Notes on Craft:  Quotes, Ideas, Questions, Working Definitions



"Like the combination of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon in the human body, craft features combine to form a sum greater than their parts—a sum that, in the end, cannot be divided."

Fred Leebron, from CREATING FICTION: a Writer's Companion, Ch. 3 Axioms and Alternatives





The events and actions that take place in a story and the chain of causality that links them.  Plot is different from story:  if you chose to tell a story backwards, with the last event occurring first, the plot of the story would be the events described in chronological order. 


The series of obstacles the protagonist overcomes in their attempt to get what they want.


What happened?  What will happen?  Plot involves the inherent riveting mystery of the future and the engagement of our curiosity.  Plot operates on the human craving to know.  


The English novelist E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, presents this illustration of what plot is NOT.  "The King died, and then the queen died."  This is not plot because it does not explain why these events followed one another.  It does not explain motivation.  Then Forster introduces this example:  "The King died, and then the queen died of grief."   A Plot has mystery.  We ask why.


Janet Burroway says in Writing Fiction, “The human desire to know why is as powerful as the desire to know what happened next, and it is a desire of a higher order.”


John Barth, from the craft essay Incremental Perturbation (Only Barth would use “perturbation”) 

from CREATING FICTION edited by Julie Checkoway


Dramaturgy:  The management of Plot and Action 


Plot can be summarized without reference to action.  A formulation of plot involves the protagonists yearning.  His end goal.  Not the obstacles, not what he does in pursuit of what he wants.  Obstacles are part of the development or rising, dramatic action. 


Gatsby:  A lovestruck poor man attempts to win the heart of a rich girl. 


Story ingredients


(1)   The Ground Situation.  At the beginning of a story, the ground situation is unstable.  “Latently voltaged.”  The state of affairs that pre-exists the story’s present action is “charged.”  ("The Montagues and the Capulets have been hassling each other in Verona for a long time.")

It is the effect on the ground situation that gives the story’s action meaning.  But the dramatic action can’t just be one more action that continues the ground situation in its unstable static way.  (One more dustup between Mercutio and Tybalt.)  The conflict (the dramatic vehicle) has to be something of a higher order. (And then one day… the dramatic vehicle rolls into town.) 


(2)   Conflict  (introduction of the “dramatic vehicle”):  a present-time turn of events the precipitates a story out of the ground situation


(3)   Complication: Dramatic action = action that advances the plot. Dramatic action   “turns the screws” on the ground situation (puts pressure on the ground situation).  Another way to say this:  it complicates the conflict.  It moves us up the ramp. 


Busyness in the story does not necessarily advance the story’s plot.  (Nor does “slice of life” stories).  Mere characterization does not advance the story’s plot, but dramatic action does, and must, characterize. 


Analogy in classical physics between “effort” and “work.”  You can expend quite a lot of effort but not do any work.  (You can pull all day on a nail deeply embedded in a wall with your bare hands, or you can pull it out in a few seconds with the claw of a hammer.)


Incremental perturbation:  the successive complications of the conflict.


Sometimes the dramatic action of the middle is more serial than incremental.  (One can imagine Huck and Jim’s adventures on the raft in a different order.)  But still the overall effect of the series is cumulative. 


Function of the story’s middle:  double and contradictory (paradoxical):  to both move us toward the climax and strategically delay our approach.


(4)   Climax

(5)   Denouement

(6)   Resolution:  suggestive of what the story’s completed action portends for the principal characters


The story’s order of narration need not be in strict chronological order of the events. Dramatic effect, not linear chronology, is the regnant principle in the selection and arrangement of the story’s action.


Enough quantitative change can effect a comparatively swift qualitative change:  …the last straw breaks the camel’s back; one degree colder and the water freezes.


Ira Glass (host of This American Life)


"For me to do a story, something has to happen to someone. It’s a story in the way you learn what a story is in third grade, where there is a person and things happen to them and then something big happens and they realize something new."



Syd Field, from ScreenPlay


"Plot point:  an incident or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction.  The plot is moving in one direction, and something happens so that the plot can no longer move in that same direction." 


