Tag Archives: storytelling

The Uniqueness Of Fiction

brethren-1988-1989Most of my life, including the years I worked as a secondary school teacher, I have written. However, until I decided to write a novel, I didn’t think about the fact that the majority of my writing experience involved nonfiction. I wrote letters, book reports, essays, term papers, and notes to the parents of my students. But fiction? Not so much.

Still, I was confident I could write a novel. Why? Primarily because I knew how to write, but also because I was a reader. I knew stories. In fact, I’d even taught short story units to my classes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered all the things I did not know about writing fiction. Mind you, as a lit major in college and an English teacher for years and years, I was actually ahead of the game. But when I started in on the story I’d imagined, I had no idea fiction was its own unique animal. In many respects, when considering all types of writing, fiction is like a zebra among horses. Or a unicorn, if the fiction is speculative.

power-elements-of-fiction-seriesSo, what sets fiction apart? The simplest answer is that stories—fiction—must have four elements: a setting, characters, a plot, a theme. These certainly are the basics and each needs amplification—so much so that the first book in The Power Elements Of Fiction series deals with plot structure and the second deals with character development. Setting and theme do feature prominently in the upcoming third book in the series, but not exclusively.

Why? Because fiction techniques are as important as the required fiction elements. Those techniques include such things as point of view, foreshadowing, plot layering, cadence, tone, description, mood, and more.

Early in my writing journey, I read an article in Writer’s Digest magazine that talked about word choices and the importance of selecting the right one to fit the mood, the meaning, the character, and more. I thought, “Pffft, nobody does that! Way too much work.” Well, here I am more than ten years later, advocating for the same thing. In fact, I’ve learned that writing good fiction requires hard work.

Sometimes the writing might seem painstakingly slow. And it’s easy to think, No one will notice if I labor over a better word for this scene than the one that originally popped into my head. While it’s true that readers won’t notice what I did, the converse is true also—they will notice what I did not do. If I’m lazy about my word choices or sloppy with my point of view, readers may be pulled from the “fictive dream” I created and which enveloped them.

That’s the one of the death knells for a novel. Every time a reader realizes the story isn’t real, they’re less engaged, less compelled to keep reading.

A second death knell is to put a reader to sleep. So fiction techniques that help a writer create an appropriate pace and scenes filled with action and vibrant description and interesting characters, are vital to a story’s success.

A third toll of the bell ringing over a failed story is predictability. If the story is clichéd, unimaginative, stale, readers are apt to put the book down and never pick it up. Consequently writers need to begin with a fresh concept and create stories that feel both familiar and new at the same time.

Then, too, the better books stay with readers long after they finish the last page. They may even re-read those books. Why? Because the voice is enchanting or the ideas memorable or important or because the characters deal with timeless questions. Readers think about those books and about the ideas they generated. While the idea of thinking about a subject seems more fitted to nonfiction, certain fiction mechanisms exist that allow the writer to spark deeper thought. However, without the proper fiction techniques, a writer may inadvertently create a story with an essay attached—not something that readers generally gravitate toward.

Finally, fiction can generate emotion in readers. A writer using the right fiction techniques can bring readers to tears. Or to laughter. Writing in such a way that readers feel with and for the characters they’re reading about, requires great skill. Unique skill. Most nonfiction appeals to a reader’s mind. Fiction appeals to their heart.

In the end, I’m glad I took the long road to learn fiction techniques. You see, I wrote a novel and a half before I started seriously studying fiction. I would never recommend that route to anyone else, but as I learned and revised and rewrote, I saw how the story developed into something better and better. I also realized that rewriting, which I’d thought at one point was unnecessary and a waste of time, actually was a vital part of the storytelling process.

I learned that fiction has unique strengths which require unique techniques—ones that a little study and practice can develop. Writers may write, but fiction writers tell stories, and in so doing, we use a different skill set from nonfiction.

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The Art of Storytelling, Part 2

As I see it, we writers need to be teachable the same way teachers do. At the end of every school year, I would do an evaluation, formal or otherwise, thinking of the ways I wanted to improve the following year. Sometimes I focused more on discipline, sometimes on content, and sometimes on the organizational mechanics. The thing is, I needed all three to be as good as I could make them if I was going to teach to the best of my ability.

So with writing. Fiction is first and foremost a story, but the author also chooses and/or develops a style of writing, and of course, the writing is conveyed with established mechanics—grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like, but also with good fiction techniques.

