never be significant when a reader finishes and has no understanding of 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 purposful storytelling.