Agency and Storytelling

I just finished reading well over 100 entries to Irreantum’s fiction and creative nonfiction contests, narrowing them down to a set of semifinalists over which our contest committee can wrangle.  Reading all those stories and essays can be a bit of a slog, it’s true.  But it’s also one of my favorite things to do as Irreantum’s editor.  (In fact, I like to do it so much that I’m staying on as Irreantum’s contest coordinator after stepping down as editor at the end of this year.)

One of the reasons I enjoy it is because I’m a great lover of stories—stories of both the true and made up variety—and it thrills me to see story after story after story, each one original in its own way, being made about Mormon experience.  Some of these stories are better told than others, it’s true, but even the most amateur entry contains a kernel of a tale.  And the best stories?  (And there are some really good ones this year, I’m pleased to say.)  The best ones kept me glued to my computer screen, had me wiping away tears, helped me yearn or thrill or discover right along with the protagonist.

In between the obviously amateur stories and the knockouts were the most difficult pieces to judge: the stories that showed a considerable amount of writerly skill but wound up somehow lacking.  Usually, this lack showed up in the last couple of pages.  Many times I found myself jazzed by a story, all excited about being carried away to new heights of insight or punched in the gut with surprise, only to find myself at the bottom of the Microsoft Word document, repeatedly pressing “page down” and saying to myself, “This can’t be it.  Is this it?  Please tell me this isn’t it!”

You know that feeling when you have four strips of Kit Kat and you swear you’ve only eaten three, but you look down and the fourth strip is nowhere to be found, so you’re left with the uncomfortable emptiness of things-not-quite-finished?  That’s the feeling I’m getting at.

So I’ve been thinking about what’s wrong with some of these not-quite-there stories.  Some of them lack a clearly focused conflict, but most of them lack a satisfying resolution. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to end a short story in a satisfying way: resolutions in short fiction are often (but not always) small and quiet, and small and quiet can be much tricker to pull off than grand and sweeping.  You’re George Lucas writing Star Wars and you have your protagonist blow up the Death Star.  You’re Andre Dubus writing “The Fat Girl,” and you have your protagonist unwrap a candy bar.  But done well?  Unwrapping that candy bar can be just as explosive as Luke in his X-wing, firing away.

Structuring a story in such a way that it allows for the build up and payoff we all crave as readers is a skill, and a skill that I believe can be learned.  I, for one, know a lot more about it now than I did when I first started writing short fiction.  One of my biggest “a ha” moments came when I realized that agency is at the core of all good stories.  As readers, we’re looking for characters who choose and then reap consequences as a result of those choices.  We want our characters to “act for themselves and not be acted upon,”a notion I find particularly compelling as a Mormon writer and reader.  So now, whenever I sit down to work on one of my own stories, or function as a teacher or writer or editor trying to help others revise their work, I try to keep the following agency-related rules of writing good stories in mind:

1.  Your character must have a DESIRE.  He or she has got to want something, and want that something intensely.  The thing itself can be big (“Save the World!”) or it can be small (“Get a new hair cut!”), but if you character really desires something then your readers will want to see how she goes about getting it, and voila.  We’ll turn the page.

2.   Your character must make a CHOICE in the pursuit of that desire.  This is one area where new writers often go off the rails.  They think that if something bad happens to a character (she gets a dreadful disease, her husband leaves her, her purse gets stolen) then they’ve created a conflict.  But no.  They’ve created an incident.  The conflict isn’t in place until the incident compels the main character to choose what do do about it.

3.   This choice must be made manifest in ACTION.  Your character can choose to harbor feelings of revenge against the husband who left her, but unless she does something about those feelings (slashes his tires, has a rebound revenge relationship, etc.) then your readers are left wandering around inside your main character’s head, suffering through her litany of complaints without anything actually happening as a result.  We have enough friends and relatives to regale us with complaints unattached to any motivation to do anything about them.  We don’t need it in our fiction.

4.  There must be OBSTACLES that get in the way of the attainment of your main character’s desire.  If your main character has an intense crush on the most beautiful girl in his biology class and wants to ask her on a date, well, he’s gotta have some failures before he achieves his success.  I know that in real life, sometimes people seem to get what they want as soon as they burst out of the gate, but in fiction?  It’s annoying and limp.  And just as Mormons are firm believers in agency, we’re also big fans of opposition.  (Perhaps all beginning fiction writers should just read 2 Nephi 2?)

