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Rethinking the Craft of Fiction Writing: Resources on Teaching and Learning Creative Writing (January 2022): Characterization, Structure, and Style

By Thomas Dodson

Characterization, Structure, and Style

Some craft books are narrowly focused, treating a single element of storytelling technique such as characterization, structure, or style. One such text is David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. To get to know their characters, writers must do more than make lists of physical characteristics, hobbies, personality traits, and biographical facts. In the introduction Corbett advises the writer to draft scenes “in which characters engage meaningfully and in conflict with each other” and to do so “at all stages of character development: conception, development, and portrayal.” “Character biographies created from scenes,” Corbett argues, “are intrinsically more useful than those consisting of mere information.” Each chapter in The Art of Character offers insights and exercises the writer can use to deepen characters. Corbett draws his examples from not only literary classics but also well-known films like The Godfather and binge-worthy drama series such as Breaking Bad.

Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form focuses on story structure, proposing two broad categories, “linear design” and “modular design.” Bell writes early on that stories following a linear design “start at the beginning, traverse some sort of middle, and stop at the end.” They also “bear some relationship to what is known as the [Freytag] triangle,” which is to say they begin with exposition, are driven by a conflict that rises to a climax, and conclude with a falling action and resolution. Modular narratives, by contrast, establish a structure by arranging elements of the story into a set of meaningful relationships that may have nothing to do with the chains of causality that drive a linear story. Bell provides twelve stories, six of each type, following each one with a discussion of its structure (and other formal elements). He also offers a nearly line-by-line analysis of each piece by means of endnotes inserted into the stories’ text.

Anyone wishing to delve deeper into nonlinear (what Bell terms “modal”) approaches to narrative will find a fellow traveler in Jane Alison. In Meander, Spiral, Explode Alison invites the writer to take flight from traditional forms grounded in Aristotle’s theories of tragedy and narrative poetry, and from Freytag and his triangle. She investigates alternative forms available to the writer of fiction such as spiral, radial, cellular, and fractal patterns. Alison presents examples of these and other forms in works by the likes of Jamaica Kincaid, Marguerite Duras, Stuart Dybek, and Sandra Cisneros. In addition, her discussion of the flow of time in stories, based on the work of narratologists Gérard Genette and Seymour Chatman, provides a practical vocabulary for talking about narrative speed—the celerity of a summary, which sprints through expanses of story time in few words, as opposed to a “dilation,” which devotes a great deal of text to a relatively small period of story time. Literary critic Stanley Fish examines prose style in his How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. There is no getting away from style, Fish observes, no neutral form of writing with which to transparently communicate ideas. For starters, language does not simply represent feelings and ideas; rather, it helps to form and fashion them. “[One] can only choose style,” Fish argues in the early chapters, one cannot “choose to abandon style, and it behooves [the writer] to know what the various styles in one’s repertoire are and what they can do.” A sentence, for Fish, is both “an organization of items in the world” and “a structure of logical relationships.” Cultivating sentence-level style involves making choices about that organization and the nature of those relationships. 

As Fish points out, perhaps the most important decision a writer can make is choosing between two general styles of sentence, the subordinating and the additive. The subordinating style orders its components “in relationships of causality” (one event or state is caused by another), “temporality” (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and “precedence” (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance). The additive style, however, is not structured by “an overarching logic, but by association,” giving a sense of “spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance.” This may all seem terribly abstract, but Fish demonstrates by using sentences from literary texts. One can distinguish the different formal logics at work in, for example, Henry James’s “The Real Thing” (which favors the subordinating style, using commas and parentheses to signal the relative importance of each phrase) and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (which favors the additive style, using “and” to bind a series of images into a verbal-visual chain). Fish also suggests exercises to help the writer become proficient in these and other styles.

Another source for studies of single aspects of fiction craft is Graywolf’s series “The Art Of,” edited by Charles Baxter. In each of the slender books in the series, a different writer examines some facet of “the art of” writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Baxter’s own contribution is The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot; others include The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber, and Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between.

Of course books are not the only sources for craft advice and writing prompts. Since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review, one of the world’s preeminent literary journals, has published interviews with authors about their work and writing processes. The first in their numbered “Art of Fiction” series was with novelist E. M. Forster; subsequent subjects have included Gabriel García Márquez, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. Past interviews can be accessed through the journal, and some have been assembled in the multivolume collection The Paris Review Interviews

In addition online outlets have regular features on craft essays—e.g., Brevity’s “Craft Essays,” Catapult’s “Don’t Write Alone,” and Literary Hub’s “Craft and Advice”—and Poets & Writers posts weekly writing prompts in the “The Time Is Now” section of its site.

On his long-running podcast Bookworm, KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt interviews authors and poets, asking questions informed by his careful reading of nearly everything his guest has ever written. Each month, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast features a story from the magazine’s archives read by a writer whose work has also been appeared in The New Yorker. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman and her guest discuss the story.

The International Writing Program (a sister program of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) offers a number of freely accessible, massive open online courses (MOOCs) dedicated to aspects of fiction writing. Each of the IWP’s MOOC-Packs contains a series of online videos making up the self-directed course, together with a guide that explains how to use the materials to teach a class or lead a study group.1


1. Courses include How Writers Write Fiction (I & II), Stories of Place: Writing and the Natural World, and Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion.