I was looking for a primer on the elements of fiction to help Henry with his English homework, when I ran across Making Shapely Fiction by the late Jerome Stern of Florida State University’s creative writing program. This is one of those read-worn books I forget about but end up running across about twice a year, pull off the shelf, and curl up with. It’s always a pleasure to re-discover it.
Stern organized his book to inspire immediate writing and divided it into five parts: instructive prompts, general advice, a wonderful pedagogical glossary, and an annotated bibliography for further reading. The glossary, or Alphabet as Stern names it, is the most important part of the book, the centerpiece. It is meant to be meandered though, explored. “Techniques of fictions,” Stern writes, “aren’t really separate from one another.” And while I could fill pages with passages, I’m going to pass on some of Stern’s wisdom from his essay, “Don’t Do This: A Short Guide To What Not To Do.”
Don’t try to tell too many stories at once.
This is the problem of attempting to accomplish too much in a single story, too many ideas, incidents, and plots. Epics like War and Peace, Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones, Dune or Ulysses aren’t necessarily easy books to absorb, but their complexity is tremendously engaging. Complex plotting and varied incidents support one another in a dramatic arc, create texture and depth, and enrich a narrative. The devices should not compete with one another or confuse the story. “Complication is not complexity,” Stern advises. “…The complexity lies in the richness, the rendering, the texture, the subtlety of observation, the experience created for the readers” (66-66).
Don’t preface your story with explanatory material
that makes your readers impatient for the story to begin
This sounds like pragmatic advice for the first line, paragraph or lead up to a hook but it’s more than that and a natural partner to the aversion to complication. “Don’t paint elaborate stage sets, don’t have long overtures, don’t have lengthy preambles, don’t do formal introductions, don’t keep readers wondering What is this about? When is this thing going to begin?” (70). We shouldn’t suffer our readers to endure this anywhere in our stories. Exposition and description are necessary for many narrative forms, but it should never occur at the cost of momentum and tension. When a reader feels impatient, confused, bored or worse, indifferent, our text –not story—is pushing them out instead of drawing them in. If we lose tension to explanatory material, we’ve lost the story. “Tension is the mother of fiction,”(237) Sterns tells us. “[It] is inseparable from other aspects of storytelling…The more you get readers to feel and visualize the scene, the more vivid the tension, so evocative detail is crucial.” (239)