A few weeks ago, my “Tips for Fiction Writers” seminar was cancelled partly because high winds caused schools to close for two days and left our area in a state of high confusion. A couple of people asked me when the class would be rescheduled, and since I had no idea, I thought it might be useful to put some of the “tips”online, one at a time over a number of weeks, where anyone can get them for free.
These are very much “tips” and not rules, concepts that I’ve found useful in my own writing over the years, things to think about and put to work where you can. You may realize that you’re already using some of these ideas, probably because as a reader as well as a writer you’ve internalized them and subconsciously decided this was the best way to tell your story. For each topic, I’ve tried to give good examples that illustrate the concept, with links if possible – though there are literally thousands of other works of fiction that illustrate these points – and you can use the “tips” with or without studying the examples. Anyway, here goes – starting at the beginning.
Fiction Tip #1 – WHERE TO START
Most stories and most novels BEGIN WHEN EVERYTHING HAS HAPPENED BUT THE ACTION. A lot of us spend days and weeks writing a whole lot of backstory – mainly, I’ve come to believe, because we need it for ourselves. Then we get into the middle of things – and this is where the story really begins. That four (or six or ten) pages of backstory can be woven, later, into the forward action.
Another way to say this is to start in medias res – in the middle, after things have already gotten under way that will lead to the climactic moment of the piece.
Take a look at William Faulkner’s classic short story, “A Rose For Emily.”
As the story opens, Miss Emily Grierson has died and the whole town is walking toward her house after the funeral, “the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant . . . had seen in at least ten years.”
Right away we know that Emily, now buried, is an eccentric object of curiosity. The events that have shaped her are in the past, soon to be revealed by the narrator during the trek to her house. She wouldn’t pay taxes. She never married but once had a beau. Etc. The pilgrimage, with these details woven in, is the present action of the story – until the shocking finale. Putting any of the “middle” of this story at the beginning would only (in my opinion) have weakened its impact. “A Rose for Emily” was originally published in 1930. You’ve probably read it but if not, you’re in for a treat.
Some other examples:
From the novel Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award..
“The accused man, Kabuo Myamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his arms placed softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.”
The trial comprises the forward action of this brilliant novel about Japanese/American relations, and many, many other issues, in a fishing village on a small island in Puget Sound, in 1954. As the narrative moves through the trial, the reader gets to know Kabuo, his wife, the sheriff, the dead man, and others whose culture and character make up the flawed world in which they live.
“Pho,” from my collection “Kaleidoscope: 20 Stories Celebrating Women’s Fiction.” The story was a runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award and first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
“I had a small victory at the music festival in New Orleans, a first place win for my top piano student. I stayed for the awards ceremony, then drove my rental car to Biloxi to see the Nguyens before flying home to Maryland. It was late April, already oppressively hot in the muggy lowlands of Louisiana, the air so thick and weighty that my euphoria soon drained. My fingers ached, especially in the bad right hand. I struggled to grip the wheel. It was one of those days when I could hardly make a fist.”
Sheila is aging, arthritic, a bit depressed, and uncertain about retirement – all things that began long before the story does. The forward action consists of her visit with a Vietnamese family she helped sponsor more than 20 years before – a family she associates with such pleasant things as their delicious noodle soup, pho. In a small way, the visit – and the soup – cure her. When she leaves, even her hands don’t hurt.
Questions? Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org