I survived the AWP Conference last weekend, and now I’m here to share all I learned with the world. One of the panels I went to featured Jane Smiley, and as you might expect from a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, she had some useful things to say.
Speaking on the elements on fiction, Jane Smiley broke them down into a triangle that I find very useful both for writing and also for discussing writing. It’s a hierarchy of story-needs:
At the bottom of the period is what any writing needs to survive: language. This does not necessarily imply lyricism or masterful prose, but the more skillful this part of the pyramid is, the stronger the structure as a whole will be.
Next is story and character. These two are in the same level because they are inextricably linked. The story relies heavily on who the characters are, and the characters are shaped by the story. You need both of these elements to be strong before you can keep building the pyramid.
The third level is theme and setting. These are on top of language, story, and character partly because they come out of these levels. A story will have a theme whether you mean for it to or not simply because of the patterns in thought regarding language, plot, and character. Jane Smiley also argues that setting and theme belong on the same level because they influence each other equally. If one of the themes of a story is renovation of spirit, then the setting will lend itself to either mimic that or be the ironic opposite. This could mean placing the story in post-war Warsaw when it was rebuilding its destroyed Old Town, or it could be as simple as only describing the details of the setting that reflect renovation, such as having a character notice a newly painted house in suburban America. Similarly, as you play with setting, your themes will strengthen.
The final level of the story need is in fact, according to Jane Smiley, not necessary. Complexity, she said, is not necessary to write a story, but if you are writing ambitious fiction as our panel was discussing, then it is important. Complexity means using what you have built in the lower levels and complicating them with turns, with new layers, with multiple threads.
What I like best about this triangle is that it allows us to think about what we mean when we talk about “good” fiction. “Good” is in quotation marks because it is subjective, and this triangle shows basically where that subjectivity lies. The first test writing must pass is its language; I think most people would agree that “good” fiction has a command of grammar and diction. Then comes story and character. Some people put more of an imperative on story, some on character, but most fiction readers I know consider good fiction to be strong in one of these elements.
For some people, myself included, story and character is THE deciding factor in whether the fiction is “good” or not. If there’s theme and setting, great. If not, we don’t particularly mind because we’ve been satisfied by our story and/or characters. Other people demand strong themes and settings for their fiction to be “good.” So they keep climbing the pyramid. Many of them will probably settle for one or two interesting themes or a well-developed setting. A few will still want more and will keep going until they’re in that upper rung of the pyramid, the one that relies on strong language, story, character, theme, and setting to reach a complexity that satisfies them.
I think if we can keep this triangle in mind, discourse surrounding the different kinds of fiction–commercial, genre, literary–will be more satisfying. Any story that has the basics will build up to that third tier of the pyramid; it takes more of an effort to construct that third tier strong enough to sustain the very top.