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The Writing Life – Tips on art from a master

By Staff | Jun 6, 2014

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Vintage Books. $12.95. ISBN 0-679-73403-1.

When writers spend their entire lives perfecting their craft, they learn a lot of shortcuts.

In his seminal how-to book on writing, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner, one of the great masters, tells exactly how it’s done.

“Whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind,” says Gardner.

The astute reader – and writer – will read Gardner’s statement for what it does not say as much as for what it says. The dream is created in the reader’s mind by the gaps and indeterminacies, the allusions and hints the writer leaves along the path for the reader to find. “The poet creates. The reader recreates,” said Wordsworth in his 1800 introduction to Lyrical Ballads, saying exactly the same thing. When the reader recreates the picture in his or her mind, that picture is far more vivid than when it’s laid out like a paint-by-number painting.

“One of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to become distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”

This concept has also been expressed as art or artifice. Art is when the story emerges, unencumbered with the trappings of style and technique. Artifice is when there is so much window dressing we can’t see what’s inside the window. And fiction works best when it’s a clear window the reader can peer into and see a different world.

“Working element by element through the necessary parts of fiction, he should make the essential techniques second nature, so that he can use them with increasing dexterity and subtlety, until at last, as if effortlessly, he can construct imaginary worlds – huge thoughts of concrete details – so rich and complex, and so awesomely simple, that we are astounded, as we’re always astounded by great art.”

If you’ve ever heard of the idea that the dedicated writer should write every single day, this is exactly what Gardner is talking about. The writer who “shows up for work” every day may often produce mediocre work. But when the time for greatness comes, the writer will be ready for that as well.

“He must shape simultaneously (in an expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others.”

And there really is no other way to do it. A writer simply can’t outline the plot, create a setting, come up with a character, and connect the dots. The result will be a boring and predictable story at best and a hodgepodge at worst.

But mastering each of those techniques through exercises and drills – developing and naming characters, creating settings that lend mood and foreshadowing to a story, creating secondary characters that are significant and meaningful and mastering other techniques – will make the use of those tools an intuitive part of the writer’s repertoire.

“In all great fiction, primary emotion (our emotion as we read, or the characters’ emotions, or some combination of both) must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life.”

This is the same concept as finding the universal in the particular. It’s not the grand, sweeping events that create pathos and empathy in the reader for the characters, but those small, tender, sensitive moments.

“Failure to recognize that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.”

What Gardner is talking about here is the internal ambiguity within the protagonist who struggles to make some important decision. Think of the film Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick is forced to choose between the love of his life, Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, or fighting the Germans. When he tells her that they’re insignificant compared to the cause for which they’re fighting, he really puts everything into perspective. Rick can be a tough guy and shoot the German officer, but his real anguish comes when he grapples within himself whether he will be selfish and keep Ilsa for himself or allow her to take the extra visa and leave with Victor Laszlo.

“These two faults, insufficient detail and abstraction where what is needed is concrete detail, are common – in fact all but universal – in amateur writing. Another is the failure to run straight at an image; that is, the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness.”

Gardner’s first observation is pretty much self-explanatory – show, don’t tell.

The other gets a little more complicated.

When we unnecessarily filter the story through a character’s consciousness, we’re really putting a wall between ourselves and the reader – a wall the reader has to climb over to see the story.

Here’s an example: “He looked at the valley before him. He had been to this place before.”

Compare with this: “The valley yawned before him, awakening his consciousness to something hidden, yet familiar.”

In the first example, we’re forced to see the valley through the character’s eyes. In the second example, though, the valley becomes the actor rather than the agent, making it more vivid in the reader’s mind.

“In serious fiction, the highest kind of suspense involves the Sartrian anguish of choice; that is our suspenseful concern is not just with what will happen but with the moral implications of action.”

Again, the real suspense is not what happens to the protagonist but what happens within the mind of the protagonist.

The Art of Fiction, like another of Gardner’s books, On Becoming a Novelist, is a great way to jumpstart one’s writing, to move past problems with writer’s block or lack of inspiration.

And we can all use help with that.

Michael Tidemann’s author page is available at: amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann