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.
The following articles about fiction-writing modes are available on this page:
by Mike Klaassen
In published fiction, the portrayal of character emotion may appear to be seamless, almost effortless. In reality, the finished product is the result of hard work by an author using six basic techniques for portraying emotion:
In addition to using the basic techniques for portraying emotion, the author faces other issues and opportunities during the actual process of writing:
According to Renni Browne and David King, in Self-Editing for Fiction-Writers, “. . . simply telling readers about an emotion may not be the best way. A better way is to show why the character feels as he does. You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”
Orson Scott Card, in Characters and Viewpoint, notes that “. . . you increase the power of suffering, not by describing the injury or loss in greater detail, but rather by showing more of its causes and effect.”
Emotions usually don’t just pop up in a vacuum, they require development. Successful portrayal of emotion depends on context, which requires planning for a buildup to make emotion feel genuine.
According to Card, “Pain or grief also increase a reader’s intensity in proportion to a character’s degree of choice. Self-chosen suffering for the sake of a greater good—sacrifice, in other words—is far more intense than pain alone.”
Also states Card, “Suffering loses effectiveness with repetition . . . the first time you mention a character’s grief, it raises his stature and makes the reader more emotionally involved. But if you keep harping on the character’s suffering, the reader begins to feel that the character is whining, and the reader’s emotional involvement decreases.” By the third or fourth time, the character becomes comic, and her pain is a joke.”
Emotion, as a fiction-writing mode, is fertile ground for clichés. Examples provided by Ann Hood, in Creating Character Emotion, include:
“One of the problems with this,” explains Hood, “is that clichés simply fall out of our heads and onto the paper. We don’t even know it’s happening. But,” she asks, “are they effective writing?”
Far more difficult, Hood notes, is to find a fresh way to evoke an emotion. She encourages writers to be meticulous in fresh description of emotions, to search for the description that jumps out at readers, fits perfectly, and stays with them long after the story has ended.
The setting of a story can help suggest emotion, either as props for demonstrating emotion, or as a backdrop to create a mood. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby says, “The process of translating the story line into a physical story world, which then elicits certain emotions in the audience, is a difficult one. That’s because you are really speaking two languages—one of words, the other of images—and matching them exactly over the course of the story.” An example of using a prop to suggest emotion:
As Cisco approached the livery stable, he pulled the tin star off his shirt and slipped it into his pocket.
An example of using setting to suggest a mood or to enhance it:
As Cisco approached the livery stable, thunder rumbled in the distance.
SELECTION OF TECHNIQUE
Just because a writer’s emotion-stimulating toolbox contains many tools, doesn’t mean he should use all of them for every task. According to Ann Hood, sometimes not saying what is felt makes the emotion seem even stronger than dialogue. And also, “Don’t fall into the trap of stating the emotion you want the reader to see, then forcing your character to act in a predictable way.”
Sometimes what is left out of a story is just as important as what is put in. Orson Scott Card provides a specific example “. . . if your characters cry, your readers won’t have to; if your characters have good reason to cry, and don’t, your readers will do that weeping.”
CHOICE OF EMOTION
Even a partial list of emotions includes many choices: repulsion, terror, ecstasy, passion, love, hate, desire, fear, anger, disgust, spite, forgiveness, annoyance, peevishness. With so many alternatives, which emotion should a writer choose? It depends, of course, on the context of the story and the writer’s objectives. But according to Nancy Kress, there is one emotion that stands out as the most useful in fiction: frustration. Without frustration, there is no plot. Frustration means the character isn’t getting what he wants. When in doubt, she says, writers should frustrate their characters. In fiction, the default emotion is frustration.
RANGE OF EMOTION
During the ebb and flow of the story, a character should experience a variety of emotions appropriate to the circumstances. Ann Hood notes that “Characters should have a range of emotion to give them depth and complexity. Otherwise, we end up with fiction filled with stereotypes, flat characters moving through an unbelievable world.”
Even within the context of a single emotion, or a set of related emotions, there is a range of intensity. For example:
Which range of intensity is most useful? Orson Scott Card notes that “The most powerful uses of physical and emotional pain are somewhere between the trivial and the unbearable.”
According to an old adage, writers should “open a vein” and let the emotion flow. But there can be too much of a good thing. The opposite of unemotional portrayal of characters is the melodramatic or sentimental portrayal of characters. The words melodramatic and sentimental mean different things to different people, but dictionary definitions include exaggerated, overdramatic, excessive, and indulgent. The common ground refers not so much to intensity but to appropriateness within context.
According to Ann Hood, “Perhaps the most important thing to remember when searching for emotional honesty is that emotion is not one-dimensional. Emotions are complex and often mixed together. Think of a bride on her wedding day. It would be too easy and too flat to describe her as simply happy. Instead, she is excited, apprehensive, worried, fearful, anxious, joyful, smug—so many emotions!”
In Writers Digest, August 2004, Nancy Kress echoes this thought: “Frustration isn’t a ‘pure’ emotion.” It can come mixed with many others: anger, hurt, fear, self-blame, resignation, bitterness, and more. Sometimes these emotions feed off one another in an emotional swarm. An example of mixed emotions:
Cisco paused at the door. If he stepped into the street and faced Black Bart, he might be able to stop Bart from hurting innocent people. But Cisco also realized that his chances of surviving the fight were slim. Bart was fast with a six shooter—very fast.
Characters are a representation of humans, and that means they are both consistent and inconsistent in their emotions. Ann Hood reminds writers that Aristotle observed that a character should be “consistently inconsistent,” which does not mean characters jump from emotion to emotion recklessly but rather that they move believably from one emotion to the next.
Nancy Kress, in Writers Digest, August 2004, puts it a different way, “Not only do different people experience different mixes of emotions when frustrated, but also the same person may experience different mixes at different times.”
Coincident with a story’s physical journey is the character’s emotional journey, which may appear as an emotional rollercoaster that, in turn, provides the character with internal growth.
James N. Frey in How to Write a Damn Good Novel says, “. . . look at your character’s emotional level at the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene. There should be a step-by-step change in the character from, say, cool to fearful, spiteful to forgiving, cruel to passionate, or the like, in every scene.” Regarding the story as a whole, he observes, “By the climax . . . the character is fully revealed because the reader has seen him acting and reacting at each emotional level.”
Emotion may be conveyed with six basic techniques, but numerous other issues and opportunities exist for an effective transfer of emotion to characters and ultimately to the reader.
This article was published by Helium.com on February 11, 2010.
Copyright 2010 and 2021 Michael John Klaassen.
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Mike Klaassen is the author of Fiction-Writing Modes: Eleven Essential Tools for Bringing Your Story to Life, which is available for order wherever new books are sold. You may "Look Inside" the eBook edition at Amazon.com.
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):
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.
Michael John Klaassen
(Adapted from an article published by Helium.com on June 6, 2007)