The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
001. …most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town public librariers are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant.
002. Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: It requires an authentic junk mind.
003. …in order [for the student writer] to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes
004. …life in the university has almost never produced subject matter for really good fiction. The life has too much trivia, too much mediocrity, to much soap opera…
005. …no writer who has kept himself innocent of education has ever produced great art. One trouble of having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one’s argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are).
006. Whatever his genius, the writer unfamiliar with the highest effects possible [writing by the best] is virtually doomed to search out lesser effects.
007. Admittedly, the man who has educated himself is in a better position than the man not educated at all. But his work is sure the bear the mark of his limitation. If one studies the work of the self-educated…what one notices at once is the spottiness and therefore awkwardness of their knowledge. One forgives the fault, but the fact remains that it distracts and makes the work less than it might have been.
008. The success of fools in the university world is one of God’s great mysteries.
009. No one can hope to write really well if he has not learned how to analyze fiction…
010. The novelist Nicholas Delbanco has remarked that by the age of four one has experience nearly everything one needs as a writer of fiction: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. The writer’s business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and action: by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader.
011. Not that [the writer] needs to learn literature first and writing later: The two processes are inseparable. [Whilst struggling with a thematic or plot problem the writer] happens to read Shakespeare and some philosophy books at the same time, and because of his reading he hits on heretofore unheard-of solutions to problems of novelistic exploration. Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.
012. To the great artist, anything whatever is possible…Whatever works is good.
013. Best book for writing fundamentals: W.W. Watt’s An American Rhetoric
014. Write the kind of story you know and like best—a ghost story, sci-fi, realistic story about your childhood
015. In any piece of fiction, the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe), or else to engage the reader’s interest in the patent absurdity of the lie. The realistic writer’s way of making events convincing is verisimilitude. The tale writer—if he is very good–gets what Coleridge called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’ The yarn writer tells outrageous lies or has someone tell the narrator some outrageous lie then presents the problems with the lie through the narrator.
All three types of writing depend on precision of detail. In writing dependent on verisimilitude he argues us into submission. When the realist’s work convinces us, all effects, even the most subtle, have explicit or implicit causes. This kind of documentation, moment by moment authenticating detail, is the mainstay not only of realistic fiction but of all fiction.
[The realist writer] must present, moment by moment, concrete images drawn from a careful observation of how people behave, and he must render the connections between moments, the exact gestures, facial expressions, or turns of speech that, within any given scene, move human beings from emotion to emotion, from one instant in time to the next.
Whereas the tale writer charms or lulls the reader into dropping objections; that is, persuades him to suspend disbelief.
016. In all major genres, vivid detail is the life blood of fiction.
017. Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind
018. …one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.
019. Metafiction novels are not novels but, instead, artistic comments on art.
020. Begin with something real—one of the necessary parts of larger forms, some single element that, if brilliantly done, might naturally become the trigger of a larger work—some small exercise in technique, if you like, as long as it’s remembered tat we do not really mean it as an exercise but as a possible beginning of some magnificent work of art.
–for example: a one-page passage of description keyed to some particular genre since short stories and novels work differently.
–make the chief concern the writer’s full discovery of fiction’s elements.
021. Having written one superb descriptive passage the writer should know things about description that he’ll never need to think about again. Working element by element through the necessary parts of fiction, he should make the essential techniques second nature.
022. The writer must learns to see fiction’s elements as only a writer does.
023. Good description is symbolic –it is one of the writer’s means of reaching down into his unconscious mind, finding clues to what questions his fiction must ask, and, with luck, hints about the answers. It’s symbolic not because the writer plants symbols in it but because, by working in the proper way, he forces symbols still largely mysterious to him up into his conscious mind where…he can work with them and finally understand them.
024. The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writer and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees.
025. Whatever our doubts, we pick up books at train stations, or withdraw into our studies and write them; and the world—or so we imagine—comes alive.
026. 1st question any young writer should ask: What can I think of that’s interesting?
027. We’re taught that sophisticated concepts are more rewarding and desirable than primary ones. To read or write well, we must steer between two extreme views of aesthetic interest: overemphasis of immediate pleasure (exciting plot, vivid characters—think Hollywood action movie) and exclusive concern with that which is secondarily but at times more lastingly pleasurable, the fusing artistic vision.
