Fiction Writing’s Great Expectations
Every work of fiction could be titled, Great Expectations. If a story is the meeting place where the reader and writer mingle, then that title encompasses all aspirations. Of course that’s not to say that writers need to emulate the plot of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century novel, but rather that its name should remind us of our responsibility as wordsmiths. Simply put, writers and readers invest in words, and they expect those words to resonate and so “great expectations” is the perfect description for those of us who invest our time in literary engagement. Yet any great work requires more than an encompassing title, and if we writers wish to achieve greatness we must write with our readers’ expectations in mind. Here are four areas where readers have great expectations of our writing:
- Our readers expect something great to happen. Our characters don’t need to be superheroes or endowed with magical powers, but our text shouldn’t be set on a ho-hum Tuesday when nothing of significance ever happens. Instead we need to write about the time that will help define the rest of their lives, because most modern readers want to witness character metamorphosis. The good illustration of this comes from the teachings of Christopher “Kit” McIlroy. In 1987, McIlroy co-founded the ArtsReach program in Arizona, which teaches writing to Native youths. “The Girl Who Turned into a Horse” is an activity McIlroy taught me, which requires students to describe the girl’s life, then her change into a horse, and then her change back. The brilliance of the activity is that students must describe how being a horse permanently transformed her. Her presumed calloused hands and feet, tangled hair, and fondness for apples captures how we writers should show our characters’ evolution throughout our stories, and that’s true whether you’re in grade school or enrolled in an MFA program.
- Our readers expect realistic dialogue. We writers tend to create characters with similar vocabularies, and at times are apt to preach or deliver unnecessary or unrealistic monologues. Most modern readers want to read stories where characters exchange ideas, analyze a problem, and arrive at satisfying conclusions. Readers want to witness characters think, but the process seems artificial when our characters are all prone to pontificate. Different characters should have different speaking styles, and each character should explore the range of speaking types. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk puts it best when he explains that there are three types of speech: “Descriptive, Instructive, and Expressive. Descriptive: ‘The sun rose high…’ Instructive: ‘Walk, don’t run…’ Expressive: ‘Ouch!’” Palahniuk rightly states that most fiction writers will only use one—at most, two—of these forms. Yet we owe it to our readers to use all three. After all, “It’s how people talk.” This concept also applies to the voice of our narrators.
- Our readers expect our stories to be paradoxically typical, universal, and specific. We writers should craft stories that allow readers to remember what first love typically feels like. We should also write about themes that are inclusionary and have universal appeal. Yet we must also write original stories with specific details unlike those our readers have read before. In her National Book Award-winning novel, The Round House, Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) does this flawlessly. The novel depicts a young boy’s deep, yet typical love for his family and friends. It has universal themes such as lust, loyalty, deception, and revenge. Its potency, however, derives from its specific use of tribal sovereignty rights, enrollment issues, and racial politics. Like all great works, Erdrich’s text uses our experiences to invite us in, illuminate the flaws in a world that cause injustices, and then teach us about the complexity of the conventions that define society.
- Our readers expect us to write stories that appeal to their sensory memory—sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Chances are a writing instructor in your past told you to use them all. But don’t use them all in every scene, and shift your readers’ sensory paradigm. What does love smell like? Can we touch hate? Have you ever heard the sound of daybreak? What about the taste of a forest in spring? If we truly look, could we see the notes the birds are singing? Great writing happens when we ask our readers to use a sense they don’t typically associate with an interaction. Want to scare your readers? Don’t describe what the monster looks like. Instead, blind your characters and force them to hear in the darkness, to feel their way to safety, and smell that something incomprehensible is creeping closer. Want to make a characters’ final moments memorable? Don’t have them say something cliché or even brilliant. Instead, fill the characters’ eyes with depths of emotion and urgency that can’t be captured in a lifetime of words. Make your characters and readers speculate as to what’s unspoken, because it’s at those moments when words fail us that we’re most truly human. Write about those moments and your readers will see your story as more than words on a page.
We writers compose our stories in hopes that readers will invest in our characters and glean our intent. What makes great writing resonate is the details we put into our craft. Our readers have great expectations for our work, and by focusing on how we deliver our stories we can fulfill them.
Burroway, J. (2003). Writing Fiction. New York: Pearson Education.
Irving, J. (1996). Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. New York: Arcade Publishing.
McIlroy, C. (2011). Here I Am a Writer. Crawfordville, FL: Kitsune Books.
Palahniuk, C. (2011, Nov. 28). Stocking Stuffers: 13 Writing Tips from Chuck Palahniuk. Retrieved March 2015 from: http://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/stocking-stuffers-13-writing-tips-from-chuck-palahniuk
Ryan Winn is the Humanities Department chair at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.