5.  Your characters must experience CONSEQUENCES directly linked to their actions in pursuit of the original desire.  The way things turn out at the end should be a function of whatever it is your main character has been doing all story long.  Endings that seem “too easy” are often a product a writer failing on this point.  If your character wakes up and finds it was “all a dream” (please no!!!!), or if somebody sweeps in and fixes everything for your character at the last minute, or if it turns out that your character didn’t need to worry because things were going to work out on their own anyway?  This robs the reader of vicariously experiencing the choice/consequence paradigm that seems hardwired into our story-loving brains.

6.  At the end of the story, CHANGE has been effected.  Your character isn’t the same person as he was before.  The world around him, or his perceptions of it, are somehow altered.

So what do you think about the agency-as-a-model-for-fiction-writing paradigm?  When you read a not-quite-there short story, what is it that makes you feel let down?  And did the story you submitted to the contest have a protagonist filled with desire who makes choices in the face of opposition that result in specific consequences that lead to change?  Of course it did!

And don’t forget: our story and essay contest winners will be announced on this very blog on Aug. 31, so stay tuned.

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32 Responses to Agency and Storytelling

  1. Wm Morris says:

    I have heard this same basic outline for narrative flow done in a variety ways by both fiction and genre authors. I like the way you locate it all in the LDS notion of agency, Angela.

    One note of caution, though, (and this may simply be reflective of my failings as a writer and the fact that I’m mainly a discovery writer) is that sometimes the emphasis on Actions and Obstacles lead stories to be written more extreme and set-them-up-knock-them-down than they might need to be — and as a result sometimes get a little melodramatic (although how melo a dramatic narrative is, is, in my opinion, very much a question of personal taste). I need to finish Olive Kittredge, but so far, although I love the writing and characterization, I’m on occasion finding the set up to some of the stories to set up for my taste (although I do like that Strout minimizes this effect by switching points of view or jumping forward in time). That’s a literary fiction example, but it’s a problem in genre fiction too. In fact, often more so.

  2. Wm, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you made it because I wanted to touch on the points you made in my post but felt I’d gone on too long anyway. Storytelling is such a subtle art. We’ve all seen enough crappy movies and read enough bad fiction to know that filling in the blanks of some formula doesn’t equal art, or even compelling entertainment. To be honest, though, I see more stories that need a little MORE desire or danger or yearning or complication than less in our fiction contest entries. The other problem is stories that contain a really good set-up w/ a promising conflict, but wimp out once the resolution comes around, leaving the story (and the reader) hanging.

    And I really loved Olive Kitteridge. Have you read The Lonely Polygamist yet? I’ve heard some complain that its complications felt too set up as well, but I’m willing to do all kinds of suspending of my disbelief if the characters are compelling and the emotion is there. And the prose is beautiful. Beautiful prose always makes melodrama less melodramatic for me, whereas serviceable prose makes fictional set-ups a lot more glaring and predictable.

  3. Wm Morris says:

    I have not read The Lonely Polygamist yet. I’m up to #42 or something in the library queue, though, so maybe by the end of the year. ;-)

    Agreed on all other points. And I am really liking Olive Kitteridge so far. It’s plainspoken and earthy and literary without being pretentious, precocious and conspicuously gritty.

  4. Well, hey, I’ll be in Minnesota August 25. If you, me, and Jonathan get together for lunch, I’ll loan TLP to you. And any other Mormon titles you’ve been itching to get your hands on that I have a copy of, for that matter. And I agree w/ your astute assessment of why Olive Kitteridge works so well.

  5. Little C says:

    Well said. I’m definitely sending my fiction class here to review this list (or giving it to them with a link to it)….

    Still as a writer in the middle of a story, sometimes those items get lost in the story itself, I’ll think I’ve hit all the marks, only to read a piece a few weeks later and realize oh no, there’s no agency in the piece.

    As a side note …. I finished the lonely polygamist this summer and am longing for someone to talk with it about. I felt it utterly failed in the last 1/3 of the book to allow it’s female characters any type of agency. I wanted to love it, wanted it to be the NGAN … I wanted to overlook its showy, grab the attion of gentiles themes of polygamy and I could have if it had delivered in the end……

    Not to knock Udall, I’ve read all his other stuff and it is good, the book is good, I’d recommend it, but I felt like I ate hershey’s bar when what I wanted was Girdelli’s…..

    okay that is totally thread hijacking. IS there someplace on Irranteum to do book reviews/discussions?

