English 5850: Advanced Fiction Writing

There are exceptions to everything below, but realize that exceptions are for exceptional writers.

  • Good stories are character-driven, and the payoff is transformation. At the beginning of a story the protagonist thinks or feels a certain way, or is in a certain state or situation that needs attention. By the end, she has changed, come to a realization, gone through a moment of insight, or has worked her way out of the situation ("position change"). This resolution need not be profound or permanent, but it must occur or readers will feel the story has not accomplished anything.

  • Conflict arises from what a character wants, and from opposing forces standing in the way of that desire. Your character's desire should be made apparent in the first third of a story, preferably on page one. Realize that the desire can be something simple, such as a hot meal, a new pair of shoes, or a need for solitude; it doesn't have to be something complicated like childhood trauma, intimations of mortality, or crypto-fascist repression.

  • "What should I write about?" Most (90% or more) contemporary American short stories are about family, romantic relationships, or work ... or a combination of these three.

  • Show, don't tell. Write scenes! Your story's key moments should be scenic, not expository. Unless you write gorgeous exposition, save it for brief background and transitional passages.

  • Most short stories depict a brief amount of time: a few hours, a week, perhaps a month. Relatively few cover years. Using memory and flashback, you can fill in necessary background, but past should never overshadow the present action of the story.

  • "But it really happened." We don't care. Take the nonfiction class. Fiction is not supposed to be True. Fiction is supposed to create its own reality. The only thing that matters is whether the story works on the page, not whether it "really" happened.

  • Avoid melodrama and sentimentality. Certain subjects are inherently melodramatic or sentimental: lovers' quarrels; deathbed scenes, especially involving children; scenes in which characters find out they have AIDS, cancer, or are pregnant; weddings and funerals; first kisses; etc. When ending a story with a line of dialogue, realize that line is going to hang in the air and echo, so at this particular point of the story, avoid phrases like "I love you" or "Doris, I'm gay."

  • Maintain point of view! A classic amateur error: breaking the unity of POV for a momentary excursion into the consciousness of a minor character. With a few exceptions, omniscience should be saved for novels. Pick one character and stay in his or her head exclusively.

  • Recycle. A story is a closed ecosystem. Use what you introduce; don't introduce what you don't use.

  • Establish what kind of story you're writing on the very first page. Don't write a 10-page realistic story that suddenly switches on p. 9 to a ghost story.

  • A story should end with a resolution, not a coincidence or a random event, especially if the event is "ironic." Examples: a police officer is killed the day before retirement; a drunk driver runs over his own jaywalking daughter; a paroled rapist chokes to death on egg drop soup. These situations could (I guess) be interesting to explore, but they're too random and too contrived to be satisfying resolutions. Don't end with them.

  • If you don't know how to punctuate dialogue, study a published story and learn it.

All the above items are general principles. Below are a few opinions.

  • Artistry is what distinguishes fiction writers from tech writers. Just as a painter's medium is paint, your medium is the sentence. Don't write boring, ordinary sentences. Strive for some sparkle on every page.

  • A strategy: if you're writing a story in which there are people of various ages, forgo the obvious choice for protagonist. Let's say it's a family story, about a 22-year-old college student, her mom, and her 12-year-old brother. If you are a 22-year-old college student, how predictable do you think it will be to tell the story from that character's point of view? Make your protagonist the kid or the mom instead. Your story will be much more interesting and you'll learn more.

  • I personally hope I never have to read another student story that ends with a suicide, or the protagonist finding out pregnancy/AIDS/cancer/etc. test results, or a wise old person giving helpful advice to a troubled young person, or the protagonist being suddenly run over by a truck.

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