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Literary Links

Writers’ Inner Voices

Many writers report vivid experiences of ‘hearing’ the voices of the characters they create and having characters who talk back to them, rebel, and ‘do their own thing’. It’s an experience described by a wide range of authors from Enid Blyton, Alice Walker, Quentin Tarantino and Charles Dickens through to Samuel Beckett, Henry James, Hilary Mantel and many more.

Writers’ Inner Voices is a collaborative research project between the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Durham University’s Hearing the Voice which set out to examine the ways in which writers and storytellers experience their characters. This website provides details of what we discovered, explanations for what might be going on, and creative writing exercises based on the research.

Create a Digital Commonplace Book

“Readers have collected their favorite literary lines for centuries. Now compiling a portable word scrapbook is easier than ever.”

If you like to collect notes and quotations from books you’ve read, this article is a gold mine. After a short history of the commonplace book, J.D. Biersdorfer has some suggestions for various apps and programs that can help you keep a digital commonplace book. Keeping track of stuff like this is what computers do best, so why not take advantage of their power?

The Greatest Literary Alliance of All Time: You, the Author, and the Character

“Lisa Zeidner Asks Us to Think Deeply About Point of View in Fiction”

Here’s a fascinating look into how writers manage point of view in fiction.

The Powerful, Complicated Legacy of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’

cover: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

In the acclaimed 1963 The Feminine Mystique, Friedan tapped into the dissatisfaction of American women. The landmark bestseller, translated into at least a dozen languages with more than three million copies sold in the author’s lifetime, rebukes the pervasive post-World War II belief that stipulated women would find the greatest fulfillment in the routine of domestic life, performing chores and taking care of children.

Meet 8 industry players behind Hollywood’s book adaptation boom

Meredith Maran looks at “a few of Hollywood’s most important behind-the-scenes movers, shakers and connection-makers — agents, scouts, managers and execs” contributing to the great number of literary adaptations making their current way from the page to the screen.

How to create compelling characters

Kira-Anne Pelican, a psychologist and script consultant, here advises fiction writers on how to use psychology to create complex, compelling characters. What she has to say can also inform readers reviewing and analyzing literary works.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Fiction How Fiction Works Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Reading

Literary Links

How Crime Writers Use Unreliable Narrators to Add Suspense

Emily Martin uses the categories that William Riggan explores in his book Pícaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator to look at ways crime writers employ them to build suspense.

The 2021 Tournament of Books Long List

Next March’s Tournament of Books, something that I only recently discovered, has posted its long list of 77 books. “In a few weeks we’ll release the shortlist of the 16 or so books that will be in play come March.”

The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

As a result of the shrinking book coverage by newspapers and magazine over recent years, Humanities Tennessee has created Chapter 16: “a part-digital, part-print publication that covers literature and literary life in the state.” The publication offers its contents free to readers and to any publications that want to reproduce it.

Useful Books: The past and present of self-help literature

Jennifer Wilson examines the history of reading for self-development as presented in Beth Blum’s book The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature.

The Long Awakening of Adrienne Rich

Maggie Doherty, who teaches writing at Harvard, looks at the life of Adrienne Rich through the lens of the first biography of the poet, The Power of Adrienne Rich by Hilary Holladay. 

But while Holladay’s book seeks to define Rich’s identity, Doherty discusses how Rich continuously changed her identity as she sought to deal with the culture in which she lived and wrote.

What to Write in a Book As a Gift: 40 Bookish Inscription-Ready Quotes

If you’re planning to give books as holiday gifts this season, BookRiot has suggestions for meaningful inscriptions. After all, “that inscription means as much as the book does.”

William Faulkner’s Demons

“In his own life, the novelist failed to truly acknowledge the evils of slavery and segregation. But he did so with savage thoroughness in his fiction.”

Casey Cep writes:

A new book by Michael Gorra, “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War” (Liveright), traces Faulkner’s literary depictions of the military conflict in the nineteenth century and his personal engagement with the racial conflict of the twentieth. The latter struggle, within the novelist himself, is the real war of Gorra’s subtitle. In “The Saddest Words,” Faulkner emerges as a character as tragic as any he invented: a writer who brilliantly portrayed the way that the South’s refusal to accept its defeat led to cultural decay, but a Southerner whose private letters and public statements were riddled with the very racism that his books so pointedly damned.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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How Fiction Works Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

See What the World’s Reading Habits Look Like in 2020

The editing and proofreading service Global English Editing gathered statistics from various sources, including Pew Research and Amazon’s bestsellers page, that demonstrate how the world’s reading habits changed over the course of 2020: “35 percent of web users worldwide reported reading more during the pandemic, and 14 percent said they read significantly more. This trend was most dramatic in China, where 44 percent of respondents said they increased their reading time due to the coronavirus.”

The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

At the age of 76 in the fall of 2019, David Denby enrolled in Columbia University’s required year-long freshman course called Literary Humanities. The class began discussing Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment in April 2020, after the campus had been shut down for four weeks. 

Here Denby discusses his experience with studying Dostoyevsky’s novel on a computer screen rather than around a seminar table and how the novel’s ideas resonate in today’s reality.

Why Narrative Structure Is One of the Crime Writer’s Most Valuable Tools

How writers manipulate narrative structure for novelistic effects fascinates me so much that I’ve written a couple of posts about it:

So I was delighted to come across author Sara Foster’s discussion of how she and others have used it in their works. Read her explanations here of how particular novelistic techniques can affect a story’s meaning and impact.

The Limits of the Viral Book Review

“Why are literary critics fixating on one quality nowadays?”

That one particular quality, Larissa Pham writes, is self-awareness. 

As a recent wave of literary criticism seems to demonstrate, this self-awareness falls neatly along political lines: Even within their texts, authors find themselves in the position of navigating their privilege, some of which very well might have helped land them the book deal.

So You’re (Still) in a Pandemic Reading Slump

A lot of us have had trouble, either periodically or continuously, concentrating enough to read since COVID-19 emerged last spring. I wrote about my own such problems here.

In this article article Danika Ellis offers six approaches you might take if you’re still having trouble settling back into a reading routine.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Awards & Prizes Book Recommendations How Fiction Works Last Week's Links Oddities Publishing Reading slow reading

Literary Links

Mixing Genres Is All About Messing with Structure

“Knowing what people are expecting allows you to subvert the trope. Expectation is its own red herring, built right into your reader.”

Stuart Turton, author of the brilliant The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and newly released The Devil and The Dark Water, admits, “I’m obsessed by the structure of novels.” He particularly likes “books that cross genres and mess with the traditional way stories are told.”

Here Turton explains how he played with crossing genres to create the effects he wanted in his two novels.

This is a topic that fascinates me. Here are two blog posts I’ve written that deal with the topic from a reader’s rather than a writer’s perspective:

What book has the most disappointing ending? Readers have many opinions.

There’s a lot said and written about the importance of introductions in fiction, but not so much about endings. And for good reason: to discuss the adequacy or inadequacy of an ending, you have to give away the entire contents of the book. 

Here Ron Charles, book reviewer for The Washington Post, takes on this subject.  He cites a survey of Goodreads reviews done by the online retailer OnBuy.com , which yielded a list of the Top 12 Most Disappointing Endings. Charles also solicited comments from Post readers about the novel endings they’ve found most disappointing. His conclusion: “If there’s any common thread, it’s that the endings that offend us most appear in the books we love most.”

And while you’re reading Charles’s article, take advantage of the link offered whereby you can sign up for his weekly Book World newsletter. It lands in my inbox every Friday and is one of the highlights of my literary week.

RPG? Puzzle? Parlor Game? Escape Room? This Game Is All Four and More

Publisher’s Weekly offers the scoop on “the forthcoming tabletop game Mother of Frankenstein,” which “combines aspects of immersive theater, escape rooms, board games, puzzles, role-playing games, and parlor games in one package, making for a 15-hour playing experience.” 

Good news indeed, as it seems we’re in for an extended period of pandemic isolation.

How Tournament of Books Changed My Reading Life

How have I not heard of this?

Elisa Shoenberger reports on the annual Tournament of Books, which takes place in March. “It’s March Madness but for literature.”

Unquiet spirits: the lost female ghost-story writers returning to haunt us

From the U.K. Guardian: “We know the heyday of the ghost story mostly as the province of men like MR James and Charles Dickens. But archivists are finding that some of the finest exponents were women.”

Read why the women pioneers in ghost stories who have been “effectively erased from history over the last century.”

Literary prizes and the problem with the UK publishing industry

This article on “the concentration of power in UK publishing” reports on the lack of diversity in the Booker Prize.

Author Jamie Harris writes that “The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history” and is seldom awarded to writers published outside of London:

In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller.

How to Improve Your Reading Comprehension As an Adult

Reading comprehension, defined as the “ability to process and retain information from texts,” is something we usually think of as happening to children in their early years of school. But here Christine Ro reports on some recent research into enhancing reading comprehension for adults and offers some suggestions for doing so.

Unsurprisingly, some of her suggestions involve slowing down while reading and actively engaging with the text, for example, by annotating, all examples of slow reading.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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How Fiction Works Last Week's Links Literary History Nonfiction Publishing

Literary Links

When Mums Go Bad: How Fiction Became Obsessed With The Dark Side Of Motherhood

“Motherhood and ‘mum noir’ is taking over the psychological suspense shelves, but some portrayals have come in for criticism. Author Caroline Corcoran looks into the trend…”

I read a lot of psychological thrillers and mysteries, and women-centered stories have for several years now been a staple of those genres. (See 5 Domestic Thrillers: Terror at Home.)

Here novelist Caroline Corcoran focuses on novels that center around new mothers: “These new mums we are getting to know are human; flawed, not unlike the ones we know in our own lives.” 

But, she continues, “Motherhood’s dark side is a fascinating arena to explore but when done in a reductive way that suggests new mums – or those that wish to be mums but are struggling – equal sudden psychopaths, it can lead to something offensive, inaccurate and dangerous.” She warns that we should be “vigilant when it comes to tropes like these.” 

Yet, Corcoran concludes, fiction can be a great tool for raising awareness of the issues mothers face in contemporary society.

Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?

Writer Emma Copley Eisenberg’s recent book The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia “concerns the deaths of two people who have many living family members, the incarceration of a living man, and a protracted emotional and social trauma of enormous meaning to a great many real and living people.” 

Eisenberg wanted to be sure everything she wrote was correct, but when it came time for fact checking she found that “most nonfiction books are not fact checked; if they are, it is at the author’s expense.”

Here she explains what fact checking is and why it’s such an important part of producing a reliable work of nonfiction. She also examines how various publishers handle—or don’t handle—fact checking for nonfiction books.

How Chekhov invented the modern short story

“The Russian writer’s tales of stasis, uncertainty and irresolution determined the path of 20th-century fiction.”

Chris Power centers his essay about Chekhov’s influence on later writers around the recent publication in the U.K. of Fifty-Two Stories by Anton Chekhov, recently translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Although this collection does not include many of Chekhov’s most famous stories, Power writes, the stories included illustrate the traits of Chekhov’s short fiction that have been most influential.

Power writes, “in a letter of 1888 Chekhov said it wasn’t an author’s job to give answers, but formulate the right questions.” Chekhov’s stories present emotions felt, poetic moods often created by setting. The characters do not usually arrive at answers but rather consider new questions raised by their imaginings.

These are stories of ambiguity, irresolution. “Meaning is provisional in even the most apparently self-explanatory of Chekhov’s stories.”

The physical traits that define men & women in literature

While reading a book club book, Erin Davis was struck by “a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.” Annoyed by “this lazy writing,” she set out to discover how widespread this writing approach to creating characters is, because she wants “to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.”

To answer the question, she and colleagues used a computerized language processor to examine 2,000 books published between 1008 and 2020, the majority published after 1900:

Books were selected for cultural relevance. Our selection pool included New York Times best sellers, Pulitzer Prize nominees and winners, Man Booker shortlisted books and winners, books frequently taught in American high schools and colleges, and books that frequently appear on Best Of lists.

She discovered that “Men and women do tend to be described in different ways.”

Read the descriptive trends the research discovered, as well as a complete technical explanation of how the research project worked.

Boundary-Pushing Books for Fans of Narrative Experiments

I find narrative experimentation fascinating, as I’ve written about in these two previous posts:

In this article Dustin Illingworth examines four recent books that illustrate how the manipulation of narrative structure can shape meaning.

The Jim Crow South in Faulkner’s Fiction

In re-examining Faulkner’s fiction in light of the current resurgence here in the U.S. of Black Lives Matter, Michael Gorra writes, “He [Faulkner] was born into an understanding of the way white supremacy works, and a part of him never stopped believing in the racial hierarchy that shaped his boyhood, even as the writer grew increasingly critical of it.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion How Fiction Works

How to Recognize an Unreliable Narrator

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Here’s a question that comes up periodically on literary sites:

I’m having trouble reading books with unreliable narrators. How exactly do you know a narrator is unreliable?

When I saw the question again recently, I realized that, although the question gets asked a lot, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an answer.

It’s a hard question to answer for two related reasons:

  1. The discussion requires specific examples as illustration.
  2. Naming the source as an unreliable narrator gives the whole thing away.

Since I try to keep this blog free of spoilers, I’m going to try to answer the question without citing specific texts. So please put up with my silly, contrived examples. Most of them I’ve completely made up, and others I’ve lifted and generalized from real sources.

But before we start, some definitions. A narrator is the one telling the tale. Sometimes narrators inadvertently deceive readers, such as children who report events that they are too young to understand the meaning of. These are called naive narrators. But unreliable narrators fail to provide readers with adequate information from which to make inferences and judgments. Sometimes these narrators may be a bit naive (that is, they may not provide certain information because they don’t know it), but most often—and, most interestingly—unreliable narrators deceive readers for their own purposes.

The considerations here aim to help you uncover the willfully unreliable narrators, the ones that have some personal reason for controlling the information they dole out to readers. Remember, though, that these narrators may be lying to themselves as much as to the readers. 

Here are some examples that suggest a narrator may not be telling you the whole truth. 

Inconsistent Details

“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” 

As with people in real life, often the first indication that a narrator is deceiving us is an inconsistency in details over time. Sometimes these inconsistencies involve seemingly small details: “My mother died when I was five years old” vs. “My mother died when I was in high school.” Other times the differences may comprise whole chunks of the narrator’s life story, such as education, work experience, and marital history.

Inconsistent details are often the first and most tell-tale indications that things in this narrative may not be as they seem.

Unexplained Details

I recently read a thriller in which the narrator said, almost as an aside, “My husband handed me my medication and a glass of water to swallow the pills with.” This struck me as odd, but it wasn’t until the second time she said the same thing that all my alarm bells went off:

  • What exactly is this medication?
  • What disease or condition is it used to treat?
  • Why is her husband (who is not a doctor or nurse) dispensing this medicine to her? Why isn’t she in charge of her own medication?
  • What are the possible side effects of this medication?
  • What are the potential effects of taking either too much or too little of this drug?

What isn’t being said is often just as important as what is being said. Ask yourself the questions and examine the narrative’s lack of answers.

Title: How to recognize an unreliable narrator
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The Narrator’s Interactions with Other Characters

A narrator’s interactions with the novel’s other characters may suggest reasons for his behavior. Does the narrator act arrogant toward some characters but subservient or fearful toward others? Why? 

Sometimes other characters, particularly minor ones whose number of appearances is limited, may feature in the novel for the primary purpose of providing some other viewpoint against which to measure the narrator’s actions. One novel I read not too long ago involved a first-person male narrator who became fascinated by, then obsessed with a woman visiting his town. Near the end of the novel his female family friend tells him, “My father and I tried to tell you her behavior was suspicious.” This remark provides an external yardstick against which readers can evaluate the narrator’s reaction to the visitor. This minor character lets us know we were right in our suspicions about the narrator, that other people shared our concern over how he fell under the influence of this visitor.

Change in Narrator’s Voice

How the narrator acts, thinks, and speaks over the course of the novel can also clue readers in to an unreliable narrator. A narrator may start out sounding logical and rational, but narration that gradually becomes more chaotic and desperate could indicate a decline in the narrator’s mental state. 


Writing an effective unreliable narrator challenges writers’ skills. The author must sprinkle suggestions that raise our suspicions over the narrative like salt, while at the same time planting enough red herrings to keep us guessing and turning the pages.

Recognizing unreliable narrators is just as challenging for readers as creating them is for authors. You can’t skim or speed read here. Slow, careful reading, paying attention to every detail and asking unanswered questions, is necessary to recognize when a narrator isn’t playing straight with you. 