Elizabeth Bowen, from  Notes on Writing a Novel  from CRAFTING FICTION (ed. Diogenes and Moneyhun)


"Plot must not cease to move forward.


Action is the simplification of complexity.  For each one act, there are x number of rejected alternatives.  It is the palpable presence of alternatives that gives the action interest.  For each of the characters, the play of alternatives must be felt.  The diminution of the character’s alternatives shows advance—by the end of the novel the characters alternatives may have been reduced to none.  Completed action is marked by the exhaustion of the character.  Throughout the novel, each character is expending potentiality, and this expense must be felt.  The character’s prominence in the novel should determine their range of alternatives. 


The function of action is not to express the characters.  The characters are there to provide the action.  The action of the character must be unpredictable before it has been shown, inevitable when it has been shown.  In the first half of the novel the unpredictability should be the more striking, in the second half, the inevitability should be the more striking. 


Personality belongs to action—cannot be separated from it.  An unmaterialized character (a character without action) produces a halt in the plot. 


A novel must contain at least one magnetic character—capable of keying the reader up—as if the reader were in the presence of someone they were in love with.  This is pre-essential of interest.  The character must do to the reader what he/she does to the novelist—magnetize towards himself perceptions, sense-impressions, desires."



Form is the pattern of the story’s assembly, its arrangement, structure, design.  Form is the aspect of a story that can be abstracted from everything else and expressed in some other medium, for instance, a graph, or some other geometrical figure or metaphor. 

Example:  The rising and falling arc of Freytag’s pyramid is a classic story form:  Conflict, Complications (Rising Action), Crisis (Climax; Turning Point),  Falling Action (Denouement), Resolution.


Example:  A mosaic, or quilt, or mobile might serve as a metaphor for a non-linear, fragmented structure.


Example:  A three part structure, as in James Baldwin's famous essay, "Notes of a Native Son."  As a reader we ask about form:  why three parts?  Why is the piece strengthened by this distinct separation. 


 (See Madison Smartt Bell’s book NARRATIVE DESIGN, and its essay “Linear Design.”)


Form is not to be confused with formula, but rather to be thought of along with words like symmetry, harmony, order.  Form is often called "organic," meaning that the writer, in the process of writing the piece, discovered the form rather than pre-imposed the form before beginning.  Often, though not always, this is an important difference between what's called "genre" writing.







Janet Burroway  "In Literature, only trouble is interesting."


Charles Baxter, from Writing Fiction, "Say what you want about it, Hell is story-friendly…  The mechanisms of hell are nicely attuned to the mechanisms of narrative.  Not so the pleasures of Paradise.  Paradise is not a story.  It’s about what happens when the stories are over." 


John Updike  from his Paris Review Interview, "I try to instantly set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity, and at the end of the story, rectify the tilt, to complete the motion." 


Frank O’Connor, from THE LONELY VOICE, A Study of the Short Story:  "There are three necessary elements in story—exposition, development, and drama.  Exposition we may illustrate as “John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X”; development as “One day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was going to leave him for another man”; and drama as “You will do nothing of the kind,” he said.  …Sometimes the drama shows a pronounced tendency to collapse under the mere weight of the intruded exposition—“As a solicitor I can tell you you will do nothing of the kind,” John Fortescue said." 






The author’s character, or the way she characterizes herself.  The author’s self-characterization.  See VOICE below for added confusion.




Robert Olen Butler   "That is absolutely essential to any work of …narrative art—a character who yearns.  The yearning is also the thing that  generates what we call plot, because the elements of the plot come from thwarted or blocked or challenged attempts to fulfill that yearning." 

Dan Stolar  Character is a given.  Don’t explain.  Have the character act.  Readers don’t become unsympathetic when characters do wrong.  They become more sympathetic.


Ford Maddox Ford   If you’re going to have a character appear in a story long enough to sell a newspaper, he’d better be real enough that you can smell his breath.


David Mamet    from On Directing Film "The making of a story… consists of the assiduous application of several very basic questions:  What does the hero want?  What hinders him from getting it?  What happens if he does not get it?  That’s what keeps the audience in their seats… The story can only be interesting because we  find the progress of the protagonist interesting.  As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.


Good stories have problems that are rooted in character.   Our hero, Dumbo, has big ears.  That’s his situation.  His real problem is not his ears, it’s how he feels about his ears.  But, he wants to not have big ears, and what he wants isn’t necessarily what he needs." 


Questions:  How is this character portrayed: by his or her words, actions (including thoughts and emotions), dress, setting, through the action or description of other characters? Are the characters round or flat? (Do they change or do they stay the same?)  What purposes do minor characters serve?   Has the author caused you to sympathize with certain characters? How did the author achieve this? How does your response--your sympathy or lack of sympathy--contribute to your judgment of the conflict? If a character changes, why and how does he or she change?   Did you change your attitude toward a character? Why?

Janet Burroway   "If you think of the great characters in literature, you can see how inner contradiction—consistent inconsistency—brings each to a crucial dilemma.  Hamlet is a strong and decisive man who procrastinates…"




Madison Smartt Bell from Modular Design  "Time is the tyrant over all narratives:  some events must always precede and others always follow."

Summary and scene are methods of treating time in narrative. 

Joyce Carol Oates  "Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses - one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment."  from an Oates review of an Alice Munro collection in the NYT.

When we think about TIME in this way:

Summary     =     Brevity, Compactness, Artful Omission

Scene          =    Expansion, Amplification, Enrichment

Notes from Janet Burroway's  WRITING FICTION (p209-218)


Summary:  useful and often necessary device:  to give information, fill in a character’s background, prepare for a scene, create a transition, leap forward moments or years.


Sequential Summary:  Relates events in their sequence but compresses them:

“When I was fourteen, we moved to Maryland.  At fifteen, we moved back to Nebraska.  At sixteen, we moved again;  this time back east, to Virginia.”


Circumstantial Summary:  Describes the general circumstances during a period of time—not necessarily what happened, specifically, but the kinds of things that happened, the kinds of things that a character or characters said.  This is a very important tool for the memoirist, because it doesn’t require an exact transcription of an event, but is told with an understanding of the way memory works.  Circumstantial summary often has the feel of scene, but allows for compression of a much greater period of time. 

“In summer, we would bike the mile to the pool in the mornings, crossing Sheridan Boulevard, then dallying, looking up at the tall leafy trees in front of the houses that were three and four times the size of our house.”


Scene:  Scene is to time what concrete detail is to the senses;  it is the crucial means of allowing your reader to experience the story. 

Scene is action (and often dialogue, but not always.  You can have a scene without dialogue ) that takes place over a set period of "real" time.  It allows the reader to see, hear and sense the story's drama moment-to-moment.  One of the most common errors beginning writers make is to summarize events rather than realize them as moments.  

Slow Motion:  When people experience moments of great intensity, their sense become especially alert and they register, literally, more than usual.  If you record detail with special focus and precision, it will create the effect of intensity. 


Bill Roorbach from Writing Life Stories   "Scene is at the heart of all dramatic writing…  A good scene replaces pages and pages of explaining, expositional excess, of telling… Exposition is good at giving the facts (“I had a serious girlfriend named Linda for a year in high school back in Connecticut.”), but emotion, when presented as a fact, dies on the page.  When presented as a scene, emotion fills the readers heart and head as well." 


John Gardner from The Art of Fiction  " …whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind… if the dream is to be powerful, it must be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what we are dreaming…our emotions and judgments will be confused; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried from its beginning to its conclusion."


Jerome Stern   from Writing Life Stories "Like a child in a tantrum, when you want everyone’s full attention, you “make a scene.”

Problem:  When there is too much summary:  Readers never connect emotionally to the characters.  Never feel that they know the characters enough to sympathize with their dilemmas.  Never feel that they get to judge the characters choices and actions for themselves. 

Problem:  When there is too much scene:  Readers don't have sense of which moments are more important than others. 




The author’s attitude toward her subject and toward her audience.





I think this is the most elusive craft feature.  I’ve never encountered a decent definition and am not about to attempt one here.  Still, we use the term.  It has something to do with tone, but also diction, syntax, self-characterization / persona, self-implication. 





In the short story, "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien uses the word "carry" over and over, and he uses this word in many, many different ways.  The word has a lot of weight.  (sorry)   Writers not only repeat certain individual words to create patterns of meaning, they also choose kinds of words to create patterns of meaning. Consider the way that Arnold Friend speaks in the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

"Don'tcha believe me, or what?"

"Listen, that guy's great. He knows where the action is."

"Just for a ride, Connie sweetheart."

The diction in these passages is low. It's slang, colloquial, and communicates a mellow, easy-going tone. Friend is attempting to lull Connie into going for ride, and she is not yet aware of the danger he presents. His seduction of her is mirrored in the language he uses. It's calculated on his part (and on the author's part, down even to his name.) His language, like his sunglasses, are one more thing Friend attempts to hide behind, so as not to reveal his true intentions and character. He calls Connie "honey" and "sweetheart" and these words communicate flippant casualness, but they also speak of the innocence he knows that Connie possesses, and the power he believes he has over her (and does have over her). This slang of Friend's can be viewed in another way also: It can be seen as sign of his lack of sophistication, of the way he sits on the margins of society. (His repeated use of "ain't" is a small indication of this.)





Notes from Janet Burroway's WRITING FICTION  


"Dialogue is not transcribed speech, but distilled speech—the filler and inert small talk of real conversation is edited away even as the weight of implication is increased."


Three kinds of dialogue:


(1) Direct dialogue:  "Hey," Oliver said.  "That's my stomp rocket!"


(2) Indirect dialogue carries, without quotation, the feel of the exchange:  He went over to her and said he wasn't all that interested.  She ignored him at first but then said fine, but wasn't there any other way?


(3) Summarized dialogue:  We talked for hours about monkeys and llamas and even, if you can believe it, the coatamundi.  It's nearest North American relative:  the raccoon. 


Good dialogue is never static.  It never merely conveys information.  It is always multi-functional / multi-directional.  It characterizes the speaker.  It advances the action.  It relates to the story’s deeper concerns.  Often, it has tension in it. :

"Hi, honey. I'm home.  What's for dinner?"

"Make it yourself."

Tension and drama are heightened in dialogue when characters are, in one way or another, saying no to each other.  They aren't answering each other's questions: 

"What's for dinner, darling?"

"Why, your favorite, dear.  Hamburger upside down pie."  

They're pursuing their own agendas.  In this way, each speaker in a dialogue can be seen as a protagonist, with their own desires and obstacles to their desires.


Elizabeth Bowen, from Notes on Writing a Novel from CRAFTING FICTION

Dialogue:  must express character, advance plot.  In dialogue, characters confront one another.  Since the last confrontation, something has changed, advanced.


"Short of a small range of physical acts—a fight, murder, sex—dialogue is the most vigorous and visible inter-action of which characters are capable.  Speech is what the characters do to each other."


"In each sentence spoken by each character, there must be:  (a) calculation, or (b) involuntary self-revelation."


"Characters should be, on the whole, under rather than over articulate.  What they intend to say should be more evident, more striking (because of its inner importance to the plot) than what they arrive at saying."




The author making sense of a situation, attempting meaning, significance.  Not this happened, then this happened, but what the author thinks of what has happened.  In memoir, what happens is not as important as the larger sense the author makes of what has happened.






First Person, Second Person, Third Person:  singular and plural.  Point of View here is not synonymous with opinion, as in “From my point of view, George Bush is a homicidal maniac.”  Point of View, like Form, can be charted objectively.  Whose minds does the reader have access to?  Who tells the story?  How much does the narrator know? Does the narrator strike you as reliable or trustworthy?

What effect is gained by using this narrator? For example: imagine the story "Little Red Riding Hood" from

·        Little Red's point of view

·        the wolf's point of view

·        an animal biologists' point of view

In other words, how does the choice of narrator shape the story.

(There’s no easy shortcut to understanding POV.  Read Both chapters of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction)




Flannery O'Connor, in Mystery and Manners, says, "In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when that happens, they become symbolic in the way they work."


Do descriptions, metaphors, similes create images that are related or form a pattern? What do these images suggest about character, or the conflict, or the deeper concerns of the story?