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Learning to write fiction is too serious a business to be mixed in with leftovers from freshman composition.
—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Capable, professional writers of nonfiction often report freezing up when they set out to write a novel. Faced with the blank screen and the new task of creating fiction, they seem to lose all their linguistic ease and fluency.
Is this you? Did you feel like you were back at square one when you decided to try your hand at story writing? Did you wonder how all your years of expert wordsmithing could just desert you like this?
Were you excited to discover that fictional stories have a rational, replicable structure just like your nonfiction writing, only to sense a yawning abyss between your outline and a fully fleshed-out, well-written story?
Two ways of thinking
A lot of Fiction Freeze seems to come from the way we were taught to organize arguments and data. Whether in school or the workplace, we got really good at informing and persuading.
The first thing to understand in order to start thawing out is that in fiction writing, informing and persuading don’t serve us anymore. Informing and persuading aren’t even on the menu.
Now we have to engage, entertain…and (dare I say it?) enchant.
And that’s a whole other bucket of skills.
Here’s an example. It’s a hypothetical bare-bones newspaper article from the society column of a late Victorian newspaper.
Last Tuesday, Captain Ralph Crewe, 35, accompanied his only child and heiress, Sara, 7, to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Finsbury Square, where Miss Crewe is to begin her school career. In the coming days, Captain Crewe, a widower, expects to begin the return journey to his home in Bombay, India, where he has business interests.
The society-page columnist gives us the journalistic 5 Ws and an H, the raw data we need in order to understand the event:
- Who: Sara Crewe, age 7
- What: brought by her father
- When: last Tuesday
- Where: to Miss Minchin’s school
- Why: to commence her schooling
- How: by taxi.
A couple of small but evocative facts are added for the interest of the reader: “heiress,” “widower,” “business interests in India.”
And with this, the columnist has reported on a small shift in the social fabric of the local upper class. She has informed the reader. She has done her job.
Your new job as a storyteller is totally different. You have to engage the reader. Your job is to present a character with a problem, and entice the reader into caring what happens to that character next.
You don’t have to answer questions. You have to pose questions, and make the reader long for answers.
Here are the actual opening sentences of A Little Princess, the basis for our imaginary newspaper article:
Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.
She sat with her feet tucked under her, and leaned against her father, who held her in his arm, as she stared out of the window at the passing people with a queer old-fashioned thoughtfulness in her big eyes.
A valuable exercise is to notice what isn’t there: all the information the author didn’t give us. As you read this list, notice whether you’ve tended to include this sort of information in your stories:
- The name, physical appearance, age, or attire of either the little girl or her father
- Street names
- The types of shops and what’s visible in their windows
- An explanation of the yellow fog
- What the people in the street are doing
- Where the father and daughter are going
- Where the taxi picked them up
- How they mounted into the taxi, closed the doors, or set off
- What type and number of horses are pulling the taxi
- How long they’ve been riding in it
- The name of the big thoroughfare
- Where the mother is
- Where the father and daughter have been staying
- How long they’ve been in London.
- Where they live
- The day or the date
Now look at what the author did include:
- Dark winter’s day
- Yellow fog so thick that they’ve lit the street lamps
- Shops ablaze with light
- Odd-looking little girl
- In a slow cab on big thoroughfares
- In her father’s embrace
- Thoughtful old-fashioned gaze
These are details, not facts. How did the author choose them? More to the point, how should you chose yours?
From Genre to Controlling Idea
To answer that question, we need to start from the far side of the abyss. The top. The story structure.
If you’ve been around Story Grid for any length of time, you’ve already discovered this, but it’s worth restating: the questions at the top of the global foolscap worksheet aren’t arbitrary or random.
We choose our genre based on the kind of story we have in our heart to tell. And from there:
Genre dictates value, value dictates wants and needs, wants and needs dictate controlling idea, and controlling idea drives every single scene.
Here’s how that looks for A Little Princess.
Genre: We can assume that author Frances Hodgson Burnett wanted to tell an uplifting story with a powerful prescriptive or positive message. Most of her many novels fit this description. A Little Princess is about a steadfast and ethically sound little girl whose values aren’t swayed one inch even by the dire circumstances she’s subjected to. The global genre is Status, subgenre Admiration.
There’s also a slight Society external genre operating, but it’s secondary and mostly concerns the antagonist.
Value at Stake: Status stories, by definition, turn on the value range that runs from success to compromise to failure to selling out. They are stories about a protagonist who rises or falls in the social order while contending with challenges to their ethics and values.
Objects of Desire: If success and failure are at stake, the protagonist’s objects of desire, again by definition, are tied to her success and failure. She wants to enjoy success and social position, and she needs to do so while upholding her values.
Controlling Idea: Derived directly from the genre, the value at stake, and the object of desire, the generic controlling idea for a Status story is “Success results when the protagonist is true to their values whether or not it leads to social betterment.”
Blending that with our slight external genre of Society (where values of power and impotence are at stake), we can ferret out at a controlling idea that goes something like this:
Success prevails when a kind and generous heroine steadfastly maintains her values despite the machinations of her power-hungry antagonist.
There we have it: the Foolscap for A Little Princess.
Now we can start moving from that structural core across the bridge towards word choice and detail selection.
From controlling idea to scene
It’s called a “controlling idea” because it controls what does and doesn’t belong in the story: it controls the arc of the whole story. It controls which scenes to write and which to leave out. And it controls which details to include.
You know that old song by the Police, “Every Step You Take”? Every step your protagonist takes, every move she makes, every claim she stakes, every cake she bakes…has to be connected to the controlling idea, and driven by the want and the need that it arises from.
Does this mean that the turning point in every scene of A Little Princess hangs on her success or failure? Not directly. It means that every scene must take the heroine closer to or further from success by raising or lowering her standing—her Status.
Every scene must also test the values and ethics that her changing circumstances are challenging her to maintain. Her actions must always be traceable to her objects of desire: to enjoy success, and to be true to her values.
From scene to beat to word choice
So what does this have to do with how you, the informative, persuasive expository writer frozen in the face of fiction, decide which details to put into your story?
Let’s go back to those opening words of A Little Princess.
Burnett doesn’t say where the odd little girl and her loving father are going. She simply raises the question in our minds: What’s going to happen to them?
And what about this winter’s day with the yellow fog?
Could it be that all little girls start school on winter days, and all winter days in Victorian London were dark with yellow coal-smog, leaving Burnett no “logical” choice but to open her story here?
Nope. Burnett had total control over her story universe, and you have total control over yours.
She needed a dark, almost poisonous day in order to set a somber mood and signal that this child is facing a change for the worse in her status. She wants you to know exactly what kind of story you’re about to read, and a cheery, chestnut-roasting December afternoon would have sent the wrong signal.
Similarly, you might wonder whether she depicts a slow-moving cab because at that time of day in London, traffic is always terrible.
No again. The choice of slowly, staring, thoughtful, the juxtaposition of big thoroughfare and little girl, all serve to set the protagonist in a new world where she’s powerless except for her ability to observe and think. She isn’t rushing headlong to her destination. It’s slow and almost painful. The word “reluctant” does not appear. Instead, Burnett engages us by presenting details that would make almost anyone feel reluctant.
Those scant 100 words convey clearly that the little girl’s status is not going to be rising. Something neither father nor daughter wants is about to begin. It’s not inevitable—they aren’t desperate or afraid. Rather, they’re facing some difficult duty.
Status Admiration heroines always take their duty seriously. They do the right thing.
In good Victorian-novel fashion, the scene goes on to give us the inward reflections of both the father and the daughter about the colorful life in India that she has left behind.
Then the cab lets them off at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.
It was a big, dull, brick house exactly like all the others in its row… Sara often thought afterward that the house was somehow exactly like Miss Minchin. It was respectable and well furnished, but everything in it was ugly.
Once again, consider what isn’t said: We don’t learn the size, shape or color of the house. From the perspective of a somber seven year old girl, there would be no architectural details, no assessment of its grandeur or market value, nothing to compare it to except the home she’s left behind.
Accurate description isn’t important here. It isn’t relevant. Little Sara Crewe is going to live in this house, and everything we need to know about it lies in words like big, dull, ugly, and—if ever there was a word signifying the Status genre—respectable.
Notice how Burnett gives us the phrase exactly like twice. We already know that the heroine is odd-looking, with a queer, old-fashioned thoughtfulness. Sara is not “exactly like.” She won’t fit in. Since the opening sentences, her position in life has now definitely changed for the worse.
What else does that beat do? It shows us that Sara is silent and observant and knows her own mind, exactly the steadfast qualities essential to a Status Admiration protagonist, who will suffer external changes of fortune without compromising her values.
Notably, it introduces us to the villain.
And it hints that a future return to status might be in the cards: Sara will survive to look back on this time from a better place.
It’s true that I’ve looked at these 150 or so words of A Little Princess from the perspective of having already studied the whole novel closely and charted it onto the Foolscap. I don’t mean to present some magical proof that you can take a handful of sentences in isolation from any novel and absolutely derive the genre, controlling idea, etc.
In your own writing, filling out the foolscap will be a back-and-forth process of guesswork and writing and more guesswork, until your novel is fully drafted.
Nor do I want you to run away with the idea that absolutely every word you write must reveal the story spine.
But I hope you’re beginning to see the vast difference between what’s relevant in a story and what’s simply informative; between what matters and what’s merely interesting.
I hope it’s becoming clear that as a writer of fiction your job is no longer to persuade or inform the reader, but to dole out only the details that are relevant to the controlling idea without answering all the reader’s questions. Your job is to entice them to turn the page.
You want the reader to have questions, and you want those questions to be about how the protagonist will get out of whatever predicament you’ve put her in.
You want the reader to care about the her in the first place because of specific, genre-related characteristics. In this Status Admiration story, those characteristics are steadfastness, thoughtfulness, a sense of duty.
And so we’ve crossed the bridge over the abyss that seems to lie between story structure and good line-by-line prose. Now that you know where it is, you’ll always be able to find your way back to it. You don’t need to stay frozen in front of the blank screen of your story anymore.
A note on target audience
If you aren’t in the target audience for A Little Princess, the opening lines quoted above probably won’t draw you in. You might find them too florid. You might not be interested in a little girl character. An internal genre story may not be what you’re looking for.
But you’ll know. From those opening lines, you’ll know that this book isn’t for you.
Just as surely, another reader—a young girl, or a fan of late Victorian novels, or someone who loves a quiet, internal story—will be able to say, “This is just what I wanted!” and keep reading.
If you try and force your story to be all things to all people, it will be not-quite anything to almost everyone.
From your global genre all the way down to your narrative voice and line-by-line style, your story will be better if you aim it at the exact people who want to read it: the narrowest possible audience.
The key is either to be crystal clear on your genre and work from there, or, alternatively, to write a first draft that leads you to clarity on your genre, then edit for the details that bring enchantment, engagement, and intrigue to the page.
Whether you need to streamline your too-long manuscript or put some word-flesh on the bare bones, don’t ask yourself “What does my reader need to know?” If you catch yourself thinking, “…but they need to understand ABC before XYZ makes sense…” or “This is really interesting,” pause. Take a breath.
Then ask yourself instead, “What do I want my reader to be wondering about at this point?” Your answer should come directly or indirectly from the controlling idea. Which comes from the object of desire. Which comes from the value at stake. Which comes from the genre.
Of course there’s more to the craft of great line-writing than the details you present and the words you use to present them. But when it comes to deciding which details you should include and what information to leave out, crossing the bridge that runs from genre to the line level will help.
Shawn Coyne doesn’t talk a lot about line-writing or literary style in The Story Grid. Robert McKee implies that “writing talent” can’t be taught, and that it’s far less important than story structure anyway.
Everyone trots out examples of poorly written bestsellers with enormous narrative drive, and unapproachable “literary fiction” (often said in a high, whiny voice, sometimes with air quotes), in support of the notion that it’s silly to waste energy caring about the quality of your prose.
But you care about clarity. Maybe the bulk of your potential readers don’t consciously know the difference between good writing and bad, but you can bet they feel it. Good story writing is engaging, enticing, easy to get into. Clumsy writing is a roadblock.
When you’re writing to the narrowest possible target audience, it makes sense not to drive any of them to choose another, more enticing and welcoming story.
And then there’s this:
Can there be an innovative literary novel that is also a barnburner of a read? Or a potboiler that is exquisitely written? Such is the Holy Grail of publishing. And of course the answer is a resounding YES. When line-by-line writing and global story magic come together, our jaws drop. It’s why we pick up any book, hoping that this one will join the short list of those that have changed our lives.
—Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid.
The novel A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1905, is freely available at Project Gutenberg.
A thousand thanks to Rachelle Ramirez for significant editorial input on this article, and to Leslie Watts for long discussions about what’s important.
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