Courting the Art of Fiction

The fusion of elements into a unified pattern is the nature of creativity, a word devalued in latter years to the extent that it has come to mean a random gush of self-expression. God, perhaps, created out of the void; but in the world as we know it, all creativity, from the sprouting of an onion to the painting of Guernica, is a matter of selection and arrangement. . . . At the conception of a fetus or a short story, there occurs the conjunction of two unlike things, whether cells or ideas, that have never been joined before. Around this conjunction other cells, other ideas accumulate in a deliberate pattern. That pattern is the unique personality of the creature, and if the pattern does not cohere, it miscarries or is stillborn.

-Janet Burroway Writing Fiction

Story Form and Structure

The most basic form of the story has three elements which are present most of the time. They are conflict, crisis, and resolution/transformation.

Conflict—Only trouble and controversy are deemed to be interesting. A story needs to have some sort of contentiousness at the heart of it. Don't allow characters to be too passive. Establish your characters' desires early and get them up and acting on them as soon as possible. However, this does not mean that the conflict needs to be overly spectacular. This will make the conflict seem contrived—that is, unreal, apart from any human recognition of it as being authentic. Along these same lines, it is best not to arbitrarily introduce the standard crises of the TV writers' imaginations. A mugging, a murder, a car crash etc. easily can become clichéd types of conflict.

Conflict is often the most difficult thing to embody in a story, for we are (mostly) all creatures that try to avoid conflict. Naturally, then, we try to avoid conflict in our stories. However, usually, if the author does not embody some sort of conflict in the story, the story will be labeled as "not having anything 'happen.'" Even though we tend to minimize conflict in our lives, the fiction writer must keep the conflict in the story foremost in his/her mind.

Crisis—Often the conflict continues with each side escalating the contentiousness in a series of complicating events. The conflict should reach some crucial point where there can be no more coexistence between the forces that are locked in the conflict. Perhaps there is some doubt about the outcome of which force will prevail, but eventually, one side or the other must prevail.

Resolution/Transformation—In the end, a story provides some order. Things are wrapped up. Of course, there is no real-life story that ends this way, but in a story we must provide the illusion that, for a moment at least, a kind of order has been restored that is lasting, final, permanent. The change that has occurred since the beginning of the story should leave the reader contemplating/feeling the nature of that change.

Other aspects of plot to consider are:

The Reversal of Fortune—Often it is desirable, if there is a main character in the story, to provide some turn of events that prevents the reader from guessing what will happen at the end of the story by projecting the likely outcome from what has transpired. This "twist" will keep the reader on his toes and force him/her to rethink all of the details which he/she has encountered about the character. Basically, this reversal prevents the reader from predicting the outcome before it happens.

The Recognition or Epiphany can be a vital component in moving the story along toward crisis and resolution. Although, again, in real life rarely do we have moments of such instantaneous, clear thinking, a sudden realization can trigger events that lead to a resolution. The realization can also signal a discovery or transformation that the reader can share with the character. Remember: all human turning points are moments of discovery or decision or both.

"We Didn't" by Stuart Dybek


The three general principles one must bear in mind about one's characters are:

(1) the reader must find the character(s) interesting

(2) the characters must be believable

(3) the reader must care about what happens to them.

Specificity and Significant Detail will bring characters into the imagination of the reader. Your main characters should be round; that is, they should be fully drawn. We should know what makes them tick, what they look like on both the inside and the outside. But not all characters are going to necessarily be drawn in such fine detail. If a character is a minor one, we may not necessarily need to learn the psychology of this minor character. Creating characters can be difficult because it usually means analyzing a person in terms of what he/she wants, in terms of our desires. Most people would think of strictly analyzing personalities in terms of their desires as dehumanizing—certainly human beings are more than just "things that desire." Often this is the first hurdle we must jump over in order to create identifiable characters.

Credibility—The details that a character possesses must seem appropriate for the type of character you are creating. The details that are involved should be consistent with the general qualities of the character's gender, age, race, nationality, class, where he/she lives, profession, marital status. Providing clues that tip off the reader about which of these broad social categories the character belongs to, will allow the reader to identify with the character. As a general rule, these items should be determined in the reader's mind as quickly as possible. Without these fundamental types being revealed about your character, the process of identification slows down, and this slows down the story.

Purpose—The purpose of a character is signaled by the desire that the character exhibits. The reader will judge this character based on the character's purpose, and this enhances the reader's ability to identify with the reader. So it is imperative that the character's purpose be clear.

Complexity—Because most human beings are contradictory animals, we need to understand characters as embodying certain contradictions also. This consistent inconsistency may also serve as the source of a dilemma that is at the core of the story.

THE INDIRECT METHOD OF CHARACTER PRESENTATION allows for the author to explicitly come right out and say that the character is this type of person or that type of person. This is usually done through the author's interpretation of the character. It is quick and dirty. It allows you to cover a lot of ground quickly which can be useful if you want to move things along quickly.

THE DIRECT METHOD OF CHARACTER PRESENTATION can be accomplished in eight main ways:

Appearance—How a character looks is very important because most of the information gained about people is visual information. Often in the contradiction between appearance in reality within a character, interesting things begin to happen. Often we have an impulse to use appearance as an appeal to a stereotype appearance of a person, however slight disturbances in that stereotypical depiction can make the reader curious and also set up a larger conflict and complexity within the character.

Action—The actions that a character carries out reveal much about the motivations of that character and, therefore, the psychology and desires of the character. Remember: a significant character must be able to cause an action to occur and be capable of being changed by it. Gestures and particular quirks of movement are really part of appearance, not action. The decisions and and consequent events that occur which further the plot are the action in a story. These are events rather than action.

Speech—Unlike appearance and action (both of which can be interpreted in a number of ways), speech brings the internal to bear in the outside world. In this way, it might be said that it is a purer means of showing the emotional life of a character. It can be delivered with varying forms of directness:

Summary—speech can be summarized as part of the narrative so that much of the conversation is condensed. Often useful to get to the most important aspects of the scene. At home in the first few months, he and Maizie had talked brightly about changes that would make the company more profitable and more attractive to a prospective buyer: new cuts, new packaging, new advertising, new incentives to make supermarkets carry the brand.

Indirect Speech (reported in the third person)—this carries the feel of an exchange without using actual quotations. Often it is useful to get to the most important aspects of the scene.

Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.

Gosh, no, he hadn't. Lord, now he'd have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn't drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it was quick enough.

Direct quotation—Showing the actual exchange makes it more vital and exciting. The give and take build tension. If significant events (like heightened conflict) are taking place within the conversation, direct quotation is the way to go. Direct dialogue can do many things as well as provide insights into character. It can set the scene, advance the action, set the mood, reveal the theme, hint at future events to come or remind of events that have already passed. For dialogue to be lively it must try to do more than just characterize, or it will seem lackluster.

"Or," I say, and I sit up, "I could drive you. When do we leave?"

"No, Albert still says we need to talk. I can't go yet."

"So talk to him," I say.

"It's an excuse," Angelina says. "He says talk is the way out of trouble, and I say, 'Not for me. It's the way in.' I've had enough trouble. Kiss him first, that's what I say. Then we'll know what we've got to talk about."

"Maybe he doesn't want to kiss you."

"Of course. That's the point. I don't want to see him until he wants to kiss me. Then I'd walk to get there. That's what I'm saying."

Other items to remember about writing dialogue are:

• Many writers feel that the trick to writing good dialogue is hearing the voice, recognizing the speech patterns of the real world and transforming them into characters. Practice "catching" these voices in a journal in order to develop them.

• Sometimes interesting dialogue can be attained by not having the characters say what they mean [This also reveals a certain amount of doubt within the character]. Often the purpose of real human beings is to conceal, to stonewall even, and you can reflect this tendency in your characters' speech.

• When your characters say 'no' to each other, this often heightens the tension and and drama in a scene. Having one character deny another is a good way to externalize conflict and sharpen the focus on what is at stake for characters.

• Plausibility in dialogue is important. Just like in your narrative, it is better to have your characters speak about concrete, physical objects rather than ideas. The characters' thoughts will be easier to follow. The reader may also be more likely to be skeptical of a character who generalizes, makes unsupported judgments or speaks abstractly.

• Dialect can be overdone. Although it can signal a character's race, class, region etc., it can also make a character seem stereotyped if it isn't done with an ear for what is real [That is, don't make your characters talk like ones you've heard on TV-which in many cases is already an exaggeration or idealization of real speech]. Misspellings or deviations from standard written English can add to the 'flavor' of an authentic speech pattern, but if they are used excessively, they can distract a reader. They can slow down the pace of an exchange. Also, they can make a character appear to be stupid rather than just regional.

• Dialogue tags such as add, recall, remember, remind, gasp, whine , declare, etc. can be useful to inform the reader of the tone the speaker is intending or the manner in which the speaker is delivering the speech. Often these tags can be relied on too much though. A gesture that a character makes can suggest that finality or stubbornness rather than a dialogue tag.

Thought—Thought reveals desire. Like speech, thought can be delivered as summary, indirect thought or through direct thought. Also like speech, it reveals more than just information. It reveals mood, desires, theme, setting and so on. It can betray a character's actions if it is in conflict with them. Even the suppressed thoughts (thoughts the character doesn't even know he/she has) of a character can be revealed if the narrative voice permits this.

Through the opinions of other characters—details about a character can be revealed through the thoughts and/or opinions of the other characters. However, a reader will judge the reliability of the other character's opinion, and this may taint the validity of the other character's observation. In other words, a reader may not think that the opinion is legitimate.

Note: Conflict Between Methods of Presentation can often strikingly reveal the essential conflict within a character.

If a man's appearance is meticulous and precise, yet his speech is chaotic and infused with doubts and anxieties, then his appearance will be in conflict with his inner state. Very frequently we are not privy to the inner thoughts of a character so we must express the conflict (or complexity) between appearance, speech and action. Sometimes the tension can be created between indirect and direct methods of presentation. For instance, the author as narrative voice can present us with a judgment of a character, then reveal that character through speech, appearance and action as somewhat at odds with the narrative voice.

A Checklist of Useful Advice on Creating Characters from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction:

1. Keep a journal and use it to explore and build ideas for characters.

2. Know all the influences that go into the making of your character's type: age, gender, race, nationality, marital status, region, education, religion, profession, etc.

3. Know the details of your character's life: what he or she does during every part of the day, thinks about, remembers, wants, likes and dislikes, eats, says, means.

4. Identify, heighten, and dramatize consistent inconsistencies. What does your character want that is at odds with whatever else the character wants? What patterns of thought and behavior work against the primary goal?

5. Focus sharply on how the character looks, on what she or he wears and owns, and on how he or she moves. Let us focus on it too.

6. Examine the character's speech to make sure it does more than convey information. Does it characterize, accomplish exposition, and reveal emotion, intent, or change? Does it advance the conflict through "no"-dialogue? Speak it aloud: Does it sound real?

7. Build action by making your characters discover and decide. Make sure that what happens is action and not mere event or movement, that is, that it contains the possibility for human change.

8. Know what your character wants, both generally out of life, and specifically in the context of the story. Keeping that desire in mind, "think backward" with the character to decide what he or she would do in any situation presented.

9. Be aware of the five methods of character presentation: authorial interpretation, appearance, speech, action, and thought. Reveal the character's conflicts by presenting attributes in at least one of these methods that contrast with attributes you present in others.

10. If the character is based on a real model, including yourself, make a dramatic external alteration.

11. If the character is imaginary or alien to you, identify a mental or emotional point of contact.

"Fiesta 1980" by Junot Diaz

Setting (Place)

There are instinctive reactions to elements of one's environment even before there are reactions to other human beings. Therefore, the relation to place and time can be littered with emotion. Taking advantage of this in a story can be profound. It can heighten the dramatic effect of a story. Syntax and word choice (usually adjectives) can establish the atmosphere of a setting. The attitude of the narrator or a character towards a setting can reveal their qualities. A character can be in harmony with its setting or a character could be in conflict with its setting. A setting can also serve as a symbolic of the ensuing action or of how the reader is supposed to read a character. The conflicts of the setting can also serve to mirror the conflicts of the characters; this suggests some sort of otherworldly effect on the characters. The decision to present a setting as either ordinary or exotic can have an effect on how the reader focuses on the characters. An ordinary setting can bring the focus onto the character; contrarily, an exotic setting tends to distract from the characters. When the setting is so ordinary, the reader begins to suspect that something unusual may lurk in the future.

Time—Time can be compressed, expanded, inverted, projected, and generally warped in any imaginable fashion in a story.

Summary compresses time. It condenses the events of (usually) the past in a matter of a few short sentences. Frequently it is used to heighten the scene that follows.

A scene unfolds as more of a real-time presentation. That is, the time experienced by the characters in the scene is likely to be approximate, similar to the time experienced by the reader as he/she reads it. A scene is always necessary in a story (a story can not be told as just a summary alone).

Jump cut. Frequently scenes can be quickly juxtaposed against one another. This technique is called a jump cut. The reader is forced to quickly reorient himself/herself within the sequence of new settings. This technique must be used with care because it can be very disorienting for a reader. The author must be able to quickly provide context when he/she uses the jump cut.

Flashback. This technique moves the reader back in time in order to set up the details that are relevant to the scenes that are forthcoming. The author must provide smooth passage to the past, passage that, generally speaking, does not draw attention to itself. Assume the reader's ability to follow you back in time. [One way to do this is if you are writing in the simple past tense is to use the past perfect "had (verb)" for the first couple of sentences, then to continue with simple past.] However, flashback can be overused. Often the details that need to be in place can be brought about through speech, summary or detail without removing the reader from the present where the real stake is for the characters who are involved.

Slow Motion. This technique can be used to narrate scenes of great intensity. Often during these moments of intensity, people can enter a state of heightened sense awareness and your narration can mirror this. Similarly, a scene narrated with such heightened detail will create intensity. One must be aware of how this technique is used as a cliché in film. Slow motion is quick to register the "death blow," "the sexual climax," etc. Using slow motion in this manner will make the scene a clichéd one.

Point of View

Point of view is a very complex element of fiction. It brings into focus the relationship between writer, characters and reader. Elements of point of view that need to be discussed are person, omniscience, narrative voice, tone, authorial distance and reliability.


First Person—First person is used when a character in a story speaks. A central narrator narrates the events around him/her as he/she relates to them. A peripheral narrator narrates the events as they are happening to other people as seen from a distance. Using first person narrator can be tricky because the reader needs to understand the narration as part of the character who is in the story. If the narration doesn't coincide with the character who is narrating it, or if the narration is at odds with the changes taking place in the character who is narrating, then we have a kind of dissonance that ultimately causes the story to fail. It fails because we find the narrator to "resonate falsely" with whom the reader thinks the character is. However, the most important thing to remember about first person narrative is that the author is limited to ONLY what the character thinks or sees. Therefore, the author is not bound to accept what the character says as the reader is when there is a third person omniscient narrator.

Second Person—Second person uses the pronoun "you" and either addresses a character or, in the case of an omniscient narrator, addresses the reader personally. It is not a readily used point of view in fiction, and it is most likely used in idiosyncratic and experimental forms.

Third Person—Third person point of view uses "he" or "she" when it describes the characters in a story. Shifting between consciousnesses (if the author begins telling the story from the vantage point of one character, then shifts to the vantage point of another) breaks down the trust between author and reader. This kind of shift must be handled very subtly and shrewdly. Within third person narratives the author must consider the amount of knowledge that the narrator has: omniscient or limited.

Omniscient: As the omniscient author, you are God. In all these situations the reader should accept what the omniscient author tells us (unless this narrator is unreliable) You can:

• Objectively report what is happening.

• Go into the mind of any character.

• Interpret for us that character's speech, actions, and thoughts, even if the character cannot do so.

• Move freely in time or space to give us a panoramic, telescopic, microscopic or historical view; tell us what happened elsewhere or in the past or what will happen in the future.

• Provide general reflections, judgments and truths.

Limited: The third person voice can also be limited to strictly objective concerns. The limited omniscient narrator may have some, but not all, of the omniscient narrator's knowledge and freedom. For example:

• One may know what the characters in a scene are thinking but not be able to interpret their thoughts. ·

• One may interpret a character's thoughts and actions, but see only others externally

The advantage of the limited omniscience is immediacy. It allows us to identify with one character because it provides an insight strictly into what his/her thoughts and feelings are as the character experiences them; we can grope with him/her toward his/her understanding. Any knowledge of what the character's thoughts and feelings are beyond what the character knows of them would result in a loss of trust between author and reader.

One type of limited omniscient author is the objective author. The objective author has unlimited knowledge of actions and appearances, but does not have access to the inner lives of the characters. This kind of voice can seem cool and removed, but it allows the reader to discern what is actually happening.

To Whom Is The Narrator Speaking?

The author also needs to dictate to whom he/she is speaking. The target audience is usually either the reader, another character or the self.

The Reader—When we begin a story, most of the time we implicitly accept our role as a member of a broad, generalized reading audience without thinking about it. Every author likes to think of his/her audience as universal, but this often puts an undue amount of pressure on an author. Certain kinds of readers are held in mind, and usually the piece is targeted towards those readers.

Another Character—At other times we, as readers, overhear the story as it is told to another character in the story. The narrator usually does not acknowledge the fact that we are listening. The nature of this kind of overhearing may be in the form of letters sent from one character to another, a monologue spoken aloud by one character to another, as a confession from one character to another, as one presents his/her case to a jury or mob, etc. In all cases, the listener as well as the teller are involved in the action.

The Self—Sometimes the intended audience of a story is the narrator himself/herself. When this technique is employed, the reader is overhearing the private thoughts of the narrator. It is generally not intended to be heard by anyone except the narrator himself/herself. The interior thoughts of a narrator can be laid out in one of two fashions: the interior monologue and the stream-of-consciousness. In the interior monologue the narrator's thoughts are laid out in an almost inhumanly ordered fashion. The thoughts are reshaped the narrator in order for the reader to make sense of them.

Stream-of-consciousness acknowledges the fact that the human mind does not operate with any order or clarity as it moves along. It skips, breaks, fast forwards, clips, etc in the same manner that human consciousness does. This kind of narration tries to capture the speed and multiplicity of the mind. It tries to anticipate and reflect the process of the mind, yet it can be extremely off-putting to a reader (as anyone who has read James Joyce's Ulysses knows). Great care must be exercised when employing this technique as to be "psychologically true."

In What form?

The relationship between the teller and its receiver dictates that the story must be delivered via a form of telling. The form of a story can enhance the point of view of the story. An author may choose to employ the form of reportage, confessional, monologue, oratory, journal, diary. The form of the story will suggest the amount of self-consciousness on the part of the author (that is, the degree to which the author is aware of his/her telling of the story) and this, in turn, will affect the chosen language.

Authorial Distance

Authorial distance is the degree to which we, as readers, feel distanced from the characters in a story. The use of abstraction and abstract nouns in the exposition is a good means for establishing distance and detachment from the characters. Normally we don't want to feel any distance towards a protagonist, but we may be inclined to feel some sort of distance towards other characters. Sometimes when the readers find the protagonist to be something other than what the author intended, the story fails because the author was unable to bring sufficient perspective to bear on the character to convince the readers to share his/her judgment.

Spatial and Temporal—The distance a narrator has from his/her subject whether it be a younger self or another character may cause a reader to identify with the subject. If the speaker holds his/her former self at a distance, the reader is likely to as well. Along with this, the actual physical proximity of the speaker to his/her subject can cause the reader to feel more aligned with the subject. This can be seen to be a part of the atmosphere as well. Also, sometimes the use of the present tense in a story can establish proximity to a character; however, it should be noted that once a story is told in the present tense, it should continue in the present tense.

Reliability of the Narrator

Reliability of the narrator is crucial to establishing the attitude of the reader towards the speaker. Most of the time the teller of a story is someone we implicitly trust. After all, this voice speaking to us is the one that is allowing us, as readers, to enter this world. We must trust his/her guidance. But occasionally the narrating voice is one which we don't trust, one which we would rather not be with on this tour and his/her guidance arouses our suspicion as readers. This is the case of the unreliable narrator. Imagine that the narrating voice is a child, a racist, a drunk, a pathological liar, a cheat or a person who is mentally unstable. The story as told through this narrator's perspective will cause us to be suspicious of him/her. All limited viewpoint narrators may be unreliable, but even, in the rarest of circumstances, an omniscient narrator could be unreliable.

"No One's A Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent

"Reply All" by Robin Hemley.[video][audio interview/discusiion with Robin Hemley]

Point of View (Summary Diagram)

Who Speaks? To Whom? In What Form? With What Limitations?


Person Type Written story Relaible narrator or author
1st person

• author

• character in the story


The reader

characterized or uncharacterized

Spoken story Unreliable narrator or author (to what extent?)
2nd person

• the "you" is a character [Central Narrator]

• the "you" is the reader (who is a character) [Peripheral narrator]

Another character or characters

• peripheral

• central

3rd person


The "self" of the narrator's voice. (Interior monologue) Oratory  
Complete omniscience

• author

• character in the story

Limited omniscience

• partial omniscience

• objective

        Interior monologue  
        Stream of Consciousness  


The theme is the concept that the story is "about". What does the story have to say about the abstraction contained in it? The answer to this question invariably will be its theme. The answer to this question is not so much an answer in the manner of a solution to a problem. It is the framing of a problem. It is an understanding of how a problem might be put. The solution to this problem is not realm of fiction. The writer of fiction may indeed possess what John Keats (one of the English language's most admired poets) called negative capability--that is, the capability of existing within uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason. As a fiction writer, you are not the city planner of the soul posing the the solution for all of humanity's ills as it streaks toward the millennium.

A story explores a truth, a valid, imaginative way of looking at and interpreting the world. Imaginative reasoning and concrete thought work toward instances and result in emotional experience, revelation, and the ability to contain life's paradoxes in tension.

However, an author, while caught in the complex contradictions of the concrete world, is also unavoidably conflicted between the way he/she sees the world as it is and the way it ought to be. In the end, no matter how accurately and vividly the author depicts the physical world, he/she must persuade his/her readers that his/her moral vision of the world is valid despite its apparent contradiction with the way the world is depicted in the concrete particulars of the story. In short, the author's world must make moral sense. Yet, this moral vision can not be preached. It can only be hinted at through the details that are depicted. Simply put, through detail and scene, ideas are conveyed and the revealed ideas imply the author's judgment, the author's moral vision.

Theme is very difficult to develop in a story. Most of the time when an author starts out with a theme, the result is a story that is very thin (lacking in detail and development) and uninteresting (lacking in complexity of plot and character). Most writer who talk about writing usually claim that theme is developed by "listening" to characters and their situations and determining what their concerns are. At some point, if you are lucky, your theme will announce itself through them. Theme is evoked from within the story, not imposed upon it.

Finally, the organic unity of a piece with regard to theme can not be taught. It must be experienced to be appreciated.


Here is Janet Burroway's list of items to check in a story when you are revising a story:

1. What is my story about? Another way of saying this is: What is the pattern of change? Once the pattern is clear, you can check your draft to make sure you've included all the crucial moments of discovery and decision. Is there crisis action?

2. Are there irrelevant scenes? Remember that it is a common impulse to try to cover too much ground. Tell your story in the fewest possible scenes; cut down on summary and unnecessary flashback. These dissipate energy and lead you to tell rather than show.

3. Why should the reader turn from the first page to the second? Is the language fresh? Are the characters alive? Does the first sentence, paragraph, page introduce real tension? If it doesn't, you have probably begun at the wrong place. If you are unable to find a way to introduce tension on the first page, you may have to doubt whether you have a story at all.

4. Is it original? Almost every writer thinks first, in some way or other, of the familiar, the usual, the given. This character is a stereotype, that emotion is too easy, that phrase is a cliché. First-draft laziness is inevitable, but it is also a way of being dishonest. A good writer will comb the work for clichés and labor to find the exact, the honest and the fresh.

5. Is it clear? Although ambiguity and mystery provide some of our most profound pleasures in literature, beginning writers are often unable to distinguish between mystery and muddle, ambiguity and sloppiness. You may want to your character to be rich with contradiction, but we still want to know whether that character is male or female, black or white, old or young. We need to be oriented on the simplest level of reality before we can share your imagined world. Where are we? When are we? Who are they? How do things look? What time of day or night is it? What's the weather? What's happening?

6. Is it self-conscious? Probably the most famous piece of advice to the rewriter is William Faulkner's "kill all your darlings." When you are carried away with the purple of your prose, the music of your alliteration, the hilarity of your wit, the profundity of your insights, then the chances are that you are having a better time writing than your reader will have reading. No reader will forgive you, and no reader should. Just tell the story. The style will follow of itself if you just tell the story.

7. Where is it too long? Most of us and even the best of us, write too long. We are so anxious to explain every nuance, cover every possible aspect of character action, and setting that we forget the necessity of stringent selection. In fiction, and especially in the short story, we want sharpness, economy, and vivid, telling detail. More than necessary is too much. I have been helped in my own tendency to tell all by a friend who went through a copy of one of my novels, drawing a line through the last line of about every third paragraph. Then in the margin he wrote, again and again, "Hit it, baby, and get out." That's good advice for anyone.

8. Where is it undeveloped in character, imagery, theme? In any first, second or third draft of a manuscript there are likely to be necessary passages sketched, skipped or skeletal. What information is missing, what actions are incomplete, what motives obscure, what images inexact? Where does the action occur too abruptly so that it loses its emotional force?

9. Where is it too general? Originality, economy and clarity can all be achieved through through the judicious use of significant detail. Learn to spot general, vague and fuzzy terms. Be suspicious of yourself anytime you see nouns like someone or everything, adjectives like huge and handsome, adverbs like very and really. Seek instead a particular thing, a particular size, an exact degree.

(Note: the contents of the above have been largely excerpted from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction.)

Fiction Assignments

Story Form and Structure

1. Write a scene placing two characters in this very fundamental conflict: One wants something that the other does not want to give. The something may be anything-money, respect, jewelry, sex, information, a match — but be sure to focus on the one desire.

2. Write a scene in which a character changes from: angry to ashamed attracted to disgusted exhausted to enthusiastic determined to uncertain

3. Place a character in conflict with some aspect of nature. The character need not be fighting for survival; the danger may be as small as a mosquito. But balance the forces equally so that the reader is not sure who will "win" until the crisis action happens.

Showing and Telling

4. 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.

5. Write about a character who starts at a standstill, works up to a 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.

Characterization Part 1

6. Below is a list of familiar types, each of them comic or unsympathetic to the degree that they have become clichés. Write a short character sketch of one or two of them, but individualizing the character through particular details that will make us sympathetize and/or identify with him or her. · an absent-mided professor · a lazy laborer · an aging film star · a domineering wife · her timid husband · a tyrannical boss · a staggering drunk

7. In the sociological science of garbology, human habits are assessed by studying what people throw away. Write a character sketch by describing the contents of a wastebasket or garbage can.

8. Pick two contrasting or contradictory qualities of your own personality (consistent inconsistencies). Create a character that embodies each, and set them in conflict with each other. Since you are not writing about yourself but aiming at heightening and dramatizing these qualities, make each character radically different from yourself in at least one fundamental aspect of type: age, race, gender, nationality, or class.

Characterization, Part 2

9. Write a scene in which a character speaks politely or enthusiastically but whose thoughts run in strong contradiction. Characterize the listener by appearance, action, and dialogue.

10. Write a scene in which a central character does something palpably outrageous-violent, cruel, foolhardy, obscene. Let us, becasue we see into his mind, know that the character is behaving justly, kindly or reasonably.

11. Write a scene in which a man (or boy) questions a woman (or girl) about her mother. Characterize all three.

12. Two friends are in love with the same person. One describes his or her feelings honestly and well; the other is unwilling or unable to do so, but betrays his or her feelings through appearance and action.

Fictional Place and Time

13. Write a scene involving only one character, who is uncomfortabe in his or her surroundings: socially inadequate, frightened, revolted, painfully nostalgic, or the like. Using active verbs in your description of the setting, build forceful conflict between the person and the place.

14. Write a scene with two characters in conflict over the setting: One wants to go, and one wants to stay. The more interesting the setting you choose, the more interesting the conflict will inevitably be.

15. Write a scene in which the character's mood is at odds with the weather and make the weather nevertheless express his or her mood: The rain is joyful, the clear skies are threatening, the snow is comforting, the summer beach is chilling.

16. Write a scene containing a flashback in which the information about the past is crucial to the understanding of the present.

17. Write a scene that begins with a circumstantial summary and then moves to a scene in slow motion.

Point of View, Part 1

18. Write a short scene about the birth or death of anything (person, plant, animal, machine, scheme, passion, etc.). Use all five areas of knowledge of the editorial omniscient author. Be sure to: Give us the thoughts of more than one character, tell us something about at least one character that he or she doesn't realize, include something from your past or future, and deliver a universal truth.

19. Write a love scene, serious or comic, from the limited omniscient viewpoint-objective observation and the thoughts of one character. Make this character believe that the other loves her or him, while the external actions make clear to the reader that this is not so.

20. Write about a recent dream, using the viewpoint of the objective author. Without any comment or iterpretation whatever, report the events (the more bizarre, the better) as they occur.

21. Write a monologue from the point of view of a mother-your own or imaginary-laying down the rules for the child.

22. Place a character in anumcomfortable social situation and write a passage in the limited omniscient, in which his/her dialogue is in sharp contrast to his/her interior monologue.

Point of View, Part 2

23. Write a short scene from the point of view of anything nonhuman (a plant, object, animal, Martian angel). We may sympathize or not with the perceptions of the narrator, but try to imagine or invent the terms, logic, and frame of reference this character would use.

24. Write from the point of view of a narrator who passes scathing judgmentson another character, but let us know that the narrator really loves or envies the other.

25. Let your narrator begin with a totally unacceptable premise-illogical, ignorant, bigoted, insane. In the passage, let us gradually come to sympathize with his or her view.


26. 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 iironic, that is, explore a situation in which the advice or statement does not apply.

27. Identify the belief you hold most passionately and profoundly. Write a story that explores an instance in which this belief is most true.

The whole story can be simply the assignment itself, or, more likely, a part or section of the whole story. [That is, you may add other elements to the assignment to complete the story.] Please make sure that you mark on your story which assignment you are responding to.

Note: assignments have been taken from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction (Fourth Edition)

• A series of revision exercises from Florida State's Creative Writing program

An excerpt from "I Didn't Know Sylvia Plath" by Janet Burroway