The Art of Fiction – A Review

The book: The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner is not prescriptive in the same way as is Jon Franklin’s book: Writing for Story. Gardner surveys contemporary literature in general, pointing out its structure, methods, and morality. Morality in literature, for Gardner, is whether a story portrays what is real and eternally true about human life, as opposed to what is false or philosophically trendy.

His New York Times obituary quoted him writing:

“The value of great fiction is not just that it entertains or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our failures and limitations.”

This quote is from The Art of Fiction. Though he won the 1976 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for October Light, he deeply offended the literary powers-that-be at the time, especially with his book: On Moral Fiction.

In The Art of Fiction, Gardner describes — the work of fiction:

In any piece of fiction, the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened…This kind of documentation, moment by moment authenticating detail, is the mainstay not only of realistic fiction but of all fiction…It’s physical detail that pulls us into the story, makes us believe…The importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.

Its value:

The value of great fiction, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.

In great fiction, we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real: We sympathize, think, and judge…All fiction treats, directly or indirectly, the same thing: our love for people and the world, our aspirations and fears.

The overall method to create it:

The writer works out plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life (the method of the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and many other writers, ancient and modern); by working his way back from his story’s climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation.

It’s by the whole process of first planning the fiction and then writing it—elaborating characters and details of setting, finding the style that seems appropriate to the feeling, discovering unanticipated requirements of the plot—that the writer finds out and communicates the story’s significance, intuited at the start.

Pitfalls in its creation:

The most obvious forms of clumsiness, really failures in the basic skills, include such mistakes as inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice, inappropriate use of introductory phrases containing infinite verbs [e.g., Slapping him silly, she proceeded to…] , shifts in diction level or the regular use of distracting diction, lack of sentence variety, lack of sentence focus, faulty rhythm, accidental rhyme, needless explanation, and careless shifts in psychic distance [i.e., the reader’s nearness to the character].

And, finally, the real work that the fiction writer does:

The true writer has a great advantage over most other people: He knows the great tradition of literature, which has always been the cutting edge of morality, religion, and politics, to say nothing of social reform.

To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.

John Gardner describes, in far more detail, these things, the state of fiction writing up to the early nineteen eighties, and his thoughts on it all in his book. A worthy read, especially after studying a process for creating works of fiction. The Art of Fiction is highly motivational and recommended.

The Art of Fiction - Gardner

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner

Tragic Wonders – Stories, Poems, and Essays to Ponder — An Excerpt

Tragic Wonders - Stories, Poems, and Essays to Ponder cover imageWhat if this world we live in is set up as a diabolical trap meant to prevent us from seeing that which is truly necessary? The anthology focuses on themes, situations, and emotions that are tragic, full of wonder, or, combined in some way, both.

In the stories, you’ll meet a serial killer, alien snails, a petulant eleven-year-old, a beloved astronaut, a laid-off worker, and many others. Two poems provide a transition from fiction to opinion. The short essays castigate, decry, praise, and skewer our personal, local, national, world, and cosmic conditions.

Mandated Memoranda’s second eBook, Tragic Wonders – Stories, Poems, and Essays to Ponder, edited by Ninja S. and Adolphus Writer, was first available December 2013. These writings are meant to engage readers in a reality that we all deny daily, whether we profess faith in Christ, are ambivalent, or are hostilely opposed to religion.

Click here to read an excerpt. Learn More on Amazon’s landing page.

Writing – A Review

I recommend two books on writing: Gotham Writers Workshop: Writing Fiction edited by Alexander Steele and Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing by Richard Walter.

GWW covers the fiction writing craft–character, plot, point of view, etc.–suitable for all formats: short stories, essays, novels, etc. If I had to guess, this is one of the sources from which the myriads of writing books on the market draw their lessons. GWW purports to give the same materials you might get at an expensive writers workshop (except without the feedback, or the expense).

There’s a remarkably detailed overview of EoS on its Amazon page. I was interested in screenwriting which is covered in the first third of the book. I didn’t read the rest of the book which describes the sales and management involved in a screenwriting career.

My major take away from GWW is: rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite a third time. The idea of writing a draft, rewriting it from memory, and rewriting that one, again from memory, strikes me as an excellent way to deeply involve the subconscious in the story’s development.

I admit it goes against my personality to do this repetitive process. But I acknowledge its value and will endeavor to reduce it to practice in some form or other. My stories need more than just multiple revisions before sending them off for professional editing. These editors have never urged total rewrites because of policy (i.e., they like the return business).

EoS emphasizes developing an integrated story. Any element that advances the story and/or develops the characters is in; whatever doesn’t do these two things is out. If it moves the story or characters forward almost anything is in. However, if the story starts out as a sweet romantic comedy set in the South Bronx, don’t have the Martians invade and conquer the Earth in chapter 7.

Here’s an entire ‘Essentials of Screenwriting – Complete Film Courage Interview’ with UCLA Professor Richard Walter on YouTube. Please be aware that there are a few instances of coarse language during the interview. The following is an excerpt from this interview with a self-described crazy old hippie.

