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How Literary Stories Go Wrong

by 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.



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.

5. Fatalism

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.

7. Insignificance

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.

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21 thoughts on “How Literary Stories Go Wrong

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  • maryanne Khan

    Speaking of scene setting and description.
    Here is a passage from the first pages of my novel in which an eight year old Pakistani boy is accompanying his dying father to the hospital, accompanied by adult relatives who are bearing the stretcher:

    ‘The entourage had picked its way along the mountain pass fringed with rocks and ragged weeds like scraps of sun-bleached paper. Pebbles skittered over the edge of the road to plunge down the side of the ravine, yet still he had staggered on with the men charged with accompanying his sick father to Qalandarabad and the Bach Christian Hospital. On and on they had walked, along the crumbling verge of the road that was furrowed and wrinkled like a dry riverbed, his sandals filling with grit and small sharp stones that bit into the soles of his feet. The dull, dry, smell of parched earth mingled with the odour of sweating men. The vast sky arched overhead, pale and dimpled with clumps of little clouds like curdled milk. In the heat, the fields on the mountainside wavered as if seen through candle flame.’

  • maryanne Khan

    On how stories go wrong:

    The section on In-your-face Attitude has sorted out for me why I, felt tentative, dubious, as I read over something I was about to submit to a Literary Journal (and upon reflection, in reference to a couple of the many stories that have indeed been published, but that I regarded as ‘lesser’, in some way.)

    That was IT.

    Some of my stories are cheeky in attitude but they take time and words to evolve. And they work.

    (Please don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a Big Novel set in 1960’s-80’s Pakistan and that is under consideration by a Literary Imprint of a major Australian publisher)

    What I did with this particular little perplexing piece, was go ‘like a tank a tank a tank’ when I should have beeen driving the tank and watching it crush the marigolds and hurt my backside in driving it.

  • Gia Shoobridge

    Excellent answer, good sir!

    I found this very helpful indeed, and will get to work soon (I promise!).

    What you said about having concrete images was probably my worst problem. Like I stated earlier, I was vague…So now I know exactly how to fix the problem instead of reading tons of websites on ‘descriptive writing’ which wasn’t really what I was looking for. I can write descriptions, they just aren’t very good.

    Thanks for taking the time to reply!

  • Gia Shoobridge

    I’m writing a novel and am finding that I have a very hard time describing the setting. In my head, actions and events are clearly there, but the background is vague. As it turns out, the settings that I write are vague!

    Reading the bit about too many adjectives and static detail has actually eased some of my discomfort about my vague backgrounds. I want to make them meaningful, not just drivel and a waste of space.

    I’m about 180 pages into my story, have a definite ending in mind, but am lacking some glaringly obvious details, which I keep meaning to address.

    Is there any way to work on creative imagery without jeopardizing the flow of my prose? What I mean to say is: I don’t want to go on and on over some small detail instead of getting to the matter at hand. I’m a very to the point kind of person, and frankly feel like giving too much detail is annoying and redundant as I, the writer, know everything. I just wish I could get rid of that feeling and empathise with my readers, instead of just skipping over, what I feel is, already known.

    • admin

      Perceptive question about your own writing. One concept you might try, which may seem unhelpful at first, is imagine your scene not in all-encompassing totality, but as the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Then, for the reader, you, as the writer, want to stimulate an image of scene with selected pieces from the puzzle. You will not be trying to recreate what you imagine now, but you will be trying to stimulate the reader’s imagination to create a scene that supports the story and the characters. You’ll choose the right pieces to the imagined scene. It’s amazing that sometimes an effective scene can be created for a reader with only a few pieces of the puzzle. And for the reader, it is pleasing to add their own unique pieces to the scene puzzle. Almost always, brevity comes from the quality of puzzle piece chosen. The piece must be concrete (paper clip), not abstract (fastener). The word choice must be image-generating (cracked porcelain tea cup, or the blue and yellow Easter egg). Modifiers should usually not be judgmental (not huge but better to say six feet tall, but only if it fits). The better quality the piece of the puzzle used the fewer you need. Avoid cliches. Use nouns and adjectives that evoke images in a few words, usually specific and concrete: sparrow, not bird; ruddy cheeks, not healthy cheeks; sixteen story skyscraper, not tall building. Once you have the right pieces of the puzzle in mind, you can then imagine ways to deliver them seamlessly. Almost always, brevity is best. Long descriptive passages are for past generations. Find clever ways to use attribution of dialogue (Look out!, he yelled, slapping the pit bull with his walking stick and shoving the child toward her mother.) It is difficult, but you can also slip scenic elements into the dialogue itself. You can often incorporate images in internal reflections. And for many stories, especially at the beginning, you’ll want to set the scene with brief but fresh and exciting image fragments with narrative. The quality of the narrative descriptive passage will also depend on the quality of your story (is it engaging?) and the force and momentum of your prose in general. Thanks for your comment. WHC.

  • Mister Nanigan

    @Addy Bridgwood.

    Try writing a book about a school where all the stupid popular kids want to be vampires–except for one smart, serious girl who would really just rather be human. It will be an instant bestseller.

    • admin

      I hear you. And it would be a bestseller. And it would say a lot about being human, which means a lot to certain careful readers of literature. The author would be speaking, through the marvels of fiction, about something those who love and care, think and figure out, and strive for selflessness, would really value. Ironically, those are rarely vampires. But that’s okay. In writing this story, the talented author would be speaking to a special reader in meaningful ways. And that is really satisfying for both author and reader. I like the way you think. If you want to chat about it sometime, email me ( or wall-to-wall me on FB, which would be my second choice. Great hearing from you. WHC

  • Addy Bridgwood

    I’m only 12 but I have started like, 122342 books and given up on all.
    I like the idea of a girl with supernatural gifts, but after the twilight saga it feels like I’m just echoing…
    Argh :(

    • admin

      Don’t give up. You have the gift; I can tell by how you express yourself with humor and likability. Look to your favorite stories and writers. How are the stories you like successful? What can you learn about doing it in your own way? Then find favorite characters. How does the writer build that character for the reader? Then practice character building. Create stories and characters in your head daily. It’s fun. You can even practice telling stories to friends and family. When you’re telling a story, can you keep their attention? Please them? You can see it in their eyes when you get it right. It has to do with conflict and images and something happening that changes the person in the story. With a little practice, the characters begin to become alive. All this makes writing worthwhile. Good luck. You can do it. I know you can. And great to hear from you. WHC

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  • Susan Barkmn

    Loved the article on tips to remember when writing for pleasure and profit. As I read the points I continually heard myself saying, “Yep, I do that. Yep, do that…” etc. So why aren’t I published?

    • admin

      Thanks. Publishing today is a nightmare. And it’s getting more difficult to find an agent or editor whose aesthetics match your own. To top it off, quality seems to buried by the need to publish gossip and shock (poorly written). Woe is me.

  • Frank Tull

    Thank you for that insite on good fiction writing. The reminder about adverbs is needed for me to be very conscience of. The use of action nouns and verbs is just what I’m trying to do
    and that is to provoke images with the right words.