I believe a writer needs to continue learning in all three branches. From what I’ve seen at writers’ conferences and in online writer communities, even what I’ve heard from some editors, it seems to me that an undue emphasis is placed on the last category, the mechanics.

I’ll reiterate, I think we writers should constantly strive to improve, even in what I’m terming mechanics. Grammar, punctuation, capitalization, formatting, spelling—these are important, even deal breakers, according to a number of agents and editors. So writers do need to pay attention to these basics, but they must be kept in balance with other parts of storytelling.

Even the last segment of this category—good fiction techniques—can be emphasized too much. Certainly I believe in good fiction technique, things such as a proper point of view, showing vs. telling, vivid descriptions using the five senses, foreshadowing
, avoiding cliches, repetition, redundancy, and a number of others. But an over emphasis of these can suck the life out of a story.

I’ve heard and read writing teachers decry the use of -ly adverbs, was, -ing words, to the point that some writers come to believe using an adverb is actually wrong. Oh, sure, we say there are “no rules, only guidelines,” but the implication is still that “good writing” doesn’t use any of those undesirables.

The result seems to me to be stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling. Where is the art, if everyone writes in the same structured, lean, prosaic way? OK, fiction is prose, but must it be prosaic?

So here’s what I’m suggesting. Maybe, just maybe, we writers need to learn these techniques so that we can venture away from them—on purpose. Not for the sake of thumbing our nose at the conventions. Some writers seem to do that, and the result, quite frankly, is alienation of the intended audience.

But I think this might be one place where art resides in fiction—the choosing to venture away from the “proper” techniques on occasion in order to strengthen the story.

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.

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The Art of Storytelling, Part 1

Some people know how to tell a story. They just do. I had this one friend who worked as a nurse, and she could make changing a bedpan into the funniest story I’d heard. My former pastor could give an illustration in the form of a story that had the whole congregation holding our breaths.

Certainly the key component to these great oral storytellers is holding the attention of the listener, whether that comes from humor or suspense or whatever other technique. Ah, there’s the key word. There are techniques that make some stories more interesting than others.

Can these techniques be learned? Certainly authors who attend writers’ conferences think so. Or do they? More and more it seems as if conferences are filled with marketing and promotion seminars to complement their beginning and intermediate writing instruction.

So, are intermediate writing skills enough?

Before I became a writer, I worked as a teacher and coach. One year I had this seventh grader on what amounted to our basketball team’s practice squad who was a sharp, sharp girl, but not very athletic. She had good endurance but wasn’t very fast or strong or aggressive—qualities a basketball player really needs.

Still, she worked hard, listened to instruction, and went about implementing everything she learned. Consequently, she had a cross-over dribble, could do a lay-up with her left hand, knew how to set a screen—all of it. Except she had those athletic deficiencies.

The following year she made the varsity and continued to improve, though she didn’t play much. At the end of middle school, her family moved, but she wrote me to let me know that in her large public high school she made the JV team as a freshman. A couple years later she decided to leave basketball and use her time for other endeavors.

I wasn’t surprised. She had the basics for the sport and was an exceptional learner, but there were those athletic things, the ones we so often say can’t be taught.

Except some of it can be. Trainers can work on an athlete’s running style and strength to make them faster, enable them to jump higher. And certainly weight training has proved to be a help for any number of sports’ programs.

What does that have to do with storytelling? I’m convinced some people are naturals in the sense that they know how to deliver a good story even though they’ve never been taught, just like some athletes are born strong and fast and aggressive. Can those people improve on their God-given skills? Absolutely, if they will take the time to learn the playbook and work on the basics.

There are some writers, however, who have a desire to write though they don’t have those natural skills. Can they become great storytellers? Perhaps. Unlike basketball, no one seems quite sure what makes fiction work, so it seems tougher to learn, but not impossible. Above all else, reading good stories seems like a requisite, but taking apart good stories and studying the components ought to help a writer, too.

A third group seems capable of learning intermediate writing skills—the junior varsity level. They can write really, really good junior varsity stories, and they are content, not considering what it would take to move up to varsity or work for a spot on a college team.

Is it possible some will never reach that level, no matter how hard they try? Unfortunately, it seems inevitably true that not all will reach the next level. But a sure-fire way not to make it is not to try.

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.

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