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The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction

The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction

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by Robert Boswell

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A rigorous examination of the workings of fiction by the novelist Robert Boswell, "one of America's finest writers" (Tom Perrotta)

Robert Boswell has been writing, reading, and teaching literature for more than twenty years. In this sparkling collection of essays, he brings this vast experience and a keen critical eye to bear on craft issues facing


A rigorous examination of the workings of fiction by the novelist Robert Boswell, "one of America's finest writers" (Tom Perrotta)

Robert Boswell has been writing, reading, and teaching literature for more than twenty years. In this sparkling collection of essays, he brings this vast experience and a keen critical eye to bear on craft issues facing literary writers. Examples from masters such as Leo Tolstoy, Flannery O'Connor, and Alice Munro illustrate this engaging discussion of what makes great writing.

At the same time, Boswell moves readers beyond the classroom, candidly sharing the experiences that have shaped his own writing life. A chance encounter in a hotel bar leads to a fascinating glimpse into his imaginative process. And through the story of a boyhood adventure, Boswell details how important it is for writers to give themselves over to what he calls the "half-known world" of fiction, where surprise and meaning converge.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In clear, charming prose, novelist Bos-well delivers a satisfying exploration of the craft of writing fiction, drawing from an array of well-chosen examples. In one instance he offers a full-bodied analysis of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich to illustrate his argument about the use of social paradigm in fiction; in a chapter on politics in the novel, he helpfully streamlines a Noam Chomsky essay into an explanatory list of the political responsibilities of the intellectual. Boswell's defense of his concept of the "half-known world"-the idea that there must be "a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension"-is spiritedly articulated and defended, and the book feels written for the serious writing student rather than the beginner. However, while addressing a sophisticated audience, he is direct-a chapter on omniscient narrators answers tough narrative questions in an easy-to-follow manner. Throughout, Boswell presents autobiographical moments and brief vignettes of his own devising to illustrate his concepts, reinforcing the fact that, like his great predecessor in craft writing John Gardner, he is a working fiction writer who knows his material. (Aug.)

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Read an Excerpt

The Half-Known World

On Writing Fiction

By Robert Boswell

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2008 Robert Boswell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-021-5


This essay refers to the following creative works:

The Nephew by James Purdy

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson



I grew up on a tobacco farm on a county road that ran along a wooded ridge in western Kentucky. In winter, when the trees dropped their interference, we could catch glimpses of the Mississippi River from our car windows. Our town lay a few miles south of the farm, just below the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It would have been the first town Huck and Jim passed after missing their turn that foggy night. In our neck of the river, the breadth of the Mississippi exceeded a mile. It was a wide, moody, muddy deity. "Everything makes its way to the river," my father often said — once, I recall, on the occasion of our peeing together on the slope behind our shed.

My best friend lived on the same blacktop road. His name was Brady. He and I played together in the woods: cowboys and Indians, pirates and captains, the War Between the States — anything with a narrative. We had decided we would be writers when we grew up and we played in chapters, narrating in the third person, pausing to invent a new chapter heading whenever we reached a suitably mysterious moment. In the woods behind Brady's house, we stomped out a network of paths and constructed a tree house that overlooked a creek. Brady suggested we ought to one day follow the creek all the way to the river. We agreed that it would make a beautiful story, but the woods were dense with brush and briars. We never hiked very far beyond the beaten paths.

Snow came every winter, but the winter Brady and I were in third grade it arrived early and was followed by a hard freeze. The creek became solid, its gray surface resembling marble more than glass. Brady opened a chapter with "At last they had a clear path to the river," and we were off. Our narrative made us brave and neither of us was terribly bright. We set out on the ice for the great wide waters of the Mississippi.

We didn't tell anyone our plan. It wasn't part of the story.

Hiking on the frozen creek was unlike any of our other adventures. It was thrilling to be walking on water. It was also slippery, cold, and slow going. The ice made noises, as did the trees, and things beyond the trees we could not name. I did not at that time own sneakers. My school shoes had slick cardboard soles. I could slide long distances on the ice, but my feet were cold and I fell at regular intervals, as if to punctuate the stream's winding passage.

