The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft

The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft

by Douglas Bauer

Paperback(Enlarged and Revised Edition)

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In this book, prizewinning novelist and popular creative writing instructor Douglas Bauer (The Book of Famous Iowans) shares the secrets of his trade. Talent, as Bauer acknowledges, is the most crucial element for a writer and cannot be taught. But without a regular habit of work, and a perseverance of effort, no amount of talent can come forward and be recognized. His lively and candid essays on subjects critical to the fiction writer’s success demystify the essential elements of fiction writing, how they work, and work together.
Bauer’s focus is on the building blocks of successful fiction: dialogue (the intimate relationship between characters talking and the eavesdropping reader), characters (the virtues of creating fictional characters that are both splendidly flawed and sympathetic), and dramatic events (ways to create moments that produce an emotional and psychological impact).  There are also chapters on crafting effective openings and memorable closings of stories and on the vital presence of sentiment in fiction versus the ruinous effect of sentimentality. By assuming the point of view of someone at the task, engaged with the work, inside the effort to bring an invented world to life, The Stuff of Fiction speaks to writers of all ages in a pleasurable yet practical voice.  

Douglas Bauer is the author of three novels, Dexterity, The Very Air, and The Book of Famous Iowans, and one book of nonfiction, Prairie City, Iowa.  He is also a core faculty member with the MFA Program at Bennington College and has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Massachusetts Artists Foundation grant, and two Harvard Danforth Excellence in Teaching Citations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472031535
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 08/09/2006
Edition description: Enlarged and Revised Edition
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 462,297
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Stuff of Fiction

Advice on Craft
By Douglas Bauer

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2006 Douglas Bauer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03153-5

Chapter One


Ways of Starting the Story

The Grimms' fairy tale "Faithful John" opens thus.

An old king fell sick; and when he found his end drawing near, he said, "Let Faithful John come to me." Now Faithful John was the servant that he was fondest of, and was so called because he had been true to his master all his life long. Then when he came to the bed-side, the king said, "My Faithful John, I feel that my end draws nigh and I have now no cares save for my son, who is still young, and stands in need of good counsel ..."

This beginning, altogether typical in form and strategy of the tale or fable, strikes a tone of careful consideration for the reader. Written with an audience of children in mind, the story-setting information is naturally parceled out at a pace and in a sequence that can be readily absorbed. You can almost envision the teller softly clearing his throat, waiting for the reader to be seated and comfortable and to indicate he's alert to receive the story.

So, in "Faithful John," the reader first learns that there was a king. Next, that this king was old. Then, that at his advanced age he has fallen ill, acutely ill, so ill that he senses it is his final sickness. And so on.

As I said, there's a rhythmically processive quality to the prose. There are no allusive tidbits dropped to tantalize a reader. There is no immediate alarm or frenzied rush to startle and catch a reader's attention. There is only the steady, unruffled commencement of a tale, and the whole source of its power is the singularity of the story. Its ability to engage readers' interest derives purely from the degree to which they find the information incrementally more intriguing.

Now look at an altered first sentence of this opening.

When the old king fell sick and found his end drawing near, he said, "Let Faithful John come to me." Now Faithful John was the servant that he was fondest of, and was so called because he had been true to his master all his life long ...

Simply by changing the article, from "an old king" to "the old king," a significantly different tone is established. Rather than assuming, elementally, that the reader must first be made aware of his very existence, there is a suggestion, in calling him the old king, of a greater familiarity with the story and with those who populate it. A familiarity, that is, on the part of the teller. And this more casual knowledge carries with it an implicit message that the narrative is in this case less concerned about the reader's being patiently brought along. In other words, it's obvious that the tale teller understands very well who he's talking about-"You know, the king"-and if the reader's initial nanosecond of response is to say, in effect, "King? What king?" the disposition of this narrator is, to a real degree-I don't want to have to start from the very beginning just to get you up to speed. If you pay attention, it will all become clear.

Further, there's a sense of quickened pace, emphasized by connecting the first two sentences with "and" to make one. The quickened effect is made, even more, by the addition of the opening word, "When," which implies that the teller has been discussing the king in his healthier years, before the reader has arrived within earshot to pick up the story ... when he fell sick.

Here's another alteration, a rearrangement, taking a sentence from the body of the opening paragraph and making it the first one.

When he came to the bed-side, the king said, "My Faithful John, I feel that my end draws nigh." Now Faithful John was the servant that he was fondest of and was so called because he had been true to his master all his life long ...

The sense of responsibility for the reader's understanding that characterizes the tale's actual opening has now been even further abdicated, and, as a result, readers must work still harder to make sense of the universe they've come upon. "Who's 'he'"? a reader asks. And again, "What king?" And, "Is Faithful John the 'he,' as it would seem?" Etcetera, etcetera.

Finally, this revised opening of the fairy tale.

In the years to come, when he sat with the young queen, whose life he had saved, and with her watched her beloved children, whose lives she had been willing to sacrifice to save him, he would frequently remember the day the sick old king called him to his bed-side and said, "My Faithful John, I feel that my end draws nigh."

In this instance, as the narrator foretells some of the tale's seminal events, an interesting kind of hybrid effect is created. Readers feel at once somewhat confused but also calm. It's plain to see why they feel disoriented, even more so than they have in the preceding two examples. After all, every bit of information in every sentence comes to them unexplained and out of any reassuringly sequential context. They're tossed about in time, immediately thrown into a future with people they haven't really met, then back to a past to confront some dying old king. They cannot know what connects all this seemingly random information: once more there is a floating, unidentified "he"; there is a young queen, who for some reason owes "him" her life; there are her children, whom she supposedly loves and yet, unfathomably, was willing to sacrifice for "him"; then there is the old king, who calls "him" by name so that the reader can at least know who "he" is.

And yet, for all the dislocation, readers do not feel quite the haste to orient themselves as they do in the previous example. Because this opening also indicates, as with the actual beginning of "Faithful John," that they are in thoughtful hands. Why? Well, in part, because the narrative has once again slowed to a pace similar to that of the Grimms'. Second, although allusions to some clearly important episodes are presented in reverse chronological order, there comes with that the impression of a thought-through pattern or narrative plan. Also, such foretelling creates a uniquely authoritative tone, a sense that the teller knows and has digested the full run of events and has decided to offer them in a particular order after having witnessed them, or heard them, to their end. Which means, therefore, that he is now standing at some distance from them, able to survey and arrange them from a commanding vantage point.

At first glance, you might think that opening a story in this way contradicts a fundamental rhetorical strategy for attracting and holding a reader. After all, the ending, the result, has been given away in the first sentence. But in fact such a method of beginning produces a very strong curiosity in readers, as they immediately form the question, not, What happens? but rather, How did whatever they have been told happens happen?

Gabriel García Márquez begins Chronicle of a Death Foretold, not surprisingly given its title, with this sort of opening: "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on." Even more famously, he starts the epical One Hundred Years of Solitude with these lines: "Many years later, when he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Note the movement, the compressed excursion through time on which readers are taken, in just this first sentence: from a starting point in the past tense, the narrative forecasts a future moment in which the colonel remembers an even earlier past than that from which the story is being told. With a manipulation of such deftness, it's clear there's a tale-teller here who can masterfully juggle the chronological balls. And sensing this, we're inclined to give over instantly, trustingly, unguardedly, to the overarching vision suggested by such a voice.

It should go without saying that these four ways of opening a story-and here, as always, I mean "story" to include the novel as well-are by no means inclusive. Within them there are countless fine distinctions and subcategories. I immediately think, for example, of such opening sentences as Pride and Prejudice's, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Or Anna Karenina's "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Or, in contemporary literature, from A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul's bleakly admonitory, "The world is what it is. A man who is nothing, who allows himself to become nothing, has no place in it." These three beginnings, and their like, seem to me to contain aspects of both the opening foretold and also of the fable's reader-friendly "Once upon a time." They suggest a narrator who has pondered the entire tale and, from an analytical distance, with its outcome in mind, has refined its meaning to an opening epigram, a preface of sorts, designed in part to brief the reader in a codified way on what's thematically to come.

Thinking generally about the opening of a story, I'm not so much interested in any precise unit-the opening sentence or the opening paragraph. I have in mind the less exact and more visceral matter of a work's introductory impact. Its announcing impression. The sound of its first chord and the response that chord produces in a listener, a reader.

Obviously, no one strategy is inherently preferable to another, since writers always seek to find a way of beginning that produces the effect they wish to establish, one that is peculiar to an individual piece of work. And it is that idea I want to examine here-the characteristics of various openings that determine their effect, the tenor they create, the ways they regard and stand in relation to their readers.

As the models we have just looked at show, an essential difference among various openings is the degree of effort, for lack of a better word, readers must bring to the task of immediately sorting out the landscape and the stakes-in short, the terms of the story. As we have seen, this effort (which should not imply a chore or a task; if the opening is effective the readers' so-called effort will be eager and go unnoticed) varies considerably, depending on how plainly and procedurally the writer chooses to inform them.

To extend the point with metaphor, the populated world of a story or a novel can be equated to a gathering of people in a room, whether it's a spirited crowd of revelers-imagine, say, a large and festive company Christmas party taking place in a chandeliered ballroom-or a single hapless exile brooding in a garret. And the reader who takes up a story can be thought of as a person opening the door to the goings-on-maybe mass celebration, maybe a misanthrope's isolated rue.

The question, then, for the writer is always the manner in which you wish your readers to gain entrance.

You might decide you want your narrator to, in effect, meet the readers as they are about to enter. "Now," your narrator says, stepping forward to intercept them, "let me tell you what's on the other side of that door. There's a large company Christmas party, Hybertext Software, and you know these high-tech geeks, working eighty hours a week and desperate for a little R and R. So everybody's getting good and juiced. Oh, and there's a scene by the bar you might want to check out. A guy's got a midget dog concealed in a straw basket and he and his girlfriend-you can't miss her, she's got a nose ring the size of a handcuff-seem to think it's all hilarious. Weird. Okay? Here we go."

Here, as in the actual opening of the Grimms' fairy tale, the arriving guests at the party, that is, the readers, begin with a sense that they've been thoughtfully prepared for what they're about to encounter, thanks to the thoroughly apprising narrator. It is a way of beginning that serves especially well if the writer, however subtly echoing the fairy-tale prototype, wishes to establish a kind of mythic or fabulous tone.

Toni Morrison, for example, opens her novel Sula with a marvelous overseer's majesty of tone, one that almost begs for the first sentence to begin, "Once upon a time ..." (Though Morrison, one of the last writers on earth to whom the term "formulaic" could be applied, of course refuses the invitation.)

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

And Marilynne Robinson opens her novel Housekeeping in similar fashion, to similarly evocative effect, its first sentence artfully resonant of Melville's Ishmael.

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother's house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, who escaped this world years before I entered it.

Clearly, the features that define a fable's opening are equally apparent in these of Morrison and Robinson: the judicious distribution of the information; a direct and thorough and unhurried pace; all the elements suggesting a boldly unadorned wish to give readers a picture of the fictional world, the room, they're entering.

We saw, however, in the first altered opening of "Helpful John," that there are times when the narrator provides less custodial help. This is to say that you as the writer might wish for any number of valid reasons to let a reader pass through the door more or less unprepared. Perhaps the reader enters-without having first been intercepted and briefed-and immediately confronts a cluster of people surrounding someone who's in the midst of telling a joke. Perhaps, upon entering, the reader catches a passing streak of a man chasing a woman up the stairs to the mezzanine. Maybe, after stepping into the room, a reader hears two women engaged in a heated argument where they stand just to the left of the door. The point, of course, whatever the moment that captures readers' attentions, is that the action is under way and maybe moving quickly.

This impression of preexisting activity is key. As I said earlier, the most successful openings of this type give off the sense of an already running energy, one that has begun before the reader enters the room. Readers feel that they're joining behavior in progress, that the festive party has been going on without them, or that the misanthrope's solitary brooding has begun sometime before the moment when they open the garret door.

There's a splendid instance of such an opening in William Kennedy's novel Legs-which we will inspect more closely in the Dialogue chapter-where readers are immediately thrust into the middle, and must quickly make sense, of a lively conversation. Part reminiscence, part tall tale, part ghost story, it takes place among old drinking comrades. They're speaking of the murder of the gangster, Legs Diamond, who has achieved since his death a stature of mythic affection in their minds.

"I really don't think he's dead," I said to my three very old friends.

"You what?" said Packy Delaney, dropsical now, and with only four teeth left ... "He don't mean it," Flossie said, dragging on and then stubbing out another in her chain of smokes, washing the fumes down with muscatel ...

Tipper Kelley eyed me and knew I was serious.

"He means it all right," said Tipper, still the dap newsman, but in a 1948 double-breasted. "But of course he's full of what they call the old bully-bull-bullshit because I was there. You know I was there, Delaney."

"Don't I know it," said the Pack.

"Me and Bones McDowell," said the Tip. "Bones sat on his chest."

"We know the rest," said Packy ...

This is exactly the sort of slightly disorienting opening that, as I said, creates an immediate curiosity. Readers, upon entering Kennedy's dark and historically malodorous Albany bar, catch a provocative conversational snippet and they want to find out what's going on in there.


Excerpted from The Stuff of Fiction by Douglas Bauer Copyright © 2006 by Douglas Bauer . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Openings Ways of Starting the Story....................5
Exercise: And So We Begin....................18
Sentences Doing the Dusty Work....................21
Exercise: How Sentences Work....................37
Dialogue The Reader as Eavesdropper....................39
Exercise: Think of Your Ears as Magnets....................60
Putting It in Context Foreground Needs Background....................63
Exercise: But Why Did the Queen Die?....................81
Implicit Narrative Achieving Subtlety while Avoiding Confusion....................83
Exercise: Presence and Absence....................101
Characters Flawed Heroes and Sympathetic Villains....................103
Exercise: Making Heroes Flawed....................121
High Events The Treatment of Dramatic Moments....................123
Exercise: The Richness of the Resonance....................142
Sentiment versus Sentimentality The First, Always; the Second, Never....................145
Exercise: No Cheating Allowed....................164
Closings Ways of Ending the Story....................167
Exercise: Finally....................181
Works Cited or Discussed....................187

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