Good Fiction

In our first week of “The Art of Fiction”, my professor talked about what good fiction does. Among his points were that a short story answers the question “how does it feel to be in that situation”, answers a major dramatic question – a yes or no question like “Will Jane and Fred end up together?” that drives the story forward – and the story leaves gaps so the reader has the opportunity to create.

I’d like to focus on this last point. When I saw Andres Dubus III speak at the PNWA conference, he talked about how a story belongs to both the writer and the reader. The writer obviously creates the story, but each reader brings their own baggage to the characters, setting, and plot, so each reader imagines it differently and takes something different away from the story. A story must not overtell, therefore, otherwise the readers will not have the opportunity to create. This was actually a mistake I saw a lot as an intern this past summer; writers would want to recreate what they saw in their minds’ eye that they would record too many details. They ended up cluttering the story so that it was hard to get through the passages.

The idea of leaving gaps also relates to not talking down to the reader. Not over-explaining leaves room for different interpretations, one of the key characteristics of fiction that lasts. If you over-explain, you’ll end up explaining something that the reader already understood, and that will alienate your audience. Last night I saw Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a movie with Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf. All in all, it was well-acted and well-written, but at one important moment where Shia LaBeouf’s character realizes what Michael Douglas has done, they include a series of flashbacks to highlight what scenes we were supposed to rethink. This is an example of over-explaining. We would have gotten there on our own, if not immediately after the movie, on our second viewing. Now we have no reason to re-watch the movie or reexamine it because the meaning has been stuffed down our throats. Not only that, we are annoyed with the moviemakers because they are treating us like idiots and don’t trust we can get to the analysis on our own.

So as we write, it is important to remember to leave room for the readers to engage with their own ideas.

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5 thoughts on “Good Fiction

  1. Creativity should be magnified and enriched by and with others in all forms of art. All the more reason to allow the readers, or viewers, to join in the process by being drawn in to a plot or story line. Even better for the writer not to overwrite in order that the reader or viewer must join the writer. This draws the non-writing population to think. This, in my hope, would then be a catalyst for the non-writing population to act as a result of thought and consideration of things outside of their own self-centered view. This could enrich our population and communities.

  2. Great post! I see advice all the time about not overwriting, but no one ever gives a clear explanation as to why it’s an issue.

  3. “Show, don’t tell.” I like how you used movies in your example. I don’t think about movies often, but now I see it’s all a balancing act. Just enough of show and tell. A movie, I felt, that excelled in the show and tell was Ocean’s Eleven. There were enough flashbacks, and enough added information in those flashbacks, that helped the viewer understand what had happened. But I still had to see the movie a good three times before I got everything.

  4. There’s a particularly wonderful passage in On Writing Well where Zinsser retells an encounter he had with a baseball scout. The scout described to him how “if you see a player who gets to first base in less than 4.3 seconds you’re interested in him,” because 4.3 seconds is “of course” the average amount of time it takes to complete a double play.

    4.3 seconds is a staggeringly short amount of time to do anything, but Zinsser never writes that in the baseball piece. “Given 4.3 seconds, readers can do their own marveling,” he says in On Writing. “They will also enjoy being allowed to think for themselves. The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it.”

    I think about that line A LOT.

  5. Excellent. Very useful information. I also love hearing what you’re learning so I can compare this to what I am doing on my own and fill in what I may be missing, or compare this to what I have been learning myself.

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