After years of writing and editing fiction, I’ve developed a real soft spot for articles on literary craft. At their best, they intimate the secrets of effective storytelling. But so many of them (including ones I’ve written) assume that deep discussion of deft writing is the way to go. And while learning from the work of masters is certainly valuable, we can also get personal and discuss what we actually do as writers, directly engaging with one another’s competencies and foibles. By sharing our ongoing journeys towards mastery, we can cultivate an honest and accessible conversation on literary craft—one that enacts an ethos described by meditation instructor Jeff Warren:
Make your problem someone else’s solution. We can all learn to use the energy of our challenges and turn it into care for someone else. Call it Cosmic Love Judo.
Let’s take a Cosmic Love Judo tack to literary craft by trying something more workshop, less TED Talk. Here’s how I used perspectives on literary craft to revise the first section of a story I thought was close to completion.
This is the way that story began for something like fifteen drafts:
This section bothered me for a while, and eventually I determined that the issue was its exclusive focus on the narrator’s thoughts. That focus had allowed me to quickly lay out the situation at hand—the latest crush—but the trade-off is that we (as readers) have no idea where we are; unanchored in time and space, we’re adrift in the as-yet undefined world of the story. This opening is overtly at odds with the standard craft advice of grounding the reader—advice that Benjamin Percy champions in Thrill Me:
When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and effectively place the reader in the story.
I overdid it on addressing the “who am I?” by placing the reader exclusively in the narrator’s thoughts. I wagered that if those thoughts piqued the reader’s curiosity, then I could launch the story quickly and defer placing the narrator in a scene. But that approach was adopted back when I thought this story might be at most five pages. Soon, it was over fifteen, and that initial opening was obtrusively ineffective. So I replaced it with this…
Now the story begins with concrete details as a naturalistic entry point into the narrator’s life. And those details are presented in a way that aligns with other perspectives on craft, like this one regarding the nature of details in Thrill Me:
Be specific when something is interesting. When something is interesting, you look at it longer. You prolong and amplify it.
In the new version of the opening, the narrator’s attention stays on things that have a particular quality. Meridienne ripples the atmosphere of the classroom. Her gaze gives the impression of gauging distances. The prose is concerned with specificity meaningful to the narrator.
All this is not to say that the best way to start a story is in medias res with scene. Rather, the consideration of revision here suggests that stories can be improved by considering what the text needs to do for the reader. I previously thought this opening had to start the story quickly, but I later realized it must situate the character in the change that launches the story: the first experience of the new synthetic crush. This is the sort of clarity we can gain when we engage in revision and workshopping.
Speaking of workshopping, did you take issue with other aspects of the initial opening? Do you think the revised version is falling short of doing the work it should? If so, that’s fantastic; your literary sensibilities have leapt into action! If not, don’t worry; there are plenty of opportunities to develop and exercise those sensibilities, or maybe the passages presented here work for your sensibilities. Stories can of course work in different ways for different people. And that’s part of the beauty of crafting fiction. Storytelling, like all art forms, is amenable to different sensibilities, allowing us to engage with it over a vast aesthetic range.
Strategies to Try
- Decide what should have primacy at the story’s outset. For a story you’ve been working on or thinking of starting, consider what absolutely needs to come through in its first paragraphs. Voice? Setting? A situation? Once you’ve determined that, explore what you might do to further develop this element of the story. Can you also layer in other elements?
- Identify how part of a story is falling short. For a section of a story you’re wrestling with, ask, “What work does this section need to do?” Depending on the nature of the section (for example, its length or location in the story), it may need to accomplish multiple kinds of work, like develop the characters and create tension. Use your answer to this question as the basis for revising that section.