The Art of Fiction: Where to Begin?

This is the next installment in my series on Fiction as Art. Thanks for all the well-wishes after my shoulder surgery. Typing one-handed is a bitch, however.
Super heroine character

“Ignorance is bliss,” my mother used to say. It turns out my lack of knowledge about writing was a blessing because nothing stood in the way of my creativity and the story just spilled out of me. Then I set my sights on mastering the skills I needed to polish it.

When beginning a story we often think in linear perspective, my protagonist starts here and winds up there. But I contend it is more of a loop: the state of perfection—to the state of imperfection—then back to perfection again. Typically a story has rising action, a climax, falling action, and a denouement. We throw in emotional, psychological, and physical movement, littered with metaphors, symbols or other representations to make the reader see what we mean more clearly, and dream up a killer setting that will whisk the reader away to a place he’s never been before.

Here are some ideas to consider when beginning your first novel:

1.  There’s Only One Story. It’s often said there is only one story: There is a journey. Life starts out fine, then a series of obstacles arise, life becomes terrible and the protagonist either steps up and clears the obstacles and life is good again, or she fails and life remains terrible. The Hero Model is the typical way many stories are written, resulting in the expected “happy ending,” but there is also the choice of an “unhappy ending.” Avoid the “nothing happens” ending at all costs! Read my review of Blue Jasmine. 

2. Know Your Genre. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to know your genre. I hadn’t thought much about this before. I soon understood that there are specific tropes associated with various genres. But here is where I found this advice to also be dangerous. Yes, readers have certain expectations and when you deviate too far from them you can really upset your readers. For me, that would be Gone Girl. You can read my review here. Ms. Flynn had me captivated with her mystery, caught me off-guard more than once with her twists and turns, her divisive plotting, only to turn me off with the ending. Not that I needed a happily-ever-after ending. It was a modern day take on marriage, and we all know there are many unhappy endings is that regard, what really angered me was that there was no sense of justice. Both characters had done terrible things but in the end there was no accounting for either of them. A writer must ask the question: Would this really happen? I say no in the case of Gone Girl.

3. Truth and Honesty. I can’t see these characters resigning themselves to the denouement put forth in Gone Girl. Remember what I said last time about truth and honesty? Even in writing fantasy, where you ask your reader to suspend belief; convincing her it really happened, and what you’re proposing might be believable is paramount. You do this by a voice that expresses genuine emotions, by using precision of detail, you charm and lull your readers into suspending their beliefs. You use vivid detail, making your world come alive. And description is important, but treat it like 12-year-old scotch: sparingly and only on the proper occasion. Description works best when you don’t just describe a sunset you do so through a character in a particular mood.

4.  Consider Crossing Genres. On the concept of genre, I contend that some of the most provocative art, be it music, visual, or narrative art, is at its best when you blend genres. Remember, Tommy, the Rock Opera? Or Gone with the Wind, an Epic Romance? Magical Realism? Dark Comedies? Be brave and venture out of the trope-ish world of genre fiction. Know your genres and their tropes well, master them, then blend them! Break those rules!

5.  Write What You Like. It’s often thought that we write to express ourselves and we should write what we know. But I say no. We write because we have a story to tell and the expression part happens organically. I wrote my first novel, a fantasy about what life after death might be like, because at the age of five I always wondered where my four-year-old brother went when he died. Was that really the end of him? Or was he out there somewhere in a different form? Could he be reborn as one of my children? I found these thoughts scary and fascinating and resulted in a story about a young girl who dies and what happens to her on the other side of mortality. I had no theme, no important message to impart to my reader, that wasn’t my objective. Did I express my opinion now and again? Of course. But that wasn’t my reason for writing this story, it just happened. My conclusion being not ‘write what you know’ but write what you like. I love fantasy and magic and I’ve read a lot of it, so that’s what write what you know means to me.

And once again I contend that other than learning the fundamentals of freshman composition there shall be no rules, not absolutes. Of course artists study each other, deciding what they like and don’t like, mastering their craft, but essentially writing should be fun, exhilarating, revelatory! Those days where you forget to shower, or consume anything other than coffee because you can’t write fast enough. You look up and it’s 3 a.m. and you haven’t spoken to another human being and that’s okay. That’s what a true artist does. Immerses him or herself so deeply in the creativity that nothing else matters.

Just make sure that you remember to connect with the real world now and again…otherwise you’re getting creepy.


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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