When considering how to learn to write a narrative fiction, pretty quickly you start teasing apart the elements of the books you read and liked. How does good dialogue work? What’s important to achieving a satisfying pacing? How do you pick a point of view? What is at the core of a good character? This is also where many teachers of writing start, and more worryingly, where they end too.
There is nothing wrong with these questions, not inherently. But that qualification needs to be unpacked to see where the approach often fails. The problem is that a narrative fiction is not created out of a checklist of separate ingredients, which invariably become a set of atomistic prescriptions. On the contrary, a story grows organically from a seed, feeding on the nutrients of the soil and light that meets it. That is to say, a story is more akin to a living thing than any mechanical recipe sufficiently allows.
So when writing a story, if it comes together, it does so out of some original potential that then emerges into an aesthetic and content in which every part is inseparably interwoven with every other part. For instance, the pacing will be in part implied by the voice and mood of the first person narrator protagonist, who in turn shapes the nature of the dialogue in which the character participates, and through that dialogue the character reveals and reshapes herself.
It seems a trite truism, but it often needs making explicit: a well conceived character in one book might be awful if placed elsewhere. Using first or third person might have incomparable implications depending on other factors. How the setting is described might be deeply rooted in how the people residing in it conceive themselves, or the precise chasm between people and place might be just as significant. And, likewise, a powerful mode of narration for this novel could be hackneyed in that one.
For example, in Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook the twin protagonists relate their story through a dry, direct voice, using a mostly simple vocabulary. This is in part the case because the epistolary conceit has them—children experiencing excessive trauma—write their account as a set of rituals for themselves. This device shows us a lot about who they are. It also is used to invoke a fairytale-like atmosphere, which makes the transgressions of disturbances of the events depicted the more shocking—framed as they are by implied innocence. What would happen if we transpose such narration onto Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where the meandering, syntactically complex sentences mirror the isolated meditations of a man embedded in a quite different social and historical context?
Writing by formula and prescription is a mistake, one which cages the potential of our medium. Language is versatile, it can be the basis of different accountings, of many unique moments of witnessing, but only when unshackled from ready-to-hand rules. That does not mean writing cannot be taught or learnt to some extent, nor does it suggest that there is no such thing as good or bad writing or that what’s good exists in the realm of instinctual genius. Rather, it implies that learning to write involves thinking about the problems of aesthetics and content in ways that are more interconnected and subtle than just a set of protocols. Mastering the language itself i important, but as you do you should expect language to liberate rather than narrow your choices.
To write well, more than anything you need to write and read well, and therefore also to do each quite often. There is no substitute for testing your ideas on the page, and exposing yourself to a range of others’ experiments. And finally, writing—as with any art—is rooted in a passion for the art, the love of words forged into stories, whether we have a direct hand in them or not. Thinking about the elements of writing is useful, but it is no substitute for that reading and writing, and for bringing to life a new voice—your own—which is never so neatly delineated.