028. It is not incidental that Shakespeare’s plays present fascinating characters engaged in suspenseful actions. … to write as if fiction were much to serious to be enjoyed is to raise suspicion that the writer is as insensitive to art’s true nature, and its value to humanity, as a stone in a farmer’s field.
029. But what gives a work of fiction aesthetic interest? –Nothing in the world is inherently interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. And nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer.
030. The first business of the writer must be to make us feel vividly what his characters see and feel. We must be drawn into the characters’ world as if we were born to it. –the writer should make his characters’ world sensually available to a wide range of readers.
031. How can the writer best do this? The writer must write in a style that falls somewhere on the continuum running from objective to subjective; in other words, from the discursive, essayist’s style, in which everything is spelled out as scientifically as possible, to the poetic style, in which practically nothing is explained. The essayist’s style is by nature slow-moving and laborious, more wide than deep.
032. What counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind. The writer’s characters must stand before us with a wonderful clarity, such continuous clarity that nothing they do strikes us as impossible behavior for just that character, even when the character’s action is, as sometimes happens, something that came as a surprise to the writer himself.
033. Fictional characters cannot be taken from real life because once any changes are made to that person’s character. Subtle details change characters’ lives in ways too complex for the conscious mind to grasp, we nevertheless grasp them.
034. Plot not only changes but creates character: By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously, reveal ourselves to others. Setting influences both character and plot.
035. to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it
036. The theory of fiction where the story demonstrates people and places through a clear beginning, middle and end was exploded when Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado”, a story that has an end but no beginning or middle.
037. By the selection and arrangement of the materials of his fiction, the writer gives us not the truth about the world and how things come about but an image of himself, or perhaps nothing more than an interesting construction, an object for our study and amusement.
038. If the portrait of the artist is all that really counts, why not an artist who simply chats with us, plays with us, perhaps even insults us, creating not an action we can follow to its end, but a small, highly flavoured imitation of Eternity?
039. …the importance of the portrait [of the artist] is not that it tells us what the artists looks like but that it provides us with a focus, an aperture, a medium (as in a séance) for seeing things beyond and more important than the artist. In the artist’s recreation of the world we are enabled to see the world.
040. …what interests us in good fiction…is our feeling that the work, even if it contains fabulous elements, is in some deep way “true to life”.
041. The process by which [the writer] works leads him to his goal—as if the process had some kind of magic in it, some daemonic will of its own. Homer spoke of Muses, “epic song” and “memory” and we often hear even modern writers speak of their work as somehow outside their control, informed by a spirit that, when they read their writing later, they cannot identify as having come from themselves.
042. The fictional process is the writer’s way of thinking, a special case of the symbolic process by means of which we do all our thinking.
043. By definition, a story contains profluence—a sequence that can end in only one of two ways: in resolution or in logical exhaustion—our recognition that we’ve reached the stage of infinite repetition; more events might follow, but they will all express the same thing.
044. Resolution is of course the classical and usually more satisfying conclusion; logical exhaustion satisfies us intellectually but often not emotionally, since it’s more pleasing to see things definitely achieved or thwarted.
045. Logical exhaustion usually reveals that the character’s supposed exercise of free will was illusory. … The only emotions such fiction can ordinarily produce are weariness and despair…
046. It might be objected here that no law requires art to be “pleasing.” A story that raises expectations, then shows why they can neither be satisfied nor denied, can be as illuminating, and as interesting moment by moment, as any other kind of story, though the ending may annoy us.
047. …the reader is lead from an unstable initial situation to its relatively stable outcome.
048. …the writer’s timing in his opening pages is a signal to his reader’s expectations.
049. The writer works out plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life, by working his way back from his story’s climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation.
050. Since usually one does not work out plot all at once, but broods over it, mentally trying alternatives, taking notes, carrying the idea in the back of one’s mind as one reads or does laundry, working and reworking it for days or months or, sometimes, years, one may in practice work both backward and forward…Whatever happens in life—a curious fact one comes across in one’s reading, a snatch of conversation, something from the newspaper—all this becomes possible material for the shaping of the plot, or for characters, setting, and them as they may influence the plot.
051. If the story is to be efficient and elegant, the writer must introduce no more background events or major characters than strictly necessary, and must introduce these materials in the smallest possible number of scenes, each scene rhythmically proportionate to those surrounding, so that the pace is regular or, if appropriate, in regular acceleration, in regular acceleration. … The efficient and elegant writer makes each scene bear as much as it can without clutter or crowding, and moves by the smoothest, swiftest transitions possible from scene to scene.
052. He must think at the same time, about why it is that the story interests him. Whether he is using a traditional plot, an action drawn from life, or something he’s made up, no writer chooses his story by pure whim or the mechanical combination of random elements.
053. But however it may be achieved, in all great fiction, primary emotion must sooner or later life off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; some statement on value. In good fiction, this universal statement is likely to be too subtle, too loaded with qualifications, to be expressed in any way but the story’s way; it may be impossible, that it, to reduce at any rule of behaviour or general thesis. We *understand* the value, understand it with great precision, but even the shrewdest literary critic may have trouble formulation it in words and thus telling us the story’s “message”.
054. No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others. (Failure to recognise that the central character must *act*, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.) We care how things turn out because the character cares—our interest comes from empathy.
055. Having analysed what he must dramatically show to make his climax meaning and convincing, the writer introduces fictional elements each of which carries its burden of meaning. Like any good liar, the writer makes up the most convincing explanation he can think of for why the things that did not really happen might have happened.
056. To be shown, we must be shown by action; the proof must appear in plot.
057. If Helen’s motive is to be perfectly convincing, we must be shown its origins; and that too means plot… All these events, the authenticating proofs for every significant element of the story, the writer must weave it into a smoothly flowing, inevitable-seeming plot.
058. It is partly in this way that the fictional process forced the writer to say more than he thought he could; that is, to make discoveries.
059. At some point the writer stops planning and starts writing, fleshing out the skeleton that is his plan. Here too he is partly in control of and partly controlled by the fictional process. Again and again, in the process of writing, he will find himself forced to new discoveries. He must create, stroke by stroke, powerfully convincing characters and settings; he must more and more clearly define for himself what his overall there or idea is; and he must choose and aesthetically justify his genre and style.
060. Symbolic association: associating metaphors with the character they most describe, e.g. a gloomy character in a scene of fog and rain.
061. In fleshing out his characters, the writer does not ordinarily think out every implication of every image he introduces at the time he introduces it. He write by feel, intuitively, imagining the scene vividly and copying down its most significant details…drawing on his unconscious, trusting his instincts.
062. At some point, perhaps when he’s finished the first draft, the writer begins to work in another way. He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly.
-91- That each has its values is evident from the fact that each has its earnest adherents, some of them ready to kill at the faintest hint that what they love is not loved universally.
-92- The third-person-limited point of view forces the writer into phony suspense.
-93- …intuitively—we know that much of what we read, or see on stage or screen …has no theory, it makes no grand claims. It’s just jazzing around.
-94- [Jazzing around] is what most beginning writers do most of the time…it’s the hardest kind of fiction in the world. When a writer is good at it, the world is his oyster.
Notes on the Fictional Process: Common Errors
-95- Passive voice is virtually useless in fiction
-96-The temptation to explain should almost always be resisted. A good writer can get anything at all across through action and dialogue. The writer should especially avoid comment on what his characters are feeling.
-97- In good fiction, shifts in psychic distance are carefully controlled.
-98- [Regarding the error of frigidity] The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters.
-99- Much of what goes into a real story or novel goes in not because the writer desperately wants it there but because he needs it.
-100- Fiction is made up of structural units: a passage of description, a passage of dialogue, an action. The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one.
-101-Working unit by until, always keeping in mind what the plan of his story requires him to do but refusing to be hurried to more important things, the writer achieves a story with no dead spots, no blurs, a story in which we find no lapses of aesthetic interest.
-102- The writer may be pretty clear about where his experiment will lead, but insofar as he’s a true artist, he does not force the results.
-103- Art does not imitate reality, but creates a new reality.
-104- Reality is a place we cannot get to from here.
-105- In contemporary writing one may do anything one pleases with point of view, as long as it works.
-106- first person does not force the writer to recognize that written speech has to make up for the loss of facial expression, gesture, and the like, and the usual result is not good writing but only writing that is less noticeably bad.