  6. Wm Morris says:


    Yeah between the three of us, we probably have a very good lending library. So if there’s anything in the Mormon lit world, you’ve been dying to read…

  7. Wm Morris says:

    Little C:

    Angela did mention The Lonely Polygamist so I don’t see why it couldn’t be discussed here. Tagents are a fixture of online communication.

    You could also see if those who have read it (as mentioned I’m late to this game) are interested reviving the discussion at the literary blog I run A Motley Vision. Theric Jepson wrote a very interesting review:

    There’s also Ed Snow’s review on this very blog:

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Loved the Mormon take on story crafting, Angela. I’d like to add something to your discussion with Wm, who is a skilled writer inspite of his tendency toward humility. I agree completely that stories don’t necessarily need big action; sometimes internalization is sufficient. But its less likely. I suspect what Angela is complaining about–at least I assume it because it is one of my complaints–regards story crafting that stays in the head of the pov character. Instead of seeing the conflict unfold, the writer uses the character’s thoughts to tell us how upset he/she is. The evolution of the art of writing seems to have moved away from this type of storytelling. So if a writer sees a lot of internal thought on the page, the chances are, there is a significant problem. In my own stories, I work to eliminate the crutch of internal dialogue and ferret out places where I tell about a character’s emotional state. Eg: "She felt annoyed" in favor of something outward that shows the inward.

    And that leads me to my personal aha moment. I became a better writer when I took a film adaptation class in grad school. We looked at films made from literature and why they did or did not work. I suddenly realized that I could use perspective (a concept under the umbrella of POV) of the protagonist to communicate internalizations. Film makers often communicate an awful lot of internal information simply by where they point the camera. So I began thinking that way as I write: Where can I point the "camera" in order to show outwardly what is inward? (drum roll) The world of my fiction changed at that moment.

    I’d be curious to hear of other people’s aha moments. Great post, Angela.

  9. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    AML is always interested in reviews of Mormon literature (which we define as "literature by, for, or about Mormons"). We have a review editor, Jeffrey Needle, who handles the reviews, posts them to the AML list, after which I am in charge of putting them in the AML Review Archive.

    You can find contact links for Jeffrey, and information about the AML Review Archive, on the AML Reviews webpage:

    So, please, don’t hesitate to share your insights into any qualifying work.

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Lisa, for some reason, your comment made me think of one of Jerry Johnston’s recent columns where he talks about one of the differences between belief and faith: (more or less) belief is expressed in what you think or say and faith is expressed in what you do. You can say that you believe thus and such, but the things that you do are what show who you really are.

    I love how your post connects that to writing (for me at least). Thanks!

  11. Little C, thanks for your comment. I’m interested in your take on TLP and how its themes intersect with agency. One of the more compelling aspects of the book for me was how well it tackled the theme of (okay, another Mormon connection) "choice and accountability." Golden is a character who has made choice after choice after choice–actively, of his own free will (especially since he wasn’t born into polygamy)–and now looks around and finds himself suffocating under the weight of all those choices. Classic mid-life crisis set up? Yes. And then magnified by his polygamous lifestyle, of course. But as passive as Golden seems in many respects, when it comes right down to it, he’s a man who’s taken a lot of risks, and the major plot developments of the novel center around the continuation of and escalations in that risky behavior. The main question of the novel centers around what Golden will eventually choose.

    Now, whether or not the ending is satisfying (and I have my quibbles with the ending) doesn’t hinge for me on whether or not Golden–or Trish, the main female character–are active or passive. I think they’re both very active characters, even Trish, even up through the end. My one quibble has to do with motivation for those actions. I wish there had been a little more on the page to support why those final decisions were made. I can’t say much more w/o spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

    And Lisa, you hit on exactly what I was trying to communicate. The very best class I took in grad school was entirely dedicated to point of view in fiction, and it’s staggering what can be done with that one simple tool.

    And Kathleen, a great analogy between belief and faith and action vs. thought. Thanks!

  12. Little C says:

    I’m going to try to talk about TLP without spoilers, but you may not want to read this just in case….

