This essay examines resources for the study of the craft of fiction writing, focusing on works of interest to teachers and students of creative writing and to librarians seeking to develop collections to support creative writing courses. Though these courses are often taught in English departments, the needs of writers differ from those of literature students. Craft guides reflect this difference, for although a craft analysis may carefully examine a literary work, its aim is generally not to place that text in the context of a historical period or artistic movement, to uncover its ideological investments, or to develop interpretations through critical approaches derived from poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, materialist, or feminist theory.
The purpose of a craft analysis is, as John Gardner explains in On Becoming a Novelist, to help the student “read to see how effects are achieved, how things are done, sometimes reflecting on what [they] would have done in the same situation and on whether [their] way would have been better or worse, and why” (45). Studying craft texts helps the novice student to learn the concepts and language of fiction writing from a practitioner’s point of view and, hopefully, to make more informed aesthetic choices in their own writing. Focused as it is on the craft of literary fiction, the scope of this essay excludes many fine works of criticism, craft books focused on the conventions of other genres (e.g., the romance novel), and those purporting to offer formulas for commercial success.
Craft books come in many forms. Some share generic features with self-help books, offering encouragement and exercises, together with advice about how to deal with the psychological travails of the writing life: writer’s block, envy, self-doubt, fear of rejection, and so on. There are creative writing textbooks and less formally organized books that consider several of the formal elements of fiction writing at once—point of view, characterization, narrative structure, etc.—and others that examine only one. There are canonical texts, such as E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Henry James’s prefaces to his works, and there are modern classics such as Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and the essays collected in Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House. There are also those eminently practical books such as Brian Shawver’s The Language of Fiction, which instruct the writer in fiction mechanics such as how to choose among the different conventions for communicating characters’ inner thoughts and how to punctuate dialogue when they speak aloud. There are online magazines offering regular writing prompts, podcasts, and self-guided video courses with lessons by renown writers.
Finally, there are works that critique traditional ideas about craft, the status of canonized works, and standard approaches to the teaching of writing. Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode explores narrative structure, presenting a number of alternatives to timeworn forms such as the Freytag triangle and three-act structure wherein “a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides,” an arguably gendered approach to the art of storytelling: “But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” (6). Other works make important points about the non-neutrality of craft and the workshop model, their implicit investment in whiteness. In Craft in the Real World, Mathew Salesses considers the cultural specificity of writing advice too often presented as universal, but which actually teaches writers to tailor their work to a white, heterosexual audience. David Mura’s A Stranger’s Journey examines how white writers and writing teachers consistently dismiss or disavow the role of race and politics in their work and that of their students. And in her book The Anti-Racist Workshop, Felicia Rose Chavez offers a bold vision for a critical, anti-racist writing pedagogy, one that does not silence the writer of color, but rather seeks to empower them.
Instructors seeking a single, comprehensive book suitable for classroom use should consider The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing,Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs (LaPlante; Burroway et al.; Creating Fiction). Each covers the fundamental elements of fiction in sections dedicated to point of view, plot and structure, character, and revision.
The first of these, Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, covers both fiction and creative nonfiction in fourteen clearly constructed chapters. Before going into detail, each chapter offers an overview of a given element (e.g., dialogue) together with working definitions of terms. Chapters conclude with relevant exercises (often with examples of student work created in response to the prompts) followed by short, illustrative works by professional writers.
Laplante’s book also offers straightforward answers to some of the subtler issues most likely to trouble the novice writer. How, for example, does one write a character-driven story in which things actually happen? The writer should build a plot, LaPlante advises, based on one “simple question: What can I do to my character to unsettle or move or stress or stretch him or her in some way?” (381). That situation will, of course, be different for every character.
Laplante also clears up the common confusion around the notion of an “unreliable narrator.” A narrator that offers us a distorted account—or flat-out lies to us—will nevertheless be expected to tell the truth about some things. “The convention,” she explains, “is that showing, or scene, is reliable. It’s the telling, or narrative, that is potentially unreliable” (LaPlante 321). According to this convention, “if a physical action is described or words in quotation marks are present in a scene—even by a very unreliable first person narrator—we are supposed to believe them” (LaPlante 322). A writer is free to break this convention, but a reader left without some way to anchor themself in the reality of the narrative (as opposed to its interpretation by a narrator) may well abandon the story in frustration before reaching its conclusion.
First published by Little, Brown in 1982, Writing Fiction was written to fill a growing need for textbooks for college-level creative writing courses (Burroway et al.). Now in its tenth edition, Burroway’s book still admirably fulfills its original purpose. In the interest of keeping the book affordable, this edition no longer includes an anthology of stories. Instead, a list of ten recommended texts are included at the end of each chapter, followed by writing prompts. Writing Fiction does, however, contain many illustrative passages from stories and novels; due to the relative currency of its revision and publication (2019 as opposed to 2010 for LaPlante’s text), these examples are drawn not only from long-canonized writers such as Raymond Carver, Thomas Mann, and Flannery O’Connor, but also newer voices such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yaa Gyasi, and Ottessa Moshfegh.
