On writing fiction: basic concepts


I use some version of this handout when I teach writing. If it’s helpful to you, please let me know.

1. Any satisfying story has three basic elements: conflict, crisis and resolution of the conflict. This is true of stories on a screen or stage or on a page. Think of: Titanic, Romeo & Juliet, Terminator, Moby Dick, Emma (or Clueless).

2. Good, balanced, healthy people in happy situations are sweet, but boring. You want to be related to them, but you do not want them populating the only novel you’ve got to keep you busy on an eight hour flight. They do not make interesting fiction. A problem (conflict) is what makes a story. There’s always SOMETHING in conflict. Two people fall in love, BUT their families object… he’s black and she’s white…she’s old and he’s young….she’s got a PhD and he’s got grease under his fingernails…she’s married…she’s democrat and he’s libertarian…he’s a professional violinist and she’s Deaf. Or she loves him, but she doesn’t figure that out until she’s driven him away.

3. The conflict can be between people, or not. Sometimes conflicts are completely inside one person’s understanding of themselves. (It looks like the conflict is between Sue and this granddaddy of a trout that has been eluding her for so long, but it’s really about…. her inability to let go of relationships that are over; her lack of faith in herself; the doubts she has about going to shipbuilding school). But sometimes a person or persons will be in conflict with a place, or the idea of a place. Other conflicts might be: A man and a machine; a woman and a horse; a town and a river. A conflict can be very obvious and in-your-face (he loves her but she loves somebody else) or very subtle (can he face the truth about her, or will he continue to pretend?). But almost always, the conflict ON THE SURFACE is masking some larger conflict. “I want you to pay my parking ticket” might really be “I want you to accept responsibility for me and everything I am.” “You never take out the garbage” might be “I’m still angry at you for walking out of that party last Friday and I’m going to make you pay.” Good storytelling is about many conflicts, small and large, layered together in interesting ways.

It's a Wonderful Life but he's a terrible buy guy.

It’s a Wonderful Life but he’s a terrible bad  guy.

4. A conflict only works if the two parties are truly equal in some way, have some kind of power over each other. It might not look on the surface to be the case, but they do. The power passes back and forth, and this is how tension is created, and you keep the reader interested.

Consider Mr. Potter here from It’s a Wonderful Life. Compare him to another bad guy, somebody we love to hate on Sunday evenings: Mr. Burns. Which is the more successful characterization, and why?  Mr. Potter is a flat character; we have no insight at all into what makes him the man he is. Can we say anything more about Mr. Burns? Noted: The The Simpsons writers have had 15+ years to work on Charles Montgomery Burns, while the people who wrote It’s a Wonderful Life had two hours to make their case. 

Mr. Burns

Mr. Burns

5. Change. Somehow, somebody changes. Maybe Mr. Deshpande now understands that he’s never really been happy as a sign painter; maybe George has lost his faith in the Goddess or the Mariners or himself; maybe Frannie goes on to make a life for herself without connections or money, because she knows now that this is possible; maybe a little girl has a sudden and unhappy understanding of what money means in the world; maybe Juanita decides to marry Ralph, full knowing that this is the wrong thing to do. Change is not always good or positive. Remember, healthy people who make good decisions are rotten candidates for fiction.

6. A license to lie. This is what good writers do. What’s the sign of a really good, inventive, successful liar? Detail.

Question: So what’d you do for your summer vacation?

Answer: Oh, I worked as a roadie for Garth Brooks.

(Now, how do you pull this off?)

A. It was really cool, riding around in that bus.

B. I can’t talk about it, he swore me to secrecy.

C. My only job was to keep his hats in shape and ready to go. He’s got this whole setup in the bus, just for the hats. Brushes, spot cleaners, molds, the whole thing. And it was my job to have them ready for him, off stage, for when he soaked through a brim — you would not believe how that guy sweats. I almost got fired in Amarillo when a huge guy –must have been three hundred pounds, and he smelled like a dog kennel– barged back stage waving a toilet plunger and nabbed Garth’s favorite white suede ten gallon cowboy hat, the one Little Richard signed on the inside. I thought he was a janitor but it turns out he’s this nutcase who follows the band around Texas, just begging to Garth to let him play in the band. His name is Hewey Red Dog Cross, and he makes music with that plunger, you’ve got to hear it to believe it.

Conclusion: Writing good fiction is about developing an eye for the right detail.

7. Perfection is the enemy. Nobody writes beautiful, interesting, good stuff on the first go or even the second or fifth. You have to be willing to rethink and to rewrite what you’ve rewritten. Again. You have to be willing to take constructive criticism and use it well. Get the words down on paper, and then the real work begins.

Recommended Reading

Short Fiction

  • Allen, Woody. The Kugelmass Episode. The New Yorker. May 2 1977
  • Atwood, Margaret. Rape Fantasies. Dancing Girls. 1977
  • Baldwin, James. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. McCall’s. Feb 1967
  • Bambara, Toni Cade. My Man Bovanne. Gorilla my Love. 1972
  • Bambara, Toni Cade. The Lesson. Redbook. Jan 1973
  • Bausch, Richard. Aren’t You Happy for Me? Harper’s. June 1993
  • Bloom, Amy. The Story. A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. 2006
  • Bradbury, Ray. The Sound of Thunder. Collier’s. 1952
  • Cisneros, Sandra. Eyes of Zapata. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. 1991
  • Cunningham, Michael. White Angel. New Yorker 25 Jul 1988
  • Erdrich, Louise. The Fat Man’s Race. The New Yorker. November 2008
  • Everett, Percival. The Appropriation of Cultures. Damned if I Do. 2004.
  • Faulkner, William. Spotted Horses. Scribner’s. June 1931
  • Hemingway, Ernest. A Clean, Well Lighted Place. Winner Take Nothing. 1933
  • King, Stephen. The Reach. Yankee Nov 1981
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. New Dimensions 3 1973
  • Lehane, Dennis. Until Gwen. The Atlantic Monthly June 2004
  • Malamud, Bernard. The Magic Barrel. The Paris Review. Winter 1954
  • Matheson, Richard. Button, Button. Playboy June 1970
  • Moody, Rick. Demonology. Demonology: Stories. 2002
  • Moore, Laurie. People Like That Are the Only People Here. The New Yorker January 1997
  • Munro, Alice. Friend of My Youth. New Yorker Jan 22 1990
  • O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Esquire Aug 1986
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. Extenuating Circumstances. Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque. 1994
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Epoch 1966
  • Orner, Peter. The Raft. The Atlantic Monthly. April 2000
  • Orringer, Julie. Isabel Fish. How to Breathe Underwater. 2003
  • Packer, Z.Z. Brownies. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. 2004
  • Prose, Francine. An Open Letter to Doctor X. Virginia Quarterly Review. 2006
  • Robison, Mary. Yours. Tell Me. 2002
  • Rosenfeld, Stephanie. Grasp Special Comb. What About the Love Part. 2002
  • Segal, Lore. The reverse bug. Shakespeare’s Kitchen. 2007
  • Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums. Harper’s. October 1937
  • Updike, John. A & P. New Yorker. July 1961
  • Vaughn, Stephanie. Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog. The New Yorker. June 1978
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Welcome to the Monkey House. Playboy. 1968
  • Walker, Alice. To Hell with Dying. In Love and Trouble. 1988
  • Welty, Eudora. Why I Live at the P.O. Atlantic Monthly Apr 1941


On Writing

Charters, Ann. The Story and Its WriterBennet, James. 2011. The Work of Art. The Atlantic Monthly.  direct link.

Charters, Ann. 2015. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction New York: Macmillan.  Publisher’s page.

King, Stephen. May 2011. Herman Woulk is still Alive. The Atlantic Monthly. direct link.

Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. 206.  How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading. pdf at criticalthinking.org

Schwarz, Christina. 2006. A Close Read: What makes good writing good. The Atlantic Monthly. preview




Bizarre and vulgar illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts