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Your writer’s voice and writing style are developed as you learn, as you experiment, as you master the art and craft of writing. The more you read, the more you experiment, the more you learn about writing, the more polished your writing becomes. Your voice and style emerge as you become a polished writer.
All great writers have a distinctive voice and style, which they learned, developed, and polished over time. For example, fiction writer Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is like minimalism art. His style is sparse. He uses short sentence, and write with nouns and verbs, applies adjectives and adverbs sparingly. His voice is conversational. Many fiction writers aspire to write like Hemingway. Why? Because they like his voice and style of writing.
If you don’t like the tone, or the voice, or the style of writing, you are likely find a personal essay, memoir, or any other creative nonfiction or fiction writing dull. When a work is judged to be dull, the reader will not proceed to read it.
In this article, I’ll discuss voice and style as it applies to creative nonfiction. (The same definition of voice and style applies to fiction and poetry.) The following will be covered:
- How to analyze the voice and style of writer’s you like
- Voice of the creative nonfiction writer
- Writing style of the creative nonfiction writer
- How to develop your voice and style
Analyzing the Voice and Style of Great Writers
To become a great writer, you must not only write on a regular basis, but also read like a writer. What does reading like a writer mean? It means analyzing the prose of the writers you enjoy reading, learning what sorts of sentences, diction, tone, voice, point of view they use.
In the July 30th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell writes a piece of creative nonfiction called ” Slackers.” He begins the literary journalism essay as follows: “Whenever I take the freeway west from Toronto to my parent’s home, I pass a park where I ran a cross-country race many years ago……” From Gladwell’s beginning, we get a glimpse of his writing voice and style. He uses everyday language, the first- person point of view (“I”), and has a friendly, conversational tone.
In the next section, Gladwell introduces us to Alberto Salazar, the great long-distance runner of a bygone era. Gladwell shifts point of view to third-person, referring to Salazar as “he”, and then begins to profile Salazar. We see that Gladwell makes use of the simile, writing “Salazar shuffled like an old man.” We see that he makes use of the short sentence with “Distance runners tend to be elfin.” We learn that Gladwell is speaking to the reader using everyday language, sentence variety, and the active voice.
You can improve your style and develop your voice by analyzing the prose of writers you like reading. Once you learn how they constructed their essays or memoirs, you can use their techniques, such as syntax or diction in your own writing.
The Writer’s Voice
What is voice? It is a confusing term, often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by those who aspire to become creative writers. One of the best definitions of “voice” is written by author, Jack Hart, in Story Craft. He suggests that voice is the personality of the writer revealed in the words on the page. For Hart, voice has two components:
- The persona of the writer. A writer has many personas. Some public. Others private. A woman can be a mother, wife, friend, artist, and so on. For each of these personas, the woman as a writer can express a different voice. To understand persona, ask yourself, what kind of personality is revealed on the page? Happy? Sad? Serious? Humorous? Friendly? Sophisticated? Condescending?
- The position or narrative distance of the writer in relation to the true story. If I tell a story using “I” or first-point of view, then I am close to the story, probably directly involved or a close observer. On the other hand, if I tell a story using “He/She” or third-person point of view, then I am telling the story from some distance, like a spectator watching a football match from the sidelines.
The writer’s voice is also revealed in the thoughts, feelings, reflections shared on the page with the reader. This is especially true for creative nonfiction, which relies on the building blocks of scene, summary, and personal reflection, to tell a true story, whether a personal essay or memoir or literary journalism.
Why is voice important? Often, we make a decision to read to its completion a piece of creative nonfiction because we like the voice of the writing. Jack Hart writes that “voice plays a key role in attracting and holding readers, regardless of their subject.
In creative writing, the writer’s voice is an important quality of the writing, especially in personal essays and memoir. And yet, ” the “voice of the writer” is excluded in so many types of writing. This is true for business writing, technical writing, academic writing. It is formal writing, laced with jargon, clichés, and written in the third person. In essence, the writing doesn’t reveal the personality of the writer, nor does the writer use “I” or first person point of view. Hart refers to writing that excludes persona as the ” institutional voice.”
When writing any type of creative writing, you must discard the “institutional voice.” Instead, work to develop a friendly, conversational voice, using everyday language.
The Writer’s Style
What is style? Hart, in Story Craft, suggests that style is different than voice. For Hart, style is the expression of the writer’s personality on the page. How does a writer express his style? There are many components of a writing style. In a general sense, style is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing–views, prejudices, biases, expertise, wisdom, knowledge, and so on. But this does not enable us to understand a writer’s style as it applies to the writing itself. What, then, are the important components? Most instructors of creative writing will tell you that writing style includes:
- Word choice or diction. Each word that the writer selects has a dictionary meaning (denotation) Does the writer use educated language, such as ten-dollar words or simple language, everyday language? Most words also have a connotation (implied meaning.) Many words have more than one meaning, depending on the context As well, a writer must strive to use language in a fresh and original way, which means that clichés should not be used. What are clichés? They are warn-out words or phrases that have become dull like old paint on a wall. A clichés just makes for dull writing. As a writer, you must be cognizant of diction, connotation, and clichés.
