Archive for July, 2011

Writing Fiction

Fiction has been defined as any form of narrative that deals, in part or in whole, with events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary and invented by its author(s).

Perhaps this is a good definition, but some of the most compelling fiction deals with events that did happen and/or people who did exist. This is because fiction’s major purpose is to entertain, and to entertain, fiction must draw the audience to the characters and events in the story. If the audience is familiar with a character, such as Abraham Lincoln or Marilyn Monroe, or with an event, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960’s or the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, it can easily be drawn into fiction about the character or event.

People who care little about the civil rights movement likely will not be drawn to fiction about it, but many people who lived through the turbulent 1960’s, who were directly involved in the civil rights movement, or who have strong views about it likely will be drawn to a good story about that movement.

But stories that deal with events and people that are solely fictional can also be entertaining if they draw the audience into them. And because there is no single audience, but literally thousands of audiences, writers of fiction have much latitude when creating characters and plots. Of course, fiction has uses other than entertainment. It can be used for educational, instructional, propaganda, and advertising purposes.

Mostly, fiction is entertainment. It is evocative and provides the audience with the thrill of imagining impossible or unavailable experiences and the playing out “what if” or” if only” scenarios. The audience also may get to experience historical periods or simply to observe the human condition. Generally, we read fiction not to gain new information but to have new experiences, to be exposed to new ideas, and to be inspired by new emotions. Still, although fiction may have deeper, unstated meanings, readers may choose to respond to those meanings or simply to respond to the story. For ultimately, fiction is about telling interesting stories and expressing feelings.

Although fiction often describes a major branch of literature, it also applies to writings for the stage and for film.

Fictional stories recount the loves, struggles, and confrontations of their characters. As the writer, you get to choose what your stories are about.

And you have many other choices to make. You may make your story realistic fiction or non-realistic fiction. Realistic fiction includes characters and story lines that are believable—people and events that could have existed. In fact, some events, people, and places in your story may be real. And it is possible that in the future the events or your story could happen. Many earlier science fiction described events that have come to pass—for example space travel. Realistic fiction appears to the reader to be something that is actually happening.

Although fiction is made up, good fiction often seems more real than newspaper reports. Good fiction writers make their audiences care about their characters. Some characters almost become friends or enemies. Writers regularly use real people they have known and real details in their lives—pieces of overheard conversations, streets where they’ve walked, events in the newspaper, and feelings they’ve had—to build realism in
their stories.

A sub-category of realistic fiction is semi-fiction. In this form, you may cast your story using a great deal of non-fiction. Your fictional story may be based on a true story, may be a fictionalized account of a real event, or may be a reconstructed biography. Even when the story is true, there may be significant additions and subtractions in order to make it more suitable for storytelling. Regardless, semi-fiction relies on the author’s imagination to fill the gaps between reality and the final story.

Or you may make your story non-realistic fiction, that is, the story’s events could not happen in real life, because they include the supernatural, involve an alternate form of history than that which has been recorded, or need impossible technology. Fantasy is a form of non-realistic fiction.

Regardless of which approach your writing takes, you must pay attention to plot, characters, and place or setting.

Plot is what the characters in your story do, say, and think. It is the action that holds the story together. Plot is also the ordering of the events and actions of a story that make it compelling to the reader. It consists of action and reaction, also referred to as stimulus and response. The plot has a beginning, middle, and an end, and it includes the often unstraight line that represents the rise and fall of action throughout the story.

Within the plot, there are other structures that are important to the story. Most stories have scenes and summaries. A scene is a unit of drama in which the action occurs. Then, after a transition of some sort, a summary follows. A summary is an emotional reaction and regrouping and/or an aftermath. Many writers don’t include summaries in their stories but leave the summaries to the readers.

Stories involve conflict and its resolution. The action in most stories is brought about by conflict. It is the conflict that makes the action necessary and the characters and situations in the story compelling to the audience.

Conflict is a necessary element of most fictional literature. In order for the story to engage the reader, the conflict usually must be immediate, urgent, and insoluble. Conflict between good and evil is usually a poor form for a good story. First of all, good and evil depends upon how the reader defines them; second, the reader’s reaction to the story depends on his or her preference for good or evil; and third, good versus evil conflicts are less interesting than more ambiguous and less well defined conflicts. If the protagonist must choose between two terrible outcomes—as in my story Sons—or between two unclear outcomes, a story is often more compelling. Conflict between two good protagonists who have different outlooks on life or have different views of a difficult situation also makes for great stories.

Conflict can arise from tension between individuals, between an individual and legal, religious, political, or other institutions, or with one’s own conscience. Conflict can thus involve an internal or external battle. Conflict with others can involve differing values, competing goals, or the possession of a certain object.

There are seven basic types of conflict. First, there is person vs. fate. Few modern stories use this form, because today, many people believe they are in charge of their own destiny.

Second, there is person vs. machine or person vs. technology. This conflict is popular in many science fiction stories.

A third form of conflict is person vs. him or herself. In this form, a main character struggles against his or her own will, confusion, or fears, or a main character tries to find out who he or she is, comes to an important realization, or has a change in character. Although the struggle is internal, the character can be influenced by external forces. The struggle of the human being to come to a decision is the basis for this type of conflict. Some of the greatest stories ever written have dealt with how the human heart conflicted with itself. In my story Sons, David Rodgers is in conflict with an outside source, but also faces a difficult, almost impossible, internal conflict. In Hoosier Hysteria, a teenage boy struggles to overcome his shortcomings to win the heart of a popular cheerleader.

The person vs. person struggle is the fourth type of conflict. Here the main character’s conflict with another person is the focus of the story. The protagonist’s opponent may be a clear villain or a person with a different view of life, the world, or a situation central to the story. There are usually several confrontations before the climax is reached.

Another type of conflict is person vs. society. In this form, a main character or group of main characters battle social traditions or concepts. Your story can also pit the protagonist against a group or society of antagonists or a society led by some antagonistic force. Next Time by Fire includes this type of conflict.

A sixth type of conflict is person vs. nature. Here, the protagonist tries to survive in the wilderness or faces a natural disaster.

The seventh type of conflict is person vs. supernatural forces.

In most stories suspense builds as the action and conflict unfolds and ultimately the resolution is revealed. So we see rising action, climax, and resolution.

Often you will want to use rising action in your narrative to lead up to the climax. The purpose of this action is to build suspense all the way up the climactic finish. This should not be confused with action in the middle of the story. Rising action occurs right before the climax.

The climax is the moment of greatest danger for the protagonist and usually consists of a seemingly inevitable prospect of failure. It surprises the audience to the point that they become excited about seeing what is to come in the end. In the climax, the protagonist often experiences a change or discovers something about him or herself and about other characters.

The falling action is the part of a story, usually found in tragedies and short stories, following the climax that shows the effects of the climax. The falling action shows the story’s final resolution, that is, how the conflict is resolved. It may contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

Characterization is an important part of any piece of fiction. It is essential for pulling the audience into the story. In the actions of your characters, you unveil for the audience the values, goals, and alliances of the characters. From each action, the audience may infer behaviors, character traits and values.

The point of view of the main characters is important. It is how the audience understands and perhaps sympathizes with the characters and it is how the audience follows the story.

The protagonist drives the action of the story and is responsible for achieving the story’s objectives. The antagonist stands in opposition to the protagonist. A foil is a character who contrasts the protagonist in a way that illuminates their personality or characteristic. Supporting characters play a part in the plot but are not major to it. Some characters in your story will be static—that is, they will not significantly change during the course of the story—and others will be dynamic characters—that is, they
will undergo character development during the course of a story.

You should develop your characters by their outward appearance, their dialogue—what they say and how they say it–, their action—what they do and how they do it–, their reaction to other characters in the story, and how other characters see and treat them.

When writing your story, you have choices about how events unfold. You may order events so they happen chronologically. In this approach, you may refer to events from the past or future, however the events are written in time order.

Or you may include in current developments in your story flashbacks that take the narrative back in time. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened prior to the story’s primary narrative or to fill in crucial back-story. Also you can use flashbacks to help the audience understand a character’s development.

You may also use flashforwards that reveal events that will occur in the future. The technique can create suspense in a
story or develop a character.

Another technique available to you is known as foreshadowing. With it you provide clues so the reader may be able to predict what might occur later in the story. You do this by dropping subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the story. This prepares the reader for later action and subsequent images so that the reader is not jarred and believability is maintained.

The setting—the location and time of a story—is often critical to the story and to the audience’s attraction to it. Further, it sets the tone of a story. The setting includes all of the forces and institutions acting on the characters, including the geographical location,
social climate, the historical period, and the cultural mores. All of those factors influence the characters and the actions they take, and it is by those factors that the characters and their actions are measured.

It is important for you to develop your own writing style. That style will set you apart from other writers and, hopefully, attract your audience. Only you can determine what your writing style should be. Style may be defined as the “sensuous aspects of fiction” and determines the tone, mood, voice, how events are narrated, and other important unique aspects of your writing.

As the author, you can often play an active role within a story. As the narrator, you can comment on characters and their actions and predicaments. When you choose to be a first person narrator, you do this directly, whereas when you choose to be a third person narrator you do it indirectly from outside the story. When a character in the story is the narrator, he or she is limited in understanding, because generally they are not privy to other characters’ thoughts or to actions at which they are not present. A third person narrator can be all-knowing and might describe the action from one or many character’s viewpoints. Such a narrator can guide the audience’s understanding when you want it to so and can withhold information when you want to leave the audience in the dark.

To be a good writer, you must train yourself to be observant, to notice and remember small details, such as the large and small sounds that surround us, lighting and color nuances, the smells of urban and rural environments, the feels of different materials and objects, the tastes of different foods, and human and animal behaviors. Such details add life and realism to scenes.

Keeping a journal is a great way to start writing. You can use it to keep track of your observations. Then whenever you need creative writing ideas, you can go to your journal for material.

Another idea for improving your writing is to live your stories. Before writing a scene, live it in your mind, see the details, hear its sounds, and smell its odors. Live it from each characters viewpoint. Each character will see the scene differently, will react
differently to it, and will feel differently at its conclusion. As you live the scene, pay special attention to the dialogue of each character. Dialogue is the action of building characters. For it is from dialogue that we learn what they are willing to say and can infer what they are not willing to say. Audiences live for dialogue. They understand it, because it is part of life and they love
to engage in it. So as you live the scene, pay special attention to what each character says and how they say it.

After you have lived the scene and are ready to write it, remember that you will not use all that you experienced, but living the scene will make your writing come to life.

As you write your first draft, don’t worry about the language or writing technique. Instead, concentrate on your experiences as you lived them. Write about the things that were important for each of the characters. Write about what they did, how they did it, how they felt, and what they thought. Once you have written the scene, you can go back and improve the language and writing style.

Although the words will change when you rewrite the scenes and develop the story and characters, you will better capture the essence of each if you write how you experienced them, how you saw them, and how you felt about them. When you write in this manner, you will better draw your audience into your story. You will create a powerful experience that they will warm to and remember.

Finally, here are some general guidelines on the categories of fiction:

Types of fiction            Word count                         Page count

Flash fiction                  Fewer than 2,000                   1-6

Short story                     2,000-7,500                            5–25

Novelette                        7,500-17,500                          25–60

Novella                           17,500-50,000                       60–170

Novel                              50,000-200,000                   170-680

Epic                                200,000+                               680+


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