Monday, January 23, 2012

Characterization and Conflict: Elements of Fictional Storytelling

I just started a new (and final!) semester of my MFA in Writing program at USF, with a seminar in Teaching Creative Writing with academic director Catherine Brady and a writing workshop in Short Fiction with Karl Soehnlein, who writes in his syllabus:
This fiction workshop begins with the assumption that creative writing, like all the creative arts, is a process—a series of choices and actions taken over time. The “writing process” is not about sitting down when inspiration strikes, unleashing your genius in one unimpeded flow and emerging with a manuscript ready for publication. The writing process is made up of a series of attempts at imposing form onto your imagination and bringing rigor to language. To write the fiction you one day hope to show to the world, you first must commit to this process.

While I've just begun my own venture into writing fiction, working on a rough draft of my first submission, I have been studying the genre as well as delving into some books about the craft. One book I am re-reading now, which I highly recommend, is Turning Life Into Fiction, by Robin Hemley.

Here are several excerpts I find most illuminating, along with comments on my own writing process:
"A lot of the craft of writing fiction is in one's ability to oder the material at hand, whether autobiographical or not. The content of the story itself means nothing. The form you give it, the way you shape the material, is everything."

"With any kind of fiction, there are basically two ways to incorporate your real-life experiences. Either you write a story based on something that happened to you, or you write a largely imagined story, with snippets from your life woven into the basic fabric of the story."
Currently, I'm attempting the latter--although these aren't necessarily snippets of life that happened to me, but what I have learned about or witnessed in my personal or professional life. My challenge is that with multiple associations on setting, characters and plot themes, I'm still uncertain as to what my story will be. While I do have a general sense of what the story is about--i.e. the central themes, I just don't quite know what situation(s)--plot points/scenes--will tell the story best. To some extent it feels necessary to figure that out (at least in outline/note/sketch format) before writing it. But I also know that the story will formulate itself, in a sense, as I write it and trust the characters to emerge.

With literary fiction, which is more character-driven as opposed to commercial fiction, where the plot dominates, figuring out who the protagonist is, as well as what he or she wants and is up against (as a protagonist is usually in conflict with self, others or world), is essential to beginning.

In nonfiction I often have too many story threads competing in one piece, which makes for a messy process of untangling for revision. It usually means either weeding something out or giving more emphasis or "weight" to a character or storyline. One approach to circumvent this problem in fiction is to include only scenes that are necessary to the story, usually with an escalation in tension that moves it forward.

During a chat last semester with my soon-to-be instructor Soehnlein, he suggested I start with a fictional character completely different from me. I'm not interested in creating a protagonist that emulates my own physical characteristics, thoughts, speech and actions. But creating a portrait of, say, an aging Filipino widower emigre working as sanitation worker in Los Angeles, would be a stretch (requiring more research than I have time) for my first piece.

But something fiction affords that writing memoir doesn't as much is the freedom to imagine and to stretch beyond the bounds of self. I like the mental exercise of placing myself in someone else's shoes, considering what it looks like, feels like and sounds like to, let's say, be a young mother on the run to envisioned, but unrealized, freedom.

Conflict, I've learned, is the stuff of dramatic tension between and within characters. Revealing what desires drive characters to make decisions that lead to possible change (in circumstance or perspective) through dialog and scenic action forms the narrative arc of a story.

One thing I've also struggled with in nonfiction is the reflective voice of a narrator and how much to put on the page. Some narratives are highly reflective in their musing or investigation of self (which for an amateur can come across as preachy or editorializing) while others allow the characters to reveal perspective through dramatic action. Fiction usually emphasizes the latter, though a first-person narrator or other character may certainly reflect on experience, offering the reader an interior view.

Aside from contending with characterization  and point of view along with plot points through scenes with dialog, action and interiority, there's also setting--not merely as backdrop but for characters to act within or against. For great advice on all of these elements, as well as creating conflict/tension and crisis/climax, see the blog post Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers by Dennis G. Jerz.


PKB said...

It is so good to see that you are pursuing your dreams. Self-reflection certainly creates soulful writing,so stay on the path you have chosen and reflect away!

rosaria said...

Always a rich meal of insights and techniques!

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