Must-Read, Interesting Articles About the Art of Writing

Young-Adult Fiction

YOUNG-ADULT FICTION: What Makes a Great Novel For Boys?

WHAT DO THE FOLLOWING NOVELS HAVE IN COMMON?

  • Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
  • Immortal: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Novel, by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
  • Holes, by Louis Sachar
  • Eragon, by Christopher Paolini

Even though these five novels vary significantly, they have one large common denominator: each is a great story that adolescent boys can enjoy. Great stories share common traits, and those traits coincide with the five fundamental elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, theme, and style).

CHARACTER. According to Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, great stories “ . . . involve characters whom you cannot forget. . . they are larger than life . . . they act, speak, and think in ways you or I . . . do not.” Each of these five novels has at least one unforgettable character. In young-adult novels, that often means characters who are intriguing and complicated; they grow or mature; they emerge from the story as changed people.

In four of the five novels listed above, the protagonist is a boy. That’s not a coincidence. Just as girls are more likely to identify with a female character, boys are more likely to enjoy a male protagonist. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows that an intriguing female character can also hold a guy’s reading attention.

PLOT. The characters must do something important. According to Maass, in great novels “what happens to the characters in the course of the story is unusual, dramatic, and meaningful. A great story involves great events.”

In the novels listed above, the respective protagonist:

  • Wages intergalactic war against aliens
  • Uses magic to battle evil wizards
  • Fights and kills the undead threatening her hometown
  • Searches for buried treasure in a juvenile-detention camp
  • Rides a dragon into battle to defend the oppressed

SETTING. Characters don’t perform on an empty stage. As outlined by Maass, your favorite novels “probably . . . whisked you into their worlds, transported you to other times or places, and held you captive there.” That means setting is more than just a stage. It incorporates a milieu, a broader sense of culture and environment, so integrated into the story that setting almost becomes another character.

In the novels listed above, the settings include:

  • A space-station training facility
  • A school for young wizards
  • A town infested with vampires
  • A juvenile-detention facility on a dry lake bed inhabited by poisonous lizards
  • A medieval world ruled by an ruthless sorcerer

THEME. A great novel is more than just entertainment. According to Maass, another aspect of great stories is that they alter the reader’s way of seeing the world. Ideally, a great young-adult novel leaves the reader better able to cope with whatever real-world challenges he may face. In each of the novels listed above, a young protagonist overcomes incredible obstacles and emerges as a stronger, wiser person.

STYLE. Style is the “how” of fiction, reflecting a myriad of choices made by the author, from individual word choice to establishing the tone. Although the novels listed above differ significantly in various aspects of style, they share one overall trait: they are each told in an accessible, straight-forward style.

In capsule form, the cornerstones of a great novel for young-adult males are:

  • An intriguing, complicated, larger-than-life character
  • A dramatic, meaningful plot
  • A captivating setting
  • An appropriate theme
  • An accessible, straight-forward style

When these traits are combined into one story, the reader is hooked from the beginning, keeps turning the pages, and at the end is left hungry for more.

Copyright 2008

Michael John Klaassen

Violence in Young-Adult Fiction: Acceptable, Beneficial, or Inexcusable?

by Mike Klaassen

Violence in children’s fiction isn’t new. Just think about the old fairy tales. Two of the little pigs were eaten before the third pig boiled the Big Bad Wolf alive. After a wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, a hunter sliced the wolf open to let them out. A wolf eventually ate the boy who cried wolf.

More recent fiction also includes plenty of violence. The young protagonist in Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, hunts and kills to survive. The choirboys of Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, hunt wild boars, and then each other. All of this is a little tame by today’s standards, where it seems no subject is absolutely taboo. For example, in The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, a girl narrates a story in which she is raped and murdered. That subject is as touchy as it gets, but the novel is well regarded.

How much, if any, violence is appropriate in young-adult fiction today? At the risk of being roasted alive on a virtual bonfire, the short answer to that question is that it depends on how it’s presented. Violence in young-adult fiction is a lot like working with fire. Properly handled, fire can be a vital resource. Misused or out of control, it can be terribly destructive.

When I started writing young-adult novels, I decided my target market would be reluctant readers, especially teenage boys. To get my readers’ attention and to hold it, I intended to use lots of action. I would put my characters in dangerous, scary, and potentially violent situations. But how much is too much? And does violence in fiction foster violence in real-life behavior?

Our generation isn’t even close to being the first to wrestle with this issue. Daniel Chandler, of the University of Wales, in “Television Violence and Children’s Behavior,” states “Concern about children and popular media has a long history. Plato proposed to ban poets from his ideal republic, because he feared that their stories about immoral behavior would corrupt young minds.”

Reasonable people may disagree on this subject. Some have little or no tolerance for violence in young-adult fiction because they believe that it encourages violent behavior in real life. Others may feel that violence in fiction may be overly traumatic for young readers.

On the other hand, some believe that violent fictional situations create opportunities for young readers to experience traumatic situations without actually facing real danger themselves, just as my brothers and I did when we played Cowboys & Indians. Potential benefits include learning skills for problem solving, conflict resolution, self-defense, survival, and fear management. As Chandler’s article indicates, research on the subject isn’t conclusive, either way.

As I see it, the challenge is to gain and hold the reader’s attention, but also to present the subject in a manner that doesn’t trivialize serious subjects or encourage destructive behavior. While developing my novels, I considered dozens of situations in which young characters experienced or committed violence. For example, I developed scenarios in which one teenage character or another:

  • Breaks a younger boy’s arm
  • Hits a dog with a 2-by-4
  • Imagines himself biting through a dog’s jugular vein
  • Pulls the head off a chicken
  • Is eaten by wild hogs
  • Kills an adult
  • Dies from a shotgun blast to the neck.

First reactions to this list might be that there’s no excuse for any of them. But the context in which the situation is presented can make a huge difference. In each of the situations listed above, questions need to be asked before reaching a conclusion. For example:

  • How does the violent scene serve the story?
  • Who commits the violence? The hero? The villain? A minor character?
  • Was the violent act intentional or accidental?
  • What was the character’s motivation?
  • Was the act malicious or cruel?
  • Was it in self-defense?
  • Did the offending character express remorse?
  • Did the violent character suffer consequences, or was he rewarded?
  • Was death or injury presented as a trivial event? Or tragic?
  • Were alternative courses of action considered?
  • Did the victim’s behavior contribute to his own demise?
  • Did the character actually commit the violence, or just imagine it?

Although I discarded many other violent situations during the process of writing my novels, each of the situations listed above were retained, and fully dramatized, as part of the stories.

As with fire, violence in fiction has the potential to be destructive, but used appropriately, it can serve the story and the reader well. I feel I have a responsibility to make sure it is appropriate within the context in which the violence occurs. Part of me would like clear-cut guidelines as to when violence in teen fiction is appropriate and when it isn’t. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. It’s a judgment call, to be handled case by case.

Copyright 2007

Michael John Klaassen

The article above is an example of dozens presented in Mike Klaassen's free monthly ezine, For Fiction Writers. Subscribe today.

Profanity in Young-Adult Fiction

by Mike Klaassen

Writers make lots of decisions, and writers of young-adult fiction are faced with choices regarding profanity. Like it or not, the use of profanity is an effective device for portraying emotion in fiction, adding realism to dialogue and to a character’s introspection. So how do writers balance the desire for authenticity with the need to be responsible to young readers? The choices come down to:

  • Liberal use of profanity
  • Omission of profanity
  • Sparse use of profanity
  • Summarized profanity
  • Sanitized profanity

LIBERAL USE OF PROFANITY

In some ways, this is the easiest of the choices. Rather than agonize about the use of foul language in novels, writers may just use it wherever it seems natural. After all, nearly everyone has heard and read foul language before, and it’s been decades since it’s been taboo in fiction.

On the other hand, there are serious drawbacks to the liberal use of profanity. First of all, if a writer needs profanity to make teen dialogue seem realistic, then a lot of it may be needed. For any work of fiction, overuse of profanity can become an annoying distraction to the reader. For some readers, it’s an outright turnoff, leading them to promptly put the book down.

For young-adult fiction, there’s a substantial economic price for the use of profanity. Although some youngsters purchase their own reading material, buyers of teen novels are often parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians. Many adults are reluctant to purchase teen fiction that includes gratuitous use of profanity. Editors and publishers may share those feelings.

OMISSION OF PROFANITY

An alternative to the liberal use of profanity is to avoid the issue by totally leaving it out of the manuscript. After all, the best of fictional dialogue isn’t a transcription of real-life conversation: it’s distilled down to the very best and most appropriate, given the needs of the story.

If the characters and dialogue in the story are believable without profanity, there’s no problem. But will all of the characters be believable if they never use profanity, even in situations where its use seems natural? Maybe a compromise is in order.

SPARSE USE OF PROFANITY

Why not use profanity only in those few situations that are most important to the story? This approach has a benefit: if you seldom use profanity in your writing, it will stand out more when you actually do.

SUMMARIZED USE OF PROFANITY

If a writer is trying to limit or avoid the outright use of foul language, but the needs of the story call for it, the use of summary may be an acceptable alternative. Summarized profanity means using phrases like, “he cussed,” and “she cursed,” and “he cut loose with a string of expletives.” In fact, summary may very well serve the story better than interrupting the action with dialogue or distracting the reader with specific curse words.

SANITIZED PROFANITY

By sanitized I mean sugar-coated substitutes. “Fiddle-dee-dee,” might be fine for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. “Oh, fudge!” “Shoot!” and “Darn it!” would be appropriate for some characters. On the other hand, there are situations where the words manure, dung, or poop might not adequately communicate a particular character’s emotion.

My young-adult novels deal with troubled teens, boys likely to pepper their conversation with expletives. As a novelist, I’ve weighed the costs and benefits of using profanity and have developed my personal guidelines:

  • The younger the intended reader, the harder it is to justify using any profanity at all.
  • I won’t use liberal amounts of profanity in my writing; in fact, I’ll use profanity only reluctantly where I believe the benefits outweigh the costs.
  • I’ll use sanitized cussing where appropriate and summarized profanity where it serves the story best.

Writing is largely about making choices, and writers of young-adult fiction are faced with decisions that may influence young people. Hopefully, this article has helped you make your own decisions about the use of profanity in your work.

Copyright 2007

Michael John Klaassen

The article above is an example of dozens published by Mike Klaassen in his free, monthly ezine For Fiction Writers. Subscribe now.

Scenes & Sequels

A scene is a passage of fiction in which a character attempts to achieve a goal.

A sequel is a passage of fiction in which a character reacts reflectively to a scene. 

Scene and Sequel: The Ebb and Flow of Fiction

by Mike Klaassen

 Scene and sequel are two of the most important components of plot, but they also seem to be two of the least understood. If plot were an engine, scene and sequel would be the pistons powering the drive shaft. Writers striving to turbocharge their writing might want to fine-tune their use of scene and sequel.

Let’s put plot structure in context. On a microlevel, plot consists of action and reaction. On a macrolevel, plot has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. But plot also has a midlevel structure: scene and sequel. Scene is a unit of drama—where the action occurs. Then, after a transition of some sort, comes the sequel—an emotional reaction and regrouping, an aftermath. 

The structures of scene and sequel are quite different, and they serve entirely different purposes. Many how-to books depict the rising action of a story as a jagged line, or stairway. What they fail to explain is that the up-thrust lines represent scenes, while the down-sloping lines represent sequels. A scene drives the story forward like a wave racing up the beach. A sequel pulls the wave back and gathers strength for the next scene to surge up the beach even farther than the previous scene. A novel without scenes would be boring, but without sequels, a story is just one event after another.

Let’s take a closer look at scenes. Fiction-writing books mention at least a few of the following as being important to plot: tension, suspense, resolution, motivation, goals, stakes, obstacles, conflict, success, and failure. But most don’t mention all of these elements, nor do they explain how they work together as part of a scene. 

Basically, this is how a fully developed scene works. 

  • The scene setup establishes the point of view, which in many cases is that of the scene’s main character. The setup also establishes setting, including time, especially in relation to the last scene or sequel.
  • The character has motivation to achieve a specific goal and moves to achieve it. 
  • Failure to achieve the goal would result in the loss of something meaningful, i.e., stakes. 
  • An obstacle complicates the character’s achievement of the goal. 
  • This creates conflict, which results in frustration for the character and tension for the reader. 
  • Since the character is properly motivated and the stakes are adequate for the situation, he tries to overcome the obstacle again and fails again and again, often in the give-and-take form of stimulus and response.
  • This creates doubt as to whether the character will succeed, thus raising the level of suspense for the reader. 
  • The character is confined somehow to the situation, and since he has narrowing options and no outlet, pressure rises to a breaking point. 
  • The character tries yet again to overcome the obstacle, and this time (often his third attempt) his efforts climax, followed by the scene resolution. 
  • Resolution may be in the form of either success or failure, to one degree or another, depending on the needs of the story.
  • Since outright success too early in the story would be anti-climatic, the more likely scene resolution would be bittersweet success, outright failure, partial failure, or failure that leaves the character even farther from his goals than when the scene started. 

In one scene of my young-adult novel Cracks, the main character is driving an old Chevy Suburban through the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Before he accomplishes his goal of reaching the highway, he must fend off the other characters, navigate a winding mountain road, and avoid hazards created by earthquakes. The scene ends in disaster which sets up a sequel and, ultimately, the rest of the story. Once the scene has reached its resolution, the scene is over. And after an appropriate transition, the sequel may begin.

Jack M. Bickham, in Scene and Structure, presents a comprehensive explanation of sequel and its use. Basically, this is how a fully developed sequel works: 

  • The resolution of the scene has left the character in a state of emotion, most likely frustration since the outcome was probably something less than outright success. 
  • As the character gains control of his feelings, he enters a time of thought where he begins to reason through the situation.
  • In the process, the main character will review recent events.
  • He will enter a phase of analysis to digest facts and better understand his predicament, including alternative courses of action available. 
  • From analysis will emerge a phase of planning regarding the next step.
  • Once the character has planned his next move, he must make a decision to proceed. 
  • Then the character must act upon his decision, thus setting up the next scene. 

In my novel The Brute, a sixteen-year-old boy is frustrated in his attempt to summon emergency help. A flooded creek blocks his route from the ranch house to the highway. Exhausted and discouraged, he plops down on an outcropping of rock. He begins to think the situation through, to review his predicament, and to analyze it. A plan emerges. He makes a decision to act, then proceeds to the next scene with a clear goal in mind. 

One of the advantages of writing in scenes and sequels is flexibility. To meet the pacing needs of the story, scenes and sequels and their various components may be lengthened, shortened, skipped, or reversed in order. As Bickham explains, scenes and sequels may be difficult to recognize in published novels precisely because authors have varied their use to fit the needs of the story. Flexibility in the use of scene and sequel allows the author to create an emotional roller coaster of ups, downs, twists, turns, and loops to engage and entertain the reader. 

If your writing lacks get-up-and-go or seems to sputter like an engine in need of maintenance, maybe it’s time for an overhaul of your scenes and sequels. 

Copyright 2007 

Michael John Klaassen 

Mike Klaassen's book Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction is available for order in paperback and ebook editions at traditional and online bookstores everywhere. Order your copy today.

Prototype Scene

by Mike Klaassen

The following prototype builds on information presented in Techniques of a Selling Writer (1965), by Dwight V. Swain (1915-1992) and Scene & Structure (1993), by Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997). A prototype is an ideal, a fully developed model. This is how a prototype scene works. 

  • The scene setup establishes setting, including time, especially in relation to the last scene or sequel. The setup also establishes the point of view, which in many cases is that of the scene’s main character, and the character's situation, his predicament. The scene setup, through a combination of situation and setting, establishes a scene crucible, confining circumstances that limit the choices available to the character to deal with his predicament (so the character can't easily walk away from the situation).
  • The character has a goal.
  • Failure to achieve the goal would have undesirable consequences, i.e., stakes.
  • A goal with stakes creates character motivation.
  • The character makes an attempt to achieve his goal. 
  •  Resistance complicates the character’s attempt. 
  • This creates conflict, which results in frustration for the character. 
  • Conflict also creates uncertainty as to whether the character will achieve his goal and tension in the mind of the reader. 
  • Since the character is properly motivated and the stakes are adequate, he attempts to overcome resistance more than once. 
  • Uncertainty about the outcome of the conflict draws out over time, creating suspense for the reader. 
  • The character tries yet again (his third attempt) to overcome the obstacle. 
  • Since the character is confined to the situation somehow by the crucible, and since he has narrowing options and no outlet, pressure rises to a breaking point at the scene climax. 
  • The outcome of the scene climax is the resolution, which may be either success or failure, or some variation of either. At the end of the resolution, the scene is over. 

Copyright 2013 

Michael John Klaassen 

Prototype Sequel

by Mike Klaassen

The following prototype builds on information presented in Techniques of a Selling Writer (1965), by Dwight V. Swain (1915-1992) and Scene & Structure (1993), by Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997). A prototype is an ideal, a fully developed model. This is how a prototype scene works. 

  • The scene setup establishes setting, including time, especially in relation to the last scene or sequel. The setup also establishes the point of view, which in many cases is that of the scene’s main character, and the character's situation, his predicament. The scene setup, through a combination of situation and setting, establishes a scene crucible, confining circumstances that limit the choices available to the character to deal with his predicament (so the character can't easily walk away from the situation).
  • The character has a goal.
  • Failure to achieve the goal would have undesirable consequences, i.e., stakes.
  • A goal with stakes creates character motivation.
  • The character makes an attempt to achieve his goal. 
  •  Resistance complicates the character’s attempt. 
  • This creates conflict, which results in frustration for the character. 
  • Conflict also creates uncertainty as to whether the character will achieve his goal and tension in the mind of the reader. 
  • Since the character is properly motivated and the stakes are adequate, he attempts to overcome resistance more than once. 
  • Uncertainty about the outcome of the conflict draws out over time, creating suspense for the reader. 
  • The character tries yet again (his third attempt) to overcome the obstacle. 
  • Since the character is confined to the situation somehow by the crucible, and since he has narrowing options and no outlet, pressure rises to a breaking point at the scene climax. 
  • The outcome of the scene climax is the resolution, which may be either success or failure, or some variation of either. At the end of the resolution, the scene is over.

Copyright 2013 

Michael John Klaassen 

Elements of Fiction

The five fundamental elements of fiction are plot, character, setting, theme, and style, where: 

  • Plot is the what or what happens
  • Character is the who
  • Setting is the where and when
  • Theme is the why, and
  • Style is the how
THE FIFTH ELEMENT: The "Other Stuff" of Fiction

by Mike Klaassen

Not so long ago, the most enlightened of mankind considered the basic elements of the universe to be earth, wind, and fire. Over the last several hundred years, no doubt through lively debate, the scientists of the world have pretty much agreed on a standard periodic table of the elements.

Fiction-writing certainly isn’t an exact science, so maybe it isn’t too surprising that the most respected writing instructors of our day don’t agree as to the basic elements of fiction. When I flip through the how-to books on my shelf, I see that almost all of the authors include character, plot, and setting as basic elements. And most authors who address theme, also include it as one of the basics. Quite a few of the books stop there, but then they proceed to describe a mixed bag of “other stuff” such as craft, dialogue, voice, point of view, or whatever else they personally consider the keys to successful fiction.

In the Bruce Willis movie "The Fifth Element," earth, water, air, and fire must be joined by an elusive fifth element to save the world from destruction. I believe there should be a fifth element of fiction to include all the “other stuff.”

What should it be called? Raymond Obstfeld has the right idea in Fiction First Aid. His first five chapters are titled Plot,

Characterization, Setting, Theme, and Style.

Style includes the multitude of choices fiction writers make, consciously or not. They encompass the big-picture, strategic choices such as point of view and narrator, but they also include the nitty-gritty, tactical choices of grammar, punctuation, word usage, sentence and paragraph length and structure, tone, the use of imagery, chapter selection, titles, and on and on. In the process of creating a story, these choices meld to become the writer’s voice, his or her own unique style.

In the Five Elements of Fiction:

  • Character is the Who
  • Plot is the What
  • Setting is the Where and When
  • Theme is the Why, and
  • Style is the How

My favorite writing quote is by Ernest Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.” Fiction-writing has come a long way since the days of Hemingway, and the craft of story-writing continues to evolve. But to keep building on the progress made by our predecessors, we need to recognize the basic elements of a story for what they are. Once we understand the basics, we can delve meaningfully into the more subtle aspects of the craft.

What are the chances for consensus on this? Realistically, there’s less chance that writer’s will agree on the number of elements of fiction than, say, for astronomers to agree on something as basic as the number of planets occupying our own solar system. Oh, wait. Is Pluto a planet, or not?

Copyright 2007 Michael John Klaassen

(This article was published by Helium.com on August 23, 2007)

The article above is an example of dozens that have appeared in Mike Klaassen's free monthly ezine For Fiction Writers. Subscribe today.

Fiction- Writing Modes

A mode is a particular manner of doing or expressing something. Eleven different modes comprise all of written fiction. The eleven fiction-writing modes are action, summarization, conversation (dialogue), narration, description, exposition, transition, sensation, emotion, introspection, and recollection.

FICTION-WRITING MODES: The Tools of a Novelist

by Mike Klaassen

Years ago, when I first began writing fiction, I was bewildered by the jargon and concepts that describe novels and the process of creating them. Let’s face it, there’s lots of information out there, and much of it is conflicting. Year by year, book by book, I’ve been sorting out the terms, structure, and process needed to turn an idea into a novel. It’s an ongoing process, but I take heart in a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” That may be true, but each of us can improve by learning when, where, and how to utilize the basic tools of our craft.

I had what was, for me, a breakthrough in understanding how fiction writing works. I suspect we all have “ah-hah!”

moments in our lives when something is revealed to us and sheds new light on how we look at things. An “ah-hah”

moment for me was many years ago when I was reading The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall.

One of the keys to successful fiction, according to Marshall, is to know what you’re doing and why at all times. He noticed that many beginning novelists don’t seem completely conscious of what they are writing. As a result, they misuse what he described as fiction-writing modes—the types of writing of which all fiction is made.

Marshall listed five fiction-writing modes: action, summary, dialogue, feelings/thoughts, and background, each with its own set of conventions regarding how, when, and where it should be used. Over the years since I first read Marshall’s explanation of fiction-writing modes, I’ve incorporated them into my writing and my thinking. 

Another “ah-hah!” moment for me occurred in reading Jessica Page Morrell’s Between the Lines: Mastering the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. She lists six delivery modes: action, exposition, description, dialogue, summary, and transition.

To the credit of both Marshall and Morrell, they have each recognized the need to identify and describe the various modes novelists utilize in the process of creating fiction. But their disparate lists raise several questions:

(1) Which is the most appropriate label for the concept: writing modes, fiction-writing modes, delivery modes, or something else?

(2) Are all of the terms appropriate for inclusion in a list of modes?

(3) Have all of the appropriate candidates for modes been included in the list?

Let’s take the question of a label first. The term delivery modes has some merit, but in my mind it creates an image of big vans driven by guys in brown shorts. So, let’s try another one. When I did a Google search using the key words writing modes, I was reminded that the term is already being used to describe four broad types of writing: descriptive, expository, narrative, and persuasive. I vaguely recall these terms from my school days, so in deference to English teachers and their students, maybe we ought to leave writing modes to the classroom.

When I looked at the Googled writing modes a little closer, I saw that narrative writing refers to storytelling. Ah-ha! Maybe we should label the modes as narrative modes or narrative-writing modes. Both have appeal, but the word narrative bothered me somewhat because it is one of many English words that mean different things to different people, especially writers. Maybe Evan Marshall has the right label, after all, with fiction-writing modes. Fiction writing is consistent with the concept of narrative writing, but has little room for misunderstanding. Novel-writing modes might work, but that seems to exclude short stories, and the modes certainly transcend both forms of fiction. Until someone comes up with a better label, I’ll use fiction-writing modes. 

Now, let’s look at the second and third questions. Are all of the modes listed by Marshall and Morrell appropriate to include on the list? Could there be even more? To answer that question, I combined both of their lists and then brainstormed for more. That resulted in the following list of mode candidates: action, summary, dialogue, feelings/thoughts, background, exposition, description, transition, recollection, flashbacks, narrative, introspection, sensation, emotion, scene, sequel, stimulus, and response.

I eliminated scene & sequel and stimulus & response, since I consider them to be structural components of plot:

(1) Macrostructure: beginning, middle, and ending

(2) Midlevel-structure: scene and sequel

(3) Microstructure: stimulus and response

I deleted flashbacks from the mode list because I consider a flashback to be a scene within a sequel or, less appropriately, within another scene.

Background didn’t make my list either, since it’s essentially the back story of a plot, and I view plot as having three temporal dimensions: 

(1) Back story: what happened before the beginning words of the written story

(2) Current story: what happens in the “now” of the story

(3) Future story: that part of the story that might come after “The End”

Back story, current story, and future story can each be revealed in numerous ways: dialogue, exposition, narration, recollection, and flashbacks. That said, I’ve eliminated background from my personal list of fiction-writing modes.

Marshall’s concept of thinking/feeling as a mode makes sense, but the term seems cumbersome. In its place I inserted introspection, recollection, emotion, and sensation. 

Again, the term narration troubled me. Not only is it one of the four general writing modes, in a broad sense it also seems to encompass everything a fiction-writer produces. On the other hand, in a more narrow sense, narration is a specific type of writing where the narrator obtrusively communicates to the reader. With this more narrow application in mind, I’ve included narration as a fiction-writing mode.

Likewise, the term description in its broadest sense could be taken to include all fiction. What is dialogue but a description of conversation? Or action but a description of what is currently happening? But some writing is clearly focused on describing something specific and isn’t easily categorized in another mode. 

I also noticed that all the remaining items on my list of writing-mode candidates ended, or could end, with the suffix -tion, with the exception of dialogue. But the term dialogue could be taken to exclude monologue, so I changed it to conversation. 

After combining the Marshall and Morrell lists, brainstorming for more candidates, winnowing the list, and then converting them to words ending in –tion, I arrived at the following list of fiction-writing modes: description, action, narration, conversation, exposition, summarization, introspection, sensation, transition, emotion, and recollection.

Fiction-Writing Modes (Arranged in order of the anagram D-A-N-C-E S-I-S-T-E-R):

  • Description is the mode by which people, things, or concepts are described. 
  • Action is the mode of describing things happening, in detail, as they occur. 
  • Narration is the mode by which the narrator addresses the reader. 
  • Conversation is the mode of presenting characters talking.
  • Exposition is the mode of conveying information. 
  • Summarization is the mode of restating or recapitulating actions or events.
  • Introspection is the mode of conveying a character’s thinking.
  • Sensation is the mode of presenting the five senses, or maybe even six.
  • Transition is the mode of moving from one place, time, or character to another. 
  • Emotion is the mode of conveying how a character feels.
  • Recollection is the mode of describing a character recalling something.

The five basic elements of fiction are character, plot, setting, theme, and style. Style is a composite of the myriad of choices an author makes, consciously or subconsciously, in the process of writing a story. Choices of when, where, and how to utilize the fiction-writing modes are a significant component of a writer’s style. 

A master carpenter has many types of tools and the expertise to use them. If Hemmingway is correct, fiction writers may never become masters of their craft. But we can all improve by honing our skills with such concepts as fiction-writing modes.

Copyright 2007

Michael John Klaassen

(Adapted from an article published by Helium.com on June 6, 2007)

Point of View

FICTION-WRITING SCHIZOPHRENIA: The Relationship Between Author, Narrator, and Reader

by Mike Klaassen

To be an effective fiction writer, it helps to be a little schizophrenic. Well, maybe not with the actual psychosis, but it certainly helps to be adept at shifting in and out of four different mindsets. The mindsets I’m referring to are that of the author, the narrator, the point-of-view character, and the reader. This may seem self-evident, but failure to understand and respect these relationships can lead to unwitting, and possibly unfortunate, decisions regarding choices for:

  • Narrator of the story
  • Person and tense of the narration, and
  • Viewpoint character

Fundamentally, the concepts are pretty simple.

  • The author is the creator, doing the brainwork, making decisions, writing.
  • The narrator is the teller of the story, the orator, doing the mouth work, or its in-print equivalent.
  • The point-of-view character is from whose consciousness the reader hears, sees, and feels the story.
  • The reader is not merely the intended audience; he or she is a critical participant, reacting to the presentation

This four-headed relationship dates back to the earliest storytellers. Cavemen have been getting a bad rap in TV commercials recently, but fiction writers owe them a lot. Imagine cave dwellers around a campfire recalling their adventures. A caveman’s first story may have been about success at hunting or an escape from disaster. The first time the story was told, it might have been quite factual. But as do most stories in the retelling, it probably entered the realm of fiction as the wooly mammoth got bigger or the saber-tooth tiger got faster.

Even in this purest form of storytelling, the author was schizophrenic:

  • The caveman was acting as author by deciding which parts of the tale to emphasize and which parts to downplay, or even leave out.
  • Since the story was being communicated orally, the caveman was also the narrator.
  • The caveman’s first stories may have been about himself, from his own perspective, using himself as the point-of-view character.
  • If that first storyteller had any sensitivity at all, he was conscious of his audience, his readers, and how they reacted, not only to the story, but to how he told the story.

Throughout generations, as the author developed his craft, storytelling became more sophisticated and more complicated. Initially, since the storyteller was obvious (literally onstage at fireside), making no attempt to disguise himself or his voice, he was an obtrusive author. As the caveman aged, he may very well have taken a seat and let a younger person retell the story. At that point, the author became an unobtrusive author. Likewise, since the caveman narrated the story himself at fireside, he was an obtrusive narrator. He was also a self-narrator, not pretending to be anyone but himself. Eventually, he also may have taken on the role of an actor, pretending to be someone else as he told a story, a fictitious narrator. For other stories, the narrator might have attempted to downplay his role as narrator by telling the story through the consciousness of one or more of the characters, thus becoming an unobtrusive narrator.

Initially, the storyteller may have used the first-person point of view to tell stories, either about himself or about others. Over the ages as his language allowed for it, he may have used either past tense or present tense. He could also tell stories about others, using them as characters, maybe even viewpoint characters, using third-person point of view, with either a distant perspective or up close and personal.

Eventually, the caveman grew tired of telling the same old hunting and survival tales, so he began to make up stories, maybe to explain the wonders around him. Why the sun rose and set daily. The origin and functions of the moon and the stars. Explanations for the weather and the seasons. He may very well have used third-person omniscient to tell those tales: “A long time ago, before the earth existed . . .”

No doubt, some storytellers worked audience participation into the stories. They may have learned that the audience could be counted on to fill in some of the blanks in the story with certain assumptions and cues. Who knows, maybe cavemen were the first to say: “Resist the urge to explain,” “Show, don’t tell,” “Avoid repetition,” and “Leave out the boring stuff.”

Even with the invention of writing, the printing press, and the novel, the basic relationship between author, narrator, character, and reader has remained largely as it did around the caveman’s campfire. The addition of new media with which to tell stories, however, has endowed the author with a greater range of choices, pushing author schizophrenia to new levels. For example, the author may choose to:

  • Be an obtrusive author, an unobtrusive author, or anywhere on a continuum in between:
  • Be an obtrusive narrator, an unobtrusive narrator, or anywhere on a continuum in between;
  • Be a self-narrator, or to create a fictitious narrator;
  • Have the narrator utilize first-person point of view, to tell his own story or someone else’s, or to utilize third-person point of view, for one character or more, on a continuum ranging from the all-seeing omniscient to intimately close to one or more characters; and
  • Present the story in a style that encourages the reader to be actively involved in the story or, alternatively, presenting the story in a manner that keeps the reader at a distance, more observer than participant.

The fundamentals of author schizophrenia are relatively simple to apply. Let’s face it, even a caveman could do it. But when multiple choices are available in multiple categories, the number of potential combinations skyrockets. Think Rubik’s Cube, where the puzzle pieces can be rearranged in three dimensions.

Fortunately, novelists don’t have to face all of the variables at one time, at least not for very long. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass notes that since the invention of the novel, it has been transformed by a progressive narrowing of point of view: from the once-essential author’s voice, to omniscient narration, to objective narration, to first- and third-person narration, and most recently to close third-person narration.

Structural Units

The format for constructing fiction from words to complete novels includes a system of structural units: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, passages, segments, scenes, sequels, fragments, sections, chapters, books, and parts. 

STRUCTURAL UNITS OF WRITING FICTION

by Mike Klaassen

I've studied dozens of books about the craft of writing fiction, and I've noticed that much of the information is inconsistent, incomplete, and inadequately organized. One subject that needs to be clarified is the structural units of fiction writing, the format for constructing fiction from individual words to a complete novel. 

No doubt you are familiar with much of the terminology, from individual words to paragraphs to chapters. But there is quite a bit more. Let's break it down from beginning to end.

The smallest units of writing are words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. Duh! But what do you call two or more paragraphs with some common purpose? For lack of a better term, we generally refer to such "chunks" of writing as passages or segments of writing. 

chapter is a segment of writing delineated by chapter breaks. We create chapter breaks by inserting a page break at the end of a chapter and by starting the next page with a chapter title partway down the page. Two specialized types of chapters are (1) the prologue and (2) the epilogue

chapter may include one or more sections, passages separated by section breaks. In manuscript format, a section break is marked with a blank line. In printed novels a section may be delineated with a blank line, a bar, or another symbol, such as a squiggly line. Some novels, especially long ones, may be further divided into books or parts, each including two or more chapters. 

Where do scenes and sequels fit as structural units of fiction writing? A scene is a passage of writing in which the character attempts to achieve a goal. A sequel is a passage of writing in which the character reacts reflectively to the previous scene. Scenes and sequels are specialized passages of writing, i.e., scenes and sequels are subsets of the units we call passages of writing. Flashbacks and flash-forward are two specialized types of scenes. 

Each of these units has a role. As writers we need to recognize each, know its purpose, and how to use it to construct our story. A chapter may include one or more scenes and/or one or more sequels. A chapter may also include fragments of scenes and sequels, i.e., incomplete scenes and sequels. Chapters often end at the conclusion of a scene or a sequel, but they don't have to. 

For example, a new scene may begin at the end of a chapter, and then continue in the next chapter—or even later in the book. Consider a chapter in which a hiker stumbles off a trail and finds herself clutching a rocky ledge atop a precipice. Such an event would certainly create a new short-term goal for the character (avoiding a fall), which would mark the beginning of a new scene. When placed at the end of a chapter, such a scene fragment is referred to as a cliffhanger

Copyright 2014

Michael John Klaassen

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