- Syntax or sentence variety. This refers to the length and types of sentences the writer uses–an intentional fragment; simple, complex, compound, or compound-complex sentence; periodic sentence or loose sentence; Declarative, interrogative, or exclamatory sentence; Parallel structure; items in a series. (If you don’t understand these different types of sentences, you ought to learn them and use them. Sentence variety also refers to the length of the sentence. The writer can select a single word, a phrase, or a longer sentence. Short sentences speed up the pace; long sentences slow down the pace.
- Figurative Language. You have many choices: metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, symbolism. Figurative language gives an infinite number of possibilities to develop your style. Figurative language is like different colours of paint you use to paint a memorable landscape.
- Tone. It refers to the attitude of the writer towards the subject and the audience who will read the work. Some writer’s write in a friendly, intimate tone. Other writer’s write with authority and expertise. (There are many types of tone that a writer can use. Never use a condescending tone.) Humourist David Sedaris writes with a humourous tone.
How to Develop Your Writing Style
Writing Style evolves as you write. If you don’t write on a regular basis, If you don’t learn how to write, if you don’t study the writing of great writers, your style will stagnate. Here are a few suggestions on how you can develop your writing style:
- Expand your vocabulary. If you read a word you don’t understand, look up its meaning in the dictionary. As well, if you don’t have a strong vocabulary, start by learning a new word each day, and then use it in your daily conversations and writing.
- Read and learn the rules and principles and guidelines On Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
- Read and internalize the advice in ” On Writing Well” by of William Zinsser.
- Learn to read like a writer. Not sure how? Pick up a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. How do you read like a writer? You read good writing in the New Yorker or some other publication. You analyze the style, word choice, and structure of the writing, learning how the writer constructed the piece of creative writing.
- Get in the habit of writing each day. How? Keep a personal journal. The easiest way is to buy a pen and notebook of paper, then begin to write each day. Write about what is important to you, such as a memory, interesting observation, “important moment.”The act of writing makes you a writer. When you write, experiment with your writing. Learn how to write a loose and period sentence. Learn how to write an inverted sentence. Learn how to write metaphors and similes and use personification. The more often you write, and experiment with your writing, the more original your style will become.
- When you write, always be yourself. Don’t write in a breezy manner. Don’t use grandiloquent language. Don’t use inflated language. Don’t write as if you are someone else, like creative nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, or fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway. Begin by writing like you speak. Use the language that you use in daily conversation. Relax and write as yourself.
A Few Tips
Here are a few easy ways to improve your writing style and develop your voice:
- Use the active voice. The verb performs the action of the subject. Examples: You composed a poem about summer….He hit the ball with the tennis racket…I pressed the shutter release, capturing a memorable photograph of a happy moment on the trip.
- Write with concrete nouns and verbs.
- Write with verbs that express some action. Examples: Jumped, climbed, punched……….
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. By selecting the best “verb”, a writer can find a word in the dictionary or thesaurus that best expresses the meaning of the adjective and adverb.
- Use sentence variety—long and short, simple, compound, compound, complex, loose, periodic, and so forth.
- Write in a friendly, conversational tone. Start by using “contractions.” Image that you are writing to a friend.
- Use everyday language.
If you want to learn more about voice and style, I suggest you read and learn from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. These are the best books for the lowest price on learning how to write. If you read, learn, and master the rules and guidelines in these books, if you also write every day, and if you read something interesting, like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, even the newspaper, you’ll become an excellent writer. Perhaps you’ll even publish your work of writing art.
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
- Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
By Dave Hood
If you dream of becoming a successful creative writer, meaning that you desire to have your writing work published, read, and talked about, then you must learn and master the techniques of creative writing. There are many techniques that you must learn and master. One of the most important is “showing and telling.” When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay, or fiction, or poetry, such as a narrative poem, you must both show and tell your readers what has happened. And you must either show or tell the inner worlds of characters and the outer world that they see. Showing and telling breathes life into a story and shifts its pace to slow or high gear.
The technique of “showing” means to create a scene, to expand time, and to dramatize the story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction.
You will stretch the details into a vivid description, or a larger scene. A scene includes the setting, dialogue, action from a particular character, imagery with word pictures. By showing your readers what happened or how a character is dressed or conducts himself or herself, you create significance to a story, whether fiction or nonfiction. You also make your readers believe the story and produce an entertaining read. And only work that is entertaining will get published and purchased.
The technique of “telling” your reader means that you summarize and compress description of character and events in the story, reducing or eliminating the concrete and specific details, reducing or eliminating sensory images, erasing the scene of a story. In other words, sometimes you will compress the details of a character or event into a summary. Summarizing enables you to speed up the pace of the story, explain inner thoughts of character or significance of events that cannot be explained in scenes, provide a backdrop, or write about exposition/background of the story.
