The Art And Craft Of Fiction: A Writer's Guide Michael Kardos Fiction Writer’s Bedford St. Martin’s (2012)

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The Art and Craft of Fiction Kardos BEDFORD
ISBN 978-1-4576-1390-6
As a beginning fiction writer, could you use some practical ideas on ways
to begin, end, and revise your stories? Support for creating vivid scenes and
characters? This book offers a focused approach designed to help you move
from learning your craft — to practicing art. Brief, friendly, and wonder-
fully readable, The Art and Craft of Fiction gives you all you need — in
under 400 pages.
prepublication praise
“Clear and down-to-earth. — Wiley Cash, Bethany College
“The perfect text on narrative technique and story writing.
— Stephen Watkins, University of Mary Washington
“Even advanced writers will find new insights and new angles on old challenges.
— Laura Valeri, Georgia Southern University
“I wish I’d had something like this book as a beginning writer.
— Stephanie Vanderslice, University of Central Arkansas
“I love this book! — Patrick Bizzaro, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
For our e-book and digital options, see the inside back cover.
we want to hear from you. Students: We invite you to send your comments
about this book to
The Art and
Craft of Fiction
A Writer’s Guide
Michael Kardos
about the author
Michael Kardos ( is the author of
the story collection One Last Good Time and the novel
The Three-Day Affair, named by Publishers Weekly as a
best book of fall 2012. His stories have appeared in such
journals as The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, and Prairie
Schooner, and his essays about fiction have been published
in The Writer’s Chronicle and Writer’s Digest. Kardos
received his B.A. from Princeton, his M.F.A. from Ohio
State, and his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He currently lives in
Starkville, Mississippi, where he co-directs the creative writing program at
Mississippi State. He also writes for Bedfords LitBits, where he blogs about
teaching creative writing (
brief contents
art & craft
1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
3 starting your story
4 working with the elements of fiction
5 creating scenes: a nuts & bolts approach
6 organizing your story: form & structure
7 writing a compelling story
8 ending your story
9 the power of clarity
10 revising your story
boot camp
11 the mechanics of fiction: a writer’s boot camp
12 a mini-anthology: 15 stories
The Art and Craft of Fiction is available as a
Bedford e-Book to Go.
Download this PDF-style e-book — for roughly half
the cost of the print text — to your laptop or other
device. It matches our print book page for page and is
optimized for use on your Windows or Mac computer,
iPad, or large-screen Android tablet. You can gain access
to the e-book at this books companion site (see below).
The Art and Craft of Fiction comes with a
free & open companion site.
Our companion site adds value, not cost. Here, you can tap
into the e-book and our premier collections of author videos
and multimedia resources. The site features a tutorial,
“Publishing Your Work” created by author Michael Kardos,
and an annotated bibliography of books, magazines, blogs, and sites for
writers looking to further their craft. See
the art and craft
of fiction
a writer’s guide
is is the perfect text on narrative technique and story writing for
college fiction writers. Honestly, I cant see how Kardos might improve it.
e minute you guys publish this book, I’m ordering it and requiring
it — for my students.
S W, University of Mary Washington
What I like best, and what is too often missing in other writing texts, is
the practicality of instruction. Kardos wisely focuses on the ‘nuts & bolts’
that can be taught and demonstrated.
R S, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
Kardos’s instruction is clear and down- to- earth and the prose is as
informative and enlightening as it is interesting and fun to read. I look
forward to teaching with this book as soon as it is available.
W C, Bethany College
Kardos gives students uncomplicated access to the mysterious pro cess of
ction making.
JH, Georgia State University
e strength of this book lies in Kardos’s easy, frank pre sen ta tion. is is a
how to write’ book that distinguishes itself with a friendly, conversational
AM, Indiana University
I was sold on this book as soon as I read the first few paragraphs of the
Mechanics chapter.
BW, University of Texas at Dallas
Kardos gives a thorough overview of the most important ideas and
techniques on the craft of fiction. Even advanced writers will find
new insights and new angles on old challenges.
LV, Georgia Southern University
Kardos touches upon the very problems I have seen in the stories my
students write. I love this book!”
PB, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
I like Kardos’s approach of singling out the landmarks of the story arc
and examining their variations. e text is comprehensive, examples
well- chosen, and user- friendliness exemplary. I am impressed.
BL, Oregon State University
is is the kind of stuff I wish I’d been taught in grad school, and its
what I try to teach my undergrads: specific techniques that can enhance
their stories. I wish I’d had something like this book as a beginning
SV, University of Central Arkansas
I’ve been looking for a book like this for years. Its refreshingly different in
or ga ni za tion, with an emphasis on not just the elements of fiction, but on
mechanics, openings and endings, and structure. e brevity and price
are also strengths. I absolutely would adopt this book.
LW, East Carolina University
“e content supports the kind of work my students aspire to.
M N, Chatham University
bedford/st. martin’s
Boston • New York
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the art and craft
of fiction
a writer’s guide
Michael Kardos
Mississippi State University
bedford/st. martin’s
Boston • New York
Executive Editor: Ellen ibault
Se nior Production Editor: Lori Chong Roncka
Production Supervisor: Samuel Jones
Marketing Manager: Stacey Propps
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Copy Editor: Linda McLatchie
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Composition: Westchester Book Group
Printing and Binding: RR Donnelley and Sons
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Copyright ©  by Bedford/St. Martin’s
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
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otherwise, except as may be expressly permitted by the applicable copyright statutes or in writing
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Manufactured in the United States of America.
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f e d c b a
For information, write: Bedford/St. Martin’s,  Arlington Street, Boston, MA 
(- - )
ISBN - - - -
Acknowledgments and copyrights appear at the back of the book on pages –, which
constitute an extension of the copyright page. It is a violation of the law to reproduce these se-
lections by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the copyright holder.
preface for instructors
Many of us who teach creative writing have struggled at one time or another
with choosing a textbook. e challenge is to find a book that is pedagogically
effective, practical to work into a syllabus, and written in a style that will en-
gage students.
With those considerations in mind, e Art and Craft of Fiction is in-
tended to
provide a practical introduction to writing and revising fiction
fit fluidly into the day- by- day schedule of both the fiction- writing work-
shop and the multigenre workshop
be clear, concise, and engaging
ere’s also a fourth consideration: price. Students, instructors, and university
administrators have quite reasonably become highly attuned to the cost of
textbooks. So everyone involved in the creation of this book has kept afford-
ability in mind.
How the book is structured
Youll notice right away that this book isnt or ga nized around the elements of
fiction. As discussed in Chapter , the reason is twofold. First, I wanted this
book to emphasize the interdependence of elements, rather than to imply that
each element stands alone. Second, I believed there had to be a way to or ga-
nize a book about story- making that would more closely align with the actual
pro cess of writing and revising stories.
So instead of the elements- of- fiction approach, these chapters focus on the
major issues that beginning writers face as theyre working on their stories (the
use of relevant detail, the nuts and bolts of scene- writing, the mechanics of fic-
tion) as well as the issues that all fiction writers face (where to start, where to
end, how to be clear, how to make stories compelling, and how to revise). e
chapters are ordered in such a way that they build on one another, but the book
can be taught in any order.
viii | preface for instructors
All told, these chapters comprise an introduction to the writer who wishes
to bridge the gap between his or her desire to tell a story and the ability to do
it effectively. In the pro cess, students will also learn about literature “from the
inside” an important goal in any creative writing course.
Speaking of mechanics
Chapter , “e Mechanics of Fiction: A Writer’s Boot Camp,” began years
ago, when as a graduate student I created a handout for the first fiction- writing
classes I ever taught. e handout contained exactly one thing: instructions
for punctuating dialogue.
I’ve been expanding and updating the handout ever since.
e purpose of that chapter is to provide, in one place and without going
on too long, some of the most common technical issues that students will face
as fiction writers. e chapter introduction explains exactly why it’s critical for
them to master these technical points: “One of the writers most important
jobs is to gain the reader’s trust. Earning that trust is hard work. Losing it is
easy and one of the easiest ways to lose a reader’s trust is by paying too little
attention to mechanics.
is review of the mechanics of fiction has proven to be very useful to my
students over the years. ey can refer to it as they write and revise, and I can
expect them to know and use these important tools of the craft.
We placed this chapter in its own section, knowing that different instruc-
tors will want to assign it at different points in the term. (I typically assign it
about two weeks into a term once it’s already under way, but before stu-
dents begin to hand in their finished drafts.)
The exercises & checklists
e exercises in this book reinforce specific lessons and develop par tic u lar
skills. ere are far too many exercises to assign in a single semester and, we
hope, more than enough to suit any instructor’s needs. Some exercises may be
assigned as homework, others as in- class writing assignments or group activities.
Checklists remind students of key concepts and appear in a con ve nient list
along with a list of the exercises on pages xxiv–xxv.
preface for instructors | ix
The mini- anthology
e fifteen stories in the anthology () demonstrate key elements of the fiction-
writing craft, () represent diverse storytelling approaches, and () have been
well received by students. ey are all contemporary. (e oldest story is from
; the most current ones are from .) e decision to include only con-
temporary fiction in the anthology is in no way meant to challenge the impor-
tance to a writer’s apprenticeship of reading older works. Many of the chapters
do, in fact, bring in excerpts from such writers as Poe, Chekhov, Fitzgerald,
Welty, and others. But an equally important part of the fiction writer’s appren-
ticeship is becoming familiar with contemporary writing and developing a
sense of what it looks and feels like.
Most of the examples in this book draw from the anthologized stories.
Many of the stories are discussed in more than one chapter. For that reason,
the stories appear at the end of the book, alphabetized by author, rather than
within the individual chapters. (As a student, I always liked being able to browse
an entire anthology; when I teach a class, I dislike having to page through a
book hunting for a par tic u lar story.)
e stories can be assigned in any order, though for con ve nience here is a
listing that pairs each chapter with the stories that are discussed in them:
Jill McCorkle, Magic Words
Percival Everett, e Appropriation of Cultures
John Updike, A & P
Sherman Alexie,is Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona
Kevin Brockmeier, A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets
Sherman Alexie,is Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona
Tim O’Brien, On the Rainy River
ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Becky Hagenston, Midnight, Licorice, Shadow
x | preface for instructors
Jhumpa Lahiri, is Blessed House
Tobias Wol , Bullet in the Brain
Tim O’Brien, On the Rainy River
Lorrie Moore, How to Become a Writer
Becky Hagenston, Midnight, Licorice, Shadow
Tobias Wol , Bullet in the Brain
John Updike, A & P
Tim O’Brien, On the Rainy River
Kevin Brockmeier, A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets
Jill McCorkle, Magic Words
Sherman Alexie,is Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona
Barry Hannah, Water Liars
Tim O’Brien, On the Rainy River
Richard Bausch, Tandolfo the Great
George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Becky Hagenston, Midnight, Licorice, Shadow
Jhumpa Lahiri, is Blessed House
Richard Bausch, Tandolfo the Great
Tobias Wol , Bullet in the Brain
ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Jill McCorkle, Magic Words
Becky Hagenston, Midnight, Licorice, Shadow
preface for instructors | xi
My sincere thanks to the fine folks at Bedford/St. Martins who made this book
possible. Ellen ibault is a writer’s dream editor she was my trusted guide
and unflagging champion from initial concept to finished book, and I’m grate-
ful for her wisdom and generosity. I’d like to thank Joan Feinberg and Denise
Wydra for making this book possible, as well as Karen Henry, Steve Scipi-
one, Lori Roncka, Anna Palchik, Jonathon Nix, Linda McLatchie, Amanda
Legee, Laura Winstead, and Elise Keller.
We are who we are because of our teachers, and I would like to thank mine.
Lee K. Abbott, Michelle Herman, Trudy Lewis, Lee Martin, Erin McGraw, Speer
Morgan, and Marly Swick: ese pages are dripping with your pedagogy.
anks, too, to Becky Hagenston, Richard Lyons, and Catherine Pierce, my
creative writing colleagues at Mississippi State, whose knowledge and friend-
ship I rely on daily.
I would like to thank the following reviewers, who were kind enough to
read parts of this book during its development and help make it stronger:
Abby Bardi, Prince George’s Community College; Nicky Beer, University of
Colorado Denver; Patrick Bizzaro, Indiana University of Pennsylvania; James
Braziel, University of Alabama, Birmingham; Stephanie Carpenter, University
of Michigan– Flint; Wiley Cash, Bethany College; Tony Grooms, Kennesaw
State University; John Holman, Georgia State University; Barry Lawler, Ore-
gon State University; Alyce Miller, Indiana University; Chloe Yelena Miller,
Fairleigh Dickinson University; Keith Lee Morris, Clemson University; Marc
Neison, Chatham University; Anne Panning, State University of New York,
e College at Brockport; R. Clay Reynolds, University of Texas at Dallas;
Susan Jackson Rodgers, Oregon State University; Randall Silvis, Edinboro
University of Pennsylvania; Laura Valeri, Georgia Southern University; Steph-
anie Vanderslice, University of Central Arkansas; Stephen Watkins, University
of Mary Washington; Liza Wieland, East Carolina University; Betty Wiesepape,
University of Texas at Dallas. anks, too, to Christopher Coake, University
of Nevada– Reno, for our many discussions over the years about what might
go into a book such as this, and to Michael Piafsky, Spring Hill College, for his
generous feedback and consistent encouragement.
xii | preface for instructors
anks to my students all of them, but especially to those who test-
drove the manuscript and contributed the student examples.
Finally, one more hearty thanks to Catherine Pierce when youre mar-
ried to your colleague, you get to thank her twice for her constant support
(I’d have written “tireless support,” but with a newborn we were often tired)
and valuable advice at every stage of this book. I couldn’t have done this with-
out you.
Michael Kardos
Starkville, Mississippi
Resources for The Art and Craft of Fiction
e Art and Craft of Fiction doesnt end with a print book. Online you’ll find
both free and affordable premium resources to help students get even more
out of this text and your course. To learn about or order any of the following
products, contact your Bedford/St. Martins sales representative, e-mail sales
support (, or visit
/ cata log.
This book is available as a Bedford e‑Book to Go
is PDF- style e-book matches our print book page
for page and is ready for your tablet, computer, phone,
or e-reader device. You and your students gain access
to the e-book at this books companion site (see
below) and can take it with you wherever you go. To
order the e-book for your course, use ISBN - -
- - . At roughly half the cost of the print
book, e Art and Craft of Fiction e‑Book to Go is
con ve nient and affordable.
It also comes with a free & open companion site
Our companion site for e Art and Craft of Fiction adds value, not cost. Here,
students can access our premier collections of author videos and multimedia
resources, including:
preface for instructors | xiii
A tutorial: “Publishing Your Work: How, Where, and When,” by
Michael Kardos. It’s only natural for aspiring writers to wonder who
might read their work. In this tutorial, author Michael Kardos gives
an introduction to literary publishing as well as insight into research-
ing publications, drafting a cover letter, submitting work, and dealing
with rejection. He also explains the roles of agents and editors.
A bibliography: “For Further Reading,” by Michael Kardos. Kardos’s
annotated bibliography of books, magazines, blogs, and Web sites is a
handy resource for fiction writers looking to further their craft.
Anthology author interviews, plus biographies and links. Read the full
texts of interviews that Michael Kardos conducted with several authors
whose stories appear in the anthology. Find out more about the writers’
lives and works through our annotated collection, AuthorLinks.
Packaging options
Take advantage of our collection of author videos and a course space and
e-portfolio tool available at a discount with student copies of e Art and Craft
of Fiction.
This book comes with video
Bring today’s writers into your classroom. Hear from T. C. Boyle, Ha Jin, Jane
Smiley, and others, on character, voice, plot, and more. Questions, biographies,
and transcripts make each video an assignable module. To package this collec-
tion, free with new student copies of this book, use package ISBN - - -
- . log
Our online writing studio: CompClass
CompClass gives students the tools for reading and writing, discussion and re-
sponse, and drafting and feedback that will make them better creative writers.
With CompClass, students never have to ask you what their grade is, where to
find course material, or how they can find a space to draft, revise, and get or ga-
nized. Preloaded with autoscored exercises, a commenting and peer review
space where students can annotate one another’s work, the first- ever peer review
game, and our library of writing resources, CompClass is ready for you to
xiv | preface for instructors
customize and make your own. To order CompClass with the student edition
of e Art and Craft of Fiction, use package ISBN -- - - .
courses .bfwpub .com /yourcompclass
The Bedford e‑Portfolio: simply flexible and coming in fall 2013
Select. Collect. Reflect. e Bedford e-Portfolio makes it easy for students to
showcase their writing and other coursework whether for their class, for
their job, or even for their friends. With flexible assessment tools, the Bedford
e-Portfolio lets you map learning outcomes or just invite students to start their
collections. bedfordst
Get teaching ideas you can use today
Are you looking for free and open professional resources for teaching literature
and writing? How about some help with planning classroom activities?
LitBits: ideas for teaching literature & creative writing
Hosted by a team of instructors, poets, novelists, and scholars, our LitBits blog
offers fresh, regularly updated ideas and assignments for teaching creative writ-
ing, including simple ways to teach with media. Check out Michael Kardos’s
posts on teaching fiction writing at
TeachingCentral: all of our professional resources, in one place
Youll find landmark reference works, sourcebooks on pedagogical issues,
award- winning collections, and practical advice for the classroom all free.
Add value to your course
Could your students use some help with style, grammar, and clarity? Have you
ever wanted to put together your own custom anthology? Would you like to
teach with longer works by adding a trade title or two to your course?
Add a handbook & save your students 20%
Package EasyWriter by Andrea Lunsford or A Pocket Style Manual by Diana
Hacker and Nancy Sommers with this text at  percent off. bedfordst martins
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preface for instructors | xv
Create your own fiction anthology
e Art and Craft of Fiction includes a brief anthology of fifteen terrific stories,
but are you looking for more? Choose your literature, select a cover, and pub-
lish at
Save 50% on hundreds of trade titles
Package a trade book for half off with new student copies of e Art and Craft
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this page left intentionally blank
brief contents
   vii
art & craft
1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
2 the extreme importance of relevant detail 
3 starting your story 
4 working with the elements of fiction 
5 creating scenes: a nuts & bolts approach 
6 or ga niz ing your story: form & structure 
7 writing a compelling story 
8 ending your story 
9 the power of clarity 
10 revising your story 
boot camp
11 the mechanics of fiction: a writer’s boot camp 
12 a mini- anthology:  stories 
 -
this page left intentionally blank
   vii
art & craft
1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
Being a Writer Means Paying Attention
Why a Textbook? (And Why is Textbook?)
Rules of the Road
Reading Like a Writer
e Habit of Writing
Finding Ideas for Stories
A Word to the Novelist
What’s the Point of All is? 
2 the extreme importance of relevant detail 
Details and Believability 
Details and Engaging the Reader 
Showing and Telling 
Fiction Writing as Telepathy 
Which Details to Include? 
Nothing More an Feelings 
Details and the Writer’s Sensibility 
xx | contents
3 starting your story 
What Beginnings Do 
Reveal Key Information 
Establish the Storys Stakes 
Start with a Break from Routine 
Consider Starting In Medias Res 
Whose Perspective Should You Choose? 
Other Information to Convey Sooner Rather an Later 
Ultimately, It’s Your Call 
4 working with the elements of fiction 
Character 
Plot 
Setting 
Point of View (POV) 
Voice 
eme 
5 creating scenes: a nuts & bolts approach 
Dialogue 
Narration 
Description 
Exposition 
Interiority 
Scene- Writing, Final Notes 
contents | xxi
6 or ga niz ing your story: form & structure 
Classic Story Structure and the Freytag Pyramid 
Causality 
Conflict 
Climax 
Conclusion: What Has Changed? 
Form = Meaning 
Other Ways to Tell a Story 
Scene and Summary 
Case Study: Structural Imitation 
7 writing a compelling story 
High Stakes 
Character Desire 
Active Protagonists 
e Atypical Day (A Break from Routine) 
External Conflict 
Internal Conflict / Presenting Characters’ Interior Lives 
Compressed Time Period 
Suspense (As Opposed to Withheld Information) 
Originality 
8 ending your story 
e Challenge 
Strategies for Ending Your Story 
Common Pitfalls 
Getting the Words Right 
Two Final oughts on Endings 
xxii | contents
9 the power of clarity 
Vagueness Versus Ambiguity 
Clear Words 
Clear Sentences 
Clear Stories: A Few Words of Advice 
Clarity: Some Final oughts 
10 revising your story 
e Case for Revision 
What Is “Revision,” Anyway? 
What Is a “First Draft”? 
Twelve Strategies for Revision 
How Do You Know When Your Story Is (Really, Truly) Done? 
boot camp
11 the mechanics of fiction: a writer’s boot camp 
Formatting and Punctuating Dialogue 
Addressing a Person in Dialogue 
Paragraph Breaks in Dialogue 
Double Quotation Marks / Single Quotation Marks 
Quick Quiz: repair this sentence 
Scare Quotes 
Formatting and Punctuating a Character’s oughts 
Comma Splices 
“Who” and “at” 
Exclamation Marks, Question Marks, All Caps 
contents | xxiii
Conjugation of “Lie” and “Lay” 
Quick Quiz: choose the correct sentence 
Sentences at Begin with an “- ing” Word 
Some Final Advice 
e Mechanics of Fiction: practice test 
12 a mini- anthology: 15 stories 
Sherman Alexie
is Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona 
Richard Bausch
Tandolfo the Great 
Kevin Brockmeier
A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets 
Percival Everett
e Appropriation of Cultures 
Becky Hagenston
Midnight, Licorice, Shadow 
Barry Hannah
Water Liars 
Jhumpa Lahiri
is Blessed House 
Jill McCorkle
Magic Words 
xxiv | contents
Lorrie Moore
How to Become a Writer 
Tim O’Brien
On the Rainy River 
ZZ Packer
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere 
Karen Russell
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves 
George Saunders
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline 
John Updike
A & P 
Tobias Wolff
Bullet in the Brain 
 -
exercises, checklists & tips
1 Draw on experience 
2 Write a letter & a diary entry 
Recall details 
Show with raw data 
Describe an event 
Choose relevant details 
Use details to convey
emotion 
Use details to tell stories 
3 Inform & convince 
Spark curiosity 
Confess 
Choose the day that’s
different 
Start at the beginning or
middle 
Try a variety of openers 
contents | xxv
4 Develop your characters 
Connect plot & character 
Experiment with setting 
ink about point of view 
Use narrative distance 
Practice point of view 
Discover voice 
Identify & develop theme 
5 Write a scene just dialogue 
Continue your scene — add
narration & description 
Continue your scene — add
exposition & interiority 
Create scenes 
6 Plot a story 
Make causal connections 
Create conflict 
Identify how your character
changes 
Evaluate your story’s form 
Practice writing scene &
summary 
Structural imitation 
7 Set the stakes 
Know your character’s desires 
Make your character active 
Break from the everyday 
Build suspense 
Choose the unusual 
8 Experiment with endings 
9 Be clear 
1 Read like a writer 
Sit down & write 
Beware of clichéd writing 
3 Set the stakes 
Decide on a perspective 
Establish the basics 
6 Focus on climax 
2 Remember all five senses 
4 Make your characters
believable 
Keep point of view consistent 
9 Naming your characters
(a nice trick) 
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the art and craft
of fiction
a writer’s guide
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art & craft
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S  , my wife and I went on vacation to Niagara Falls. After
a full day of walking, we decided to ride the gondola up a hillside back to our
hotel’s street. With us in the gondola were a mother and daughter. e girl was
about four years old.
As our car climbed, we all watched the scene below: the falls in the distance,
the Maid of the Mist returning to its dock, cars trolling for parking spaces,
people walking the footpath beside the river. We were fairly high up when the
girl smiled and said, “e people look like broken toothpicks!”
What did the mother do? She corrected her daughter.
“No, honey,” she said, “they look like ants.
e girl looked down again at the footpath. “e people look like ants,
she said.
But the people didnt look like ants. ey looked like broken toothpicks.
being a writer means paying attention
In his  essay “e Art of Fiction,” Henry James famously wrote that to be
a writer one should “try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.
But what does that mean, and how does one become such a person?
It means being attuned to the world around you closely looking (and
smelling and tasting and touching and listening) rather than being satisfied
with viewing the world through the fuzzy lens of conventional wisdom.
One on whom nothing is lost knows that people seen from high above
dont always or ever look like ants. Sometimes they look like broken tooth-
picks. But we’ll never know if we dont pay attention.
1thinking, reading,
& writing like a writer
4 | chapter 1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
Being a writer, then, means honing your ability to closely observe and
carefully consider everything, taking nothing for granted.
en, of course, you need to find the right words to describe what you see.
why a textbook? (and why this textbook?)
In his book On Writing (), Stephen King has this to say:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a
lot and write a lot. ere’s no way around these two things that I’m aware
of, no shortcut.
On the one hand, yes, absolutely. A writer isnt someone who talks about
writing, or imagines writing, or tells people that he’s a writer. A writer is some-
one who writes and, as we’ll discuss shortly, someone who reads.
On the other hand, books like King’s presume that study and practice
can go a long way toward instilling good habits that will shorten the fiction
writer’s long apprenticeship.
Now, study and practice are, in a sense, just other words for reading and
writing. But they imply focused study and guided practice, rather than the mere
churning out of pages in the hope that productivity alone will develop the
is book is intended to provide exactly that focused study and guided
practice. It’s a book that will get you going and, I hope, one that youll find
yourself returning to as you continue to develop your craft.
rules of the road
Rather than repeat it over and over in every chapter, I’ll say it once now, up
front: If you try hard enough, you will find exceptions to nearly every rule in this
is is as it should be. Fiction is an art, not a science with inviolable laws.
Other than the chapter devoted to mechanics, this book contains very few rules
anyway. Rather, it contains principles of narrative and aesthetics that many
writers, over time, have come to find effective in telling their stories.
