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Preparing to Write the Great Literary Story

by William H. Coles

Literary fiction is not an easy road to either fame or fortune.  Two reasons play an important role: authors who write literary stories have fewer readers than authors of commercial fiction and nonfiction, and editorial and publishing decisions to accept genre and memoir writing instead of literary fiction.  Still, there is a reader need (and market) for literary story as an art form that requires time and skill to create.  In this difficult publishing environment, creative achievement alone seems to reward those serious authors who are dedicated, obsessed, and who see literary fiction as a valuable achievement.  These authors serve those readers who find enjoyment in the literary story.

Core goals to create a significant literary story.

  1. Achieve excellence in craft of writing.
  2. Identify elements—including drama and structure–of all great stories.
  3. Write to involve the reader through story action, not to tell an imagined or real story with fictional embellishments.

A. Introduction

An author of literary fiction must absorb:

(1) Craft (skill in doing things). The craft of writing must emphasize clarity and readability in the product. Learning craft is a continuous process that makes the quality of the writing progress throughout a writer’s career.  Although mastery of craft is essential to great stories, too many writers work hard on craft and ignore other as important elements in their development as storytellers.

(2) Storytelling. Storytelling is: an accomplishment more dependent of thought and judgment, and therefore less well defined than the more technical aspects of craft; harder to learn and teach than craft; and has fewer resources for writers to learn to improve.

(3) Drama. Drama through the written word is the foundation for successful literary fiction as an art form. To create drama, character and plot are the foundations generated by a vivid and unique imagination that establish a writer’s control of his or her process of creating fiction.

(4) Characterization. Every major character should be created as if that character will be unique, memorable, and a lasting presence in the collective consciousness of educated readers.

B. Elements to master

1. Drama in storytelling.

Drama is conflict, action and resolution. For intense drama, the desires of the characters must be significant and based logically on the foundation of character development. In literary fiction, dramatic conflict is more effective among believable and respected characters, rather than super heroes or abstract inanimate threats like asteroids on a collision path with earth. The concept of dramatic writing that is engaging is not easily conceived or easily engrained in the writing process. Although complex, the most important skills for dramatic development are related to character development and creating scenes that contribute to the story in interesting ways. Most failure in creating drama occurs when authors strive for emotions in the characters–and the reader–with description, rather than creating the emotions through actions and conflicting desires. Description is an easy trap for a writer. And too much description is often a sinkhole for a reader. Description is dependent on language manipulation, not logical character action. Instead of description, authors must learn to frequently involve the reader in the story action by showing the action through a character or narrator rather than having a character or narrator describing action or environment.

Literary examples can point the way, but only practice and discovery can affect learning. Poets can be great storytellers, but storytellers are not primarily poets, and the belief that lyrical prose creates a great story is the antithesis to reality. Writing effective literary stories does not depend on how lyric the descriptive prose, or how erudite, or how difficult ideas are to access. Great fiction is primarily in scene action with clear logical thinking. Of course lyrical prose can be clear and logical and support a story, but it cannot compete with a reader’s enjoyment of the story by stagnating the dramatic action.The key for writers is understanding the difference between describing a feeling—love, anger, jealousy, etc—and creating these feelings that will dominate, not emote, in characters and subsequently readers. Few authors master this idea, even many who are widely successful. As a serious fiction writer, using dramatic action to engage a reader to a point where emotions are stirred in the reader should be the primary accomplishment.

2. Narrative description.

Effective narrative description is necessary for great fiction. But excessive narrative description is tempered—but not eliminated–in great writing. Narrative allows condensation of time that will increase the reader’s feeling of movement through storytime primarily because it allows the freedom of story pacing that is more restricted in scene action.  Narrative description also allows extended continuous action to be summarized allowing capture of reader interest. But probably most important, when lyrical passages (including summary, stream of consciousness, and internal reflection) are needed in the presentation for enjoyment in the reading, narrative description is often the best way to create the desired effect. But for most authors, narrative description is easier to write—more intuitive—and it tends to be overdone. As a general rule, the process on narrative description should have purpose, that is it should develop character or move plot, and not be a vehicle for inflated prose.

3. Desire.

Think of the desire that motivates in conflict, action and resolution rather than image and setting. How does a character respond to major and minor events? Many teachers of creative writing believe that authors should strive in their writing for a moment where the character creates the story on the page. The teachers imply some mystical intracranial invasion of the author by the character, almost supernatural, that frees the writer to let the character do the work.

But character takeover is often a harmful goal.  In terms of the literary story, where success of creating an art form requires control of story structure and meaning, letting the character create story, thrusts the story into uncontrolled zones of purposeless writing and random unconnected ideas. For reader satisfaction, everything that happens in a story to a character needs to have a purpose in full control of the author.

Authors need in-depth thinking, with choices made, about characters’ motivations before sitting down to write. Motivations must be significant, logical, and appropriate for the conflict, action, and resolution of the story and motivations must be right for the scene, for the logical and synergistic actions with motivations in all other scenes, and consistent with the development and progressive understanding of the motivation at any time in the story. This demands consideration of the structure and interactions of all the characters in a story.

Character motivation in a story is never static; it is always changing, like hundreds of vipers in a pit where each snake, at any instant, has a unique relationship to every other, and that relationship will change in the next instant, wiggling, advancing, regressing until it’s over. In great stories, theme and meaning are often more effectively transmitted by emotional discovery rather than intellectual explanation. Essentially, this means showing, not telling; in scene, not narrative description and summary; concrete not abstract thinking and writing, creative process not descriptive process; structure of responses, not random reflection.

4. Backstory.

Backstory should only be employed in a story when it is necessary to advance the front story.  In most great stories, backstory is avoided by structuring the story form so the front story is advancing without interruption.  In addition, when writing backstory, the timeline of the story is shifted to a time before story beginning.  This often deadens the effectiveness of a front-story passage.  Compare these two examples—awkward and over written to make a point—where there seems to be a definite shift in momentum when backstory is used to provide essentially the same information in the passage that does not rely on backstory.

Example 1. No backstory

The curtain parted just far enough for Maria to step forward into the spotlight and then closed.  She bowed to the audience applause and cupped one hand in the other in a gesture of formality to lead to the opening note of the aria.  She nodded to the piano player who, after a pause, started playing.  The first notes expanded out over the audience.  He was playing introductory chords now.  Maria listened for the cue to pinpoint her starting note, that always difficult major seventh so peculiar and unique to this composer.  My God.  The pianist had skipped the refrain with her critical cue note.  She must have the cue.  He was new but no mistakes could be tolerated.  He was headed for her beginning.  How could he do that? Maybe he would still return, do it right.  She glared, tried to make eye contact. He plodded on.  The audience turned into a thousand hostile critics instead of an adoring group of friends she liked to imagine.  He was seven bars from her entrance.  Here it comes.  God!  She took a deep breath, searching her memory for some clue to the starting pitch.

Example 2. Backstory

The curtain parted just far enough for Maria to step forward into the spotlight and then closed. She bowed to the audience applause and cupped one hand in the other in a gesture of formality to lead to opening note of the aria. She nodded to the piano player. He started the intro. She had met with him briefly yesterday. A dull sullen young man, but attractive with dark brown eyes and an unerasable black shadow of a shaved dark beard. She had carefully explained how she needed the refrain in the intro before the aria. She could only start when she heard the fifth to orient her to the nonchordal tone the composer insisted on using. She thought he had understood. And they had practiced, in the short time available, only the passages themselves. Now he’d forgotten the refrain.  He finished the intro and went directly to the verse.  She felt the panic rise in her. There was no way she could hit the crucial major seventh. And there was no way she could not go forward. She felt the audience’s expectant stares. She heard their breathing. When she sang the note, the pianist’s head jerked toward her. He knew what he had done.

In the backstory, there is a slowing down of front story action without backstory contributing to front story in any special way. For most writing, backstory is more detrimental than additive when it is not necessary to advance front story.

5. Irony.

Humor, in its many forms, is different for every human. Authors need to be aware of the mysteries of irony and humor in general. Irony is a form of humor where what happens is not what might be expected. To incorporate irony in prose, in depth exploration of human needs and expectations as well as a clear understanding of social interactions of the storytime are needed. The study of irony is time well spent for the writer of literary fiction.

6. Meaning.

Meaning—and theme—in literary fiction is essentially a change or reversal in the existing way of thinking about something.  Characters change during storytelling in meaningful ways. It is part of successful dramatic structure that includes expert character development. But it is the reader’s awareness of meaning, at times not articulated or even formed as a complete concept, that represents the success of the author of literary stories.

7. Morality.

All writing is strengthened by a concept of what is moral (issues of right and wrong). In essence, character actions and thinking exist in a moral cobweb. This morality need not be spiritually or legally correct, but it must be consistent for the story, and the moral cobweb established must control logical actions in the story. Morality is formative, not controlling. Authors who feel strongly about a moral view, usually their view, may impose on the reader an almost threatening challenge to accept their attitudes. This is not useful in storytelling where concepts of morality are used for desires and motivations of characters rather than saving the reader from damnation.

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15 thoughts on “Preparing to Write the Great Literary Story

  • Lily Iona MacKenzie

    I wonder if William Faulkner or James Joyce would agree with this post. I feel you’re applying to what I consider “literary” writing a formula that genre writers follow. There’s nothing “literary” about this approach, I’m afraid.

  • Jeff Bukowski

    Hi WHC,

    Your essays are both a great guide, and source of inspiration. Addressing a wide range on specific topics, of much needed attention.

    I have recently set myself the goal of trying to complete a story for a competition as a form of motivation. I usually enjoy developing my characters, and seeing how they will grow, etc.

    However, this has to be a literary short story. 8000 words max. I want to tell the story of three overlapping POV’s, that overlap with each other, illustrating how they wrap their identities in fiction, to disguise the true dark selves from the real world outside.

    I’m unsure if I would be able to illustrate the depth of character disguise, and the dark undertone in a mere 25 odd pages.

    Could you advise on how to approach a “compact” story, still ensuring that you keep the character depth, conflict, and desire, to pack the punch?

    P.s. Thanks for all the great essays on here. I tip my hat to you sir.

    • admin

      My initial reaction, which is not advice but a general observation, is be careful of writing any story with the a story mechanism like three overlapping characters as a major purpose to write the story, and create effects and meaning. In other words, trying to work points of view to provide meaning and significance may not be the best approach. Great stories have beginning, middle and ends, are character based, engage a reader, entertain the reader, and have some sort of enlightenment, usually about what it means to be human. (You can entertain a reader by creative plot twists, withheld information,and surprise, of course, but that’s not the basis of literary fiction.) Character(s) need to have wants and desires, and they need to change in their view of the world. Characters progress and grow with feelings, thoughts, and memory–all unique in prose story telling compared to stage or film. And there is conflict in the story, as you have mentioned. So if you have three characters, rarely is it effective to give them equal say and do in any literary story. All of them hiding something from the world, something sinister. Overlapping. To develop all three would make them compete against each other in ways that would be hard to clearly articulate for the reader in story form, and I doubt shifting points of view would make it easier. And what you describe would be difficult in 8000 words, or, I expect, in a novel. You’ve obviously got something hot here. I suggest you find the theme and the meaning you want to be the skeleton of the story. Then develop one character with a want and/or desire that produces conflict with your other characters, who may be developed, but not as prime characters. Then what will happen to your protagonist? How will the protagonist differ at the end of the story, and will the change make sense and be significant for the reader? I’d make it more than discovering a dark secret, though. I’d make the dark secret a tragic flaw that affects the outcome, and the other characters. You may have to dig for that, but tie it in to the deepest human emotions. Let the emotions move your dark-character secret-holder (but not secret to the reader) through the scenes to the resolution. Since you’re dealing with dark identities, stay interior even in the action scenes, keep narrative description and setting imagery to bare essentials, especially in this short work. Create the emotions emerging from action too, using abstraction (love, anger, etc.) to the minimum. I think if you get this started you can do what you want in 8000 words. Also, it may help not to think about a “compact story”. Good writing and good story telling is always compact, it just takes longer to tell some than others. I don’t mean to be a smart aleck here. The craft of good prose fiction is always to achieve everything with as much compactness as possible. In summary, I think I’d dump the three overlapping POVs idea as an unbrella for your creation. Create a story, and if three POVs work, that’s great, but I wouldn’t write to it. I can tell by your questions you have great potential. Best of luck.

      I’d like to also call your attention to the workshop onsite. You might look to the “Mentor’s Corner”. I’d be glad to work with you. And you can submit work for comment. And it’s free. Best, WHC

  • C.J.

    I enjoyed the back story examples here. How do you suggest finding the proper balance throughout a work of fiction especially? Deciding when to press action without back story as opposed to adding some, amid a 400p novel?

    • admin

      No answer is satisfactory. It depends on author’s conceptualization and style. And there are always certain readers who are pleased. However, there are some guidelines every author can consider and then apply if they seem right. 1. Is the information in the back story significant to story and characterization. If so, burying it in back story may diminish it. If not, it usually should be worked in through less intrusive techniques such as narrative, dialogue, exposition, internal reflection, etc. 2. Is the narrative designed to ponder and reflect? Back story may work well. But if the author’s desire is to present a dramatized story with momentum almost continuously in a series of interrelated scenes, back story may eliminate the difficult-to-maintain momentum (and meaning) in story progression. 3.How is drama affected by back story? Drama is conflict-action-resolution, an essential part of prose dramatic storytelling. Back story almost always disrupts the effect of in scene conflict and action in the story present. Check and see if that’s true for your back story segments. 4. Is characterization really enhanced by back story? Back story tends to be in narrative that defaults to boring and extended prose for little effect. Almost all great and effective characterization comes from action scenes that are character-based, that is the character’s personality traits are driving the action, or from accurate word choice and syntax in dialogue. Character ideation in scene is also important. Back story rarely is as effective. For the most part, the story writing that most serious literary readers admire is structured so the continuous momentum of the story is never breached, and in creating that structure, back story is avoided. I hope this helps. Thanks for your comment. WHC

  • david stringer

    Very interesting comments. I have written a novel myself and currently in the “find an agent” stage!! But I think that in the second paragraph of point(2) above, you meant to say “difference”, not “deference” ?
    Cheers, david.

  • rebecca hanley

    I did enjoy the humor injected throughout this instructive essay such as the opera singer segueing into the pianist’s sullen attractiveness and the morally-motivated writer’s concern over the reader’s impending damnation.

    Also, I was truly taken by your concept of morality in stories and of your phrase “moral cobweb”. What a vivid word choice for illuminating a concept. Your statement “morality is formative” also captured my attention. Thanks for posting these essays.

  • Lisa Conger

    In the examples of back story & no back story, I see a glaring error.
    I think you need the word, “gesture,” NOT