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Fictional Truth and Significant Detail in Short Fiction

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August 2011
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In this post, I discuss fictional truth and significant details.

What is fictional truth? Fiction is not truth. It is an illusion. It is a lie that makes us realize truth. We often read a fiction story and learn something about the human condition. Life is often stranger than fiction. Events in real life occur at random. Events in fiction are casual. In short, events must be related in fiction.

For fiction to work, the writer must create a dream inside the mind of the reader, which enables the reader to suspend disbelief and believe that the fictional story is plausible. Writer John Gardner wrote extensively on this concept in “The Art of Fiction.”

How does the writer create a dream inside the mind of the reader? How does the writer make the reader believe the story? The writer shows, doesn’t tell the reader what happened. To do this, the writer narrates the story using significant details. For instance, when describing the setting, the writer shows the reader by using significant details. When writing about action, the writer shows the reader with significant details. When describing the main character, the writer shows the reader with significant details. In short the writer creates a dream inside the mind of the reader, convinces the reader that the story is plausible—perhaps even true—by showing, not telling.

By showing the reader what happens, the writer stirs the imagination, sparks the feelings, makes the story compelling in the mind of the reader.

For instance, in The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, the author is able to lead the reader to believe that a man wakes up, finds himself turned into a cockroach. He does this by using vivid details to tell the story.

How does the writer use significant details?

The writer uses concrete and specific language, not abstract and general language.

Using vivid and realistic details makes your story come alive and provides proof to the reader that the story is plausible.

You don’t need to write every detail, just important details. Then allow the language to suggest other details.

The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by telling the story using concrete, specific, definite details.

A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, heard.

A detail is specific if it conveys an idea or a judgement.

All memorable stories include vivid details. All great writers are skilled at incorporating vivid details to tell the story.

The writer also needs to use realistic descriptions of real or imaginary places, people, events, dialogue. Otherwise, the reader will not believe the story.

In summary, fiction is a lie. It is an illusion. Therefore the writer must convince the reader to suspend disbelief and believe the story is plausible by creating a dream in the mind of the reader.  The writer creates the dream by showing, not telling the reader what happens. One way to show and not tell is to use significant details that appeal to the senses. In other words, the writer selects sensory details. These details should be concrete, specific, and definite.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how writers use “dialogue” in short fiction.

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