Creating Fiction consists of twenty-three essays commissioned by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (awp). Although structured as a collection rather than a textbook, its essays, written by authors renown for both their fiction and teaching (John Barth, Charles Baxter, Lan Samantha Chang), cover the key elements of fiction. Each piece concludes with a set of exercises for personal or classroom use. The essays on point of view are especially strong (particularly the discussions of third person perspective by Valerie Miner and Lynna Williams) as is Robin Helmly’s consideration of unlikeable or “unrelatable” characters in “Sympathy for the Devil: What to Do About Difficult Characters.” Forty additional exercises are provided at the end of the book.
Writing teachers looking for an alternative text that will appeal to readers of science fiction and fantasy should consider Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (VanderMeer). Whereas most books on literary writing assume realism as the default, Wonderbook places speculative fiction at its center. VanderMeer’s advice about craft elements such as characterization and structure, however, are as relevant to the writer hoping to publish a short story in The New Yorker as one intending to write a Hugo-award-winning fantasy novel. It also includes material of special interest to speculative writers, such as a chapter dedicated to world-building. The book is well-designed, with colorful illustrations and charts; it also includes a number of mini-essays by accomplished speculative writers such as Neil Gaiman, Catherine M. Valente, and Charles Yu. It concludes with additional writing exercises.
The Writing Life
For thirty years, many aspiring authors have begun their writing practice with guidance and encouragement from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Goldberg’s method emphasizes unconscious processes over logic and rumination, spontaneity over planning, process over product, and messiness (in art and life) over attempts at perfection. She suggests to the beginning writer a practice of regular, timed exercises, during which the most important instruction is to “keep your hand moving,” resisting any impulse to impose order, conform to the rules of grammar, turn away from confusing or painful topics, or otherwise exert conscious control over the writing process (Goldberg 8).
For those put off by Goldberg’s free-spirited zaniness, there is also Anne Lamott’s sharp-tongued, straight-talking Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott’s guide contains much of the now-standard advice: schedule a daily time to write and stick to it, break down intimidating tasks into small assignments (set the goal of writing a description or a scene rather than a whole story or chapter), and give yourself permission to write “shitty first drafts” (20). Lamott offers instructions on characters—they should be flawed (perfect people are dull); plot—it should be driven by and reveal character; and dialogue—read it to yourself out loud, ensure your characters don’t all sound alike, and don’t exhaust and alienate your reader with passages written in dialect. In later sections, she considers the psychological and ethical challenges writers must face and prepares the novice for experiences such as participating in writing groups and getting published.
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is more poetic and aphoristic, mixing stories from her life with anecdotes about the habits of other writers. (Dante and Emerson, she reports, both took long walks for inspiration.) She delivers most of her writing advice through metaphors. Dillard warns that a work-in-progress, if neglected, may “become feral…a lion you cage in your study.” In her world, a line of words becomes a fiber optic cable: “Flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip. You probe with it, delicate as a worm” (Dillard 52, 32).
In the first chapter of Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood provides a succinct account of her life, at least as far as college. She also considers what it meant to her to be a Canadian writer, one aware that her country’s literature was regarded as largely peripheral by the rest of the world. The rest of the book is an erudite and deeply considered reflection on “writing as an art” and “the writer as the inheritor and bearer of a set of social assumptions about art…” (Atwood 25). Atwood draws from classic works of literature to reflect on such issues as the persistence of the Romantic-era conception of the writer as a person possessing a “double nature” (the author of the work and the living person); the question of art’s purpose and utility; the moral and social responsibility of the literary artist for what they have written; and the uneasy relationship between art, money, and power (37, 102).
Many literary writers have benefitted from the encouragement and instruction contained in John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. For the prospective writer unsure of their calling or of their ability to sustain a career writing novels, Gardner offers some principles for self-evaluation. A writer ought to have a love for language (but not so much that it gets in the way of their interest in telling a story), the ability to see the world in a fresh and original way, an interest in people not like themself, “a sense of life’s strangeness,” and a drive to work very hard for not much external reward (Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist 40). On Becoming a Novelist also offers sensible general advice about the value of formal education and mfa programs, and about the world of editors, agents, and publishing. Gardner’s book was, however, published nearly forty years ago. The reader would do well to look elsewhere for up-to-date information in these areas, at least regarding specifics.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips, draws from a variety of sources—interviews, letters, journals. Individual passages are brief, but present Hemingway’s answers to just the kinds of questions novice writers are interested in. Is it better to write what you know or be guided by curiosity and imagination? “You ought to write, invent, out of what you know” (Hemingway 70). Who should I read? “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers” (Hemingway 95). How much should I write each day? “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it” (Hemingway 42).
Fans of The Shining, Misery, and The Stand, may want to turn for writing advice to “the master of horror” himself, Stephen King. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King devotes the first section to the story of his writing life, from hand crafting comic books as a boy, to the car crash that nearly killed him while he was writing On Writing. Most of the treatment of writing craft comes in the latter sections, “Toolbox” and “On Writing.” The writer’s toolkit, King advises, ought to contain a good (though not necessarily fancy) vocabulary; a serviceable understanding of grammar; and a facility with making paragraphs, which King considers to be “the basic unit of writing” (134). His key prescription to the writer, however, is this: “read a lot, write a lot” (King 151). He’s not shy about putting a number to this injunction: strive to write two thousand words a day, he says, six or seven days a week.
Writers seeking some cues to kick-off these regular scribbling sessions and teachers in need of in-class exercises will appreciate collections like Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, with ideas from revered authors such as Richard Bausch, Joyce Carol Oates, and Elizabeth McCracken. The writer in need of more prompts can find them in What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers and The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction (Bernays and Painter; Kiteley).
Many aspiring writers will also admit to needing some guidance in the “read a lot” arena. They’ll find a help in Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. Prose argues that writers wishing to learn their craft ought to dedicate themselves to close readings of classic works of literature; she provides a list of “books to be read immediately” to help the reader on their way. Prose demonstrates her method with craft-based, sentence-by-sentence—sometimes word-by-word—analyses of passages from writers such as Chekhov, Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor. Most readers, however, will find Prose’s reliance on traditional ideas about literary genius, objective quality, and the timeless universality of canonical works by mostly white authors to be out-of-step with contemporary conversations about fiction.
Those seeking a more diverse set of literary models might well start with Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. In addition to exercises, advice, and short stories by Black authors used to illustrate craft concepts, Rhodes’s guide to the writing life also includes a reading list of over one hundred books “historically significant to the development of African American fiction” (314). Rhodes encourages the reader to explore the particular storytelling resources offered by African American literature and culture, such as the richness of its “oral and folk legacy tradition” and its long engagement with themes of “literacy and liberty…unjust persecution, escape, and redemption, family survival despite slavery and discrimination, and migration from Africa, and ultimately, across America…” (262–263).
Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life and Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer both focus on the psychological dimension of the writing process. Friedman addresses the two main varieties of writer’s block: the problem of perfectionism, “being afraid to touch the half-finished piece for fear of messing it up,” and the fear that one has nothing significant to say in the first place. She also talks the reader through concerns over writing about taboo and touchy subjects such as the body and living family members (17).
Becoming a Writer was originally published in 1934 and then fell out of print. Gardner, in his forward to the 1981 reissue, neatly sums up Brande’s thesis: “the root problems of the writer are personality problems…” (11). Instruction in craft and technique aren’t of much use, Brande argues, until more foundational, psychological issues have been addressed. Such issues may make it difficult for the writer to begin; paralyze them after a single, early success; pose challenges to maintaining a consistent writing practice; or lead them to lose confidence in the middle of a draft. Her account of the writing process itself involves the action of two aspects of the artist’s mind, each with its own necessities:
The unconscious must flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths; the conscious mind must control, combine, and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow (Brande 45–46).
Brande’s book is intended as psychic instruction manual, showing the writer how to get the two sides of their personality out of each other’s way so that they may work together in harness.
Robert Olen Butler accepts the notion of a bifurcated mind, but he is more partisan than Brande: “There is no intellect in the world powerful enough to create a great work of novelistic art. Only the unconscious can fit together the stuff of fiction; the conscious mind cannot” (Butler 85). In From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Butler advocates for a daily writing practice based in what he calls “dreamstorming.” Beginning work on a novel, the writer should enter into a kind of trance during which they “free-float” and “free-associate” (Butler 87). “You’re going to go into your dream space,” he says, “you’re going to float around and you’re going to dream storm potential scenes in such a novel as this with such characters as these with such yearnings as these” (Butler 87).
There are any number of modern books on the craft of fiction writing, but the traditionalist will want to seek guidance from the great masters of the past. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, for example, collects a set of prologues penned by Henry James for a 1909 collection of his fiction, including his well-known account of “the house of fiction” in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady. Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction (1924) provides an account of the development of modern fiction and discloses some essential truths about writing. Wharton observes, for example, that a writer doesn’t have much choice regarding the nature of their talent. Once they discover what they are good at, they must choose subjects that complement their strengths and “learn to renounce the others…as a first step toward doing that particular one well” (Wharton 20).
Another canonical craft book, E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel makes an often quoted distinction between story and plot. A story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” as opposed to a plot, in which events in the narrative are arranged with “the emphasis falling on causality” (Forster 86). Most readers will also recognize Forster’s categorization of characters as either “flat” or “round.” Flat characters “in their purest form…are constructed around a single idea or quality” (Forster 67). Such characters have their advantages; they are easy for the reader to remember, and they bring with them “their own atmosphere” (Forster 69). Flat characters can also offer some refreshing comic relief in an otherwise serious book (Forster 73). Round characters are more complex. They change over the course of a story, have multiple dimensions, and “cannot be summed up in a single phrase” (Forster 69). A successful novel, Forster counsels, needs both kinds of characters.
On Writing collects seven essays by Eudora Welty. In one, Welty contrasts the approach to story and character taken by Chekhov, Faulkner, and D. H. Lawrence; and in another discusses the development of one of her own stories, “No Place for You, My Love,” and how she arrived at its unusual point of view. Other essays consider the nature of place and time and fiction. In “Must the Novelist Crusade?,” Welty, a white Southern author working against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, reflects on the relationship between political advocacy and the writing of novels.
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose contains selected essays and lectures by Flannery O’Connor on topics ranging from peacocks to the relation between Christianity and writing, to the need to preserve the distinctive character of Southern writing. In more than one essay, the author warns against writing stories from abstract ideas or in the service of political agendas. Stories, she writes, must be grounded in the “concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on the earth” (O’Connor 68). Ultimately, a story has to “convince through the senses…it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched” (O’Connor 91).
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers is something of a modern craft classic. In it, Gardner articulates his aesthetic standard for fiction in any genre: a work must evoke a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader:
Vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to conclusion (Gardner,
According to this rubric, anything that makes the reader’s dream less vivid (e.g., generalization in place of a particular detail) or less continuous (e.g., the poorly chosen word that draws too much attention to itself) is a sign of bad writing.
The Art of Fiction has much to say not just about aesthetics, but also technique. In a famous exercise from the book, Gardner askes the reader-writer to “describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death. Do not mention who does the seeing” (The Art of Fiction 37). The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate that description should never strive for objectivity, to pile up actualities as if the viewer were a machine. Rather, description ought to be infused with point-of-view and emotion, “the barn … must be tricked into mumbling its secrets” (Gardner, The Art of Fiction 36–37).
Gardner also provides a definition and discussion of the term “psychic distance,” an aspect of point of view: “By psychic distance we mean the distance the reader feels between himself and the events of the story” (Gardner The Art of Fiction 111). This distance can range from detached and journalistic to stream of consciousness. Ron Hanson’s story “Wickedness” begins: “At the end of the nineteenth century, a girl from Delaware got on a milk train in Omaha and took a seat in the second-class car” (253). Hanson has chosen to place the reader at a vast remove from the experience of “the girl from Delaware.” If the story imposed less psychic distance, it would open quite differently, perhaps something like: “Damn it all, she’d nearly missed the milk truck. And now, the sour stink of the second-class car.”
Another well-established craft text is Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Each of Baxter’s essays considers a question not just of craft, but also of society. He observes, for example, the tendency of modern readers to morally condemn imperfect characters:
When people can’t make any narrative sense of their own feelings, readers start to ask writers to tell them what they are supposed to feel. They want moralizing polemics…[which are] more comforting than stories in which characters are making complex and unwitting mistakes (Baxter, Burning 15).
Baxter goes on to argue that “in fiction, characters are under no obligation to be good; they only have to be interesting” (Burning 23). Another essay offers a technique for deepening characters: “with counterpointed characterization, certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response in each other” (Baxter Burning 88). A third provides an account of the origins, appeal, and persistence of melodrama in storytelling.
Writers who struggle with symbolism in their work may find help in Baxter’s concept of “rhyming action.” Rather than deploying overt symbols, Baxter suggests a more intuitive and understated approach, presenting an image or event to the reader at an early point in the story, without much fanfare, with the intention that it be all but forgotten. The writer then brings the image back later, allowing the reader to reconsider it in the context of what has happened in the story.
A scene in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” provides the title for George Saunders’s recent book on craft, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The book includes seven stories by the great Russian writers Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. In his insightful and companionable discussion of these works, Saunders articulates his own aesthetic theories and offers practical advice. Writers, he says, should read their drafts as if they were “bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part,‘Excuse me, but why do I need you to be in here?’ In a perfect story, every part has a good answer” (Saunders 91). Saunders also further develops his “gas station” model, originally sketched out in his essay “A Perfect Gerbil: Reading Barthelme’s story ‘The School.’” Saunders imagines the reader as a toy race car moving around a track, passing through a series of “gas stations” that provide bursts of energy, hopefully enough to carry the car to the next station and, eventually, to the story’s conclusion.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood examines fiction fundamentals with chapters dedicated to narration, detail, character, language, and dialogue. Wood is best known as a literary critic, and although he poses “theoretical questions” in the book, he responds to them as a practitioner “or, to say it differently, asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers” (xviii). Wood’s discussion of point of view is especially acute, and he is quick to question received wisdom on the subject: “Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliable…we know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s unreliability,” and “on the other side, omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems … authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected” (5, 6). Wood also has a great deal to teach the literary writer about “free indirect style,” or what is more commonly referred to in writing classes and workshops as “third-person limited” point of view or simply “close third.” He argues that “thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once” (Wood 11).
In contrast to Wood, who draws on narrative theory and the history of literary realism for insights into how fiction functions, Lisa Cron looks to recent developments in neuroscience to explain how narrative texts work on the minds of their readers. As Cron outlines in her introduction, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, contains “twelve chapters, each zeroing in on an aspect of how the brain works, its corresponding revelation about story, and the nuts and bolts of how to actualize it in your work” (5). Unlike more essayistic books on craft, Cron’s chapters are clearly structured, with heads and sub-heads, and each closes with a set of questions for the writer to consider in relation to their draft.
Literary fiction has long defined itself in opposition to so-called “genre fiction”: horror, mystery and crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance. Gardner, for example, consistently refers to these genres as “trash” or “junk fiction,” though he concedes that they can be “elevated” by the “serious literary artist” (Art of Fiction x, 21). Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction refuses this distinction and considers what writers of literary realism have to learn from just the kinds of books and stories that Gardner and others wish to exclude from the halls of high culture. Realism, Percy observes, is the late-comer to the literary landscape, not the genres it denigrates and excludes: “Look back on the long, hoof-marked trail of literature. The beastly majority of stories contain elements of the fantastic” (14). They also, not surprisingly, contain the urgency of plots and narrative arcs.
Other notable books on general craft include John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells a Truth: Essays on Fiction, Rust Hills’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, and Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.
Characterization, Structure, and Style
Some craft books are more narrowly focused, treating a single element of storytelling technique such as characterization, structure, or style. One such text is David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. To get to know their characters, it is not enough for the writer to make lists of physical characteristics, hobbies, personality traits, and biographical facts. To understand their characters, the writer is advised to draft scenes “in which characters engage meaningfully and in conflict with each other” and to do so “at all stages of character development: conception, development, and portrayal” (Corbett xxvi). “Character biographies created from scenes,” Corbett argues, “are intrinsically more useful than those consisting of mere information” (xxvi).
Each chapter in The Art of Character offers insights and exercises the writer can use to deepen characters by delving into their desires, frustrations, vulnerabilities, secrets, and contradictions. Many readers will marvel at the erudition of writers like Prose and Wood, who seem to be able to call up deep cuts from the literary canon at will to illustrate their points. Others, however, will appreciate that Corbett draws his examples not only from literary classics, but also well-known films like The Godfather and binge-worthy drama series such as Breaking Bad.
Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form focuses on story structure, proposing two broad categories, “linear design” and “modular design.” Simply put, stories following a linear design “start at the beginning, traverse some sort of middle, and stop at the end” (Bell 27). They also “bear some relationship to what is known as the [Freytag] triangle,” which is to say they begin with exposition, are driven by a conflict that rises to a climax, and conclude with a falling action and resolution (Bell 27). Modular narratives, by contrast, establish a structure by arranging elements of the story into a set of meaningful relationships that may have nothing to do with the chains of causality that drive a linear story. Bell provides twelve stories, six of each type, following each one with a discuss of its structure (and other formal elements). He also offers a nearly line-by-line analysis of each piece by means of endnotes inserted into the stories’ text.
Those wishing to delve deeper into nonlinear (what Bell terms “modal”) approaches to narrative will find a fellow traveler in Jane Alison. In her book Meander, Spiral, Explode, Alison invites the writer to take flight from traditional forms grounded in Aristotle’s theories of tragedy and narrative poetry, from Freytag and his triangle. She investigates alternative forms available to the writer of fiction such as spiral, radial, cellular, and fractal patterns:
A radial narrative could spring from a central hole—an incident, pain, absence, horror—around which it keeps circling or from which it keeps veering, but it scarcely moves forward in time. A fractal narrative could branch from a core or a seed, repeating at different scales the shape or dynamic of that core, possibly branching on indefinitely. And cellular narratives come in like parts, not moving forward in time from one to another but creating a network of meaning (Alison 25).
Alison presents examples of these and other forms in works by the likes of Jamaica Kincaid, Marguerite Duras, Stuart Dybek, and Sandra Cisneros. In addition, her discussion of the flow of time in stories, based on the work of narratologists Gérard Genette and Seymour Chatman, provides a practical vocabulary for talking about narrative speed—the celerity of a summary, which sprints through expanses of story time in few words, as opposed to a “dilation,” which devotes a great deal of text to a relatively small period of story time (Alison 46).
Over the years, many writers interested in narrative structure have turned to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a comparative study of patterns, archetypes, and symbols in stories from religion and mythology. He proposes an outline of “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero” during which:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder…fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won…the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (Campbell 23).
Campbell further elaborates the structure of this “monomyth,” adding a number of substages to the hero’s journey: “the call to adventure,” “refusal of the call,” “supernatural aid,” and so on (28–30). Campbell’s account of the hero’s journey has influenced a number of popular culture narratives (most famously, Star Wars) and serves as an enduring template for writers of screenplays, comic books, and fantasy and young adult novels.
Our ideas about culture and narrative, however, have changed markedly since Campbell first published his study in 1949, and contemporary readers are likely to question the epistemological soundness of his assumption that differences between stories from diverse cultures are merely epiphenomenal, that the core stories of all world cultures are actually variants of a single shared myth expressing universal human truths. Still others may detect an unwelcome whiff of colonialism in Campbell’s assertion that the stories of non-Western cultures must all conform to a single structure finally discovered and elucidated by an American critic. Further, as Matthew Salesses points out, Campbell’s “investment in masculinity is not universal” and his “focus on ‘the hero’s journey’ dismisses stories like the heroine’s journey or other stories in which people do not set off to conquer and return with booty…” (18–19).
Literary critic Stanley Fish examines prose style in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. There is no getting away from style, Fish observers, no neutral form of writing with which to transparently communicate our ideas. For starters, language doesn’t simply represent feelings and ideas; rather, it helps to form and fashion them. “We can only choose our style,” Fish argues, “not choose to abandon style, and it behooves us to know what the various styles in our repertoire are and what they can do” (42). A sentence, for Fish, is both “an organization of items in the world” and “a structure of logical relationships” (16). Cultivating sentence-level style involves making choices about that organization and the nature of those relationships.
Perhaps the most important decision a stylist can make is choosing between two general styles of sentence, the subordinating and the additive. The subordinating relies upon:
relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance) (Fish 50).
The additive style, however, is not structured by “an overarching logic, but by association,” giving a sense of “spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance” (Fish 62, 61).
This may all seem terribly abstract, but using examples from literary texts, Fish shows how, at the level of sentence style alone, one can distinguish the different formal logics at work in, for example, “The Real Thing” by Henry James (favoring the subordinating style, using commas and parentheses to signal the relative importance of each phrase) and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (favoring the additive style, using “and” to bind a series of images into a verbal-visual chain). Although they are not separated from the flow of the text, How to Write a Sentence also suggests exercises to help the writer become proficient in these and other styles.
Another source for studies of single aspects of fiction craft is Graywolf’s Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter. In each of the slender books in the series, a different writer examines some facet of the craft of writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Baxter’s own contribution, for example, considers the art of subtext, “those elements that propel readers beyond the plot of a novel or short story into the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, the unspoken” (The Art of Subtext 3). Others of interest to the fiction writer include The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber, and Stacy D’erasmo’s The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between in which she argues for a conception of intimacy as “a disturbance, a force that wakes you up, decenters you, radically changes your perception of the world around you and your place in it” (33).
Of course books aren’t the only sources for craft advice and writing prompts. The Paris Review, one of the world’s preeminent literary journals, has published interviews with authors about their work and writing process since its founding in 1953. The first in their numbered “Art of Fiction” series was with novelist E. M. Forster; over the years, subsequent subjects have included Gabriel García Márquez, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and many more. Past interviews can be accessed through the journal, and some have been assembled into a multi-volume collection (Paris Review Interviews). Outlets such as Brevity, Catapult, and Lithub publish craft essays online, and Poets & Writers posts weekly writing prompts in the “The Time is Now” section of their site.
On his long-running podcast Bookworm, kcrw’s Michael Silverblatt interviews authors and poets, asking questions informed by his careful reading of nearly everything his guest has ever written. Each month, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast features a story from the magazine’s archives read by a writer whose work has also been appeared in the New Yorker. After the reading, fiction editor Deborah Treisman and her guest discuss the story.
The International Writing Program (a sister program of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) offers a number of freely accessible, massive open online courses (moocs) dedicated to aspects of fiction writing. Each of the iwp’s mooc-Packs contains a series of online videos making up the self-directed course, together with a guide that explains how to use the materials to teach a class or lead a study group. Courses include How Writers Write Fiction (I & II), Stories of Place: Writing and the Natural World, and Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion (“Welcome”).