So here’s the deal: Just like in the game of “maul the guy with the ball” that
my friends and I used to play as weird kids, e rules are, there are no rules.
reading like a writer | 5
But here’s the catch: As someone interested in furthering your develop-
ment as an artist, you need to learn the principles of your craft because they
tend to work.
Flannery O’Connor, one of Americas great fiction writers, put it this way:
It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do
that in fiction. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody
has ever gotten away with much.
reading like a writer
Not every reader writes, but every writer reads and usually a lot. Quite simply,
in order to become a good writer, one must become a good reader. at means
reading not only for what a work means but also for how it was done.
Every chapter in this book will discuss fiction in this mode, looking closely
at the technical choices that the authors made in writing their stories.
As you read the anthologized stories (and any other fiction), remember to
be greedy. Ask yourself what, specifically, each work of fiction has to teach you.
What technique can you apply to your next story?
checklist » read like a writer
Some questions to ask of the stories you read include the following:
» Why does this story begin when it does?
» What is different about the day when the story takes place?
» When you close your eyes, what part of the story do you picture most clearly in
your mind? Why might that be?
» What is the main characters underlying problem, and how does the story bring
this problem into sharper focus?
» Why does the story focus on this main character, as opposed to another charac-
ter in the story? How do you think the author intends readers to feel about him
or her? How do you feel?
» If the story is told from more than one character’s perspective, why do you think
this choice was made?
» Why is this story in the point of view that it is?
6 | chapter 1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
» Which parts of the story are dramatized through scenes? Which parts are sum-
marized? Why?
» How would you describe the storys voice? What does the voice do for the story?
» Is the writing ever less clear than it could be?
» How is the story structured? How else could it be?
» Why does the story end when it does?
» How is this story different from other stories you’ve read?
» What details make this story especially vivid or unexpected?
And once again, perhaps the most important question of all:
» What specific technique(s) would you most readily take from this story and try
in your own story?
In asking this final question, you ensure that youre learning to identify
and apply par tic u lar techniques that fiction writers use. We arent talking
about plagiarism we’re talking about skills that, once learned, will stay with
Here’s an example. e second half of Tobias Wols story “Bullet in the
Brain” (see p. ) takes place over one split second (actually, a fraction of a
fraction of a second). How does Wolff go about enlarging such a minuscule
time period into several pages of story? How might you go about doing some-
thing like that? And what sort of situation, other than the one that Wol
describes, might warrant such slowing down of time?
When you read Wolffs story and the others in the anthology like a
writer, you discover choices that you never knew existed. You expand your
notion of what stories can do, and then you get to try to do those things.
the habit of writing
ere’s always a big exam to study for, laundry piling up, a series finale or play-
off game to watch, a friend or family member in need of a favor, or any number
of things that demand your attention.
ere are always reasons not to write sometimes very good reasons.
And yet a writer finds the time to write anyway. Discipline means doing the
thing you set out to do not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.
the habit of writing | 7
We all love inspiration because inspiration requires little time or con-
scious effort. Bursts of creative fervor get the heart pumping and make us feel
good about ourselves. A story or novel that we read can inspire and motivate
us, as can a caring, knowledgeable teacher and a classroom of motivated peers.
(A class can also give you deadlines.) A textbook like this one can give you
plenty to think about. But ultimately, only you can make yourself sit down
and write.
Not that writing happens only at the writing desk. By all means, think
about the story youre writing when youre in the car, in the grocery aisle, in
bed as youre falling asleep at night. Keep your story in mind, and your mind
will keep working on your story. Still, there’s no substitute for sitting down and
checklist » sit down & write
To make the habit of writing a little easier to acquire and maintain, consider the
» If at all possible, designate a par tic u lar time and place to write every day. Doing
so will not only help you schedule your writing time but will also train your brain
to start thinking creatively at that specific place and time.
» I include this remarkably obvious advice only because it can be so hard to fol-
low: Stay offline. Forget Facebook. Forget email. If you have fact- checking or
research to do for your story, save it until the end of your writing session. Other-
wise, keep your workspace Internet- free.
» Turn off the phone. No calls. No texting.
» Designate a certain amount of time each day to devote to your writing, or a
certain number of words per day that you must add to your story before you
quit. (When working on a longer piece of fiction, I prefer trying to meet a words-
per- day quota. When Im working on a short story, or revising, then I prefer to
work for a set amount of time.)
» Ernest Hemingway used to stop writing every day not when he was out of
ideas, but when he knew exactly what he was going to write next. That way, he
knew that the next day when he sat down to write, he wouldn’t waste any time
before he got going.
8 | chapter 1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
» Learn what works for you. Do you work better with music or silence? A window
with a view or sensory deprivation? A crowded public space or your own little
private corner? Do what ever works so that you can develop the habit of writing.
Indeed, what ever you choose might well become what works best for you.
finding ideas for stories
A character? A setting? An image? A situation? An appealing sentence?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
e end of this chapter contains several prompts to get you going, but
what ever captures your interest is the right way to start thinking about a story.
I’ve never been a journal keeper, but many other writers swear by their
journals, in which they record their thoughts, dreams, and observations the
raw material that might later find its way into a story.
Even though I dont keep a journal, once I start writing a story I take plenty
of notes away from the computer. I sketch out character details and make plot
connections. en I return to the computer and write. en I go away from the
computer again. en back. at’s my way of working. It might not be yours.
e chapters in this book contain detailed advice that will help you craft
your stories. For now, consider what intrigues you or puzzles you or keeps you
awake at night. Try to recall something from your day that stopped you cold.
Write it down. at’s a good way to start.
Borrow freely from your own experience, but bear in mind that the aim
of fiction isn’t autobiography. Rather, the purpose of “writing what you know”
is to use the details and emotions that youre familiar with to tell a new story.
Our bio graphies might well be useful, but only if they spark, rather than
supplant, our imaginations.
From the time you first start thinking about a story to the final revision,
remember to play the “What if” game: “What if this were to happen?” “What
if she were to say this, or do that?” “What if this scene were set here, instead of
there?” What if, what if, what if. Learn to play that game, and youll surprise
yourself with the discoveries you make about your own stories. (In Chapter ,
Becky Hagenston describes how she played the “What if” game while writing
her story “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow.”)
a word to the novelist | 9
Be skeptical of looking to tele vi sion, movies, and video games as influences.
Unlike literature, those other media are primarily visual and follow different
narrative principles. ey also often rely on formulaic, contrived plots and char-
acter types though to be fair, there are good and bad tele vi sion shows, just
as there are good and bad books. e important thing is to learn to recognize,
and assiduously avoid, clichéd writing.
checklist » beware of clichéd writing
Learn to recognize and avoid the following:
» Prepackaged ways of describing the world people far away who look like
ants, or someone whose heart breaks or who has butterflies in her stomach
» Hackneyed plot conventions the multiple- personality serial killer; the story
that was all a dream; the story about a novelist with writers block (Of course,
the more you read, the more you’ll learn just what is hackneyed and what
» Simplified or generalized depictions of people (the “strong, silent type,” the
“jock,the nerd,the “prostitute with a heart of gold”) and places (the “unfriendly
big city” or the “idyllic small town”)
e guiding principle is to root your story in what is par tic u lar and origi-
nal, rather than in what is typical or rehashed.
Another way to say this is that if you are someone on whom nothing is
lost, then you know that every person, place, or thing is replete with nuance.
Your job is to find it.
a word to the novelist
is book, like the majority of college courses in fiction writing, is tailored to the
production of short stories rather than novels. e reasons are practical. e
typical semester- long workshop makes it difficult for, say, fifteen people to read
one another’s novel- length manuscripts. It would also be rare for all the students
in a class to have finished drafts of novels ready for discussion, and partially
written novels are often difficult to workshop.
10 | chapter 1 thinking, reading, & writing like a writer
at said novelists, dont fret. While our examples draw mainly from
short stories, this is a book about fiction writing. e novelist will benefit from
all of this books discussions, and the accompanying website will refer you to
several books tailored specifically to writing novels.
what’s the point of all this?
We read fiction to be entertained and enlightened, to learn about other people
and places without going anywhere, and to see a slice of our own world re-
flected back to us in a way that we find emotionally, intellectually, and artisti-
cally satisfying. Reading fiction is a way to pass the time engaged in a kind of
active imagining, a way of forgetting ourselves for a while.
A well- told story makes us pay attention. It reminds us what it feels like
to be human.
When we write fiction, we also engage in an act of empathy. Writing fic-
tion requires seeing the world vividly through others’ eyes. Even villains dont
believe theyre villains rather, everybody is the hero of his or her own story.
at doesnt necessarily mean finding the good in every character, but it means
finding the stories that our characters, even the minor ones, tell themselves
about themselves in order to get up in the morning and face the day as belea-
guered and misunderstood heroes.
is intense act of empathy means that what you’re doing when you write
stories is important. No matter what your career is or ends up being writer,
zookeeper, accountant youll only benefit from imagining life from other
people’s perspectives and searching for the most precise language to describe
what you see.
e main characters in the anthologized stories are plenty flawed: a drunken,
gambling- addicted childrens magician; a woman determined to cheat on her
husband; a vicious book critic; an accessory to an amusement- park rampage.
Just as real people are more than the items on their résumés, however, so too
are the people in our stories provided we try to understand them as thor-
oughly as we try to understand our mothers and fathers and siblings and
romantic partners and children.
what’s the point of all this? | 11
And if we can do that, then we might just be able to remind ourselves and
others what it feels like to be human.
So pay attention, and get writing!
exercises: draw on experience
1. Describe a time when you told somebody a lie. Include the details that
explain why you felt the need to tell it.
2. What is the worst job you ever had? Describe in detail what made it so
3. Walk outside. What’s the first thing you see that you don’t expect?
Describe it.
4. Draw a map of your childhood neighborhood, labeling every place you can
remember. Where would the most interesting story take place?
5. What would you be convinced to do for $100 million, but not for $1 million?
6. If you were to put three meaningful but interesting possessions into
a duffel bag, what would they be? (Avoid photographs, journals, and
jewelry passed down from parents/grandparents.) What if you left this
duffel bag on a train what sense might someone make of this find?
7. The last time you called in sick from work when you were not actually sick,
why did you do it? Describe what you did instead. If you can’t remember,
make it up.
8. What is the worst present you ever received? Describe it, and explain
what made it awful.
9. If you could apologize to one person from your past, who would it be and
why? Write the imagined meeting between you and that person.
I  : You were out late with friends until  a.m. Now
youre tired, so you decide to skip class on the day a major project is due.
e next time you see your instructor, what will you say?
I couldnt make it to class because my car broke down.
A statement like that is sure to generate some eye- rolling from your in-
structor, who’s heard it before. is is why you’ll add a few embellishments:
“I was on my way to school when some idiot was texting and drifting into
my lane, and when I swerved I ended up in that ditch with mud from all the
rain. You know the ditch I’m talking about? At the intersection of University
Boulevard and Court Street? Well, that’s where I got stuck until campus
police . . . the tall officer with the red hair I dont know his name he and
I were able to push the car out. But by then, class was almost over, and I was
too muddy to go anywhere anyway.
details and believability
When we lie, we know instinctively to supply details because the details lend
credibility to our story. e red- headed officer serves as evidence in the case
we’re making.
Jill McCorkle’s short story “Magic Words” (p. ) depicts a character,
Paula Blake, about to embark on an extramarital affair. Knowing that a believ-
able alibi requires the right details, McCorkle’s character has prepared them
ahead of time.
“Where are you going?” Erin asks, mouth sullen and sarcastic as it has
been since her thirteenth birthday two years ago.
the extreme importance
of relevant detail
details and engaging the reader | 13
“Out with a friend,” Paula says, forcing herself to make eye contact,
the rest of the story she has practiced for days ready to roll. She’s someone
I work with, someone going through a really hard time, someone brand-
new to the area, knows no one, really needs a friend.
But her daughter never looks up from the glossy magazine spread before
her, engrossed in yet another drama about a teen star lost to drugs and wild
nights. Her husband doesnt even ask her new friends name or where she
moved from, yet the answer is poised and waiting on her tongue. Tonya
Matthews from Phoenix, Arizona.
Liars, cheaters, and con artists the good ones, anyway know the value
of a well- chosen detail. So do fiction writers.
exercise: write a letter & a diary entry
Write a one- page story, in the form of a letter, that explains to the recipient
why the writer has quit something important (a job, school, a marriage).
Then write a one- page diary entry that explains the real reason(s) that the
writer actually quit.
details and engaging the reader
On the first day of the semester, I explain to my Introduction to Fiction Writ-
ing class that if they are to learn just one thing about writing this semester, it
should be this and in large letters, I write on the board:
relevant detail
And I tell them that if they are to learn just two things this semester, the
second thing should be this and underneath the words “relevant detail,” I
relevant detail
Finally, I tell them that if they are to learn just three things this semester . . .
You get the idea.
