How I write: telling the truth in fiction

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“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”   Lewis Carroll  Alice in Wonderland

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I sometimes feel I know too much about the process of fiction writing; I’d like to unknow it, and begin again from scratch. Sometimes I think I don’t know enough, and will never make it over that learning-curve hump. In between these two positions, there is also the problem of having taken in too much ‘how to’; the ensuing overburden of advice that can make for self-consciousness, and lead to an unappealing tendency to manipulate characters and events in ways that lack integrity.

The narrative content becomes inauthentic. Untruthful. You see it a lot in book-packaged series for children, the kinds of titles that are written by a host of poorly paid writers under the name of a pretend author whose persona has been created by the packager. (I worked on one of those deals once, but you won’t see my name on the Harper Collins title).

But then isn’t that the point of fiction, that it’s fictional; not real; make believe; just a story.

Well yes and no. Mostly no, I find.

Perhaps this photograph might help to unravel the paradox. I will do as the King of Hearts commands, and begin at the beginning: the laying of a story’s foundations.

In any good opening you are quickly introduced to the protagonist(s). In the photo let’s suppose the main characters are the marsh grasses in the foreground. The eye is drawn to them; they are the most obviously defined; they stand out from the crowd. There is also something particular about their disposition, their relationship to/place within their setting which adds to their interest. At this stage we do not yet know them, but they have attracted our attention and we want to know  more.

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Along with meeting the story’s protagonists, and in accordance with the usual conventions of storytelling, the reader will, either  immediately, or very soon, become aware of some conflict affecting them. Trouble is brewing, or has just descended. 

The ‘trouble’ can  come in many forms and moods from gritty realism to high comedy. In the photo it might be represented by the soft focus rock in the foreground. We can see it is a rock, but only the top of it is looming. In other words, we sense the imminent drama, but we don’t altogether know what form it will take, or the full implications for the protagonist. Now we’re hooked: we want to know what is going to happen, and in particular how the characters we have glimpsed will confront and resolve their difficulties.

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To use another kind of image, then, these elements are the storyteller’s warp and weft. They are key to the construction process, but they are not the actual story. What is needed is substance and texture, the interweaving of details that will give life to the story’s characters and their situations.

This all about creating an internally convincing context, a believable world, a setting within which its inhabitants and their preoccupations articulate authentically. Everything must ring true.

And when a storyteller succeeds on all these fronts, then the fiction does indeed become a kind of truth. This is what Stephen King means when he says a story is a ‘found thing’. The storytelling process is about discovering something that already exists. In this sense, it is not ‘made up’. I think the analogy King gives is the retrieving of a fossil from its rocky matrix; how good a specimen you end up with depends on the quality of your excavation techniques and your understanding of the materials involved. You also need a steady hand, and a sharp eye.

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Looking again at the photo, the stream, the marsh, the distant wood and the sky are all part of the context for the foreground grasses and rock. They are the setting. The wood adds depth of field and also a  sense of mystery. It contrasts coldly with the pale sky. Perhaps, after all, the trouble is coming from that direction; the rock in clear sight is just a distraction, or only a foretaste of worse to come. Storytelling requires cycles of tension, building in intensity. The triple helix is a useful image to think of.

While we’re here, we might also imagine the stream as the narrative thread. No matter how the storyteller chooses to reveal the series of events that make up the story (and of course they need not be consecutive or chronological in the way that the King of Hearts demands of the White Rabbit) there must always be onward momentum, pressing the reader along, piquing their interest, not losing them on the journey.

This means creating a balance between revealing and withholding information – adding suspense or a new twist. And it’s at this point the storyteller needs to look out, and  stay true to context and characters – no rampant extraneous invention and manipulation to create gratuitous excitement.

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. ”

Raymond Chandler

This does not mean flat writing. Far from it. There must be light and shade, surprise, variety, and glorious detail (though not too much), yet all must arise naturally from within the story, have believable existence within the created story world. It is a form of alchemy. Or conjuring. Or mediumship, and the makings have their source deep within the storyteller’s subconscious.

The narrative that emerges is the result of dialogue between the subconscious and conscious mind. Although, just sometimes, the subconscious will do all the work. And it is then that the writer will say the story simply downloaded/was dictated to their inner ear, and all they did was type.

Of course all I have told you here is the ‘how’ of story, and not the ‘what’. And so where does the ‘what’ come from? All I can say is that any writer must find and stake out their ‘territory’, explore every inch, and command it the best they can, only then will the full story emerge.

Hilary Mantel’s muscular recreation of the Tudor world of Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies) is an excellent example. She has done her homework, and then she has conjured. Most of my own published short fiction has grown from years of living in, and reading about East Africa. A host of characters without stories lives in my head. The gathering process, the interrogation of data never stops. One day I will excavate the perfect fossil.

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But before I leave this photo, I have to say that of course the actual story is not about the upfront grasses or the rock. There is someone in the foreground who does not appear in the shot. A dark-haired girl. I think her name is Eirwen and she has come to the seashore to gather the marsh grasses for thatching. As she cuts the sheaves, she is thinking of Ifor, the seer’s son, and if he will come as promised. She is sad because he won’t, and thrilled because he will. Then a cry of a heron makes her look towards the sea. A fleet of dark ships is heading ashore. She sees the glint of iron – shields, spears, men on horseback leaping into the shallows. The cry of the heron becomes her cry…

 © 2015 Tish Farrell

Related: Also see my post about creating setting/world building at Knowing Your Place

This post was inspired by Paula’s Black and White Sunday: Inspiration

 

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34 thoughts on “How I write: telling the truth in fiction

  1. Wow, Tish! What a beautiful piece of writing here, born from experience. LOVED it. And yes, one day you’ll excavate a perfect fossil. Yes you will.

  2. can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed this post – the way you’ve illustrated the ‘how to’ of writing fiction is a must read for those of us who have pretensions. Just would add that in front of Eirwen is the author. We do not know her story but can guess that she has a great imagination!

    1. I’m so touched by your last words, Laura. I’m also glad you found the post useful. In recent times I’ve tended to avoid adding to the ‘how to’ pile, but sometimes/often it helps to remind oneself of what the process is about.

  3. I’m honoured Tish, when you say that my prompt pushed you to write this. I would never take your writing as unauthentic. You are a true talent. The way you describe your creative process through images…. incredibly creative. Thank you.

    1. I’m sorry to hear you’ve lost your way, Gilly. It’s too easy to get bogged down, but I’m glad to offer a few signposts. Getting lost is important though. I think it’s part of the process, although very dismal when you’re there. See you back on the road!

  4. This is a very insightful article on the process of writing. You certainly understand the nuts and bolts of story telling. I wish you every success with your work. There are so many dreadful children’s books published by mainstream publishers these days. It’s great to read that the craft of good story telling for children is alive and well. I wish you every success.

  5. Very interesting. Every time I try and make up a story, it’s boring. The stories that have already been lived but are not yet retold seem to be my source material. My job is honoring the truth of that story. I don’t know how many decades it will take to learn to write a fiction novel, seems like a lot of work…

    1. Yes, a lot of work. But one way to organise your material is to create a dozen or so scenes and do a storyboard for each (this is more dynamic/visual/filmic than thinking of chapters say). Once you are thinking scenes you can better see how to ‘dramatize’ them and banish the boring. Good luck!

  6. I think you have succinctly explained the fiction writer’s art and why I can probably only ever cope with non-fiction, On the other hand, my non-fiction is my version of the truth (my preferred lies to pinch a golfing term and book title) so maybe they are not so dissimilar. A thought-provoking piece Tish (and I always like Alice references).

    1. Glad to be provoking, Robin. You make some interesting points here too. Fiction and non-fiction are both forms of storytelling, and you are a good storyteller. It’s just that you may feel more comfortable in the real world, as opposed to this other, who-knows-where place that fiction writers occupy. But then again, someone like Hilary Mantel seems to operate in both ‘realities’ pretty niftily.

  7. This is gorgeous and inspiring Tesh. Really imaginative use of the photo to illustrate your points about the ‘how’ and the ‘what.’ Gosh, could I hire you for a consulting gig? Or perhaps something hot and spicy around a fire in your cottage, to dig into this some more? I’ve been brewing on this myself whilst on a visit to my dad’s on the east coast here in the States; it’s actually the premise of my blog (“Learning to see in the dark”) because I believe telling stories requires we pass through a part of ourselves, into the scariness of the dark, inside us, where whatever exists there exists. It’s a lovely, thick concept innit? Thanks for being a part of my blog and my life! And best to you and yours on this day. – Bill

    1. I really appreciate your comments, Bill, and never mind about the misspelling – it happens all the time, tho your particular version is a first 🙂
      “Learning to see in the dark” is a marvellous image which represents the whole creative process doesn’t it – the good, bad, ugly, and sometimes bloody brilliant. You are right. It has to have its roots in the hidden other-worldly – and that includes the non-fiction of your domain. (I don’t think people always quite get this). That’s why your writing is so textured, and funny and bleak, and kind and wise and excoriating.
      Indeed it would be good to have a chat about this around the fire. And yes I’m glad we’ve met here in webland. My email is tishfarrellwriter@gmail.com if you feel like a virtual chat on matters creative. And cheers back to you and yours.

  8. The stuff I write these days I never thought anyone would ”get ”. Which is one of the reasons I never wrote the stuff I do. If you can work that out?
    If what I think in my head makes me smile or laugh I reason that there must be at least one more nutter out there who will also!
    For me, that is the basis of everything.

    I like the closing paragraph a lot. 🙂

    1. Making people laugh is a precious gift, Ark. So carry right on with what you are doing. Which suddenly makes me think have you ever thought of writing a play. You’re pretty hot on dialogue. Just a thought.

      1. Script writing has been suggested. I am guessing there are similar requirements to writing a play?
        I have never really looked into it , Tish, to be honest?
        I want to feel completely comfortable with ordinary writing before I even consider other avenues.

  9. This was by far the most interesting and intriguing “how to” on writing fiction. I love the way you interwove the different versions of your picture to get your points across. Well done…now I wonna know more about the girl and her fate..

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