Brian Shawver’s The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook, and Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print represent a sub-class of craft books dedicated to the mechanics of writing. The writer of fiction will benefit as much as the journalist or the scholar from The Copyeditor’s Handbook or the “Style and Usage” section of The Chicago Manual of Style, but there are conventions particular to stories and novels that are beyond the scope of such texts. With chapters like “How Should You Format and Punctuate Dialogue,” and “What Are Your Options for Portraying Characters’ Thoughts,” The Language of Fiction provides the novice writer with the tools they need to make informed stylistic decisions. It also contains a helpful glossary for the intuitive writer who remains a little foggy about things such as the distinction between a gerund and a present participle.
Drawing on years of editorial experience, Browne and King adopt a direct and self-assured tone, seeking to steer the beginning writer away from styles and tics likely to evoke an eye-roll from an editor deciding whether or not to publish their story. In their chapter on dialogue, for example, they argue for using “said” almost exclusively for speaker attributions (and eliminating any “-ly” adverb that modifies “said”). Browne and King also provide examples and exercises aimed at eliminating some of the writer’s bad habits and encouraging better ones.
The Non-Neutrality of Craft
In Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses rejects the notion that writing craft is or could ever be culturally or politically neutral. Salesses argues that craft is in no way universal, but represents, instead, a set of culturally specific expectations: “culture stands behind what makes many craft moves ‘work’ or not, and for whom they work” (15). Salesses would no doubt argue that many of the craft books considered here represent “the dominance of one tradition of craft, serving one particular audience (white, middle-class, straight, able, etc.),” a tradition that does not necessarily serve, and often limits or silences “emerging and marginalized voices” (5–6).
Thus, many writers find it necessary to “break the rules” found in craft books in order to render their experiences in fiction and to tell stories that speak to their own communities. Salesses calls attention to the need for writers to consider who their audience actually is, since this determines “what expectations the writer engages with,” what they can assume their readers “believe in and care about, what they need explained and/or named, where they should focus their attention, what meaning to draw from the text” (42).
In addition to its many insights about the non-neutrality of craft, Salesses’s book also offers a set of new definitions for frequently used craft terms. In Part II, he critiques the workshop model used in most creative writing classes, offers a number of alternatives, and even provides a sample syllabus. The book concludes with thirty-four exercises for revision.
David Mura, author of A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing, likewise rejects the supposed political and social neutrality of craft. White writers, he argues, operate from “certain basic assumptions about race and literature” (Mura 39). They assume, for example, that the reader will default to imagining an unmarked character as white, and so don’t feel a need to “label their white characters by race” (Mura 39). This aligns with many other assumptions, including a disregard for “how a reader of color might view the white characters” and, more broadly, a dismissal of the importance of race to the content and form of a given story (Mura 39).
“For many writers of color,” however, “the lens of race is essential to understand their characters as well as the way the writer views her characters and the larger society” (Mura 40). Writers of color must also make artistic choices “concerning the ways a white reader, a reader of the writer’s own group, and other readers of color will read the text” (Mura 40). Because people of color must constantly “take into the account the power that whiteness and white people exert over their existence,” to ask writers of color “to write outside politics is, in many instances, to ask them to write in a way that denies who they are, that denies their people and those who came before them” (Mura 43, 44).
Mura develops his arguments through close readings of texts by Jonathan Franzen, ZZ Packer, Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz, and others. In one chapter, Mura offers frank advice for “the student of color in the typical mfa program” (52). Race will probably not be “considered an essential area of study,” he cautions, “since the majority of the white faculty do not believe that such a study is essential to their own writing or to their own pedagogical practices” (Mura 59). In other chapters, he asks white teachers of writing to show greater humility, recognizing that they may not possess “all the tools that a writer of color requires to improve her craft,” and that writers of color may themselves possess tools that are “outside the common knowledge of white writers or even in opposition to some of the tools offered in a white-dominated workshop…” (Mura 77).
Part II of A Stranger’s Journey consists of craft advice for fiction writers, with an emphasis on the need for the protagonist to not only want something, but also to face an irreconcilable choice: “The protagonist is forced to decide whether she should take an action which will lead her closer to one thing she wants, but which will take her farther away or even eliminate her chances of achieving something else she wants…” (Mura 97). Part III is concerned with memoir, rather than fiction, and the book concludes with a set of writing assignments.
In The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez critiques not only the way creative writing is typically taught in college classrooms, but also many of the assumptions behind standard craft advice. She rejects the premise of Francine Prose’s book, for example, that a beginning writer learn about craft through a study of canonical literature. Chavez argues that such an approach serves to “affirm the authority of white literary ‘masters’…imparting an implicit rubric for the ‘right’ way to write” (Chavez 9). She also questions the value of standard craft terms, an “academic vocabulary” deployed in workshop settings as “a badge of authority” (Chavez 10). Chavez validates the alienation writers of color often experience in the traditional workshop, which she describes as “an institution of dominance and control upheld by supposedly venerable workshop leaders (primarily white), majority white workshop participants, and canonical white authors memorialized in hefty anthologies” (5).
Her solution is to radically restructure the form and content of the workshop according to what she terms the “anti-racist model.” In the traditional model, the writer remains silent while classmates critique their story. In the anti-racist model, the author is allowed to “moderate their own workshop while participants rally in service of the author’s vision” (Chavez 10). Craft terms are developed and agreed upon by the participants, canonical texts are replaced with “a living archive of scanned print material and multimedia art” from diverse artists, and these texts are, whenever possible, paired with “a conversation with the author, contextualizing their stories withing a specific lived experience …” (Chavez 9). In addition to providing a trenchant critique of the traditional workshop model and a fully developed alternative, The Antiracist Workshop also offers an appendix with sample lesson plans and an associated website, www.antiracistworkshop.com, that includes “an ever-evolving, multi-genre compilation of contemporary writers of color and progressive online publishing platforms” (Chavez 181; “Resources”).
Writers and teachers of fiction writing find themselves in a time when much of the received wisdom about craft is being reconsidered. They are called to critically examine such concepts as “literary fiction,” once defined by its supposed opposition to “genre fiction” (Gardner’s “junk” fiction) as well as any notion of a deracialized “pure” craft. Literary lineages are being re-drawn, with more black and indigenous writers, more writers of color, more lgbtq+ writers, and writers with disabilities. The so-called “Iowa model,” which more or less set the template for writing pedagogy, may finally be giving way to a more student-centered approach. By investing in collection development in fiction craft, academic libraries can ensure that writers, teachers, and students will be equipped to engage with these issues, to draw advice from a variety of perspectives, and, hopefully, to thrive as artists and educators.
Alison, Jane. Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. Catapult, 2019.
The Art of Fiction. The Paris Review.
Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead. Virago, 2003.
Baxter, Charles, ed. The Art of Series. 13 vols. Graywolf Press.
—. Baxter, Charles. Burning down the House: Essays on Fiction. Graywolf Press, 2008.
Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form. W. W. Norton, 2000.
Bernays, Anne, and Pamela Painter. What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. Pearson Longman, 2004.
Bookworm. Santa Monica, kcrw. https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/bookworm.
Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. 2nd ed. William Morrow Paperback, 2004.
Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 10th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
Butler, Robert Olen. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. ed. by Janet Burroway. Grove, 2006.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. New World Library, 2008.
Castellani, Christopher. The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story. Graywolf Press, 2016.
Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: Decolonizing the Creative Classroom. Haymarket Books, 2021.
The Chicago Manual of Style. Seventeenth edition. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Corbett, David. The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. Penguin Books, 2013.
“Craft and Advice.” Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/category/craftandcriticism/craft-and-advice/.
“Craft Essays.” Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. https://brevitymag.com/category/craft-essays/.
Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. ed. by Julie Checkoway. Story Press, 2004.
D’Erasmo, Stacey. The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between. Graywolf Press, 2013.
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“Don’t Write Alone.” Catapult. https://catapult.co/dont-write-alone/topics/notes-on-craft/stories.
Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. W.W. Norton, 2004.
Einsohn, Amy, and Marilyn Schwartz. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. Fourth edition, Revised, Updated, and Expanded. University of California Press, 2019.
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American Short Stories Since 1970. ed. by Lex Williford and Michael Martone. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
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James, Henry. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. The University of Chicago Press, 2011
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2010.
Kiteley, Brian. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Second Anchor Books Edition, Anchor Books, 2019.
LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. W.W. Norton, 2010.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. Mariner Books, 2015.
Livesey, Margot. The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. Tin House Books, 2017.
Mura, David. A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing. The University of Georgia Press, 2018.
Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. ed. by Bret Anthony Johnston. Random House, 2007.
The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, podcast audio. https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. ed. by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. Third printing. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.
The Paris Review Interviews. Picador, 2009.
Percy, Benjamin. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. Graywolf Press, 2016.
“Resources.” Felicia Rose Chavez. https://www.antiracistworkshop.com/resources.
Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors. Main Street Books, 1999.
Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping. Catapult, 2021.
Saunders, George. “A Perfect Gerbil: Reading Barthelme’s story ‘The School.’” The Braindead Megaphone: Essays. Riverhead Books, 2007. 175–186.
—. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Random House, 2021.
Shawver, Brian. The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook. University Press of New England, 2013.
Silber, Joan. The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes. Graywolf Press, 2009
“The Time Is Now.” Poets & Writers. https://www.pw.org/writing-prompts-exercises.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. designed by Jeremy Zerfoss. Revised ed. Abrams Image, 2018.
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Welty, Eudora. On Writing. Modern Library, 2002.
Wharton, Edith. The Writing of Fiction. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. Picador, 2008.