I’m being humorous or trying to be, anyway but I’m not kidding. e
ability to write with specificity to write concrete, vivid, sensory details is
14 | chapter 2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
absolutely fundamental for the fiction writer. A simple reason is that writing is
communication, and the more precise you are, the more clearly you commu-
Example: I say “animal.” You think “giraffe.” I mean “dog.” e communi-
cation has failed.
While “dog” is more specific than “animal,” “golden retriever” is more spe-
cific than “dog.” More specific still would be “golden retriever with a dry nose
and a meek bark like it was asking for a raise it knew it didnt deserve.” One
could conceivably take things too far, though newer fiction writers usually
provide too little detail, rather than too much.
Details do more, however, than provide clarity. ey also engage the reader.
In their classic guide e Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White
emphasize the importance of using concrete details:
If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one
point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is
by being specific, definite, and concrete. e greatest writers Homer,
Dante, Shakespeare are effective largely because they deal in particu-
lars and report the details that matter.
Some beginning writers intentionally avoid specificity, believing that the
use of concrete details would prevent their stories from having broad appeal.
However, writing that avoids specificity tends to be vague or coy, and appealing
to no one.
Only writing that dwells in the realm of the specific will “arouse and hold
the reader’s attention.Moby Dick might be a timeless novel with universal
themes, but first it’s a book about a par tic u lar ship captain obsessed with hunt-
ing down a par tic u lar sperm whale.
exercises: recall details
1. Write down the name of a favorite novel or story. After the name, write
down as many details from it as you can remember. (In “A & P,” these details
might include Queenie’s dirty pink bathing suit or the can of Kingfish Fancy
Herring Snacks that she is buying.) Why are these the details you recall?
2. Repeat this exercise with four more works.
showing and telling | 15
showing and telling
Perhaps the most common advice given to creative writers is to “show” their
story rather than “tell” it. is advice, while basically sound, can also be mis-
leading. Doesnt all writing involve “telling”? Unless we include illustrations,
we never actually show anything.
So what does it mean to “show,” and why are writers so often urged to do
it? ink of “showing” as writing the kinds of sentences that paint a picture
for readers, causing the story to occur before their eyes. It’s the kind of writing
that results when you use concrete, relevant details.
Consider this sentence:
Curt broke his ankle playing baseball.
Although informative and concise, the sentence doesnt come alive in our
minds. It summarizes, or “tells,” a fact. Compare it with a sentence that describes
in sensory detail exactly what happened:
Curt slid into second base underneath the shortstop’s glove and came to a
sudden, ankle- popping halt when his cleat hit the bag.
Unlike the first sentence, the second one paints a picture; it “shows” Curt
breaking his ankle.
Which is the better sentence? It all depends. Despite the oft- given advice to
show, dont tell,” the truth is that stories require both showing and telling — just
examine any story in the anthology. An important skill to develop is learning
when to show and when to tell, and how each type of writing contributes to
the story. For instance, Percival Everett’s story “e Appropriation of Cultures”
(see p. ) begins with a sentence that “tells”:
Daniel Barkley had money left to him by his mother.
is sentence quickly provides the reader with necessary information, so
there really is no reason to “show” it:
e estate attorney, seated at the end of the conference table, opened up
his leather briefcase and handed Daniel Barkley a notarized copy of his
mother’s will . . .
16 | chapter 2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
Everett’s story isnt about the pro cess of being willed money. All the reader
needs to know is that Daniel is living off his mother’s inheritance hence, the
brief “telling” sentence of exposition.
Beginning fiction writers, however, tend to tell too much and show too
little. erefore, they need to develop and practice the techniques that writers
use to show their stories unfolding. (at is why Chapter  is devoted entirely
to scene- writing.)
Everett’s story contains a scene in which Daniel, an African American
man, goes to a white family’s house to see about buying their truck. To write
“Everyone watched Daniel warily as he arrived” would be to summarize to
tell” rather than “show.” While the statement might be accurate, the lack of
details prevents us from seeing Daniels arrival clearly in our minds.
Here is what Everett actually writes:
A woman in a house coat across the street watched from her porch, safe
inside the chain- link fence around her yard. From down the street a man
and a teenager, who were covered with grease and apparently engaged in
work on a torn- apart Dodge Charger, mindlessly wiped their hands and
studied him.
Rather than write a sentence that summarizes Daniels arrival, Everett provides
the raw sensory data that invites the reader to imagine the scene and arrive at
his or her own conclusion.
In fact, a common mistake is to provide conclusions or explanations rather
than the raw data itself. Compare these sentences that “tell” (which I’ve writ-
ten) with the raw data that “shows,” found in the actual works.
Gatsby, a wealthy man,
threw extravagant
parties each weekend.
Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons
arrived from a fruiterer in New York every
Monday these same oranges and lemons left his
back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. ere was
a machine in the kitchen which could extract the
juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a
little button was pressed two hundred times by
a butler’s thumb.
F. SF, The Great Gatsby
showing and telling | 17
Ever since the accident,
Leroy and Norma Jean
have been drifting
apart — or rather Norma
Jean has been drifting
away from Leroy,
spending less and less
time at home.
Before his accident, when Leroy came home he
used to stay in the
house with Norma Jean,
watching TV in bed and playing cards. She would
cook fried chicken, picnic ham, chocolate pie
his favorites. Now he is home alone much of the
time. In the mornings, Norma Jean disappears,
leaving a cooling place in the bed. She eats a cereal
called Body Buddies, and she leaves the bowl on the
table with the soggy tan balls floating in a milk
B A M, “Shiloh
e grandmother put a
high premium on how
people appeared; she
therefore made sure
always to dress with
class, even on a car trip.
e childrens mother still had on slacks and still
had her hair tied up in a green kerchief, but the
grandmother had on a navy blue dress with a small
white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs
white organdy trimmed with lace and at her
neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth
violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident,
anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know
at once that she was a lady.
F O’C, A Good Man
Is Hard to Find”
In that last example, my “conclusionalmost reads like detail. e first half
of the sentence makes a claim, and the second half of the sentence gives an
example to support the claim. Still, the sentence is unnecessarily abstract, espe-
cially the phrase “with class.” We cant visualize “class” (or what the grandmother
considers “class”), but we can visualize a navy blue dress with a small white dot
in the print and white organdy collars and cus trimmed with lace.
Dont take my word for it, though. Here are Flannery O’Connor’s own
words on the matter:
e first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with re-
ality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.
18 | chapter 2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
exercises: show with raw data
Now its your turn. For each conclusion provided, write an alternative
sentence (or paragraph) in which you provide the raw data that makes the
conclusion unnecessary.
1. My sister was always the favorite child.
2. Edna’s parents wasted their considerable fortune on frivolities that, in
time, they would come to regret.
3. The train terminal looked as if it hadn’t been open for years.
4. Jack threw the worst New Year’s Eve parties.
fiction writing as telepathy
Open any of the anthologized stories to just about any page, and youll find
examples of details that produce images in the reader’s mind. In Writing Fic
tion, Stephen King refers to this image transfer, beginning with the writer and
ending with the reader, as a form of telepathy.
Look, here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a
small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-
rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot- stub upon which it is contentedly
munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral .
Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare
notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.
In his  novel Atonement, Ian McEwans precocious young character
Briony marvels at the effect of fiction in these same terms:
A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page,
she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to the reader’s.
It was a magical pro cess, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder
at it.
Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing now. We’re stopping to wonder at it.
which details to include? | 19
exercise: describe an event
In a paragraph, describe an event at which many people are present, such as
a parade or a sporting event. Appeal to at least three senses, and ideally to
all five.
which details to include?
If you were to walk outside for ten seconds, whether you were in a bustling
city, a suburban street, or a pasture, your brain would absorb enough sensory
detail for a thousand- page book. Every day contains an infinite amount of raw
data. Although writing a story feels like an act of creation, in a sense you’re
always omitting far more than you could ever hope to include in the fictional
is is where the “relevant” part of “relevant detail” comes into play. What
do you include?
tip: remember all five senses
Most of us tend to describe the world visually. But a story with only visual
details will be a flatter fictional world than one that also includes smells,
tastes, sounds, and tactile sensations. Here is Paula Blake observing her
house hold’s typical disarray in Jill McCorkle’s story “Magic Words” on
page 262:
And now she looks around to see the table filled with cartons of Chinese
food from last night and cereal boxes from the morning, and the tele vi sion
blares from the other room. Her son is anxious to get to his sleepover;
her daughter has painted her toenails, and the fumes of the purple enamel
fill the air. Her husband is studying a map showing the progression of
killer bees up the coast. He speaks of them like hated relatives who are
determined to drop in, whether you want them to or not. Their arrival is
as inevitable as all the other predicted disasters that will wreak havoc on
human life.
20 | chapter 2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
Report what is newsworthy (the strange or unexpected)
Were I to describe a dog in a story, I wouldn’t mention that it had four legs
because four legs on a dog isnt news. What if it had three legs, however, or
whipped up a decent soufflé? at I’d mention.
In Stephen King’s example of telepathy, the numeral  marked in blue ink
on the rabbit’s back is strange and therefore newsworthy.
Sometimes newsworthiness is all about context. In John Updike’s story
A & P” (p. ), after some extremely detailed descriptions of three teenage
girls in their bathing suits, Sammy explains what makes the girls’ clothing
newsworthy and therefore worth describing:
You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach,
where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway,
and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights,
against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over
our checkerboard green- and- cream rubber- tile floor.
Report details that represent other details
Well- chosen details also tend to represent other unstated details. Karen Rus-
sells story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” (p. ) chronicles a
pack of girls, the children of werewolves, who are attending a boarding school
at their parents’ insistence in order to acquire the social skills they’ll need to
live among humans. Jeanette is progressing faster than the others, causing the
pack to turn on her. Here is a detail that Claudette, the story’s narrator, pro-
vides so that we’ll understand just how much Jeanette has changed:
She was the most successful of us, the one furthest removed from her origins.
Her real name was GWARR! but she wouldnt respond to this anymore.
Jeanette spiffed her penny loafers until her very shoes seemed to gloat.
Once we have that detail about the penny loafers, we really dont need much
more. We understand exactly why the other girls have come to hate and fear her.
nothing more than feelings | 21
exercises: choose relevant details
1. Go outside and, for fifteen minutes, quietly observe your surroundings,
writing down everything you observe. Then circle the descriptions that
(a) are unusual or surprising and (b) feel representative of other details.
2. Write a paragraph that captures the feel of the place, emphasizing and
expanding on the details you circled.
nothing more than feelings
Isnt that one of the main reasons why we read fiction to feel something? e
conveyance of feelings from writer to reader just might be the highest order of
fiction. And this, too, comes down to the details.
Raymond Carver, one of the most influential short- story writers of the
twentieth century, explains:
It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things
and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those
things a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a womans earring with
im mense, even startling power.
ere’s a moment toward the end of e Great Gatsby that perfectly illus-
trates the emotional power of the well- chosen detail. e scene takes place after
a car accident, when Tom and Daisy Buchanan are back at home and Gatsby
is loitering outside, keeping vigil, convinced that he’s protecting Daisy from a
potentially violent husband. He still believes or at least is holding out hope
that Daisy is going to leave Tom for him. Yet the scene, described by narrator
Nick Carraway, gives a different impression:
I walked back along the border of the lawn, traversed the gravel softly, and
tiptoed up the veranda steps. e drawing- room curtains were open, and
I saw that the room was empty. Crossing the porch where we had dined that
June night three months before, I came to a small rectangle of light which
I guessed was the pantry window. e blind was drawn, but I found a rift
at the sill.
Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table,
with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale.
22 | chapter 2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his
hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up
at him and nodded in agreement.
Witnessing this scene, we know better than Gatsby that this is no breakup,
but rather a reconciliation. e moment is quiet, domestic, even cozy. Tom and
Daisy have acted wildly irresponsibly, their behavior made possible because
they are superrich, yet their reconciliation is understated and ordinary at
their kitchen table, picking at leftovers. In Nicks words:
ere was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and
anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.
We know that Daisy and Tom will stay together because of those two bot-
tles of ale and that plate of cold fried chicken. We contrast this simple snack
to the orgiastic events that Gatsby has thrown all summer in an attempt to
impress Daisy and we can’t help feeling sorry for Gatsby, whose efforts were
all in vain and who is now maintaining his pointless vigil outside, still hold-
ing on to that last bit of hope, not yet allowing himself to see that his dream
is over.
Two bottles of ale. A plate of cold fried chicken. And, if there was any
doubt left, Toms hand casually covering Daisy’s as they talk. ose three details
convey show everything a reader needs to know, and evoke everything a
reader needs to feel.
exercises: use details to convey emotion
1. a. Write a paragraph depicting a character leaving a place he loves. Don’t
mention his feelings toward the place or the other people there.
Rather, let the details convey his emotions.
b. Now write a paragraph depicting a character leaving a place that he
can’t stand. Again, don’t mention his feelings toward the place or
the other people there. Rather, let the details convey his emotions.
2. Write a brief scene in which two characters observe something together
(for example, a couple eating in a restaurant, a police officer who has
details and the writer’s sensibility | 23
pulled over a motorist). Narrate the scene from the perspective of the
character who draws the correct conclusion from the observed details.
Then have the other character, who has observed the same details,
announce his or her incorrect conclusion to the narrator.
details and the writer’s sensibility
Writing details requires thinking in details having trust, or faith, in the phys-
ical worlds potential to carry meaning and emotion. So by all means, jump
right into the details when writing a first draft. You’ll need them, because the
details will lead you to character development, to plot, to setting . . . to just
about everything.
In Sherman Alexie’s story “is Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Ari-
zona” (p. ), the ashes of Victor’s father are placed into two receptacles:
Victor’s father, his ashes, fit in one wooden box with enough left over to
ll a cardboard box.
is particularly unceremonious depiction is made more overtly comic by the
line that follows:
“He always was a big man,” omas said.
Despite the comedy, the detail of the two boxes of ashes later becomes
important: When the young men arrive back home at the reservation, Victor
tells omas to keep one of the boxes “that contained half of his father.” Vic-
tor’s offer (and omas’s ac cep tance) cements their ties both to Victor’s father
and to each other and repairs, symbolically, some of the tribal ties that have been
severed in their community.
is key moment in the story is made possible by the seemingly minor
detail of there being two boxes of ashes.
Not only do details help you to express your story, but they also help to
define what it is youre trying to express. So as you write, be as specific as you
can, and remember that details aren’t an adornment to your story. ey are
your stor y.
24 | chapter 2 the extreme importance of relevant detail
exercises: use details to tell stories
1. Describe in detail a character performing an activity that you know about
but that most people don’t (for example, throwing out a runner at home
plate, playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” on the piccolo, repairing a lawn
2. Make a list of thirty facts about yourself: physical attributes, hobbies and
interests, specific fears, family history, or anything else. Stay away from
any abstract words. (No writing “I’m honest,” for instance, or “I’m a good
friend.) When you are done, circle the five facts that, if you were a
character in a story, would be most useful in giving the reader a clear
sense of that character.
3. Find four unusual objects in your home. Make all four objects “relevant
details” in the same story.
4. Describe an ordinary object (a telephone, a lamp) from the perspective of
a character who has never come across it before.
5. Describe a familiar place from the perspective of a character who has
just arrived there for the first time.
6. Find a photograph of someone in your family and write a detailed
physical description, based on the photo, that evokes a sense of the
person you’re describing.
T   Head & Shoulders shampoo ad campaign with the tagline
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
And what’s true for shampoo is generally true for fiction.
e beginning of a story presents a world of possibilities for a writer, and
each beginning will make a different first impression. e first sentence matters
because a story has exactly one of them. e same is true about a first paragraph
and a first scene.
what beginnings do
Beyond making a favorable first impression on the reader, the beginning of a
story typically needs to complete certain narrative tasks. Before long, a story
Introduce the characters and the relationships among them
Present the underlying situation and the beginning of conflict
Establish the tone, voice, and point of view (its storytelling approach)
Establish the setting
Give us a reason to keep reading
is might sound like a lot and it is but it neednt be overly compli-
cated. Consider fairy tales. e Brothers Grimm began many of their fairy
tales by conveying just this sort of information:
Once upon a time, in a large forest, close to a village, stood the cottage where
the Teddy Bear family lived. ey were not really proper Teddy Bears, for
starting your story
26 | chapter 3 starting your story
Father Bear was very big, Mother Bear was middling in size, and only
Baby Bear could be described as a Teddy Bear.
Right away, we’re told the story’s setting its time (the past, when magical
things happened) and place (the cottage, the village, the forest). We’re intro-
duced to the Bear family, their relationships, and their key characteristics. We’re
also introduced to the storytelling approach it is being told to us by an all-
knowing third- person narrator, in a fairly formal storytelling voice.
Here’s another one:
Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and his
two children. e boy’s name was Hansel and the girls name was Gretel.
He had but little to eat, and once, when a great famine came to the land,
he could no longer provide even their daily bread.
As with “Goldilocks and the ree Bears,” the beginning of “Hansel and
Gretel” lays out its setting as well as its principal characters and their relation-
ships to one another. It also immediately reveals the family’s predicament: A
famine has made this already poor family desperate for food.
Notice the similarities between the storytelling approach taken by the
Brothers Grimm and Kevin Brockmeier in his  story “A Fable with Slips of
White Paper Spilling from the Pockets” (p. ):
Once there was a man who happened to buy Gods overcoat. He was rum-
maging through a thrift store when he found it hanging on a rack by the
fire exit, nestled between a birch- colored fisherman’s sweater and a cotton
blazer with a suede patch on one of the elbows.
Here, too, we’re introduced immediately to the main character (the man), the
story’s initial setting (a thrift store), and its time (“once” like the Grimm fairy
tale, some unspecified time in the past). e narrative voice is somewhat less
formal than in the Grimm tale. e phrase “who happened to buy” sounds
casual, and even a little comic in the way it downplays what a reader would
assume is an extraordinary event. We also get a sense of the story’s underlying
situation and its conflict. A man has bought Gods overcoat. Surely this fact
must lead to something.
reveal key information (spill the beans) | 27
Brockmeier’s beginning illustrates one other thing that story openings do:
e beginning of a story gives the reader a sense of what kind of story
the story is going to be. It lays out the rules of the game.
When I was growing up, most board games printed their rules on the
inside of the box. Nowadays, board games usually come with instruction man-
uals. In any event, when you buy a new game, first you learn the rules and then
you play the game.
Stories dont work that way. Stories all stories have “rules,” but the
rules get revealed as the game is being played. As we read the beginning of a
story, we come to understand the storys rules what sort of things are per-
missible in the story’s world, and what aren’t. We also start to determine such
things as whether the story will be sincere, or ironic, or comic, or somber, and
whether the prose will be lyrical or workmanlike.
is laying out of a storys own rules is sometimes referred to as a
contract” — that this, the story establishes a contract with its readers. A highly
realistic story in which, on page , the mother ship lands and beams all the
characters aboard would be said to be violating the story’s contract.
From Brockmeier’s first two sentences, we anticipate a story that in terms
of content and tone will resemble a fable or fairy tale (“Once there was a
man . . .”), but one that also is rooted in the real, modern- day world of thrift
stores with fire exits. A story like Brockmeier’s includes highly realistic char-
acters and also fantastical elements, such as Gods overcoat, without violating
the contract or breaking the rules, whichever phrase you prefer.
reveal key information (spill the beans)
e opening sentence of “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from
the Pockets” is a wonderful example of the following maxim: It’s a good idea
to reveal key information, especially hard‑ toswallow information, as soon as
By telling us immediately that this is “Gods overcoat,” we, the readers,
arent allowed to argue the point. We cant say, “No, it isnt.” Because it is. Were
told it is and must accept that fact as part of the storys premise.
28 | chapter 3 starting your story
Perhaps the best example of front- loading hard- to- swallow information is
the first sentence of Franz Kafkas  novella e Metamorphosis:
Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettled dreams to find that he
had turned into a giant cockroach.
When we begin reading Kafka’s novella, we dont think: “No, Gregor didn’t.
People cant turn into cockroaches.” Of course we dont. Rather, we accept the
situation as presented and keep reading. Why? Because we’re told about it up
front. e author is making a first impression that says, “My story features a
man- cockroach. Deal with it.
So one answer to the question “How do I begin?” is to begin with what ever
information the reader needs most in order to appreciate or simply believe
your stor y.
e corresponding advice is that you shouldnt withhold vital information
as a secret until the end of your story. Sometimes new writers like to “surprise”
the reader at the end with shocking facts. e two characters are really a single
character with multiple personalities! e whole story was actually just a
dream! ese sort of “surprises” (I put the word in quotation marks because
they rarely surprise) will disappoint all but the most naïve reader.
Rather than mislead or trick the reader, give us the important information
up front. Make us care, and go from there.
exercise: inform & convince
Go online and find a weird news story, something that is factually true but
doesn’t seem plausible. (You can even Google “weird news.) Then write the
first paragraph of a short story, based on the news piece, that readers must
Even stories that do not feature heavenly outerwear or giant, sentient insects
often front- load information that the reader needs in order to appreciate and
care about what happens. Here is how Sherman Alexie begins his story “is Is
What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (p. ):
Just after Victor lost his job at the BIA, he also found out that his father
had died of a heart attack in Phoenix, Arizona. Victor hadn’t seen his father
reveal key information (spill the beans) | 29
in a few years, only talked to him on the telephone once or twice, but there
still was a ge ne tic pain, which was soon to be pain as real and immediate
as a broken bone.
Victor didnt have any money. Who does have money on a reservation,
except the cigarette and fireworks salespeople? His father had a savings
account waiting to be claimed, but Victor needed to find a way to get
to Phoenix. Victor’s mother was just as poor as he was, and the rest of his
family didnt have any use at all for him. So Victor called the Tribal Council.
Notice how this opening quickly establishes its characters, setting, and
tone. But beyond that, it gives us the story’s underlying situation (Victor must
deal with the practicalities of the death of his father, with whom he didn’t
have a close relationship, a problem compounded by his lack of funds to get to
Phoenix). Finally, this paragraph ends with the promise of immediate conflict,
specifically an uncomfortable meeting between Victor and the Tribal Coun-
cil. Surely the council wont simply agree to give Victor all the money he needs.
at would be too easy.
Notice, too, that in revealing certain information, Alexie arouses our cu-
riosity. We know that Victor hasnt seen his father in a few years, but we know
nothing of the nature of their rift. We know that Victor’s family “didn’t have
any use at all for him,” but we dont know why that is. By providing us with
information, Alexie causes us to ask questions about the story that we hope
will be answered before long.
e opening to Richard Bauschs story “e Man Who Knew Belle Starr”
looks, at first, like a relatively straightforward paragraph of exposition in
which basic information about McRae’s situation is revealed. Yet the story
withholds just enough information to create little mysteries that make us want
to keep reading:
On his way west McRae picked up a hitcher,[1] a young woman carry ing
a paper bag[2] and a leather purse, wearing jeans and a shawl which she
didnt take off, though it was more than ninety degrees out and McRae
had no air- conditioning.[3] He was driving an old Dodge Charger with a
bad exhaust system and one long crack in the wraparound windshield. He
pulled over for her, and she got right in, put the leather purse on the seat
between them, and settled herself with a paper bag on her lap between her
hands.[4] He had just crossed into Texas from Oklahoma. is was the
third day of the trip.
30 | chapter 3 starting your story
is opening raises a number of questions:
[] Why is McRae heading west? And why does he pick up the hitch-
[] What is in the bag?
[] Why wont she take off her shawl?
[] Seriously, what’s in the paper bag? It’s been mentioned twice already.
She sure is protective of it. Must be important.
exercise: spark curiosity
Write the opening paragraph or two of a story. Reveal necessary information
about your character and his or her situation but in doing so, see if you
can plant little mysteries the way that Bausch does in “The Man Who
Knew Belle Starr.” If you don’t already have a story in mind, here’s a
prompt: A character arrives at work convinced that he or she is about
to be fired.
establish the story’s stakes
Readers need a reason to keep reading. ey need to see fairly quickly why what
theyre reading matters. A story’s stakes are what make a story matter to the
story’s characters and to the reader.
“is Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” immediately provides
reasons to care about Victor and to understand why he wants what he wants.
e story matters to us because it matters to Victor, and because we sense that
Victor’s quest will not be an easy one. I’m not just referring to his lack of money.
I mean that already, in the story’s first paragraphs, we see Victor’s ambivalence.
On the one hand, he and his father werent close. at should make the mans
death a little easier on Victor. On the other hand, Victor feels “a ge ne tic pain,
which was soon to be pain as real and immediate as a broken bone.” Before the
end of the story, Victor will have to deal with his conflicting feelings about his
father and that internal voyage is what pulls us into the story at least as much
as the prospect of his trip to Phoenix.
establish the story’s stakes | 31
checklist » set the stakes
» What does your main character have to gain or lose in your story? What is at
stake for him or her?
» How can you introduce the stakes early in your story?
Tim O’Brien takes a different approach toward presenting the stakes at the
beginning of his story “On the Rainy River” (p. ) a direct appeal to the
is is one story I’ve never told before.
Quite simply, this sentence appeals to our desire to know somebody else’s in-
timate secrets. After reading that sentence, we naturally want to know () the
story that’s been kept secret and () why its been kept secret.
But the paragraph doesn’t end there. e stakes get raised:
Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to
my wife. To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrass-
ment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural
response to a confession.
So the narrator isnt simply revealing a long- held secret he’s making a confes-
sion. Confessions, as we know, tend to be juicy and worth sticking around for.
e paragraph continues:
Even now, I’ll admit, the story makes me squirm. For more than twenty
years I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and
so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I’m
hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams.
Considering that he’s kept the story from his wife and family for twenty
years, we can assume that this is no run- of- the- mill, I-forgot- to- take- out- the-
trash confession. is narrator seems thoughtful and honest, and he has a secret
that has been weighing heavily on him for twenty years. Now, finally, he’s going
to come clean and reveal his secret in the hopes of unburdening himself.
at’s something we’ll stick around to hear.
