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Information and Literary Story Structure

by William H. Coles

Every fictional story is composed of information selected from an infinite number of imagined possibilities. Once the information to be used has been selected, almost invariably requiring drafts and outlines, then the process of revision should include the consideration of story information: Is it essential to the story? Is it in the right place? Is it clear? and Is it used to provide an effect on the reader or to guide them through a story?

As each of these questions is addressed, often simultaneously in the author’s revision process, the author has to begin to look at information to create suspense in the reader (What is it? Why did it happen? Who was it? How did it happen? Where did it happen?). The literary story differs from a genre story in the way information is presented to the reader and the knowledge known about the story by characters and narrator compared to what the reader and author know.

Story information: is it true to the story?

Authors often write about what is important to them. It’s natural. But even well-written, important information that is not directly related to story characterization or plot movement will deaden the effect of story meaning and enjoyment for the reader. Here is a simplistic example to explain.

Take the story of Little Red Ridinghood. Assume the meaning is something like– don’t be fooled by appearances, evil can lurk in benign paraphernalia. Many writers, using this meaning with the basic traditional plot, might be tempted to add story information that is important but not supportive of the story meaning. For example, the impending extinction of wolves, the responsibility to prosecute sex offenders harshly, the inappropriate use and social ridicule of riding hoods in children. These ideas would change story and story meaning. Anyone of these peripheral ideas inserted into the story competes with meaning established, and in story telling, the story meaning should be sacrosanct. New ideas are essential and move a story forward, but should not be accidental and seem random. Literary story is conflict, action, and resolution with meaning. Inclusion of tangential or totally nonrelated material, no matter how important, should be avoided.

Story information: hold or reveal

In a literary story, information withheld is not the same as information withheld in a genre story for commercial fiction.  In a mystery, for example, the reader wants to guess who committed the murder, and the author presents many possibilities and tries to allow reasonable surprise when the murderer is revealed.  In suspense and thriller writing, the reader seeks to see what happened and cares enough about characters so tension is built when what happened is withheld to at least the last few chapters of the book. In essence, commercial-fiction story information is manipulated to build tension.

In literary fiction, information is used in different ways and in writing the literary story, withholding information that would reasonably be known by the narrator—and characters—is not readily accepted and should be avoided.  For example, in a literary story, a border might find his landlady stabbed to death by her piano student and we read to learn how and why.  In genre fiction, the lady is found dead and we read to learn how the protagonist discovers and/or proves that the piano student was the murderer.

This judgment on withheld information is not often as black and white as indicated, and the author must ask, in a literary story, will the reader feel manipulated by the withheld information in ways that a reader who enjoys genre will accept and seek?

For the most part, readers of literary fiction want plot information presented when the story demands.  The importance of evaluating information given in revision carefully, and information withheld,  carefully will engage, entertain, and enlighten the literary reader.

Omniscience and point of view. How is information filtered?

Since a story is a series of events (scenes) delivered through prose in dramatic and meaningful ways, the information delivered to the reader must be specific for the story and the desired effect of the story.  Omniscience has different implications in different contexts, but it is important for a writer to define and explore what omniscience is in his or her story.  In many contexts, omniscience may not be advisable for good story telling, either in POV or the type of information provided to the reader by an “omniscient” narrator.

For example, if a reader begins to assume a character is omniscient, than withheld information is manipulation to create tension.  I’m telling the story, I know the murderer, and I’ll tell you at the end.  But in character-based literary fiction, the character discovers information, and both the narrator and the reader know more or suspect more than the character.  Characters who know more than the reader knows have taken over the story, closing the door on reader involvement.

For maximum value, in writing fiction, omniscience is best understood as an artificially created attitude about the way information is delivered.  Omniscience as a noun means: knowledge of all things real or apparent.  Among writers, it is often used confusingly as an adjective—an omniscient point of view, for example.  Omniscience is knowledge about all things; point of view refers to limitation of how things are described or told.  Neither seems to complement the other.  So when a writers say “omniscient point of view” they could mean 1) a character or narrator that knows all about all things, 2) multiple characters delivering story through their established points of view.  To further confuse the issue, some writer’s refer to omniscient third person or omniscient first person points of view (usually referring to a character who is free to present information not reasonably expected that they can provide) or omniscient narrator often in reference to story information delivered through many characters.

The use of omniscience as a presumed method of understanding how characters and narrator deliver information is not helpful for the writer who needs to be in control of a well structured, perfectly crafted story.  The competent author needs to think about two major questions: how story worlds and real worlds vary, and how and when story information can be delivered.
Consider that in story writing we can define worlds differently for characters, narrator and author.  The trick in writing is to deliver story information to the reader from the appropriate story world that is credible and maximally useful for drama and meaning and this depends on how the reader interprets the source of information about the story.  (This is true not only for clarity but also for credibility of the way the information is delivered, and for expectations of the veracity of the delivered information. Skillful authors seem to master these complexities to provide new levels of meaning and awareness in the reader.)

There are many worlds (again, world is a specified domain of human activity and the people involved): the author’s world, which might be considered all knowing within the thoughts and memory of the author’s existence (almost never used effectively in story telling by accomplished authors in modern fiction); the narrator’s world, which might me considered all knowing within the thoughts and memory of the narrator’s (usually imagined) existence; and a character’s world for each character in the story, which is what each character thinks and remembers. Finally, there is the real world beyond human comprehension, God’s world, where every truth about everything is known. Effective stories come from identifiable story worlds that are never omniscient, and always focused to present the best story possible.

Dos and dont’s:

*Avoid the term omniscience either as a noun or adjective when speaking of point of view.

*Evaluate all information delivered to a reader in the context of appropriateness for characterization and plot movement of the story.

*Use various points of view whenever it is clear that varying the point of view is the best way to provide critical, and acceptable, story information at a specific desired point in the story.

*Do not allow unrelated information from nonstory worlds of characters, authors and narrators to creep into the story telling.

*Keep in mind how far the point of view is from the action–the physical and psychological distance from the action–and choose points of view most effective.

*Keep points of view credible, so their is no question in the reader if story information is credible, and there is clear understanding between narrator and reader of the reliability of the point of view narration.

*Balance carefully appropriate craft techniques for delivery story information: narrative summary, in scene action, dialogue, internal reflection.

*Avoid awkward points of view that result in unclear shifts in the story perception of time.


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3 thoughts on “Information and Literary Story Structure

  • Ohita Afeisume

    Thanks, William for your thoughts about POV.
    I never really thought deeply about the use of the term “omniscient” in the light of POV in this manner. Indeed, only God is omniscient. Let’s coin another word for this POV in Literature. Any suggestions?

    • admin

      I suggest thinking in “multiple points of view” and most stories do better if the narrator is included. The reason for even teaching this idea is that if an author thinks the perspective of the moment is delivered by an “omniscient” source, the characterization among characters blends losing individuality. Thanks for the comment. WHC