Literary Fiction – Are You Still Awake?

Just returned from my writing retreat at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

The first panel (How Plot Works) discussed why literary fiction bores readers. Who wants to spend all that time in a character’s head if nothing’s going to happen? Say what?! Maybe they have a point.

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So the panel chatted about how to keep readers turning the pages:

  • Christina Meldrum, a former lawyer, creates tension through structure. She builds the first half of a story bell curve where the clues get more important to the story the closer she gets to the top. Something life-changing then happens at the apex.
  • Christian Kiefer does not outline or have any idea about what’s going to happen in his stories. But a writer can’t expect the reader to care more about the MC’s life than the MC does, so he does make sure his characters are on fire for something. It’s even better if there are multiple fires to complicate the story.
  • Janet Fitch said “you’ve gotta tie the girl to the tracks.” Don’t play the reader out so much that they lose interest. In scene, show character traits and then put pressure on those traits. The MC must let go of one or more traits while acquiring others to make a necessary life change.
  • Michael Jaime-Becerra uses positive tension (information that is doled out to the reader logically) instead of negative tension (information that is withheld from the reader unfairly). “The Swimmer” by John Cheever is an example of brilliantly withheld information.
  • Fitch added that suspense is fair, surprise is a trick. Build suspense.
  • Meldrum observed that the power of perspective allows the writer to give limited information. Humans are fallible, so the narrator can’t know everything, especially about themselves.

They finished by discussing magic: how endings must be both inevitable and surprising. Sadly, writers can’t force that Eureka!” So keep your butt in the chair, keep plottin’ away, and run with it when inspiration strikes. Oh, and don’t let your readers fall asleep.

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Christina Meldrum is the author of Amaryllis in Blueberry and Madapple.

Christian Kiefer is the author of The Infinite Tides.

Janet Fitch is the author of Paint It Black and White Oleander.

Michael Jaime-Becerra is the author of This Time Tomorrow and Every Night is Ladies’ Night.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Literary Fiction – Are You Still Awake?

  1. OK, I’m sooo jealous that you headed to Squaw again this year and got to listen to this group. I will console myself that you are generously passing along some of their wisdom. For me, MJB’s fiction is particularly inspiring, and he certainly walks his talk. His stories are crazy good, and I love that he can make us care about the everyday concerns of regular people. I’m looking forward to more Squaw posts from you, Jill!

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