32 | chapter 3 starting your story
exercise: confess
Your main character has something to confess. What is it? Write out the
confession in his or her voice. Even if your story doesn’t end up including
the confession, you will have learned something important and almost
certainly useful about your characters inner life.
start with a break from routine
Imagine a story that begins like this:
When the alarm clock went off at : a.m., Phil hit the snooze button.
Nine minutes later, same as every weekday morning, he hit it again. Finally
he arose from his bed and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He
took a long, hot shower, got dressed in his suit and tie, and went down-
stairs to brew a pot of his favorite coffee hazelnut. He sat at the kitchen
table and looked out the window. e sun was just coming up. A neigh-
borhood kid rode his bike past the house, a stack of newspapers under his
arm. Phil didnt receive a paper. He read all his news online. After drain-
ing two cups of coffee, Phil put on his shoes and left the house. He arrived
at the office eleven minutes later, same as always. He said hello to his co-
workers and went into his office, where he began to check his email. Phil
was an insurance broker, and he received dozens of emails a day most,
it seemed, from angry clients. When he looked up from his computer, his
colleague, Sean, was standing in the doorway wearing a giraffe suit.
QUESTION: Where does this story actually begin?
CLUE: Where does Phils story diverge from his ordinary routine?
Phils story does not begin with the alarm clock going off. Beginning writ-
ers often confuse the beginning of a character’s day with the beginning of a
character’s story. ey are not the same.
In the sample story opening above, Phils morning routine is just that
routine. It isnt news. Part of the problem is that nothing particularly distin-
guishes Phil’s morning from that of millions of other hardworking citizens. e
bigger problem, though, is that it isnt even unusual for him. He awakes, he
showers, he drinks coffee, he drives to work. Does it matter that he prefers
start with a break from routine | 33
hazelnut- avored coffee to a basic French roast? Probably not. (If it does, we
can certainly work that detail into the story later.)
Just as it’s a mistake to begin this story in bed with the alarm clock going
off, it would be a mistake to start it with Phils drive to work. e drive, like
the hot shower and cup of coffee, is just a preface to what really matters.
e giraffe suit? Now that’s news:
One ursday morning, Phil looked up from his computer terminal to
find his colleague, Sean, standing in the doorway wearing a giraffe suit.
“So what do you think?” asked Sean, standing in the doorway of Phils
office dressed in a giraffe suit. Like Phil, Sean was an insurance broker.
e office had a strict dress code: suit, tie. No facial hair.
“What do I think about what?” Phil asked.
Yesterday it was a gorilla suit. e day before, an elephant. Seans wife had
left him over the weekend, and now all week he’d been coming to the office
dressed as one large mammal or another. Phil, who had always considered
Sean to be one of the more boring brokers at Midwest Insurance, couldn’t
decide if he was more amused or annoyed. He had dozens of emails to
return and calls to make. Time was money. Still, it was always interesting
to see a fellow human being crack open like an egg.
e story possibilities, and the ways of telling them, are endless. But they
all begin after Phils morning routine is over, at the moment when his routine
gets disrupted.
Stories, with few exceptions, are about the day that’s different — the day
that a man happens to buy Gods overcoat. e day that Victor loses his job,
learns about his father’s death, and decides he must travel to Phoenix, Arizona.
ey are about the disruption from one’s ordinary routine. A wise place to
begin, therefore, is at the moment when this disruption first announces itself.
(In e Metamorphosis, this difference actually does announce itself in Gregor’s
bed, because that’s when he realizes that he has turned into a giant cockroach.
In that one example, the beginning of a character’s day happens to coincide
34 | chapter 3 starting your story
with the beginning of his story. But Gregor’s morning, we can safely assume,
will be far from routine.)
Karen Russells story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”
(p. ) and ZZ Packer’s story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” (p. ) both take
place over a large portion of a school year. Note that neither story begins at
home, or on the long car ride to the academy. Instead, they both begin at their
respective institutions during that first moment that reveals how uprooted the
characters feel. In “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” freshman orientation is a
disorienting experience for Dina that immediately arouses her suspicion:
Orientation games began the day I arrived at Yale from Baltimore. In my
group we played heady, frustrating games for smart people. One game ap-
peared to be charades reinterpreted by existentialists; another involved
listening to rocks. en a freshman counsellor made everyone play Trust.
e idea was that if you had the faith to fall backward and wait for four
scrawny former high- school geniuses to catch you, just before your head
cracked on the slate sidewalk, then you might learn to trust your fellow-
students. Rus sian roulette sounded like a better way to go.
“No way,” I said. e white boys were waiting for me to fall, holding
their arms out for me, sincerely, gallantly. “No fucking way.
e opening paragraph of “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”
reveals just how out- of- place the girls are upon arriving at their new school. It
reveals, too, how at first the narrator considers herself one of a pack. ere is no
“I” perspective, but rather a “we,” something that will begin to shift later in the
story as the narrator, Claudette, develops her own identity apart from the pack:
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor- thumping joy. We forgot
the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we’d made
to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt. We tore through the austere
rooms, overturning dresser drawers, pawing through the neat piles of the
Stage  girls’ starched underwear, smashing light bulbs with our bare fists.
ings felt less foreign in the dark. e dim bedroom was windowless and
odorless. We remedied this by spraying exuberant yellow streams all over
the bunks. We jumped from bunk to bunk, spraying. We nosed each other
midair, our bodies buckling in kinetic laughter. e nuns watched us from
the corner of the bedroom, their tiny faces pinched with dis plea sure.
consider starting in medias res | 35
e place you start your story has a lot to do with what your story is ulti-
mately about. Karen Russell could have started her story the day that Claudette
first learns that there will be a dance with the boys’ school when Claudette
first understands that her socialization will be put to the test. Or it could have
begun even later, at the dance itself. Instead, Russell begins when the girls
first arrive at their school. e story therefore covers months instead of days or
hours, making it less about a single event and more about the steady erosion of
Claudette’s ties to her roots her pack as she becomes indoctrinated into
civilized” society.
Unlike Russells story, which covers months, John Updike’s story “A & P”
(p. ) begins just minutes before it ends. Maybe Updike could have begun
it earlier, when Sammy first started working at the grocery store. In that ver-
sion, we might see more of Sammy’s transition from child to adult and might
better understand how Lengels words to Queenie were the latest in a series of
uncaring actions committed by Sammy’s boss, how they were the straw that
broke the camels back and led to Sammy’s quitting his job.
But that isnt the story that Updike wrote. “A & P” narrates just a few
minutes in the grocery story on a ursday afternoon. It begins when the three
girls enter the store and ends moments after they buy their herring snack and
leave. Beginning so close to the end, the story emphasizes Sammy’s sudden,
nearly inexpressible flash of insight about adulthood conveyed in the story’s
final phrase: “and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going
to be to me hereafter.
exercise: choose the day that’s different
Jot down the major events in your main characters life. Where does your
main character “break from routine” for the specific story that you want to
tell? Write that opening sentence, paragraph, and page.
consider starting in medias res
Brockmeier’s and Alexie’s stories both begin with the narrator providing nec-
essary information to the reader using exposition. is is what the third ex-
ample of the giraffe- suit story does, as well:
36 | chapter 3 starting your story
Yesterday it was a gorilla suit. e day before, an elephant. Seans wife had
left him over the weekend, and now all week he’d been coming to the of-
fice dressed as one large mammal or another.
However, a story that begins in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “into
the middle of things,” drops us well, into the middle of things. Here are a
few stories that do just that from the first sentence:
He had been reading to her from Rilke, a poet he admired, when she fell
asleep with her head on his pillow.
R C, The Students Wife”
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work.
J B, “Sonnys Blues
I was pop u lar in certain circles, says Aunt Rose.
G P, “Goodbye and Good Luck
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.
J U, A & P”
Look back at the first paragraph of “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by
Wolves.” Even though that story begins at the start of the school year, Karen
Russell’s story begins in medias res, dropping us into the middle of the action.
Who are the “Stage  girls”? What are the nuns doing there? And what, exactly,
is this “pack” being referred to? ese questions will all get sorted out but
not right away.
e practice of beginning a story in medias res isnt new: Homer did it
in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. More recently, so did George Lucas in the
original Star Wars movie which, we’re told right away, is “episode four” and
therefore truly the middle of things. Star Wars begins with a thrilling battle
scene before we have any clue who is fighting or what the battle is about. Because
we havent yet been introduced to the characters and situation, a story that
begins in medias res often causes momentary confusion. Yet it has the benefit
of urgency and, done well, can generate in the reader an oddly satisfying sensa-
tion of not quite keeping up with the story. Most action/adventure films begin
in medias res because of a need to hook the viewer with something immedi-
ately thrilling. Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with Indiana Jones skillfully evad-
ing a booby- trapped cave, then stealing a huge jewel, then running like mad
when a giant boulder threatens to crush him. At this point, we dont know
anything about the characters or the plot, but we’re intrigued because the events
themselves are so gripping.
A story that begins in medias res eventually will need to supply the missing
pieces. A reader (or viewer) will be willing to remain confused for only so long
before becoming frustrated. e second scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark features
Indiana Jones back on safer ground, at the university where he teaches anthro-
pology. In this second scene, we learn all the necessary information that would
have been supplied up front in a “once upon a time” opening.
Becky Hagenston begins her story “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow” (p. )
in medias res. A “once upon a time” beginning might read:
Donna and Jeremy, her boyfriend of three weeks, were trying to name
their new cat. e cat used to belong to a woman they’d robbed and killed.
Now it was theirs. ey were holed up in a motel room now, and Donna
was feeling an increased urgency to name the cat. at was because Jeremy
had said, “If we dont have a name by tomorrow morning, it’s bye- bye,
Mister Kitty.” He didnt like when something didnt have a name. He felt
it was bad luck.
Instead, Hagenston drops us into the middle of things:
“Midnight, Licorice, Shadow,” she says. “Cocoa, Casper, Dr. Livingston.
Alfred Hitchcock,” he says. “Dracula. Vincent Price.
ey have had the cat for nearly three days.
“Cinderblock?” she tries. “Ice bucket?”
It’s useless. e harder they try to think of a name, the more elusive it
“Tomorrow, then,” Jeremy says. “If we dont have a name by tomorrow
morning, it’s bye- bye, Mr. Kitty. No offense, Cupcake,” he tells the cat,
and gives it a quick rub on the head.
Donna looks at the animal, sprawled on the orange motel carpet like a
black bearskin rug. One of his fangs is showing. His monkey paws are
kneading at the air.
consider starting in medias res | 37
38 | chapter 3 starting your story
We dont learn for seven paragraphs that they’re in a motel room, and we
wont learn for several pages about the murder, or about Jeremy’s superstition
about things not having names. e story as Hagenston begins it emphasizes
the oppressiveness of the relationship between Donna and Jeremy, and the
urgency they feel, especially Donna. She’s desperate to name that cat. Why? we
wonder, and we keep reading to find out.
exercise: start at the beginning or middle
Write the first page of a story with a “once upon a time” opening, and then
write the first page of the same story beginning in medias res. If you need
a prompt, write about the time when you got into the most trouble as a
child (over age ten). To help fictionalize the story, write it in the third
person and change all names.
whose perspective should you choose?
Knowing what you want to write about isnt the same as knowing whose per-
spective to tell it from. Your choice will inform just about every other aspect
of your story, just as your version of the first day of school is no doubt different
from your teacher’s.
checklist » decide on a perspective
Chapter 4 provides an in- depth discussion of point of view; for now, here are some
things to consider:
» Who has the most at stake? The most to gain or lose? Whoever is most heavily
invested in the outcome of your story might well be the natural character to
designate as your point- of- view character.
» On the other hand, some characters don’t make especially good narrators, such
as very young children and those with extremely limited perspectives or com-
munication skills. A point-of-view character who is (1) delusional, (2) drunk, or (3)
a dog presents challenges that are extremely hard to overcome. In the novel The
Great Gatsby, Gatsby doesn’t tell his own story. He is no slouch, but he can’t tell
other information to convey sooner rather than later | 39
his own story because he would have neither the words nor the perspective.
(Plus, by the end of the novel he’s dead.) Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story be-
cause Nick possesses the narrative and interpretive skills that Gatsby lacks, as
well as the capacity to change.
» Is your story less about a single character than about several people or a com-
munity? If so, then your story might best be told from several characters’
perspectives, as in Jill McCorkle’s story “Magic Words” (p. 262).
other information to convey sooner rather than later
Early on in your story probably within the first page or two it’s usually a
good idea to provide some basic information about the characters.
checklist » establish the basics
» Your main character’s name. Yes, some stories never name their characters, using
“he” or “she” or the man” or “the womanthroughout. Ernest Hemingway’s
story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a commonly cited example. However, the
decision not to name your character should be just that a decision rather
than an oversight. (The main character in Kevin Brockmeier’s story “A Fable with
Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets” (p. 211) goes unnamed. Why do
you think that is?) In general, readers like to know the names of the characters
in a story, and not naming them will not make them more universal. (See “Details
and Engaging the Reader” in Chapter 2.)