In this post, I’ll explain how to use the techniques of ” showing and telling” when writing poetry, short fiction, or creative nonfiction.
Showing the Reader (Writing a Scene)
As an aspiring writer, you desire to create compelling, believable, entertaining, even memorable prose or poetry. By deploying the technique of “showing” your readers, writing in scenes, you are able to create a “felt experience” in the mind of the reader. This technique is used to evoke an emotional response. Moreover, showing the reader makes the story believable, as you are able to “recreate the scene with words.” If you are unable to entertain or make the story believable, readers will put down your piece of creative writing before finishing it.
Instead of summarizing or compressing details, the writer shows readers by constructing a scene for each important event that unfolds or to develop a character. The scene in prose or poetry is just like the scene in a movie, which has a beginning, middle, and end. Writing a scene instead of a summary brings the story to life, creates a dream in the mind of the reader, and entertains them, inspires them to turn the page, to discover what happens next. You can only create memorable prose or poetry with scenes. And all great poets, like Charles Simic, or memorable writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, write scenes for their fictional stories or poems. Here is an example from writer Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping off of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil…
When should you show readers what happened ?
You ought to create a scene for any of the following situations:
- Conflict in the mind of the character or with another character or society
- Setbacks or obstacles that prevent the character from achieving his or her goal
- Turning point, such as an illness, marriage break up, job loss
- Crisis, such as when you or the character runs out of options and must make a painful and stressful decision.
As well, when developing a character, you construct the character sketch or profile with vivid details, concrete and particular description, describing the behaviour of a character within a scene. In fiction, you rely on the character sketch or profile to compose your imaginary character. In a personal essay, you share important details, such as personality traits, about yourself.
How can you show your readers a character or what happened?
There are many techniques. The most important are to write down important details, use concrete and particular descriptions, use sensory images that create word pictures in the mind of your readers. Here is a list of ways to show your reader:
- Sensory imagery-use language that appeals to the sense of sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing
- Vivid details that are concrete, specific, particular
- Concrete and specific descriptions
- Metaphor and simile
- Symbolism-something or some object that represents more than its literal meaning.
- Personification-using descriptions, traits, adjectives applied to human beings to describe things that are not human. Example: The rock growled at us as we walked past.
As well, remember to use the active voice. It performs the action of the verb. Example: Rocky, the boxer, closed his fist, “punched” his wife in the face.
How do you show your readers by constructing a scene?
You can craft a scene with the following characteristics:
- Setting-time and place and context.
- Dialogue-what is said by characters in the story, both the main character and supporting cast.
- Action-describing the conduct of the character with significant details.
- Sensory imagery-language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing.
- Details-significant and particular details; sensory images.
- Descriptions–Concrete and specific descriptions.
As well, remember that a scene has a beginning, middle, and end—just like a scene from a movie. And always use the active voice, which performs the action of the verb. Example: Eddie Ruth, the baseball player, smacked the pitch with the heavy bat, over the centerfield fence for a home run.
Telling Your Readers (Writing a Summary)
Sometimes, you’ll be required to tell your readers what happened by compressing time and leaving out many of the important, particular details. Essentially, you’ll summarize what happened. Here’s an example:
First, I purchased money from the ATM machine, then I bought groceries, then I cooked dinner, then I watched television…When the night descended, I drifted off to sleep.
This is a summary of how the person carried out their day. It is not detailed description or series of scenes.
When should you tell your readers what happened? There are many suggestions or guidelines that you can use to help you determine when to show and when to tell. You can tell your readers when you are writing:
- Backdrop of the story– setting of the story, such as time and place and context
- Exposition-The writer provides the reader with background details about plot, setting, character, theme.
- Interpret ting an experience or event. Sometimes you will need to explain the significance of a scene.
- Repeated experiences , such as daily rituals or events.
Jane Burroway in Writing Fiction suggests that there are two ways to write a summary:
- Sequential summary-The writer tells the reader what has happened with a condensed and compressed version of the story. Significant details are omitted. Instead, the story is summarized.
- Circumstantial summary-The writer uses summary to describe the circumstances for repeated details or what has happened, such as time, place, cause, effect, reasons for occurrence.
When writing a summary, the writer can also include vivid details–but not a scene. Writing a summary is most important in short fiction and narrative poetry.
As well, a summary can be used by the writer within a scene. Remember, a scene includes setting details, dialogue, action, imagery, concrete and specific description. Often this summary explains the significance of the scene.
Read any edition of the prestigious New Yorker magazine, and you will see that all writers use the techniques of showing and telling in poetry, short fiction, book reviews, film reviews, essays, profiles, literary journalistic essays, commentary.
Showing and telling are two of the most important techniques you can learn and apply in your creative writing, whether you desire to write prose or poetry. To “show” means to write in scenes, and to use vivid, concrete, particular, significant details. “To tell” means to compress and to summarize the character sketch and the events that have happened.
Showing and telling is a balancing act. Too much generalization leads to boredom. Too much detail also leads to boredom.
The successful poet, fiction writer, creative nonfiction writer both “shows and tells” his/her readers, and knows when to use each technique to compose a poem, short story, novel, personal narrative essay, memoir, or any other type of creative writing.
For additional explanation on showing and telling, you can read:
- Writing fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
- Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
- Showing and Telling: Learn How to Show & Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing, by Laurie Alberts.
By Dave Hood
How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography. And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.
In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.
What is the Importance of Memory?
“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)
Memory also constructs the self– who you are. The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.
Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.
A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll. You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as writing prompts, to tap into memories filed away in your mind.
And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.
The Five Senses
We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.
Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit. To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.
Our sense of taste is often acquired. Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.
The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.
The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.
The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant. The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen? Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.
What Memories to Write About?
Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:
- First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
- Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
- Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
- Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
- Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.
Tools for Mining Your Memories?
There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.
The easiest way to tap into your memory is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.
Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.
Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.
Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how: Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting. Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.
Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.
A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?
Tools for Writing About Memory
Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader . You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.
When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:
- Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
- When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
- Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
- Write vivid descriptions.
Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.
In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories. Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.
Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.
To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:
- How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
By David Hood
The art of the short story is to share truth about the human condition or human nature. It is also to entertain and provide pleasure to the reader. A well written short story fulfills these dual obligations.
So the aspiring writer needs to be able to write a short story that shares a truth about the human condition and is also entertaining.
To do this, the aspiring writer needs to learn the craft of writing fiction. One of the ways to learn the craft is by reading as a writer.
How do you read like a writer? You must read like a writer by analyzing the short story or novel, understanding how the writer employs the elements of fiction, like setting, character, plot.
Reading like a writer also enables you to learn how the writer begins and ends a story, and uses dialogue, figurative language, and much more to tell the story. These are the techniques of fiction.
Reading like a writer also enables you to learn the writing style of great writers, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro. You can learn how to use a sentence fragment, how to create a periodic sentence, a loose sentence.
Only by reading and analyzing lots of short stories will you be able to write a good short story, perhaps a great short story, that entertains your readers. Entertaining fiction gets published.
Here are 15 short stories that you should read and analyze:
- Eveline by James Joyce
- Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
- A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
- The Lady with the Pet Dog by Anton Chekhov
- To Build a Fire by Jack London
- Death by Landscape by Margaret Atwood
- The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
- Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe.
- A Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin
- Lust by Susan Minot
- Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
- It’s Hard to Find a Good Man by Flannery O’Connor
- Alaska by Tom Franklin
- Bullet to the Brain by Tobias Wolf
- The Swimmer by John Cheever
You can read these short stories in the following anthologies:
- The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia & R.S. Gwynn
- On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey
- The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction
Reading Like a Writer
You can also learn how to read like a writer by reading Francine Prose bestselling book “Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write Them.”
This book should be read by everyone that wants to write a short story or novel.
To help you learn the craft of writing a short story or novel, you should read the following:
- On Writing Short Stories, Edited by Tom Bailey
- Writing Fiction by Jane Burroway
- Writing Fiction from Gotham Writer’s Workshop
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
- Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed [Hardcover] by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.
- Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- Norton Anthology of Short Fiction
- The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia & R.S. Gwynn
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
To become a successful fiction writer, you must learn the craft of writing fiction. Learning the craft of fiction allows you to use the various fictional techniques of storytelling. One of the best ways to learn the craft of fiction, is not by enrolling in an MFA Program in Creative Writing or taking a fiction writing workshop, it is by reading and analyzing the classics and other good fiction. In other words, you must learn to read like a writer.
By Dave Hood
There are a number of ways to revise your short story. You might want to write the first draft and then revise it for each of the elements of fiction-setting, character, plot, theme. You might want to revise your story for voice, style and tone.
Revising is not a rewrite. A rewrite is where you throw away the original story and then begin again. Revising a short story means to improve your story, refining your story, correct weaknesses in your story. For instance, you might change words, condense sentences, delete repetition.
I suggest that you write your story by first using a macro approach, followed by a micro approach. The macro revision involves revising your story for the elements of fiction, such as setting, plot, character. In the micro revision, you revise for style, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth.
In this article, I’ll explain how to revise your short story using macro and micro revision techniques.
Here are some of the things you need to consider when revising the elements of fiction:
Setting and Time
- Is the setting realistic and believable?
- Does setting provide a backdrop to the story?
- Does the setting create a mood or atmosphere?
- Is the setting a motive for the character to take some course of action?
- Do you show and not tell the reader?
- Does your story have an inciting incident?