The creek meandered so much that the hike of a few miles became an odyssey. Walking kept off the chill, except about our faces and ears, where we felt the sting. After a while it began to snow, a frail and hesitant fall. The gray sky turned to pearl as it approached dusk, hedging into darkness. As the air cooled, the forest sounds grew sharper. The wincing of overhanging limbs became ominous. If the adults who endured our disappearance that afternoon are to be believed, we hiked for four hours.

It seemed to us much longer.

Our story faltered now and again, but we did not let it slip away. I began to wonder what we would do when we reached the Mississippi. In my mind, the center of the river rose up higher than the frozen banks and was rounded on top like a great unsheathed vein. I imagined standing before that vast expanse of ice and water, snow and sky. My legs — or perhaps my character's legs — wobbled at the thought. We were engaged with something enormous, I understood. I didn't have the right words to express what it was, but I felt it.

The dark gathered density while we walked along, cheerful and exalted and on the brink of terror. I do not recall much of our story line, but I do remember that Brady identified a flaw in our body of work. We never had any girls in our stories.

"It just isn't realistic," he noted.

I reluctantly concurred.

By this time we had no chance of getting home before the dark became as solid as the ice. We had not brought a flashlight or matches. Our parents would have realized by now that we had disappeared. Still, we kept walking and telling our tale. There was very little pretend left in it. We announced our progress to ourselves. We speculated on the comely woods. Our breath shimmered in the evening air, the little clouds that stories make.

We knew we were going to be in a lot of trouble with our parents. We thought too much of ourselves to believe we might get spanked, and we thought too much of our parents to believe we would be beaten. We would get whupped. We could not even deny that we had it coming. It might have been a comfort to consider the whupping we would get. It kept us from thinking we might die.

My father knew that forest in a way I never would. He had grown up on the same county road during the Great Depression. As a teenager, he had hunted in the bottomland to provide for his family. "We ate a lot of squirrel," he liked to say. Invariably, he would add, "It's good eating." His schooling was interrupted by war. He served in Italy and North Africa. When he returned, he married my mother and finished his degree. They tried living in Missouri and California, but my father kept returning to Kentucky. He would spend the latter part of his life in Arizona — a move dictated by the health of a child — but he would only ever know one place.

Luckily for Brady and me, we chose the right place to lose ourselves.

His deep voice seemed to descend from the heavens. "That's far enough, boys." I think it was my father who said it. He and Brady's father stood on the creek bank beside poplar trees, each with his arms folded into the tucks of his jacket.

A wild topple of emotions brought a sudden pressure to my eyes. I felt relieved and deflated, rescued and arrested, fearful of punishment and angry at being caught, ashamed that I had made my father look for me and proud that we had covered such a distance. More than anything, though, I was amazed. We had told no one where we were going, and yet there were our fathers. Mine seemed to me something like omniscient. He had on his reversible hunting cap, the red plaid turned inside, showing only at the earflaps, a sift of snow on the bill.

Brady and I exchanged a look, but we said nothing as we tramped up the creek bank and through the trees. The men had come in separate cars, driving over a back road that had taken them within a dozen yards of the stream. Brady's father had a pickup. We owned a new Impala. It was not made for such roads, and I felt responsible for the muddy slush on its grille. Brady and I did not even wave good-bye, but trudged like convicts to our separate vehicles. Our winter story would remain unfinished.

Now and again, I find myself writing a story that revisits that illicit walk. None yet is precisely about those two boys and their fathers, but I often discover that the walk on the frozen creek has one way or another informed the plot, the setting, the characters, or even the structure of a story. I do not set out to re-create the walk, but the walk aroused in me the complicated and contradictory feelings that lend themselves to fiction.

I have grown to understand narrative as a form of contemplation, a complex and seemingly incongruous way of thinking. I come to know my stories by writing my way into them. I focus on the characters without trying to attach significance to their actions. I do not look for symbols. For as long as I can, I remain purposefully blind to the machinery of the story and only partially cognizant of the world the story creates. I work from a kind of half-knowledge.

In the drafts that follow, I listen to what has made it to the page. Invariably, things have arrived that I did not invite, and they are often the most interesting things in the story. By refusing to fully know the world, I hope to discover unusual formations in the landscape, and strange desires in the characters. By declining to analyze the story, I hope to keep it open to surprise. Each new draft revises the world but does not explain or define it. I work through many drafts, progressively abandoning the familiar. What I can see is always dwarfed by what I cannot know. What the characters come to understand never surpasses that which they cannot grasp. The world remains half-known.

In "The Art of Fiction," Henry James advises writers: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost." I work by the opposite means. I resist knowing until the story finally rubs my nose in it.


The illusion of people and place created by a story is the algebraic product of a writer's art and a reader's engagement. This world exists not on the page but in the reader's mind. The writer is responsible for the surface story of character and conflict, the evocation of a fictional reality (including the terms by which it operates), and the execution of a full narrative shape. If the writer's goal is literary fiction — a slippery term, but for the moment let's call it "fiction that aspires to be art" — then there are additional responsibilities. One of these, I'll argue, is the creation of a half-known world. To accomplish this, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension. The writer wishes to make his characters and their world known to the reader, and he simultaneously wishes to make them resonate with the unknown.

It may be easier to understand this argument if I start with stories that create fully known worlds.

The theme song to one of the most successful sitcoms in television history argues, "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came." This pretty much sums up the "situation" in most situation comedies. A sitcom offers an unchanging community to which the viewer is always welcome.

Cheers is a classic example of the static world of situation comedy. From week to week, the cast of characters remains essentially the same. The primary landscape does not change. In each episode every character merely repeats his defining characteristics. The range of what can happen is limited, guaranteed to be essentially comedic, and nothing that occurs in any individual episode will upset the reliable sameness. (This, of course, is the opposite goal of a literary short story, which promises some kind of change.) For the sitcom viewer, there is comfort in consistency and repetition. This community will remain unaltered, no matter what particular hell the viewer may be going through.

Now and then real life interferes with the sitcom — an actor dies or wants out of her contract — and the show is forced to accommodate, but Coach, the lovable bartender who was hit once too often by a fastball, is replaced by Woody, the Indiana farm hick who is as sweetly dumb as a plank. Even when something changes, it remains the same.

We can't predict exactly the rejoinder that Sam will make to Diane (or Diane's replacement), but we know the type of comment it will be, the relative degree of wit involved, and just how far it will go. Having our expectations almost perfectly met makes us feel knowing, possessively fond, and calm. These are our rewards for watching. After just a few episodes, the sitcom world is fully known. A character may have a secret, but it will be revealed before the half hour expires, and it will not change the way you think of him. The TV sitcom is an explicit medium: nothing that is under the surface can remain there for long.

While the sitcom is perhaps the clearest example of a fully known world, television dramas and most Hollywood movies are nearly its equal. Popular films work to give you the sense that you are being shown everything. As a result, character motivations tend to come from the big categories, such as "They killed my family, so I will get them," or "He saved my life, so I like him." Every action is motivated by something that you witness firsthand or that is explained to you.

To make something fully known is to make it unreal. Think of Disneyland, think of the speeches of politicians, think of McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast-food goal is not to give you a great meal but to give you exactly what you expect. There is comfort in this, especially for children, for people traveling abroad, and for people whose lives are in upheaval. People in a crisis long for KFC and Seinfeld, McDonald's and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pizza Hut and a president who says, "We are good. They are evil."

It should be no surprise that the fully known worlds presented on television and in commercial movies are populated by stereotypes. To call a character a type is to say that he's so true to a group of characters that he is indistinguishable from all the others in that group. Here's another definition of stereotype: any character that is fully known.


Imagine a play set in the wilderness, a serious play by an important playwright. The stage set is elaborate. It includes a mammoth tree and a stream with real water that runs across the front of the stage and feeds a small pond. A few minutes into the play, thunder sounds and it actually begins to rain, water cascading down from above and landing in the stream. It is an impressive spectacle; however, sitting there in the audience, I feel myself slip out of the drama to wonder about the complicated sprinkling and drainage system. In the second act, one character tortures another by dragging him to the pond and holding his head under the water. At this point, I bounce entirely out of the play. I catch myself wondering whether he has a straw under there by which to breathe.

The rain and pond interfere with the audience's ability to enter the play's world. They are too literal for the medium. You will not be surprised to hear that the playwright had recently been writing Hollywood screenplays. Returning to the stage, he confused the nature of film with the nature of drama. Serious theater, like serious fiction, is a medium of implication. A play succeeds by making you see what is not there. Two actors staring as if through a window create not only the glass but also the landscape. In the same fashion, characters acting on grudges held for decades suggest a past and create a history, one that may never be made explicit but that resonates in their actions. The audience must participate in the creation of the world. The job of a literary play is to use the visible to suggest the invisible. When the two are properly balanced, the audience becomes fully absorbed in the creative work.

Now imagine the wilderness play is made into a film, and the director decides to pretend to dunk the actor in a make-believe pond. The audience would hoot. The Hollywood movie is an explicit medium and it demands that we see the head held beneath the water, preferably with a submerged view of desperate bubbles escaping flared nostrils.

Fiction writers often make the same mistake as the playwright in his wilderness play. They confuse the half- known world of literary fiction with the fully known worlds of popular film or TV sitcom. Even textbooks designed to teach fiction writing suffer from this confusion. Novice writers are advised to make a list of traits that define a character or a specific setting prior to embarking on a story. Here's how one handbook puts it: "The writer sets the game in motion by knowing the fictional personages so well that every move they make, every word they speak, every thought they have grows from a kind of intimate biography." This is standard advice and it is often accompanied by a list of questions to answer, such as the following:

1. What is the birthday of your main character? Where was your character born? What is your character's economic background? And so on.

2. How tall is your character? How much does your character weigh? What color hair? Etc.

3. What is your character's job? How long has your character had this job? How well is your character paid?

4. What does your character do with his or her free time? Does your character have a hobby?

5. What makes your character angry? What makes your character sad?

6. What does your character want from life

Similar lists are encouraged for setting, asking you to name everything in the character's apartment, every book on the character's shelves, and so on. Evidently, each character and setting should get this treatment.

I take issue with the idea that the writer must know the characters "so well that every move they make, every word they speak, every thought they have grows from a kind of intimate biography." I'll extend the argument to cover similar counsel on creating settings. I don't believe that it's a good idea to make a list of everything that might appear in a room before you set a scene in it.

What the lists imply is that you must know the characters and their world quite thoroughly to write about them. Okay, that sounds reasonable, but it's not true. Moreover, it's often a bad idea or, at best, an unfortunate simplification. The listing of characteristics in advance of real narrative exploration tends to cut a advance of real narrative exploration tends to cut a character off at the knees. Such a character may be complicated but is rarely complex. Moreover, such characters tend to become narrower as the narrative progresses. The writer who has typed in the answers to the preceding questions may feel knowing, possessively fond, and calmly confident; but he may find it difficult to let the character break out of these imaginative restraints.


Even Hollywood doesn't want to be accused of using stereotypes. Typically in movies, there is an effort to contradict some aspect of the type. They will force the stereotype to do something that doesn't fit. This method has resulted in the creation of bizarre metatypes that you will instantly recognize, such as the granny who looks aged and retiring, and yet speaks in four-letter words and rides a Harley; or the macho supercop who pauses in his apartment while changing his bloody shirt to study the chessboard and the game he is playing long-distance with a professor genius. Fiction writers who attempt to deal with a stereotype by merely disrupting the character's adherence to type are like the playwright who puts a pond onstage: they are confusing their medium.


Excerpted from The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell. Copyright © 2008 Robert Boswell. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Boswell is the author of five novels, most recently Century's Son. He teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University, the University of Houston, and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program.

Robert Boswell is the author of two story collections and five novels, including Mystery Ride and Crooked Hearts. He lives with his wife, the writer Antonya Nelson, and their two children, in Houston, Texas.

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