» Your main character’s sex. It can be very disorienting for a reader to assume
that a story’s main character is female and then, on page 9, to learn that he is
» The basic relationships between characters. A story that begins
Bill kissed Brittany on the cheek and went off with Sonya to get married.
is confusing because we don’t yet know Brittany’s relationship to Bill or Sonya.
Instead, consider something like:
40 | chapter 3 starting your story
Bill kissed Brittany, his youn gest sister, on the cheek and went off with
Sonya to get married.
Bill kissed Brittany, his girlfriend of eleven years, on the cheek and went
off with Sonya to get married.
These are two entirely different stories. Readers deserve to know which it is so
that we will create the proper picture in our minds.
ultimately, its your call
When does your character’s routine get interrupted? What are your story’s stakes?
What key information needs to be revealed? What are the benefits of beginning
either “once upon a time” or in medias res? Once youve given these matters
some thought, youll be well on your way to making a strong and strongly
favorable — first impression.
Whenever you work on a new story, bear in mind that the beginning might
well change. As you write, your understanding of your own story grows, and
that requires a rethinking of the beginning. You might change the point of view
or change the tense from present to past. You might change the voice, making
it more formal or less formal. Sometimes, the beginning the first page or
section will end up staying in place all the way through to the final draft. But
maybe not. You might end up using the first attempt elsewhere in the story, or
maybe it will need to get cut completely once you realize that a different begin-
ning would be better. Always, though, youll learn something about your story
from that first attempt so the effort isnt ever wasted.
e good news about fiction writing is that you can unmake or revisit your
decisions as you continue to work. Nothing is irreversible. Remember: We
arent performing surgery. We arent defusing bombs. If we make a misstep,
nobody is going to die. In fact, we will make missteps, guaranteed. Most of the
time, they arent actually missteps. ey’re necessary steps that is, necessary
parts of a creative pro cess.
So start your story already!
ultimately, it’s your call | 41
exercises: try a variety of openers
1. As with so many other aspects of fiction writing, our best teachers are the
stories and novels we read. Seeing how other authors begin their stories,
we learn to see what works and why. Read the first page (or section) of
every story in the anthology. Which is your favorite? Why? Now try to
write an opening of your own based on the opening that you liked
(using all of your own story’s content, of course).
2. Write ten different first sentences for your story- in- progress. Make them
truly different from one another. Start one with dialogue, another with
a character’s interior thought, another with an emphasis on setting.
Only after writing all ten sentences should you read them over and
start to decide which you like best, and why.
3. Write the same story opening in vastly different styles. For example:
a. Begin with a one- sentence paragraph of at least 150 words.
b. Write the same basic paragraph using sentences of no more than
5 words each.
c. Begin with a moderately long sentence (2030 words); follow it with
a short one (7 words or fewer), then a long one, then a short one.
d. Begin the same story with highly formal language. (But play it
straight. No satire.)
e. Begin the same story with casual, vernacular language.
4. Begin with a claim about the world that is germane to your story for
example, “There are two kinds of drivers” or “Dogs should never, ever
be let off leash.” Then continue the paragraph.
5. Begin your story with a detailed description of an image something
in the physical world that will be central to your story.
C. P. Set-
ting. Point of view. Voice.
No book about fiction
would be complete without
a discussion of these fun-
damental concepts. Yet the
reason that this book isn’t
or ga nized around the ele-
ments of fiction is that no-
body, as far as I know, writes fiction element by element: first character, then
plot, then point of view. Or first plot, then setting, then character. Or any
other order. at’s because there is no plot without character, just as there’s
no setting without point of view. e elements of fiction are interdependent,
even inseparable. Henry James argued this point as far back as  when he
A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism,
and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the
parts there is something of each of the other parts.
To see this concept in action, try the following exercise from John Gardner’s
book e Art of Fiction ():
Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detest-
able old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.
theme tone/voice
point of view
working with
the elements of fiction
character | 43
At first glance, this might appear to be an exercise about setting. But the exer-
cise also shows how description is colored by the consciousness of whoever is
doing the describing: in other words, character and point of view. It also tests
our ability to establish tone, and introduce themes, and maybe even lay the
groundwork for plot.
Gardner’s exercise makes us see that when we write one element of fiction,
we’re pretty much writing them all.
As you read this chapter, remember that no element stands alone. Henry
James will be glad that you did.
Unless youre doing something highly experimental, your story will have people
in it. e most important person is referred to as the “main character” or “pro-
tagonist” or sometimes the “focal character.” e pro cess of establishing the
people in your story is called “characterization.Here are the primary methods
that writers go about it.
1. Appearance. We learn about characters from what they look like, what they
wear, and what the characters themselves make of their own appearance, as in
this description of Sanjeev, the focal character in Jhumpa Lahiris story “is
Blessed House” (p. ):
In the mirror of the medicine cabinet he inspected his long eyelashes like
a girl’s, Twinkle liked to tease. ough he was of average build, his cheeks
had a plumpness to them; this, along with the eyelashes, detracted, he
feared, from what he hoped was a distinguished profile. He was of average
height as well, and had wished ever since he had stopped growing that
he were just one inch taller. For this reason it irritated him when Twinkle
insisted on wearing high heels, as she had done the other night when they
ate dinner in Manhattan.
Notice how this description does more than merely describe Sanjeev’s physi-
cal appearance so that we can imagine what he looks like; from his outer
appearance, we also learn about his inner life: He feels diminished by his wife,
Tw in k le.
44 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
2. Accessories. A wealthy, high- powered lawyer who drives a brand- new Porsche
is a different character from one who drives a Honda Civic with , miles
on it. A character who carries a photograph of his new girlfriend in his wallet is
different from one who carries a picture of his ex- girlfriend who dumped him
years earlier. Objects in stories have meaning, and by detailing a character’s
objects, you give the reader insight into the character.
3. What a character says (and how he says it).
“Would you please pass the ketchup?”
“Pass the damn ketchup. Now.
Two different personalities? You bet.
4. What a character does (and how he does it). Actions speak louder than words,
no? e character who demands ketchup seems rude until you compare him
to the character who climbs across the table, knocking plates and glasses out
of his way, to reach the bottle himself.
e man who proposes to his girlfriend in a quiet park is different from
the man who proposes by way of the JumboTron during the Super Bowl.
5. Personal history (backstory). Our pasts inuence us. e same is true for fic-
tional characters. In “is Blessed House,” Sanjeev is confused by his feelings
of irritation toward his wife, given the attributes he’s been raised to value in a
potential spouse:
Now he had one, a pretty one, from a suitably high caste, who would soon
have a master’s degree. What was there not to love?
Its helpful when writing fiction to remember the incredibly complex rela-
tionship between past and present in real life. “B” doesn’t always follow “A
when we’re talking about human beings. e child of an abusive parent might
grow up to become an abuser herself, or she might campaign against child
abuse. She might distance herself from her past and try not to think about it,
or maybe she’ll become an animal person in order to avoid forming deep hu-
man connections.
In life and in fiction, our pasts influence who we are, but not in any pre-
dictable way. It all depends on the character.
character | 45
6. What others say about or to a character. For most of Harper Lee’s
 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch the narrator and young
protagonist has nothing but bad things to say about her neighbor Mrs.
Dubose. “Mrs. Dubose was plain hell,” she claims early on. And later: “e
neighborhood opinion was unanimous that Mrs. Dubose was the meanest old
woman who ever lived.
e novel gives plenty of examples to back up Scout’s impression. Yet after
Mrs. Dubose dies, Scout’s father, Atticus, claims, “She was the bravest person
I ever knew.
Its a surprising pronouncement. Yet we’ve come to view Atticus Finch as
the books moral center, and certainly the most mature character. So when
Atticus makes his character assessment of Mrs. Dubose, we, like Scout, have
no choice but to reconsider our impression of her.
7. What a character thinks. Imagine anksgiving dinner: the extended family
three generations — seated at the dining room table, the smell of cider warming
on the kitchen stove. Outside there are snow flurries, but inside is warm and cozy.
One character looks around the table and thinks:
I’ve waited all my life for this.
Another chews on a forkful of turkey and thinks:
I’ve got to get away from here.
When you reveal a character’s thoughts, you reveal the character. (See
“Interiority” in Chapter  for more about writing characters’ thoughts.)
8. What the story’s narrator tells us. In “is Blessed House,we’re given the
following information about Sanjeev:
After graduating, he moved from Boston to Connecticut, to work for a
firm near Hartford, and he had recently learned that he was being consid-
ered for the position of vice president. At thirty- three he had a secretary of
his own and a dozen people working under his supervision who gladly
supplied him with any information he needed.
Exposition, even coming from a third- person narrator, is rarely objective.
It not only relays information but also reveals somebody’s feelings about the
46 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
information being relayed. (See “Point of View” later in this chapter.) Sanjeev
has a secretary “of his own.” His subordinates “gladly” supply him with infor-
mation. e depiction, in conveying facts about Sanjeev’s professional life, also
communicates the mans pride in his own accomplishments.
tip: make your characters believable
For believability, give your likable characters flaws and your unlikable
characters redeeming qualities. A character who seems perfect in
every way will come across as too perfect to the reader and, ironically,
imperfect unrealistic, boring, or just plain annoying. And a relent-
lessly villainous villain will seem cartoonish and less than believable.
For believability and complexity, give your characters some opposing
or surprising traits. Maybe your fisherman is allergic to seafood. Your
panhandler has the name of Francis Alexander III. Your ballet dancer’s
happiest memory is the winter when her leg was broken and she
couldn’t dance.
The challenge of characterization
As you go about developing your characters, remember that the purpose — and
the challenge of characterization is to create fictional people who seem as
flesh- and- blood as the people we know in our real lives. is is no easy task,
because what makes people flesh- and- blood, above all else, is that they can’t
ever be reduced to a set of characteristics. People, no matter how much we know
about them, are mysterious, unpredictable, surprising creatures. To imply less
in fiction is to discount the complexity of being human. In his essay “e Magic
Show,” Tim O’Brien writes:
Characterization is achieved not through a “pinning down” pro cess but
rather through a pro cess that opens up and releases mysteries of the human
spirit. e object isnt to “solve” a character to expose some hidden se-
cret but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself. Too often, I
character | 47
believe, characterization fails precisely because it attempts to characterize.
It narrows; it pins down; it explicates; it solves. . . . e magician’s credo is
this: dont give away your secrets. Once a trick is explained once a secret
is divulged the world moves from the magical to the mechanical.
As you go about creating your characters, let them surprise you from time
to time. Let them befuddle you, madden you with their inconsistencies, and
take your breath away the way real people do.
exercises: develop your characters
1. Write a two- page story that focuses on a single character. Use all eight
methods of characterization described above.
2. Write down answers to the following questions about your main
character, and ideally all the major characters in the story you’re working
on. Take your time with these, and make your answers as specific as
possible. While not every answer will necessarily end up in your finished
story, knowing the answers will help you better understand your
a. What is your character’s full name?
b. What is your characters most noticeable physical characteristic?
c. What article of clothing do you most associate with your character?
d. What object, small enough to be held or kept in a pocket, does your
character habitually carry around? What is the significance of this
e. What specific smell, or smells, do you associate with your character?
f. What does your character habitually say? Where did your character first
come across this catchphrase?
g. What is your characters happiest memory?
is questionnaire, used and modified with permission, is adapted from one in Jesse Lee Kerchevals
book Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure ().
48 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
h. What is your character’s saddest/worst memory?
i. If your character were about to die, what would be his or her last
j. What, specifically, does your character imagine his or her life will be like
five years down the road?
Plot is what happens in a story usually meaningful events of a causal nature.
Just as a sentence must have a verb, a story must have something happen.
e reason has to do with the close relationship between character and
plot: Plot is the way that characters get tested and reveal their truest, deepest
When Tandolfo, the main character of Richard Bauschs story “Tandolfo
the Great” (p. ), buys a multitiered wedding cake in anticipation of ask-
ing the woman he loves to marry him, he is acting on his desires. But he can’t
simply go over to the young womans house rst he must perform his magic
act at a bratty kids birthday party. e party tests him; the way Tandolfo
handles himself at the party reveals his character to us and causes him to change
his plans by the end of the story.
Because of plot’s close relationship to story structure, a more detailed
discussion of plot is found in Chapter , “Or ga niz ing Your Story: Form and
Structure.” ere, we will discuss the elements of plot, including causality, con-
flict, and change. For now, bear in mind that when you think about plot, you’re
also, always, thinking about character a point made by Henry James in “e
Art of Fiction” when he wrote:
What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but
the illustration of character?
exercise: connect plot & character
Choose a story from the anthology, and write down aspects of the plot that
help us better understand the main character. Then write down aspects of
the main character that contribute to moving the plot forward.
setting | 49
e fundamental purpose of setting is to present a believable and vivid world
for the reader to imagine. But settings can, and should, do more than simply
convey when and where a story takes place.
In her  essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty wrote, “Location is the
crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s
here? Whos coming?and that is the heart’s field.
