Paganini (taiji_jian) wrote,

Writing Fiction


They say that if you're a writer you shouldn't listen to tips from people who aren't out there making a living from their work. This is good advice. I mention this in the interest of fair warning, since I turned away from being a professional novelist a while back but still plan on saying a whole lot of stuff about how one writes fiction. This is for my own amusement, so that I have an organized source of my own thoughts. Anyone else, if you like it - cool. But pay attention at your own risk!

Many moons ago, back before I quit school to focus on music, before I even thought of music as a career that I might need to find alternatives to, I was an aspiring author. For about six years (between the ages of 14 and 19) I wrote all the time - short stories, sketches, a couple of really crappy novellas - took writing classes, read a lot of fiction, the works. I also read a lot of books about writing.

Most of them are useless crap.

I will be comparing and contrasting a lot with the field of music. That is where I actually do have enough expertise that people pay money for my performance and instruction, so I tend to approach a lot of things from that perspective.

Music books, by and large, are instructive and practical. By that I mean that from studying books about music, one can learn how to perform, how to compose, how to teach. In other words, music books tend to be procedural. They tell you what musicians do to be musicians. Galamian's Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching tells you how to play. Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony tells you how to connect chords.

Writing books, by and large, are vague and ethereal. They contain useless descriptions of the classical "types of conflict," without telling you how to construct a conflict. They contain explanations of person and tense that should be familiar to anyone with a basic high-school level understanding of language. Authors of writing books offer tip after tip - cute tricks like pulling slips of paper out of a hat, shuffling scenes recorded on index cards.

I think this may be because a lot of successful authors write intuitively. There's a common expression that "great authors are born, not made." I think that most writing books are not meant to procedurally teach a student how to be a writer. They're meant as wake-up calls for great authors who don't know it yet. The gimmicks are offered in the hope that they will set a spark to the dormant fires of intuition. If so, great. If not, sorry, too bad. Try another career.

When I finished Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony I could connect chords as well as anyone. My short compositions weren't that great, 'cos I still didn't know much about creating rhythm, or melody, or counterpoint. But man, could I slap down a mean root progression.

When I finished Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop I had greatly enjoyed his anecdotes about the writing process. But I was no better at turning blank paper into fiction than I ever was.

There is one book about writing that I like. It is not a pretentious book. It does not claim to help you write a novel in a year, or publish a best seller. It tells you to love words. It tells how to choose words, how to connect words, how to arrange words in robust sentences and paragraphs that roll pleasantly off the mind. It is called Fine Print by James J. Kilpatrick.


Fundamentally, a narrative is an account of occurrences that are tied together by virtue of a linear temporal relationship. That is, some things happen before, or after, or at the same time as some other things. Note that this does not necessarily mean that the occurrences are presented in linear chronology. Things may be told out of order. What this does mean is that the occurrences in the narrative have relationships of "before," "after," or "simultaneously."

Most diaries are in the form of "a linear account of temporal occurrences." I might write:

"I woke up this morning. I dressed myself in sweat-pants and a T-shirt. I went to the bathroom, washed my face, brushed my teeth. I had Cheerios and Orange Juice for breakfast. I rode my bicycle to the video store where I work."

I've created fiction! It may not be very interesting fiction, but there it is. Some things happened in a certain order, and those things were made up by me. (I dressed myself in blue-jeans this morning, not sweat-pants, and I had sausages and coffee for breakfast.)

This brings me to mention the popular run of children's books titled A Series of Unfortunate Events. I like that title. It's almost a pun on the process of writing. It's witty in the self-evident deadpan way of someone who puts labels reading "washer," "dryer," "refrigerator," on his household appliances.

So how do we get from "linear account of temporal occurrences" to "A Series of Unfortunate Events?"

My account contains a lot of occurrences, but none of them are likely to be very interesting to any reader who does not have some particular technical interest in breakfast cereals or sweat-pants. My account has no events.

Stuff happens all day long in all of our lives that we don't pay much attention to beyond the immediate effort required to deal with it. Events are things that we notice. Events are what we (ideally) read about in the news. To put it simply, an event is something that has a point; something that the reader sees meaning in beyond the mundane technical details of the occurrence at hand.

The first rule of writing fiction is that you record only those occurrences that relevant to something other than themselves. In my account above, none of the occurrences are related to any of the other occurrences. I could just as easily have had pizza for breakfast and gone to work at a car dealership.

The important idea here is causality. When you're creating your narrative, don't record the filler. Record events that are connected by relationships of cause and effect. The two important questions are "Why did this event happen?" and "What are the consequences of this event?"

When a fiction writer is at work, he imagines things happening that cause other things to happen, and communicates them to his audience.


When I first started composing music, my sense of form was not overly developed. But, I knew lots of chords, and I knew how to put one after another to make harmonic events - real events that contained emotional weight. So I slammed them down lickety-split, one after another. My poor early listeners were hammered by a roller-coaster ride of events that were connected only by virtue of their temporal relationship - i.e., each one followed hard on the heels of the previous!

If you listen to the great classical composers - like Beethoven - they do not slam down harmonic events lickety-split, one after another. Events are prepared. They are hinted at, approached, developed, worked out so that the listener knows that they are coming, can see several different ways in which they might be expected to turn out. Eventually (hah!), the event finally arrives, is taken care of, and the listener finds satisfaction in its resolution - or dissatisfaction in its dissolution, depending on the composer's intent.

In fiction, you prepare an event by describing the events that caused it. In complicated narratives, causes and effects can link up in a network of cascading chain-reactions that charge towards your ultimate destination event like a pack of rampaging rhinos.

I am talking about classical techniques like pacing (how many events you have before your climax, and how much time you devote to describing them), and foreshadowing (an event similar to your climactic event, but less meaningful, used to hint at how the climax may eventually turn out).

But, how do you know if something is interesting enough for your readers to care about? The cheap answers are to observe real life, trust your intuition, and write about events that interest you. But there are some tricks.

Contents of Imagination

Fiction contains, well, fiction - things that are not actual, but that have been imagined by an author. These imagined things do not have to mirror reality in order for readers to accept them, but human minds do require certain ideological constructs to contextualize a narrative. Most importantly we need a sense of time and place. We humans do not do well with the concept of placelessness. We require that the narrative be happening somewhere, even if that where is not necessarily much like our own native where.

In other words, a narrative needs a setting - an environment to set the stage for the events that are to take place.

A narrative also needs agency. Without characters to act, a setting is a static construct in which time does not pass. The main thing about characters is that they give the reader a way into the fiction. The character provides a mechanism for the reader to identify and connect with the narrative - not necessarily to agree, but to empathize.

That's the important bit - characters are people! Insofar as they resemble us (since they are not necessarily human people) they will drink, eat, excrete waste, sleep, think, feel, work, talk to each other, play, fight, and make love.

Setting and Conflict

Characters are contextualized by setting, from which we draw things for the characters to care about. That's the core of conflict. There is something that a character wants (or does not want), and something else that makes it unlikely (or likely) to happen.

One of the most interesting things about fantasy literature is that it offers the opportunity to create trivial stakes for conflicts. Some imaginary stake - like the ability to perform a skill that does not exist in the real world - can be of paramount importance to the characters who care about the ability to exercise that skill!

I think that as long as a setting exists, the actual details of the setting are not that important. Setting is like chrome - it colorizes a narrative, adds style and atmosphere. It's important that setting be there, but you will use every setting pretty much the same way, regardless of specific content - that is, you will milk it for things to give your characters to care about.

Tags: fiction, technique

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