From the Fiction Workshop: Week 4

We took a dip into Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners yesterday, reading the section called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” She spends some time reminding us that fiction is concrete:  “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” The important thing for us to note here is that fiction creates a convincing world through its particulars. Slight the reader on sensory details, and it’s tough for the world of the story or the novel to seem real. If the world doesn’t convince, then it’s likely that the characters and their actions and thoughts won’t either. So much of the work of fiction is done on the seemingly small scale of what things look like, smell like, sound like, taste like, feel like. The blending of two or three sensory details (isn’t it funny how often three is the magic number in fiction?) in a scene immediately creates a vivid world that the reader will have a hard time denying. Instead that reader will be immersed in that very specific world.

O’Connor quotes a brief passage from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as an example. Charles Bovary is watching Emma at the piano: “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.” Notice the level of concreteness in this passage: the way Emma plays the piano, the buzzing of the strings traveling to the other end of the village through an open window and to the ears of the bailiff’s clerk, who is bareheaded and wearing list slippers. He stops to listen, a sheet of paper in his hands. As O’Connor points out, Flaubert had to create a believable village in which to put Emma. Before she could exist, the village had to exist. For her actions to be convincing, they had to happen in a vivid and specific place. O’Connor says, “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” Get the particulars right and they will contain the “grand ideas” and “the bristling emotions.”

O’Connor also makes us aware that fiction is presented rather than reported. A piece of fiction is “a self-contained dramatic unit” that carries its meaning inside it. She says, “. . .you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it. . . .when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action.” This is what we mean when we say that a good writer creates his or her characters from the inside. In other words, through the concrete particulars and the way a character responds to them, a writer inhabits that character, taking him or her through a series of meaningful events.

I was very interested yesterday in thinking about how a writer allows the meaning to lift up from the particulars of a piece of fiction without comment on the writer’s part. I used what O’Connor has to say about the vision of the writer to invite us to investigate how the proper arrangement of characters and events can convey the significance and the resonance of a piece of fiction. O’Connor talks about anagogical vision which allows us “to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” I’d like to add the word character to that situation, inviting us to think back to where we began our conversation from our first workshop meeting in which we talked about how interesting characters are made up of contradictions, in a sense holding different levels of reality simultaneously. O’Connor allows us to think about this as a matter of the writer’s vision. In other words, how capable are we, as writers, to see what exists simultaneously within a character, a situation, a detail, an image? O’Connor talks about the importance of having a way of reading the world and its people that includes the most possibilities, and she says, “I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature. It seems to be a paradox that the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction.”

So how do we begin to develop our anagogical vision? I’ve always thought that it begins by putting it into practice in our personal lives, but I’ll leave you to think about how that works or doesn’t for you. I know that as a writer, we live among our characters in these convincing worlds that we create. We get inside a character’s skin, and we experience the world the way he or she experiences it. Does the way a character chooses to see herself and the world around her have a good deal to do with the vision that the writer has of the world around him or her? My instinct tells me to say, yes. As I said yesterday in the workshop, we can take the basic elements of any piece of fiction (yesterday, one of the MFA stories under discussion included the following: (1) a man in his post-divorce life (2) an ex-wife who, along with the man, was a hoarder (3) the man enjoying running through a wooded park (4) the man seeing what may be a homeless family living in a tent in those woods (4) a fallen tree, possibly cut down across the running trail (5) the fall the man takes when he doesn’t see the fallen tree (6) the backpack he steals from the family’s tent, thinking it perhaps contains the hatchet that cut down the tree , but it actually contains a sack of change that the family obviously needs in order to make modest purchases of food, etc. (7) the confrontation scene with a member of the family (8) the revisionary version of the story that the man tells to his ex-wife, a story in which he casts himself as the hero and not the crook), give them to five different writers , and I bet we’ll get five unique stories that use those events. In other words, those events will contain different meanings, each dependent on the vision of the individual writer. But to answer my question about how we develop our anagogical vision when we’re writing, let me suggest that we challenge ourselves to think in terms of opposites.

Take, for example, the chain of events from the story that I describe above. The main character comes out of that confrontation scene a slightly different man than he was when he entered it. When he goes to his ex-wife’s house to tell her the story, he’s a man who wants to deny that he stole a backpack that held the money the family had and then threw into the deep woods where they’ll have a hard time finding it. He wants to pretend he had every right to do that because the family has no business squatting in the woods of the park. He wants above all to forget that the family exists. So he enters this final scene passing judgment. Using this as a test case for how thinking in terms of opposites can pay off for a writer, I’d say we’re at a make or break point for this story. So much depends on what lifts up from this final scene. It seems to me that the resonance will come from the writer’s ability to hold opposing ideas in his head simultaneously. If we ask ourselves what the opposite of judgment is, I suppose we’d say compassion or forgiveness. The arrangement of the story has brought the writer to this point where, if he so chooses, the door can stand wide open, making room for what’s on either side of it: judgment, forgiveness. Keep in mind the detail about the man and his wife being hoarders and the way their marriage came to ruin. Isn’t this the common ground that the man has with the family in the woods who have obviously come to come degree of ruin themselves? When he stands outside his ex-wife’s home, which used to be his home, too, and sees the physical clutter and ruin of that house, isn’t he ready to enlarge his vision of the world, to dismantle the facade of judgment behind which he’s been operating, behind which waits the rising compassion for imperfect lives? Can’t that judgment and that forgiveness co-exist in a moment that contains the meaning of the story? Please note that the final move of the story can’t execute a 180-degree turn for the character, shifting from pure judgment to pure compassion. That’s too simple and not convincing at all because it doesn’t hold enough layers of truth. There’s the benefit of thinking in opposites, getting at that rich layer of meaning. Remember what O’Connor says, “. . .the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction.”

So create a convincing world through sensory details, move your characters through a meaningful sequence of events within that world, and practice enlarging your personal vision so you can think it terms of opposites. Be on the lookout for that aspect of the story that you may not have known was rising but was actually there from the very beginning. All you have to do is adjust your vision to look for it.


  1. Bren McClain on January 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Lee — again, another useful “class.” This came to mind while reading it: It’s like taking a photograph of your character to the dark room and allowing the right circumstances to expose what was there all along. You’re amazingly generous — thank you!

  2. Lee Martin on January 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Bren, that’s an excellent analogy. I also think it’s like that visual image that appears to be a vase, but when you keep looking the image morphs into a face in profile. Which is it? A vase or a face in profile. Of course, it’s both, and that helps me think about anagogical vision and what happens at the end of a good short story. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  3. Brandon Timm on January 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    What Bren says brings to mind something Lee Abbott would say about character, something from “Buckaroo Bonzai and the Raiders from the Eighth Dimension,” that “Character is what we are in the dark.”

    This week’s discussion seems to ask us to consider two things. One, who is that character, what vision does he have when he’s in the dark, what is it that he sees (himself included)? And, Two, who is that character when he’s in the light, when he’s forced to see new things or to see old things differently? The attention to the concrete sensory details is important, I think, especially when point of view is considered. What things – objects, textures, scents and the rare case of taste – stand out to a character in First person? What about close Third? Or what are we directed to notice by an Omniscient Third that should reveal – or expand – our outlook and judgments of the character.

    I can’t help but think that, in all ways, light and darkness have something to do with character, internally and externally, just as much as judgment and forgiveness in how character, and story, develop.

    • Lee Martin on January 25, 2012 at 5:06 pm

      Great thoughts, Brandon! Please permit me to introduce Anton Chekhov to the conversation. At the end of his story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” the main character, Gurov, who has fallen in love with a woman other than his wife, think this:

      He had two lives, an open one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, combination of circumstances, everything that was of interest and importance to him, everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life, was going on concealed from others; while all that was false, the shell in which he hid to cover the truth–his work at the bank, for instance, his discussions at the club, his references to the “inferior race,” his appearances at anniversary celebrations with his wife–all that went on in the open. Judging others by himself, he did not believe what he saw, and always fancied that every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night. The personal life of every individual was based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.

      So, Brandon, you’re so right about light and darkness, knowing and unknowing, the public life versus the secret life, the story one tells oneself and the story that runs beneath it. So often this is the heart of good fiction.

  4. Bren McClain on January 25, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    I like to think of what I call a character’s “poetry.” This is where this light and darkness, to use Brandon’s words, collide. This is where the struggle is and where stories take place.

    • Lee Martin on January 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm

      Yes, Bren! That’s it exactly! Stories take place in that struggle between the light and the dark and between what’s hidden and what’s not.

  5. Julia Munroe Martin on January 27, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Such a useful class, such great information. My current WIP (in edit/revision) takes place on the coast of Maine and the natural world is entwined with the main character’s mood. I’ve been pretty locked into looking at it only from that point of view, so your advice to adjust my vision and looking for another aspect of the story has really gotten me thinking… so helpful! Thank you!

    • Lee Martin on January 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

      Thanks so much, Julia! Good luck with the WIP.

  6. Trudy on October 30, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    I am regular visitor, how aare you everybody?
    This article posted at this site is in fact good.

    • Lee Martin on November 1, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      Thank you, Trudy!

Leave a Comment