    Angela: Great points about choice and accountability. I was troubled that plural wives were all severely damaged human beings–some literally in a physical sense and the others in emotional ways that seemed less like direct choice and accountability issues, such as Golden’s choices and more like standard punishments doled out by society on women who are unchaste. I was pulling for Bev, thinking well she’s the exception, she’s the one who isn’t settling for polygamy, but choosing it and them BAM twist ending. Revealing Bev’s background completely undercut the character and confirmed the book’s thesis that women in polygamy are sexually/emotionally damaged.

    I also kept wondering if the women, except for Trish, had a realistic chance at leaving Golden after he revealed his indiscretions (such semantics on the definition of adultery). Bev has a fatal disease, Rose is an emotional wreck, there are children to care for with no means …

    See this is why I need a book club. Anybody live in the south? I still haven’t talked about Rusty and speaking of POV, what is going on with the opening and the sympathy directed at Golden? Why open with this? An editor’s suggestion of comedic direct engagement? The terrific chapters about the bomb. and the ENDING.

    sigh. GReat work here though. I’ll check out those reviews and spend some time trying to find an electronic version of what I’m looking for, although I should probably spend less time online and more time finishing my thesis.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    At the risk of being accused of picking a fight:


    [b]I suspect what Angela is complaining about–at least I assume it because it is one of my complaints–regards story crafting that stays in the head of the pov character. Instead of seeing the conflict unfold, the writer uses the character’s thoughts to tell us how upset he/she is. The evolution of the art of writing seems to have moved away from this type of storytelling. So if a writer sees a lot of internal thought on the page, the chances are, there is a significant problem.[/b]

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you mean third-person omniscient, which has, yes, fallen out of favor–because it tends to TELL and not SHOW.

    While you say its lack is a problem, I say its presence is a problem. I call this the "Meanwhile, back at the ranch…" storytelling, and I have very little patience for being told and not shown. It’s easy and cheap. IMO, of course. One could argue that, yes, internal dialogue can be TELL-y, but it doesn’t have to be and, in fact, has more potential for SHOW than TELL.

    [b]the crutch of internal dialogue[/b]

    Or, in my opinion, the strength of internal dialogue and the crutch of third-person omniscient.

    I wonder how Chuck Palahniuk’s [i]Fight Club[/i] would/could have been bettered by use of third-person omniscient as opposed to deep third-person limited? I submit that it would’ve been weakened. Actually, I submit it would have had its legs cut out from under it.

    [b]I became a better writer when I took a film adaptation class in grad school. … Film makers often communicate an awful lot of internal information simply by where they point the camera. So I began thinking that way as I write: Where can I point the "camera" in order to show outwardly what is inward? (drum roll) The world of my fiction changed at that moment.[/b]

    Third-person omniscient is, indeed, all about the camera. Translating what a glass lens TELLS YOU to what a mind’s eye can/should be SHOWN is, of course, a choice of the writer.

    I’ve written plays and scripts based on my own work and they are VASTLY different in tone and scope, if not story itself. There are tools and props and devices that supply the detail one might choose to write into a novel, and devices that do things film cannot: word play, puns, in-jokes that won’t translate to film. When I’m writing a script, I’m thinking about costuming, music, sets, props, actors, blocking, stage directions, and editing. Stage direction (or lack thereof) is all about telling.


    I take exception to the idea that a storytelling device one [i]favors[/i] is, de facto, the [i]correct[/i] one, ergo, any other storytelling device is simply weak writing. There is a time and place for each device and I believe an experienced writer should be flexible and skilled enough to switch from one to another and then a third, fourth, fifth [i]even ones one doesn’t care for[/i] without a hitch.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    And apparently I can’t post under my usual moniker, which is Moriah Jovan.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Let’s try this again, this time as Moriah.

  16. Wm Morris says:

    I’m not entirely following this, but: "While you say its lack is a problem, I say its presence is a problem"

    No, I’m pretty sure that Lisa is saying that the presence of third person omniscient is a problem, especially if it dwells too much on asserting what the person the lens is focused on is feeling rather than showing it.

    As to the rest — I agree with both Lisa and Moriah/Elizabeth, but also personally think that there is a loss in moving away from omniscient points of view, and I’m not convinced that the evolution towards a sleeker, more cinematic way of storytelling is a wholly good one. Now Lisa was more talking about bad writing and, yes, a hallmark of bad writing is "telling not showing." On the other hand, most really, really good literary fiction has a surprising amount of telling.

    Of course, I’m one of those crazy people who really, really likes the work of Henry James and distrusts literary minimalism and transparent prose (to get back to Olive Kittredge — one other thing I really like about it is that Stroud indulges every so often in phrases, images, metaphors that are poetic and insistently literary).

  17. Wm Morris says:

    Or to put it another way: best I can tell, both Lisa and Moriah prefer third person limited omniscient, which is the dominant pov style in both genre* and literary fiction these days and is the style that is the closest to cinema.

    *except perhaps for YA where you get a lot more first person omniscient

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I read it as being in favor of third-person omniscient. What she says here:

    [b]the writer uses the character’s thoughts to tell us how upset he/she is. …[/b]

    I believe the label for this (at least, how I read the description) is third-person limited and/or deep third-person limited. I’m not seeing this as being descriptive of third-person omniscient.

    [b]So if a writer sees a lot of internal thought on the page, the chances are, there is a significant problem.[/b]

    I have not seen so much of this in third-person omniscient other than to bounce around from one head to another to another (sometimes within the same paragraph) in snatches.

    After all, unless it’s a voice-over, a camera can’t do internal dialogue, and third-person omniscient is a camera’s view.

    It’s very possible I misread Lisa’s entire post, but I thought she was pushing for more third-person omniscient and less third-person limited.

    [b]third person [i]limited omniscient[/i][/b]

    I don’t know what this is and a Google search isn’t bringing it up. I prefer limited, whether it’s first, third, and yes, even second.

  19. Wm Morris says:

    "third person limited omniscient"

    Sorry — I meant third person limited. And, yes, your preference is the dominant preference for fiction these days.


    "but I thought she was pushing for more third-person omniscient and less third-person limited."

    That’s not how I read it at all. I don’t read her comment as a statement on point of view, but rather on the fact that no matter what type of point of view you use, you shouldn’t spend a ton of time in the character’s (or characters’) head talking about all the things they are feeling.

  20. Wm, Janet Burroway uses the term "third person limited omniscient" in her fiction writing books, so there is a basis for it, but I find it rather confusing and prefer to stick to "third person limited" and "third person omniscient."

    Moriah, I’m with Wm: I didn’t read Lisa’s post as a call for more third person omniscient, either. The problem I’m trying to articulate, and that Lisa was trying to expand on, is the tendency that some fiction writers have to keep the expression of their conflicts internal and thought-based, rather than external and action-based. This problem crops up regardless of the point of view chosen. It’s a problem of plotting and storytelling, essentially. A third person omniscient narrator can get inside a character’s head (well, multiple characters’ heads) and tell us what they’re thinking instead of showing us through action just as well as a third person limited narrator can get inside a character’s head and do the same thing.

    What I’m getting at is this: no matter if you’re writing in first or second or third person, no matter if you’re limited or omniscient in your pov, the moment of crisis or climax should always occur in a scene. Cinderella’s slipper gets put on her foot. Andre Dubus’ "fat girl" pulls out a candy bar and lets her husband see her eat it. In weak fiction, the fat girl wakes up one morning and, staring out the window, finds the "will within her" to leave her husband, and we read a paragraph or three of interior dialogue explaining her choice. In Dubus’ story, there is some interior dialogue (because interior dialogue can be very effective and useful if done well), but the real power of the moment comes when the protagonist acts. This is powerful not only because it’s an action, but because it’s visual and visceral. And this comes back around to Lisa’s insight into the value of more cinematic povs: writing in such a way FORCES us to create scenes.

    Anyway, I’m sure you know all this, Moriah, but I’m simply trying to articulate it more clearly, and separate it somewhat from the discussion of pov. POV, while an aspect of the issue, isn’t the heart of it. Skill in story creation and scene-making is.

  21. And is anybody else having a heck of a time getting a comment to "save" now that we have the captcha? I can’t seem to figure out what the problem is. Half the time I click "save comment" and nothing happens. Do it over and over and over again, typing in new captchas, copying and pasting my comment, and then finally it works.

    Am I missing something about how we’re supposed to do the captcha so it can give us the little green "ok" and let us comment?

    And Little C–more great insights about TLP. We should have a WARNING: SPOILERS! "book club" like discussion on this very blog, I think. Set a date! Get people to read it and plan to discuss it in a few months or something.

  22. Elizabeth says:

    [b]And is anybody else having a heck of a time getting a comment to "save" now that we have the captcha? I can’t seem to figure out what the problem is. Half the time I click "save comment" and nothing happens. Do it over and over and over again, typing in new captchas, copying and pasting my comment, and then finally it works.[/b]

    Yes! Thank you! It’s not just me!! (I think you have to wait for the green OK to the right of the captcha.)

    [b]Andre Dubus’ "fat girl" pulls out a candy bar and lets her husband see her eat it. In weak fiction, the fat girl wakes up one morning and, staring out the window, finds the "will within her" to leave her husband, and we read a paragraph or three of interior dialogue explaining her choice.[/b]

    Goodness. I didn’t realize we were talking about technique that undeveloped.

    Mea culpa then. Yes, I totally agree with that.

  23. Whew. Glad it’s not just me either.

    And when one has read over 100 entries to a contest, one runs into a lot of undeveloped fiction. But I find this is a problem with fairly well-written work at times, too. There are writers who can write solid (even beautiful) sentences, but still can’t build a story or figure out how to move the action forward.

  24. Th. says:


    Okay. I have a lot of things to say so in order to keep from getting overlong and rambly, I’m going for bulletpoints. All bulletpoints beginning with TLP may contain spoilers.

    • Well. The only entries I’ve read are mine and William’s and William’s rocks the criteria Angela’s set out. Mine are . . . too weird. Alas. Don’t think I’m winning this year.

    • TLP: I have to disagree with the point about Beverly. Without the revelation of her past, she can never become a character we empathize with. Her disease alone with either make her a martyr or make us gleeful in her comeuppance. Really, it’s the destruction of her carefully constructed life that a) reveals her use of agency over the years b) why she’s so danged strict and c) injects the story with needed pathos. (That last one may seem absurd considering all the pathos being thrown around by then, but Beverly was still a flat character and her stolidity was a wall keeping the family safe, even if individuals were not. Her collapse brings mortality to the world.)

    • TLP: I’m working on another review of TLP but I’m constantly reworking it because TLP’s been so taken apart so far and I feel like I need to accommodate for every other review out there. But this discussion is helping me clarify the direction I need to apply during the 75th and 76th rewrites. So thank you.

    • Third person limited omniscience is, as far as I know, the way most high-school teachers describe it. Because, you see, this disembodied voice has omniscient access to everything within the pov characters’s perspective. You see. But I think I’m going to follow your lead and drop the O word in the future.

    • I wish people would come to [i]my[/i] town to swap books . . . .

  25. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Boy, wander away from this blog for a little while and it explodes with activity. Yes, Moriah, I was speaking with an editor’s hat on, not a readers. A good writer can pull off anything. But I do get to read entries and, in the past, actual submissions and have observed that this tendency to use internal dialogue as a mode of transporting plot, be it external or internal, drowns too many stories and even interferes with characterization (but that’s for another day). So I wasn’t speaking about well-crafted fiction.

    Also, I didn’t refer to third person limited or omniscient because I wasn’t concerned with literay POV labels. I didn’t feel I was addressing literary traditions, but problematic tendencies in "growing" writers. The aha moment I described was done to illustrate a way of thinking about the problem that helped me (I hope) overcome the tendency to hang too much of a story on internals. I spoke of perspective. POV is the overarching choice a writer makes about how much can be revealed about a character. (Well, there are better definitions out there, but I’m too lazy to write a good one. Eh.) Perspective is where the writer focuses the reader’s attention within that POV. So the POV I use in a story could be that of Karen the Car Dealer and I could show the world from her POV. But the world from her POV is a big place. Where I have her look, or what I choose to have her walk by, etc, is my choice as writer: Its perspective. And it can carry a whole heck of a lot of meaning. Skilled writers rely on this. "Growing" writers would be wise to practice it, IMO, as they develop their own style.

    And I want an online book club too.

  26. Th., let me just clarify: I’m more concerned with problems I find in stories that are trying to be traditional narratives but that miss the mark. There are more experimental fictional forms (or as you put it, "weird" stories) don’t set up the expectation that they’re going to offer the experience of a traditional narrative from the get-go, so the criteria are different.

    I just finished watching So You Think You Can Dance (anybody else love that show? such a celebration of art and talent, it makes me so happy when it’s done well). Anyway, it’s interesting to see how the "rules" of certain styles of dance differ. The same dancer tonight did both a Viennese waltz and a hip hop dance as an angry clown. Different rules and expectations for each, and he nailed both. So if you’re writing an angry clown story–something more experimental and different–if the piece is consistent throughout, I don’t necessarily expect it to have all the elements of traditional storytelling I described above. In fact, Wm’s own "Speculations: Trees" is an example of what I’d call a more experimental piece of fiction that received an honorable mention and was published in the journal. I liked "Speculations" a lot.