The most skilled authors dish out their clues about the nature of the narrator slowly and subtly. Appreciating that process and recognizing an unreliable narrator can be one of the most satisfying rewards of reading fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Older Adults in Literature

Moral Depth in Current Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Introduction

I came upon Adam O’Fallon Price’s article The Subjective Mood, in which he laments the lack of moral depth in current fiction, back in February. I included it in a literary-links round-up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I find a lot of moral depth in most of the fiction I read. 

Price’s piece made me think about the interplay between plot and character in fiction because of its correlation between plot and moral depth.

What is moral depth in fiction?

Price describes moral depth as the quality in a novel that doesn’t merely settle for telling a story but “also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality.” He explains further:

over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

This definition feels misleading because books don’t think; people do, both authors and readers. “What the book thinks” means exactly what? 

Price correlates moral depth with plot, writing that “so many of these books are boring”:

The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this?

And there’s that troublesome concept of “what the book thinks” again.

But perhaps Price’s best description of the lack of moral depth is this extended passage:

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

What does “recent fiction” mean?

Price avoids a specific definition of what he means by the phrases contemporary novels and recently published novels, but he does offer this: “Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago.”  Waldman’s novel carries a copyright date of 2013, so let’s assume that, in general, he’s talking about novels published since 2013.

In considering the cause of the lack of moral depth in recent fiction, Price gives us this disingenuous explanation: “the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet.” 

It has been a long time since I heard anyone give this knee-jerk reaction to explain everything that’s wrong with modern society. Blaming the loss of moral depth on the internet only underlines even more finely how imprecise Price’s terminology is.

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

Here are four novels, all published after 2013, that contain moral depth. Oh, and not one of them is boring.

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

In a world in which quantum physics allows scientists to explore parallel universes, physics teacher Jason Deesen pursues answers to the questions “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?”

In his pursuit Jason makes several choices and deals with their consequences as he searches for the answer to the most basic questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Who do I choose to be?” In this way, Dark Matter directly contradicts Price’s description of a lack of moral depth:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

This novel follows the lives of seven people over the course of a four-day murder trial. Through the use of multiple points of view, Miracle Creek allows all participants to tell their stories and explain how they ended up at the place where a terrible tragedy caused the deaths of two people.

In the moral depth that Price misses in current fiction, “Action and choice occasions a moral dimension.” This novel attains that moral dimension by giving all the major characters the opportunity to tell their stories.

If your notion of moral depth is passing judgment, you’ll find that in this novel. The perpetrator is identified and duly punished by law. But if your notion of moral depth is to examine and understand choices people make within the complex circumstances their lives have offered them, you’ll find that here as well. Moral depth doesn’t get much deeper than this.

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

Price laments the loss of “the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative.” Our Souls at Night presents exactly that in its story about two widowed older adults who seek caring and companionship in each other’s company within the confines of their small-town existence.

Like Miracle Creek, this little (179 pages) novel takes a big look at the preconceptions of conventional morality to examine moral choice in the context of individual characters’ lives.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

In this novel the aging actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life and career, but she’ll only tell it to one person, the struggling, little-known young journalist Monique Grant. It’s a story featuring ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an example of a life review in fiction. The concept of life review comes from an area of psychology known as narrative identity theory. Many older adults, as they approach their life’s end, engage in life review, the process of understanding and accepting the life they’ve lived. 

In his description of the lack of moral depth he finds in current fiction, Price writes:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the telling of the story is both the significant action and the facing of the consequences of actions made earlier in life.

(Another example of life review in fiction is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. For more information about life stories in literature, click here.)

Conclusions

To find recent novels like these, one has to be willing to look for them. Dark Matter is straight-up science fiction, while Miracle Creek, because it features a murder, likely sits in the mystery section of bookstores and libraries. I’ve often written that I like mysteries and thrillers because the best of them deal with what it’s like to be human in the world. Readers who spurn genre fiction will never find these gems.

Also, we find the books we need at the times in our lives when we need them. Price says in his article that he’s 44. I have nearly 30 years on him, and for that reason books that feature older adult characters coming to terms with their lives draw my attention. The best of those novels carry the moral depth that accompanies the wisdom of their characters.

Books don’t think, but good books make people think. Throughout its history the novel has been the literary form that probes the questions of how individuals relate to the societies they live in. My guess is that as society evolves, novelists will continue to find ways to explore its moral complexity through fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Literature & Psychology

The Interplay of Plot and Character in Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Which is more important in fiction: plot or character? Novels that engage in complex characterization are often called character-driven stories or character studies, while books heavy on fast action and unexpected turns of events are called plot-driven novels. But even in character studies the characters still have to DO something (even if all they do is think), and even in plot-driven novels someone must be DOING all that action. 

Plot and character are like love and marriage: You can’t have one without the other. 

This is true no matter what kind of fiction you’re reading. Some people distinguish between literary fiction and genre fiction, a distinction in which the term genre fiction refers to format-specific categories such as mystery, thriller, science fiction, horror, and romance. The term is usually used pejoratively, to suggest that literary fiction is somehow better than “mere genre fiction.”

But all fiction requires characters who do something, and the best works of fiction, whether literary or genre fiction, hit the sweet spot of combining complex characterization with interesting plotting. 

I gravitate toward mysteries and thrillers because I think that some of the most thought-provoking fiction—novels that explore the extremes of what the human heart is capable of—slots into those genres.

I often hear that crime fiction is just plot-driven entertainment—that unlike literary fiction, or even general fiction, it doesn’t examine the human condition. The truth is you can’t write crime fiction without examining the human condition and the society of a place or time. If a writer doesn’t understand the very elements that led someone to desperation, to the ultimate bad choice of taking another life, he can never write a convincing antagonist. Villains are not just bad people, they’re often in an untenable situation and see no other way out.

Dianne Freeman

Thriller author Karin Slaughter, when asked what makes for a good thriller, replied, “Character has to matter as much as plot. If they’re not equally strong, then no one really cares what happens.”

But while the question of whether character or plot is more important may be moot, the question of which comes first in an author’s writing process can yield some interesting results. 

Queen of suspense Mary Higgins Clark reportedly scanned the New York City tabloids every morning looking for story ideas, a suggestion she was looking for unusual plot twists.

In contrast, Tana French begins with characters:

I don’t outline at all, actually. In fact, I can’t really figure out what’s going on myself until I’ve been writing the characters for a while. I don’t even know “whodunit” until I’ve been writing long enough to know who might kill someone, and for what reasons.

But in the end, plot and character work hand in hand. 

For me, the best thrillers are a combination of plot and characterization. There is nothing better than a thriller I absolutely can’t put down. That said, it isn’t everything; I also want to feel something for the characters in the books I read. If I don’t, then ultimately I won’t care what happens to them in the end. They also need to feel authentic.

thriller writer Mary Kubica

Plot + character = story, and good stories keep us reading.

We read on because we love the characters but also because we want to know how the story plays out. There are mysteries to be solved here, genuine puzzles that keep us questioning to the very end.

Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction How Fiction Works

5 More Irresistible Introductions in Fiction

Earlier post:

An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

—Stephen King
Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences

The openings of these five novels so obviously invite the reader into the story that they need no explanations.

1. Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

2. No Second Chance by Harlan Coben

“When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.”

3. In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

“It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.”

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, trans. by Gregory Rabassa

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

5. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”

How about you?

What novel introductions have you found irresistible?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction How Fiction Works Review

Review: “The Blinds”

Background: Genre Fiction

Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):

Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)

Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.

Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:

  • mysteries
  • tales of crime detection
  • Westerns
  • tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
  • science fiction
  • fantasy
  • romance

Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.

Genre criticism

Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)

Here’s an article that makes a case for reading widely, in all genres, by a man whose discovery of genre fiction saved his appreciation for fiction and made him a writer: Class, Race and the Case for Genre Fiction in the Canon.

Review: The Blinds

Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds
HarperCollins, 2017
ISBN 978–0–06–266134–0

Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.

The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.

And then she hears a gunshot…

Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:

  • mystery
  • police procedural
  • Western
  • science fiction
  • romance

(1) Mystery

That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.

(2) Police Procedural

A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.

(3) Western

This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.

First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.

Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.

(4) Science Fiction

Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.

As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?

(5) Romance

This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.

Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown