Fiction Writing Basics
Plot is what happens in a story, but action itself doesn’t constitute plot. Plot is created by the manner in which the writer arranges and organizes particular actions in a meaningful way. It’s useful to think of plot as a chain reaction, where a sequence of events causes other events to happen.
When reading a work of fiction, keep in mind that the author has selected one line of action from the countless possibilities of action available to her. Trying to understand why the author chose a particular line of action over another leads to a better understanding of how plot is working in a story
This does not mean that events happen in chronological order; the author may present a line of action that happens after the story’s conclusion, or she may present the reader with a line of action that is still to be determined. Authors can’t present all the details related to an action, so certain details are brought to the forefront, while others are omitted.
The author imbues the story with meaning by a selection of detail. The cause-and-effect connection between one event and another should be logical and believable, because the reader will lose interest if the relation between events don’t seem significant. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren wrote in Understanding Fiction, fiction is interpretive: “Every story must indicate some basis for the relation among its parts, for the story itself is a particular writer’s way of saying how you can make sense of human experience.”
If a sequence of events is merely reflexive, then plot hasn’t come into play. Plot occurs when the writer examines human reactions to situations that are always changing. How does love, longing, regret and ambition play out in a story? It depends on the character the writer has created.
Because plot depends on character, plot is what the character does. Plot also fluctuates, so that something is settled or thrown off balance in the end, or both. Traditionally, a story begins with some kind of description that then leads to a complication. The complication leads up to a crisis point where something must change. This is the penultimate part of the story, before the climax, or the most heightened moment of a story.
In some stories, the climax is followed by a denouement, or resolution of the climax. Making events significant in plot begins with establishing a strong logic that connects the events. Insofar as plot reveals some kind of human value or some idea about the meaning of experience, plot is related to theme.
Character can’t be separated from action, since we come to understand a character by what she does. In stories, characters drive the plot. The plot depends on the characters' situations and how they respond to it. The actions that occur in the plot are only believable if the character is believable. For most traditional fiction, characters are divided into the following categories:
- Protagonist: the main or central character or hero (Harry Potter)
- Antagonist: opponent or enemy of the protagonist (Dark Lord Voldemort)
- Foil Character: a character(s) who helps readers better understand another character, usually the protagonist. For example in the Harry Potter series, Hermione and Ron are Harry's friends, but they also help readers better understand the protagonist, Harry. Ron and Hermione represent personalities that in many ways are opposites - Ron is a bit lazy and insecure; Hermione is driven and confident. Harry exists in the middle, thus illustrating his inner conflict and immaturity at the beginning of the book series.
Because character is so important to plot and fiction, it’s important for the writer to understand her characters as much as possible. Though the writer should know everything there is to know about her character, she should present her knowledge of the characters indirectly, through dialogue and action. Still, sometimes a summary of a character’s traits needs to be given. For example, for characters who play the supporting cast in a story, direct description of the character’s traits keeps the story from slowing down.
Beginning and intermediate level writers frequently settle for creating types, rather than highly individualized, credible characters. Be wary of creating a character who is a Loser With A Good Heart, The Working Class Man Who Is Trapped By Tough Guy Attitudes, The Lonely Old Lady With A Dog, etc. At the same time, keep in mind that all good characters are, in a sense, types.
Often, in creative writing workshops from beginning to advanced levels, the instructor asks, “Whose story is this?” This is because character is the most important aspect of fiction. In an intermediate level workshop, it would be more useful to introduce a story in which it is more difficult to pick out the main character from the line-up. It provides an opportunity for intermediate level fiction writers to really explore character and the factors that determine what is at stake, and for whom.
Conflict depends on character, because readers are interested in the outcomes of people’s lives, but may be less interested in what’s at stake for a corporation, a bank, or an organization. Characters in conflict with one another make up fiction. Hypothetically, a character can come into conflict with an external force, like poverty, or a fire. But there is simply more opportunity to explore the depth and profundity in relationships between people, because people are so complex that conflict between characters often gets blurred with a character’s conflict with herself
The short story, as in all literary forms, including poetry and creative nonfiction, depends on the parts of the poem or story or essay making some kind of sense as a whole. The best example in fiction is character. The various aspects of a character should add up to some kind of meaningful, larger understanding of the character. If the various aspects of a character don’t add up, the character isn’t believable. This doesn’t mean that your characters have to be sensible. Your characters may have no common sense at all, but we have to understand the character and why she is that way. The character’s motives and actions have to add up, however conflicted, marginalized or irrational they may be.
Fiction Writing Basics 2
If character is the most important aspect of fiction, then theme is the “meaning” of a story. The “meaning” of a story shouldn’t be mistaken with topic, however. What the writer makes of the topic constitutes theme
Some literary critics have claimed that theme is a lost art in contemporary American fiction because we are not likely to ask of a story, “What does it add up to?” We are more likely to make sure the cause-and-effect points are rational and make sense. We appreciate meaningful moments of insight in a story, but sometimes balk at asking big questions. Such questions are considered old-fashioned, and the out-dated qualities of closure and epiphany have diminished the importance of theme.
Yet readers usually search for answers and meaning in literature, and perhaps this is one reason why readers have lost interest in contemporary American short fiction. Unless this quandary is dealt with, classroom prompted stories may fail to be memorable. Theme makes a story memorable. Part of the reason that theme is not discussed very much in writing workshops is that the primary problem with many stories is lack of coherence. For example, it's difficult for the story to succeed if the character or the plot is not credible, so the workshop is devoted to fixing the problem.
While these problems do need to be fixed, fixing the problems doesn’t make for a memorable reading experience. Theme often depends on a vision of life that the writer starts out with before she begins the story. Therefore, theme may be beyond the realm of the creative writing workshop, since workshops are usually centered around beginning or intermediate level poets and writers who have not yet discovered their vision of life.
Still, great fiction depends on theme, and theme is sometimes a lost art. Jerome Stern’s suggestion, in Making Shapely Fiction, is an important reminder to all beginning and intermediate writers: “You can’t avoid meaning even if you want to.”
Conflict, Crisis, Resolution
Conflict and crisis are important to fiction because most readers find trouble interesting. If characters are best friends who always get along or have no age and personality difference, readers might not find them compelling. If characters do not have internal or external conflict to meet, deal with, and overcome (or fail to overcome), then readers may find the story uninteresting.
In addition, conflict can be an effective device for driving plot. In traditional patterns of fiction, readers are introduced to characters and then something occurs that challenges the main character(s) (protagonist). This complication is usually some sort of conflict or crisis the characters must face, deal with, and/or overcome. The conflict can be internal: a character's battle with her depression. Or the problem can be external: the protagonist dealing with her enemy, the antagonist. Or the conflict can encompass both internal and external elements: the protagonist must first deal with her depression in order to overcome the conflict with the antagonist.
In order to overcome the crisis, the protagonist must make some sort of important decision or take some kind of action; this is called the penultimate part of the plot. The protagonist's decision to deal with the crisis then leads to the climax of the story, which shows the reader the results of the protagonist's choice.
Following the climax, the crisis is usually resolved (this part of the plot is called the denouement), and then the story concludes. During the conclusion, readers learn how the protagonist has changed (grown, learned, remained the same, become more evil, etc.) as a result of the crisis.
Point of View
Point of view refers to the perspective the author uses to tell the story. Though authors may switch and combine points of view, in traditional fiction there exists three points of view:
Third Person: In third person, the author tells the story. But the author decides if the events will be objectively given, or if she can go into the mind of every character; to what degree she can interpret that character; to what degree she can know the past and the future; and how many authorial judgments will be allowed. For example, Chekhov uses Third person limited omniscient in his story, “Vanka.” Chekhov tells us when Vanka is thinking, but he doesn’t go into detail about what Vanka is thinking about. Chekhov lets the action show what Vanka is thinking about.
If Chekhov had written the story in third person omniscient, then we would know everything that was on Vanka’s mind, and we would be given a great deal of interpretation about why Vanka acts the way he acts. If Chekhov had chosen to write “Vanka” in Third person objective, we would only get those details that could be outwardly observed. Vanka would not pause to think twice about how he should begin his letter to his grandfather. We might see him lift his pen, and then start writing again, but nothing more.
Second Person: Second person is unusual in fiction and is more common in poetry. In second person, the character is not referred to as he or she, or by name, but rather as “you.” If Chekhov had written “Vanka” in second person, it would begin like this: “You, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, were sitting up on Christmas Eve.”
First Person: Authors use first person when a narrator who is also a character in the story speaks. Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues,” is written in first person, and begins: “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work.” The narrator who speaks is Sonny’s older brother, and he is also the main character in the story.
- Charles Baxter. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Graywolf Press, 1997.
- Janet Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. HarperCollins, 1994.
- Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959.
- Rust Hills. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Mariner Books, 2000.
- Heather Sellers. The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students. Bedford/St. Martins, 2008.
- David Starkey. Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.
- Jerome Stern. Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Fiction Writing Basics 3 - Sample Assignments
These five exercises are adapted from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.
1. Take a simple but specific political, religious, scientific, or moral idea. It may be one already available to us in a formula of words, or it may be one of your own, but it should be possible to state it in less than ten words. Write a short story that illustrates the idea. Do not state the idea at all. Your goals are two: that the idea should be perfectly clear to us so that it could be extracted as a moral or message, and that we should feel we have experienced it.
2. Take as your title a common proverb or maxim, such as power corrupts, honesty is the best policy, walk softly and carry a big stick, haste makes waste. Let the story make the title ironic, that is, explore a situation in which the advice or statement does not apply.
3. Taking as a staring point some incident or situation from your own life, write a story with one of the following themes: nakedness, blindness, thirst, noise, borders, chains, clean wounds, washing, the color green, dawn. The events themselves may be minor (a story about a slipping bicycle chain may ultimately be more effective than one about a chain gang). Once you have decided on the structure of the story, explore everything you think, know, or believe about your chosen theme and try to incorporate that theme in imagery, dialogue, event, character, and so forth.
4. Identity the belief you hold most passionately and profoundly. Write a short story that explores an instance in which this belief is untrue.
5. Write a short story that you have wanted to write all term and have not written because you knew it was too big for you and you would fail. You may fail. Write it anyway.
These eight exercises are adapted from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.
1. The playwright Bertolt Brecht had over his desk a sign that read, “The Truth is Concrete.” You will notice, however, that this sentence is an abstraction (he didn’t mean that the truth is cement). In your journal, cluster the word “concrete.” Write a passage about it. When you’re finished, check whether you have used any abstractions or generalizations that could be effectively replaced by concrete details.
2. Paint a self-portrait in words. Prop a mirror in front of you and describe, in the most focused sight details you can manage, twenty or thirty things that you see. Then try to distance yourself from your portrait and choose the two or three details that most vividly and concisely convey the image you want to present. What attitude do you want the reader to have? Should we find you funny, intense, pitiable, vain, dedicated? Add a detail of sound, touch, smell, or taste that will help convey the image.
3. Write a passage using significant details and active verbs about a character who conveys one of the following:
- belongs to another country
- complete harmony
- brains are fried
- out of control
- kittenish or puppy-like
- the absolute boss.
4. Write a description of a rural landscape, a city street, a room, or the desk in front of you. Use only active verbs to describe the inanimate as well as animate things. Avoid the pathetic fallacy.
5. Write about a boring situation. Convince us that the situation is boring and that your characters are bored or boring or both. Fascinate us. Or make us laugh. Use no generalizations, no judgments, and no verbs in the passive voice.
6. Write about one of the following and suggest the rhythm of the subject in your prose: a machine, a vehicle, a piece of music, sex, something that goes in a circle, an avalanche.
7. Write about a character who begins at a standstill, works up to great speed, and comes to a halt again. The rush may be purely emotional, or it may represent the speed of the vehicle, of pursuit, of sport, or whatever you choose. The halt may be abrupt or gradual. In any case, let the prose rhythm reflect the changes.