    Weird fiction done well can knock my socks off, just as long as the author shows me he’s in complete control of what he’s doing.

    And Lisa, yes, yes and yes. (On your explication of the difference between POV and perspective, that growing writers need to practice writing in a variety of POVs using a variety of perspectives, and that we need an online book club).

  27. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Well, if we can figure out how to do it, AML would be happy to provide space for an online book club discussion. (The AML Discussion Board is still there, if that would be of use.)

    And Orson Scott Card’s Nauvoo website has a possible venue as well (the Nauvoo Workshop for LDS Writers, not to mention the regular Nauvoo forum).

    And I have no idea why this page won’t let you post as Moriah Jovan/Elizabeth. Has something changed on your computer (cookies, perhaps)?

  28. Wm Morris says:

    "So if you’re writing an angry clown story"

    I’m very glad that I’m not watching So You Think You Can Dance this season. I agree with the basic sentiment expressed by Bart in an episode of the Simpson’s, which graces a button pin my wife owns: "Can’t sleep. Clowns will eat me."

    I do find it highly amusing though to refer to experimental fiction as angry clown stories and will look for opportunities in the future to do so.


    Th and Lisa are too kind. The truth is that on the whole, my fiction so far suffers from the issues that one would expect to have when someone tries to be both a literary critic and a fiction writer (although not endemic by any means solely to critics) — weak plot and endings; too much interiority; an unwillingness to kill darlings + wordiness; a tendency towards impatience with longer forms. That’s why the most success I’ve had so far is with work that is very short with almost prose poem qualities to it. I’m working (very slowly) on changing that while still trying not to hew too much in the other direction. Heck, I even have a potentially 30-50k words story actually outlined. And I’m even considering following the advice of the Writing Excuses and attempt starting my story development with the end rather than the beginning.

  29. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Wm, don’t try to be the proverbial square peg in a round hole. If short forms and poeticism works for you, be the guy who develops your art fully within those perameters. Style, baby, style. Oh, I’m always for trying new things because, for me, the ventures into the new and difficult (new and difficult for me) has always taught me something.

  30. Wm Morris says:

    Oh, I think it’s pretty clear that I’m not a square OR round peg — I’m an elliptical one.

    But there are certain stories that I want to tell that require other forms. I’m going to attempt them and if it turns out that short form is simply my thing, I’ll happily play in that space. But I’m at a stage where I too want to try new things and push on some of my (seemingly) natural limits.

  31. Th. says:


    My wife will not want to sleep with me any more when she hears that I’m an angry clown…..

  32. Scott Parkin says:

    And on a completely irrelevant note, the square peg in the round hole is good, and is done by design. The corners dig into the surrounding wood, creating a self-pinning connection that ensures tight fit until the glue dries. It’s also esthetically interesting.

    But the metaphor itself offers some fun ways to approach some questions.

    I can feel for William’s frustration. I used to write *a lot* of fiction–until I started writing reviews of fiction. The more I thought about how a story was constructed, the more I started exercising those techniques as a matter of intent, with the result that the techniques became heavy and obvious, the prose became denser and more overtly descriptive, and the structure became more complex.

    Now I’ve successfully intimidated myself right out of writing–the so-called "chattering monkey" on my shoulder that intrudes on the process and makes it hard to simply write a sentence and let it remain written. The instant I put the sentence (or idea, or outline) down, the editor/critic in me immediately deconstructs it and the story flees before an analysis of technique.

    The other part for me is that I think I’m a natural novelist, but cut my teeth on short fiction. The idea of a book-length work is intimidating. I once wrote 30 short stories in 30 days as a learning exercise (the 31st story, written after a week off, was my first magazine sale). I can’t do that with novels.

    On levels of omniscience, deep penetration, and the like…I think Angela’s point is well taken. The narrative voice matters far less than the underlying story. Abuses of technique will only reveal the lack of story beneath; successful story will always overcome weak writing and structure.

    Better to do both, but if you must err do so on the side of worthy story.

    (If only I could think of a story that *other people* want to read; I’m great at writing stories that only interest me…)

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