- Does central character face setbacks/obstacles as he/she attempts to achieve a particular goal?
- Does the story include a climax or turning point?
- Do you resolve the story by answering the conflict?
Character and Characterization
- Does the character have desire to reach some goal?
- Does your story include flat and round characters?
- Have you employed action, dialogue, description of appearance to develop your central character?
Point of View
- Is your story told from a consistent point of view?
- What point of view are you using? First-person POV? Second-person POV? Third-person POV?
- Do you show and not tell?
- Do you use sensory details to show what happens?
- Do you use specific details to who what happens?
- Do you use figurative language as a form of description?
- Does the story include similes?
- Does the story include metaphors?
- Do you use allusion?
- Do you use personification?
- Do you use symbolism?
- Do you include dialogue in scenes?
- Does the dialogue reveal conflict, move the plot forward, reveal character?
- Do you include quotation marks and dialogue tags dialogue?
- Does the dialogue sound realistic?
- Does your story have a theme?
- Does each element of fiction contribute to the meaning?
- Do the symbols help to develop the theme?
- Is the theme revealed in the conflict?
- Is the theme revealed in the consequences of the story?
- What is the meaning of the story?
- Do you tell the story with a particular voice?
- Does the story have a consistent voice?
- Does the diction support the voice?
Showing and Telling
- Does your story include narrative summary?
- Does your story use scenes to show how important events, such as setbacks, conflict, and the climax unfold?
In the micro revision, you correct the following:
- Writing style, such as diction and syntax
If you don’t complete understand grammar, you need to purchase and read a copy of “Woe is I” Patricia T. O’Connor.
One of the best books on grammar and most entertaining is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” [Hardcover] by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I urge you to purchase a copy if you don’t understand the difference between and adjective, adverb, verb, and noun. I urge you to purchase a copy if you don’t understand the difference between an independent clause, dependent clause, verbal, infinitive, gerund. This book provides an easy and entertaining way to learn and of master grammar.
The best writing style embodies the principles and advice of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”, a short classic text on how to improve your writing style. If you haven’t read it, you should read it. If you don’t own a copy, you need to purchase it, read it, and master the advice.
Final Thoughts on Revision
Too much revision can damage your story. You might make it incomplete. So, ask yourself: What can I cut or eliminate or improve without damaging the story?
As well, revise only until you feel your story is complete, and then stop.
Share your story with people you trust. Have them read your story and provide their opinions. Then decide whether you want to revise your story with their suggestions.
For more information on how to revise your story, you can read the following:
- Writing Fiction from the Gotham Writer’s Workshop
- Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
- Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed [Hardcover] by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.
By Dave Hood
How do you write an ending for your short story? There is no single method of ending a story. Many writers don’t know how their story will end as they write the story. And so the ending emerges as the story is revealed on the page. Other writers know how the story will end before they begin, and so they can focus on the resolution as they write. There is no right or wrong approach.
In this article, I briefly explain the meaning of an ending, how to end your short story, and explain what the ending must do for the reader. I also provide some tips on how to write an ending for a short story or novel.
The Meaning of an Ending
All stories must end with resolution. There must be some answer to the central conflict. When you write the ending, your story must be complete. All unanswered questions posed in the story must be answered. All loose ends must be tied up.
Writer Flannery O’Connor the end is when the story is complete, “when nothing more than relating to the mystery of that character’s personality can be show through that particular dramatization.” (On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey)
An ending can be framed in terms of denouncement, realization, or epiphany. Each has a different shade of meaning.
The story can end with a closed ending or open ending. In an closed ending, nothing more can happen. For instance, the villain might be killed. In an open ending, the writer leaves questions about what will happen next. For instance, the gunslinger who has just killed the bad guy, rides off into the sunset. The reader is left to imagine what the central character will do next with his life.
It is less powerful than an epiphany. The central character gains some insight or is enlightened, and then makes some change in his/her life. For instance, the short story Lust by writer Susan Minot ends with a realization: Their blank look tells you the girl their fucking is not there anymore. You seemed to have disappeared. (On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey)
James Joyce introduced the technique of epiphany. It is not simply a realization, but a “magical moment, “felt moment”, that results in permanent change by the character. James Joyce writes includes an epiphany in the short story Eveline. The threat of repeating her mother’s life spurs Eveline’s epiphany that she must leave with Frank and embark on a new phase in her life, but this realization is short-lived. As the story ends, she has a second epiphany, which concludes the story.
Ways to End a Short Story
Short stories or novels can end in many ways. Here are a few common ways in which writers conclude their fictional stories:
Sometimes the writer concludes the story with a twist ending. Readers are lead to believe that a story will end in a particular way, and then it ends in a different way. So the ending is unexpected. For instance, the story can end with a tragic ending, one in which the protagonist dies. The story might end with an ironic ending, which reveals the darker side of human nature, the shadow of man. Kate Chopin’s “A Story of an Hour” is concluded with a twist ending.
Sometimes the story ends with some final action that brings an end to the conflict, complete finality. In Jack London’s To Build a Fire”, the story ends with the central character freezes to death while on journey to the work camp.
End of the story ending
Sometimes a story ends after it has been told. This is how Tom Franklin’s short story “Alaska” ends. The narrator tells the fantastical story, the dream trip, and then ends with…”we would stop playing as if on cue and look at each other, suddenly happy, remembering Alaska, waiting for us.”So does William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
Essentially, the writer crafts an ending in which the story ends, but the reader is left wondering what will happen next. So, there is no permanent resolution to the ending. Another story can be written, which brings total closure to the story. You see this sort of ending in sequels.
What the Ending Must Do
Your ending must tie up loose ends and answer any unanswered questions in the story.
Writing the ending is also as important as your opening. So, you need to write an ending that resonates in the mind of the reader.
The ending must also be a logical outcome of the story. In other words, it must be based on cause and effect.
The ending should also answer the central conflict of the story.
Sometimes the ending ends the story but doesn’t mean the end. The reader is left to answer the questions implied by the ending of the story.
If the ending is disappointing, many writers won’t recommend that other’s read your short story or novel. And it probably won’t get published.
Only through finding a meaning to your story will the best ending become possible. That is why theme is so important.
Tips for Writing an Ending
Your ending should provide closure to the story. In the issue of A Writer’s Guide to Fiction (Published by Writer Mag), writer Sharon Warner provides five tips for ending a story, which you can use to help create a story with closure. These include:
- Avoid the to-neat ending. In other words, don’t wrap it up and seal it up tight. This approach trivializes your story. Instead, the write the ending until there is almost a new story that will unfold at the end.
- Look to your beginning to find your ending. In other words, your opening will often suggest how the story should end.
- Write provisional endings as your story progresses. As you write the draft, think about how it might end. Then write a provisional ending. A short story has a beginning, middle, and end. So, if you are going to write a story, you should be prepared to write a complete story, a story that has an ending. Once the story is written, you can revise the content, including the ending.Let the story speak for itself. Sometimes the best endings focus a step or two away from the central
- A good story ends loosely. It doesn’t tie up all the possibilities that the story presents.
- Avoid the tendency to summarize. Don’t be preachy or didactic. In other words, don’t tell the reader what to think about the story. Let the reader discover it through subtext it, make his/her own decisions.
Many short stories end with an epiphany. The character experiences a significant revelation or realization. This was a technique introduced by writer James Joyce.
Your ending must resolve the story. That is why we refer to the ending as a resolution. There must be some answer to the conflict—but not necessarily the right answer.
The ending should also lead to some meaning of the story. What does the story, especially the ending, have to say about human nature or the human condition.
By Dave Hood
What is point of view? It is the narrator of the story. It is the character who is observing the events as they unfold in the story.
Point of view is the most complex element of fiction. (Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction) One error in point of view can compromise your story. Several errors will result in the editor tossing it in the waste bin. Each point of view has particular advantages and disadvantages. Without a good understanding of point of view, the writer will be unable to choose the best point of view for his/her story.
In this post, I’ll discuss point of view in a story. The following will be covered:
- Different types of point of view
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Interior Monologue
- Stream of Consciousness
The Importance of Point of View
As mentioned in the introduction, the point of view refers to the narrator of the story, the character who is telling the story. Each point of view available to the writer has certain advantages and disadvantages. Each point of view also influences the emotional state of the reader in a different way. For instance, if the reader uses first-person point of view (“I”), it creates an intimate connection with the reader. The reader feels as though he/she is speaking to a friend or participating in a conversation with someone who is sharing a story.
Types of Points of View
Before sitting down to write the story, the writer must determine who is going to narrate the story and how it will be narrated. The writer does this by selecting a point of view. There are three options:
- First-person point of view (I, We)
- Second-person point of view (You)
- Third-person point of view (he, she)
First person and third person points of view are the most common POV that writers use to narrate the story.
The form of the story often dictates what point of view to use. For instance, if the writer is going to use a journal entry, diary, stream of consciousness, interior monologue to tell the story, the first person point of view would be the obvious choice.
The writer will also need to consider the distance from the action. If the writer wants to tell an intimate story, a story experienced by the protagonist, he/she would use first-person. But if the writer wanted to be more objective, tell the story from a distance, by someone not involved in the story, he/she might use the third-person objective.
Distance refers to “psychic distance”, the degree to which the reader feels intimacy and identification to the character, or the degree to which the reader feels detachment and alienation from the story.
The writer can also increase the sense of distance in the mind of the reader by using a narrative summary and reduced the distance by using a scene.
First-Person Point of View
The story is told by the narrator of the story. The narrator can be a participant in the story, such as the protagonist, or the narrator can be an observer in the story, watching events as they unfold. To tell the story, the writer uses “I.”
Example: On that sunny day in July, I walked in the woods to a clearing, which lead to the pristine lake, where I took out my fishing rod, attached a worm, and began to fish for salmon…..
The first person POV has all the limitations of real life. The narrator can share his/her own thoughts and feelings, but he/she is unable to report what others are thinking and feeling in their minds. The narrator can only report what he knows.
The big advantage if first-person POV is that it provides the most intimacy for the reader. It is also an eyewitness account, a subjective account, a credible account of what happens in the story.
Second-Person Point of View
When the writer uses second-person “you” to tell the story, he is referring to the reader as a character in the story. This point of view is rarely used by writers because it confuses the reader.
Example: In your lonely home, alone with just the noise of the cat walking on the wooden floor, you sit down, turn on the laptop, and stare at the screen. But you’re not sure of what to write, not sure of whom to write to, not sure you want to continue living this socially isolated life as a writer….
The second person POV is only use by the writer when the character is referred to as “you.” You become the character within the story.
The problem with second person “you” is that it draws attention to itself. It is also difficult to write an entire story using this point of view. It is difficult to avoid using first person “I” or third person “he/she.”
The second person remains an idiosyncratic and experimental form. (Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction)
Third-Person Point of View
The simplest way of understanding third person point of view is that the writer tells the story using “he, she.” Essentially, the writer has three options when choosing third-person point of view:
- Third-person Limited
- Third-person objective
- Third-person omniscient
It is like the first person point of view in the sense that the writer can share the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist or main character—but not any other characters. The writer tells the story using “he/she.”
Example: In the rain, he walked in the dark wood with his shot gun, searching for the black bear that attacked the camp the night before. He was scared, anxious that the bear would appear like a tormented ghost from somewhere beyond. He wasn’t sure if he had the guts to pull the trigger, shoot and kill the beast.
“The big advantage of third-person limited is that it “mimics our individual experience of life, that it is our own ability to penetrate the minds and motivations of others, which can lead to the kinds of conflict or struggles for connection that inspire much fiction.” (Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway)
The writer restricts the story to the facts that can be observed by a particular character. The writer doesn’t reveal the thoughts or feelings of any character and tells the story using “he/she.” The writer reports the story without sharing the thoughts or feelings of the character. For instance, Ernest Hemingway narrates “Hills like White Elephants” using third-person objective. And so the reader must become a detective—trying to figure out what is going on in the story. To do this, the reader must interpret the dialogue and actions of the characters. The reader often learns through inference.
Example: He sat down to write the letter. First, took out a piece of blank paper and a pen. Then he searched for a quote on “Love” in the Book of Famous Quotations. Then he turned on the laptop, connected to the Internet, searched for a love poem…
In third-person objective, the reader learns from interference. This point of view is true to life, in what we often obtain meaning through inference.
The narrator is like god, knowing everything that is going on in the story, all events, all thoughts and feelings of each character. The writer tells the story using “he/she.”
The writer can do the following:
- Objectively report the action of the story.
- Go into the mind and report the thoughts and feelings of any character
- Interpret for the reader the characters thoughts, feelings, actions, appearance
- Tell the reader what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future
- Move freely in time and space to different scenes; tell the reader what is happening elsewhere in the story.
- Provide reflections, judgements, and truths
Interior Monologue or Stream of Consciousness
The writer can share the thoughts of the character by using interior monologue or stream of consciousness.
The writer can share the thoughts of the character with the reader by using an interior monologue, in which thoughts are described in sequence.
Example: I must get dressed, drink a coffee, read the newspaper…I must exercise and meet Carol for lunch…I must drive to the grocery store, pick up something for dinner….I have so much to do and not enough time.
Stream of Consciousness
The writer shares the thoughts of the character in a disjointed or unorganized way. This method shows how the human mind doesn’t function with order and clarity like the interior monologue. The writer describes any thought as it comes into the character’s mind.
In Ulysses, writer James Joyce used this technique.
Both are written using the first person “I”. However, the writer can also use interior monologue and stream of consciousness in the third-person limited or third-person omniscient. In both cases, the writer would describe the thoughts of the character using “I.”
Each point of view has advantages and disadvantages. The most important point the writer needs to remember is to use a consistent point of view in telling the story. In other words, if the narrator is the first person “I”, the writer tells the story using this point of view, and doesn’t switch to second person “you” or third person “he/she.”
To learn more on POV, you can read:
- The chapter on POV in Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction”
- The chapter on POV in “Writing Fiction” from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop
In the next post, I’ll discuss how to write the ending for your short story.
By Dave Hood
What is suspense in a short story or novel? Suspense keeps the reader reading. It arouses curiosity and keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. “Suspense is the most essential ingredient of plotting”, according to editor and novelist Sol Stein, who writes an interesting chapter on suspense in “On Writing.”
In this article, I’ll explain how to create suspense in a short story or novel.