‘Most Important Thing I Teach My Screenwriting Students,’ UCLA Prof. Richard Walter, June 11, 2013

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – A Review

James Scott Bell gives us the elements of compelling storytelling in his book Plot and Structure. His introduction motivates the reasons for good storytelling and encourages a lifelong process.

Chapter one covers what a plot is, the types of plots, the distinction between literary and commercial plots, and an argument for formulaic writing that produces excitement. He says, quoting the dictionary: “Plot – a plan as for designing a building or a novel.” The function of the plot is to connect with readers though the story. Story is what sells books to readers. Plot and structure help you tell the story. Quoting Hitchcock: “a good story is life, with the dull parts taken out.”

Bell advocates what he terms the LOCK system. The Lead is vibrant and compelling, someone to watch throughout the novel. The Objective is something which the Lead wants to get or get away from. Solid novels have one dominant Objective. Whether the Lead achieves the Objective is crucial to their wellbeing and is the “story question,” the driving force of the novel. Opposition characters and forces Confront the Lead to thwart them from the Objective. Confrontation provides the reader with emotional involvement in the story. Finally, the novel’s ending should be a Knockout. It should satisfy the reader and keep them coming back for more.

Chapter two covers the structure that holds a plot together. If plot is about the elements of a story, structure is about the timing of those elements. Story structure has beginnings, middles, and ends; three acts. The beginning is about the Lead, the entry point for the reader. It also presents the story world, establishes the tone (epic or farce? action or character progression? fast or slow?), compels the reader to move on to the middle, and introduces the opposition.

Middles are for confrontation where physical, professional, or psychological death hangs over the Lead. This is the place where subplots blossom. It creates a sense of inevitability by weaving plot strands in and out of each other and continuously surprising the reader. The middle also: deepens character relationships, keeps us caring about what happens, and sets up the final Knockout confrontation and resolution at the end. Ends tie up all significant, unresolved plot strands and provide the reader with a feeling of resonance. ‘Resonance’ is something beyond the confines of the book (i.e., its meaning in the larger sense).

Finally, chapter two broaches the concept of the disturbance and two doorways. The disturbance is anything that disturbs the lead’s ordinary life. It is the first threat or challenge to the status quo. However, the lead can still return to normal life. That’s where the first ‘doorway of no return’ comes in. This doorway sends the Lead irrevocably into the confrontations of the second act. The second doorway leads to the knockout ending that achieves resolution and resonance.

Chapter three covers methods for creating plot ideas. Chapters four through six dive into beginnings, middles, and ends.

Chapter seven describes the elements of scenes. Scenes typically take place in one location and time frame. They consist of action, reaction, setup, and deepening. These four chords can dominate the scene or compose portions of a scene called beats. Action and reaction naturally follow each other. Setup creates the circumstances and/or conditions for later scenes. Deepening enriches the reader’s understanding of a character or setting.

Scenes must have a Hook, Intensity, and Prompt (HIP). The Hook grabs the reader at the outset of the scene. Dialog, teaser, or action are good hooks into a scene. Description that is brief and sets a mood can also be a hook. Intensity is a building sense that more is at risk, could be lost, or found out. The writer creates this tension through conflict. The conflict can be stretched for all it’s worth by the interplay between action, dialogue, thoughts, and description. Scenes end with Prompts to read on. Prompts can consist of: impending disaster, portent, mysterious line of dialog, a suddenly revealed secret, a major decision or vow, announcement of a shattering event, a reversal or surprise, or a question left hanging.

Chapter eight discusses complex plots that interweave several subplots with the main plot. A subplot can be thematic, dealing with something the Lead needs to learn, which deepens the plot, lends meaning, and is a place to make a statement about life. Characters carry your themes. Each subplot follows the LOCK method. The subplots can be serial or parallel and each must work on their own.

The next seven chapters dive into the finer points presented in the first eight. This is not so say that you can skip the later chapters. Important principles and techniques are revealed in them. Two appendices summarize the book at a high level and describe how to create back cover material (or a blurb) for your book.

Bell uses movies and well known books to illustrate plot and structure techniques rather than esoteric (to me) literary references. His goal is to teach effectively and not to show how well read he is (and, by implication, how the reader isn’t).

Although portions read like a pep talk, the folksy presentation is not long winded and usually has a point or serves as introduction. The book seems converted to eBook format in a somewhat haphazard way (section and subsection titles in perplexing font sizes, rote use of indent everywhere including bulleted lists, only a logical table of contents). This is likely the publishers doing given the economics involved.

However, weaknesses aside, I strongly recommend the content of James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure for new and struggling novelists who want  to sell books.

New Title in the Works

Now that Ms. Smith’s work is done and in production, we at Mandated Memoranda Publishing LLC are taking on a new fiction book. This is a collection of short stories with the tentative title: “Horrors of the Heart”. Adolphus Writer will again explore how we deal justly or unjustly with the experiences we are dealt in this life. He has a stable of contributors that are composing horror and science fiction stories plus specific essays on this theme. The authors will post excerpts from their stories and essays over the next few months. Please read them and comment. Thank you.