At the least, your story’s setting(s) should do the following:
Contribute to the storys mood
Contribute to the storys themes
Contribute to characterization
Present plot possibilities
Ask yourself this question: If you changed your story’s setting, how much
would it change the story? If the answer is “not much,” then either you should
give the setting a more necessary relationship to the material, or you should
change the setting to one that would better serve the story.
Anders, the main character in Tobias Wols story “Bullet in the Brain”
(see p. ), would behave with sarcastic nastiness just about anywhere but
the bank where the story is set serves several purposes. Most obvious is plot: It
gets robbed. is setting also provides several opportunities for Anders to re-
veal his relentlessly critical personality, both in his dealings with the robbers
and other customers and in the way he takes the time to scrutinize, and find
fault with, the big ceiling mural in the middle of the robbery:
e domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose
fleshy, toga- draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance years earlier
and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize
the paint er’s work. It was even worse than he remembered.
QUESTION: Why is there a mural on the banks ceiling?
ANSWER: So that Anders can scrutinize it and find fault.
I’ve noticed that certain locations come up again and again in student
drafts a partial list includes kitchens, cars, restaurants, and office cubicles.
50 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
Plenty of stories have been published with these settings. Yet too often in be-
ginners’ hands these settings do little more than provide a place for the story
to unfold, whereas a different setting might be more useful or relevant.
Ernest Hemingway’s  short story “Hills Like White Elephants” has
very little plot, and the story consists almost entirely of a conversation between
its two main characters. But the remote train station, with tracks leading into
the distance in either direction, emphasizes the fact that the couple is at a cross-
roads in their relationship. On the near side of a river, where they wait, the land
is described as having no shade and no trees. And the other side?
Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of
the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. e shadow of a cloud
moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
So one side is barren, the other side fertile. e landscape thus becomes a
physical representation that is, a symbol of the choice that the girl must
make: whether or not to have an abortion.
When you go about choosing your settings, take time to consider what will
most meaningfully contribute to the story.
exercises: experiment with setting
1. Choose one of the anthologized stories and rewrite a scene, changing
the setting to someplace significantly different. Feel free to deviate
from the original storys plot as much as necessary.
2. For every scene in the story you’re writing, brainstorm three alternate
settings that would significantly affect each scene.
3. Choose one scene from your story- in- progress and write it with two
different meteorological conditions (such as rain, snow, fog, or eclipse).
If your scene takes place indoors, change the environment for example,
the lighting or temperature. Or move the scene outside.
point of view (pov)
Point of view (POV) is the narrative perspective and psychological distance
from which a story is told.
First- person (“I”) POV
In a first- person story, one of the characters, usually the main character, relates
the story directly to the reader. Consequently, everything in a first- person story,
both what gets told and how it gets told, comes from and is limited to that
character’s perspective. An appealing aspect of the first- person POV is exactly
this close identification with a single character who narrates the story in his or
her own voice.
Subjectivity and reliability
When you or I tell a story, we do so subjectively. We can’t help it: We’re human.
First- person narrators, too, are influenced by their own experiences and per-
sonalities. ey can be unintentionally biased, or lack the facts necessary for
objectivity, or be downright liars. But narrators nearly always have an agenda
that makes them less than fully objective.
Part of understanding a story involves inferring the degree to which the
narrator, intentionally or not, is distorting the truth.
For example, here’s my own first- person story:
When I was in high school, I was so pop u lar that all the girls were too
intimidated to date me. I’d say, “How about we go to a movie on Friday?”
and every girl I asked would say something like “You must be joking” or
Absolutely not” or “Fat chance, weirdo.” ey were obviously intimidated
by me. ey knew how pop u lar I was.
You might conclude that I’m trying awfully hard to convince the reader (and
probably myself) of something that just isnt so. In literary terms, I’m being
an “unreliable narrator.
e term, however, implies that there are reliable (completely truthful and
unbiased) narrators and this is rarely, if ever, so. Nor are “unreliable narra-
tors” always unrelentingly obtuse; our blind spots are rarely everywhere. But
first- person narrators, just like living, breathing people, have reasons for telling
their stories, and these reasons color the stories they tell. Often what’s most
Of course, this story is merely a fictional example. In real life, I was incredibly pop u lar in high school.
I really was. You can believe me now, since footnotes never lie.
point of view (pov) | 51
52 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
compelling about the stories we read and, ideally, the stories we write is
precisely this gap between the objective facts and the distorted worldview that
the narrator constructs in order to live with him- or herself.
Eudora Welty’s  short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” is narrated by
Sister, who voices strong beliefs about exactly how and why she’s been wronged.
Here is the story’s opening paragraph:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa- Daddy and Uncle Rondo until
my sister Stella- Rondo just separated from her husband and came back
home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when
he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself ” photos, and
Stella- Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one- sided. Bigger on the one side
than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same.
Stella- Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and
for that reason she’s spoiled.
We immediately assume that there’s another side to this story very likely
a more accurate side. (Was Sister really getting along fine with the rest of the
family before Stella- Rondo returned? Is Stella- Rondo actually spoiled? And if
so, is it for the reason that Sister gives?) Because Sister is our narrator, however,
the other side of the story must be inferred from what Sister tells us.
The “double I”
A first- person story always encompasses two time periods: () the time when
the story takes place and () the time when the story is being narrated. Some-
times, both times are made explicit. J. D. Salinger’s  novel e Catcher in
the Rye takes place during the week when Holden Caulfield is expelled from
Pencey Prep. e novel is being narrated six months later, when Holden is
recuperating in a medical facility. When the novel takes place, Holden is an
emotional mess. When he narrates the story, he’s a little older, wiser, and
more clear- headed. He’s had six months to reflect on his own story and make
some sense out of it.
A first- person story wont always make explicit this time lag between the
events and the telling of those events, but the lag is nearly always present. is
means that there’s always the “I” who experiences the story and the “I” the
same person, but older who narrates it. is older, wiser “I” our narrator
often has thoughts and insights unavailable to the younger “I.
When you write a sentence like “I didnt know then that . . . ,” youre
making use of what some writers have called the “double I,” giving readers
access into the mind of the character both then and now.
Although the events in To Kill a Mockingbird begin when Scout Finch is
five years old, Scout’s narration immediately employs the “double I” to reveal
that she is in fact an adult looking back at her childhood. e novel begins:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at
the elbow. When it healed, and Jems fears of never being able to play foot-
ball were assuaged, he was seldom self- conscious about his injury. His left
arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the
back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his
thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we
sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
e novel doesn’t ever tell us exactly how old the grown Scout is when she’s tell-
ing her story, but as we read, we know we’re in the hands of a narrator who has
had plenty of time to reflect on the formative events from her youth and the
proper way in which to tell them.
exercise: think about pov
For each first- person story in the anthology, what is the lag between the
story’s events and the telling of those events? Which stories make the most
explicit use of the “double I”? Why do they use it?
Second- person (“you”) POV
In the second- person point of view, you play the role of the story’s main char-
acter. Sound strange? Of course it is that’s why it’s rarely used. While there’s
nothing wrong with writing in the second person, this point of view usually
draws attention to itself in a way that first- and third- person POVs typically
point of view (pov) | 53
54 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
Actually, there are two types of second- person POVs. One is a bit like the
first- person POV, except that the pronoun has changed from “I” to “you.” Jay
McInerneys use of the second- person POV, along with the present tense, in his
 novel Bright Lights, Big City, creates the odd effect of dropping us the
reader into the unfamiliar world, and body, of his protagonist:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time
of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is
entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub
talking to a girl with a shaved head.
e other type of second- person POV is what we can call the “instructional
point of view. Lorrie Moore’s  story “How to Become a Writer” (p. )
humorously parodies the step- by- step advice of the self- help book genre:
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie
star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World.
Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age say, fourteen. Early,
critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long
haiku sequences about thwarted desire.
Third- person (“he” or she”) POV
In this perspective, the separation between narrator and character is most
apparent. Unlike in the first- person POV, the narrator isnt a character in the
story. e author determines how much the narrator knows, which characters’
thoughts the narrator will have access to, and what voice the narrator will
employ to tell the story.
ere are three primary varieties of third- person points of view: objective,
omniscient, and limited omniscient.
Objective POV
In the objective point of view, the narrator gives readers access only to factual
information (exposition) and what can be directly observed as if by a movie
camera that can film long shots and close- ups, but never a shot from inside a
character’s head. An objective narrator doesn’t report on characters’ thoughts
or feelings.
“Hills Like White Elephants” is a commonly cited example of a story told
in the objective POV. Here is how the story begins:
e hills across the valley of the
Ebro were long and white. On
this side there was no shade and
no trees and the station was be-
tween two lines of rails in the
sun. Close against the side of
the station there was the warm
shadow of the building and a cur-
tain, made of strings of bamboo
beads, hung across the open door
into the bar, to keep out flies. e
American and the girl with him
sat at a table in the shade, outside
the building. It was very hot and
the express from Barcelona would
come in forty minutes. It stopped
at this junction for two minutes
and went to Madrid.
“What should we drink?” the
girl asked. She had taken off her
hat and put it on the table.
“It’s pretty hot,” the man said.
“Let’s drink beer.
e storys setting, particularly
the dichotomy between the two
sides of the valley, comes from
our objective narrator. We’re to
assume that the setting carries
thematic meaning.
We learn basic facts of the story
through exposition: We’re in
Spain. It’s hot. A couple is waiting
for a train to Madrid.
A possible power discrepancy
between these two people is being
implied: He’s described as “the
man,” she as “the girl.” And he’s
the one who chooses what they’ll
Before long, the couple begins to talk about the topic theyve been avoid-
ing: whether or not the girl should have an abortion, and what this operation
would mean for their relationship. But because they never mention the word
abortion” and because we’re denied access to the characters’ thoughts, the
effect is as if we’re overhearing a conversation never intended for our ears:
e girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two
of the strings of beads.
And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people
that have done it.
point of view (pov) | 55
56 | chapter 4 working with the elements of fiction
“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterwards they were all so happy.
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you dont have to. I
wouldnt have you do it if you didnt want to. But I know it’s perfectly
Omniscient POV
An omniscient narrator gives us access not only to the story’s exterior world
but also to the minds of the story’s characters. e omniscient narrator is some-
times called “godlike” because it knows, and can report on, everything:
In Alabama, a tornado touches down.
Within minutes, things begin to change. Tiny green tomatoes ripen
instantly. Chickens lose their feathers. Whole cotton fields spoil; their
curled leaves smell like rust. e blotch on the TV map turns blue to red
in three counties. Cars scatter like grass clippings.
A woman in Montgomery opens her cupboard to find every dish cracked
in thirds. A man in Mobile gets up from his recliner just as it bursts its
seams, spews white stuffing into the living room. People all over the state
report prank phone calls hang- ups. Alarms engage for no reason.
KM, “Not People, Not This
Omniscient narrators can zip from character to character, telling us what
they know and what they dont know. e omniscient POV rarely stays in one
character’s perspective for long, so it tends to be used when the story’s primary
concern is a group of people, or even a whole community, rather than a single
Limited omniscient POV (third‑ person limited POV)
e difference between “omniscience” and “limited omniscience” is merely one
of degree. e limited omniscient story is typically told by a narrator with access
to the thoughts and feelings of a single character:
He’d thought he would put the clown outfit on, deliver the cake in per-
son, an elaborate proposal to a girl he’s never even kissed. He’s a little un-
balanced, and he knows it.
R B, “Tandolfo the Great” (p. )
In some limited omniscient stories, like Jill McCorkle’s “Magic Words” (p. ),
the perspective shifts, section by section, among a small number of characters.
But each entire section sticks with a single character’s perspective.
Narrative distance in third‑ person stories
A third- person story can travel into a character’s mind just as in a first- person
story, but it can also provide psychological distance, or an understanding of
the story that is unavailable to the character himself as in the opening sen-
tence of Kevin Brockmeier’s story “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling
from the Pockets” (p. ):
Once there was a man who happened to buy Gods overcoat.
e man doesnt know that the coat he has bought belongs to God, but
the narrator does. In the coat’s pockets the man finds slips of paper that con-
tain people’s prayers. He tries to answer some of them, an overwhelming but
enriching experience until one day when he loses the coat. At first he misses
it dearly. But then comes a sentence that makes terrific use of the separation
between narrator and character:
We are none of us so delicate as we think, though, and over the next few
days, as a dozen new accounts came across his desk at work, the sharpness
of his loss faded.
at first clause in par tic u lar, with its bighearted claim We are none of
us so delicate as we think, though comes from the narrator’s sensibility, not the
In the following example from Jill McCorkle’s story “Magic Words,” ask
yourself if these insights about Paula Blake’s marriage come from Paula, or if
the narrator is making insights that Paula herself couldn’t make or wouldnt
be able to put into words:
ey are both seeking interests outside their lackluster marriage. His are all
about threat and encroachment, being on the defense, and hers are about
human contact, a craving for warmth like one of the bats her husband
fears might find its way into their attic.
point of view (pov) | 57