How to Create Suspense
The writer can create suspense by arousing the reader’s curiosity, which keeps the reader interested as long as possible in finding out what happens in the short story or novel.
Suspense is created when the reader wants something to happen in the story, but the writer holds off providing it. Suspense is also created when the reader wants something to stop in the story, but the writer holds off. For instance, the writer doesn’t end the danger, resolve the life crisis, or end the confrontation. And so the reader feels a sense of anxious uncertainty.
Suspense keeps the reader turning the page in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” a story about man versus nature. In the story, the protagonist sets out to hike a trail in the Yukon Territory in the winter with out with only a dog as companion. The man is warned by an “old-timer” not to attempt this hike alone because “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after 50 below.” As the story progresses, the protagonist must face setbacks and obstacles, which prevent him from reaching his destination. This creates tension and suspense for the reader.
Suspense can take many forms. Sol Stein identifies several situations that create suspense:
- A prospective danger to the character
- An actual or immediate danger to the character.
- An unwanted confrontation
- A confrontation desired by one character and not another
- An old fear about to become a present reality
- A life crisis that requires immediate action.
The writer creates suspense because the protagonist has a personal stake in what happens. His life might be in jeopardy, his loved one’s might be in danger, what he values might be lost. The point is that if the protagonist loses, it is going to cost him dearly, he is going to suffer, experience a painful outcome, an outcome he wants to avoid.
To create suspense, the writer must delay in resolving whatever is generating the suspense within the particular scene. For instance, the writer delays in bring an end to the danger, delays in bringing an end to the confrontation, delays in resolving the life crisis.
The best way to learn how to create suspense in a story is by reading and analyzing a thrillers or suspense stories that you’ve found riveting, stories that kept you interested, glued to the page. Your task is to learn how the writer created suspense in the story.
In this article, I discussed how to create suspense in fiction. Suspense arouses curiosity in the reader, keeps the reader reading, turning the page to find out what happens next. A memorable work of fiction includes suspense. If your goal is to publish a short story or novel, it will need to include the element of suspense.
In the next post, I’ll discuss Point of View.
By Dave Hood
Jane Burroway in “Writing Fiction” writes that “summary can be called the mortar of the story, but scenes are the building blocks.” When writing a short story, the writer needs to use both scene and summary to craft the story.
In crafting scenes, the writer “shows” the reader what happens by including time and place details, dialogue, action, imagery. The writer crafts scenes to dramatize the story, helping to create a vivid and continuous dream inside the mind of the reader.
The writer also uses summary to” tell” the story. A summary is the material between scenes. It covers a long period of time by compressing time. The writer “tells” the reader what happens in the story. He/she doesn’t show the reader what is happening.
A summary is often a necessary device used by writers to do the following:
- Provide background information
- Description that doesn’t occur in a specific scene
- Compress time
- Provide character reflection, such as interior monologue or stream of consciousness
- Provide narrative commentary
A well written summary can be as good as a scene. You can use concrete and specific details and sensory details to create a memorable summary. The summary doesn’t include spoken dialogue, but you can tell the reader what was spoken.
You can also use metaphor, simile to create vivid summaries.
The summary is most often used to set up the scene, such as important events that happened in the past or character details that are useful for understanding the protagonist or secondary characters.
The summary can also be used to create tension before the scene.
You can insert a summary into a scene, such as to share background information, to show a transformation in character through reflection, to provide background information to help the reader understand the character, to understand a transformation in the character, or to control the pace of the scene.
Summary can also be used to change the pace of the story. For instance, to cover a long span of time in which insignificant events occurred or repeating events, the writer often uses a summary, which tells the reader what happened.
A summary needs to be entertaining and enjoyable to read. That is why you must use sensory details and concrete and specific details, and figurative language.
It is possible to write a short story without summary narrative. But this is not common.
You can use a summary to set up the conflict or confrontation—some important event in the plot structure or three act structure.
You should move seamlessly between scene and summary when writing the story. Short bits of summary can often be added in a scene or used to set up a scene.
Many beginning writers summarize too much of the story, telling the reader too many events and compressing too much time. So the story results in a lack of depth. Many beginning writers don’t summarize enough of the story, creating scenes of insignificant events.
You should not use summary to tell the reader about an important conflict, confrontation, turning point. Instead you need to craft a scene. The scene is used to dramatize the story, create a believable story, and show how the story unfolds. Showing through scene is dramatizing the story.
You should not write general and abstract summary narratives. The summary needs to provide the reader with concrete and specific details.
The task of the writer is to balance scene and summary. The writer uses scene to dramatize important events, such as the inciting incident, conflict, setbacks, obstacles, climax of the story.
The write creates a scene by showing the reader what happened. The writer writes a summary by telling the reader what happened, such as a narrative summary or to setup a scene or to provide background information to the story.
For more information on how to write scene and summaries, read the following:
- Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
- Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts