The Half-Known World of Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell
Gray Wolf Press, St. Paul 2008
Trade Paperback: $15.00
Review by Jo Meador
Thirteen essays constitute The Half-Known World of Writing Fiction, which has been compiled from Boswell’s work in writing and teaching graduate workshops at places like New Mexico State University, the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The format and style of the book provide is as instructive to the reader as the subject matter developed in the essays. Richly seeded with excerpts from classic as well as modern works of fiction, the topics are shaped by personal stories from the author and citations from teachers such as John Gardner and Flannery O’Connor.
Predestination sucks the life out of story, Robert Boswell asserts in the title essay of his book on craft, The Half-Known World on Writing Fiction. I think he’s onto something. After years of writing detailed character sketches and psychological profiles, I’ve wrung the vitality out of more than a dozen characters. Readers want to feel that they know the characters, sure, but they also want to be surprised at the choices characters make. This takes a deft hand and sure skill in the dark arts of implicit storytelling, such as inference, suggestion, and innuendo.
Boswell sees narrative as a form of meditation in which the subconscious delivers complicated and often incongruous character traits which mesh and tear and sometimes skew the story space. From a well of shadowy edges and dark caves, as the story is laced with uncertainty, the writer draws near the inner truth of the story, and its world resonates with the reader. Boswell comments on his process:
I listen to what has made it to the page. Things have arrived that I did not invite–often the most interesting things. By refusing to know the world I keep it open to surprise.
Fully known worlds are burdened with safety and comfort, with stereotype and pat action—not a good place or time for the reader. To fully reveal the story world is to make the story unreal for the reader. Predestined characters are boring and offer little to surprise the reader. Yet there needs to be a connection a hook for the reader. That connection, Boswell contends, is built through an association of character to metatype, fostering sympathy and self-identification in the reader. Boswell then individuates the character by setting him into a series of situations where he responds atypically pushing him further and further from the center of his world–and his story goal–to the edge of his story world. Boswell calls this process the reader’s unknowing of the character.
Suspense then grows out of the half-shadows that arise between reader expectation and surprise caused by the character’s individuation. A good writer does not depend on the elements of plot to sustains mystery and suspense. Rather he builds it along the dark edges of character, the recesses of his soul, in the character’s residual mystery of being.
Truth, for Boswell, is the ultimate goal of the good writer. He tasks that writer with three responsibilities. First, the writer must speak the truth and expose lies. Second, the writer needs to avoid taking one side in ideological argument. Third, the writer must always consider story events in the perspective of history. After laying this foundation, Boswell explores four strategies that might be used developing the political or social paradigm novel with truth and balance. Whether writing about cultural values, politics, religion, or social paradigms the writer must constantly guard against a tendency to lean toward a narrow view, which would result in propaganda rather than art.
There is a sense of magic and wonder in exploring the half-known world revealed and opened in the pages of this book. In Boswell’s words:
None of us can name the magic box in the secret cupboard that satisfies a residual longing of adult women and men. It is not our job as writers to find the right coverage, but rather to find the right character and make him so complete as a character that the reader shares his longing for that indefinable thing, and shares, too, is sadness, as his power of yearning continues to outstrip his ability to address it.
I hope you bring your writer’s open mind to this book and let your story open to The Half-Known World of Robert Boswell, then revel in its mystery.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
Review by Nancy Boutin
Okay, I know it sounds like the kind of thing a college kid might read to improve her grade in Intro to Comp Lit. And that may indeed be why my daughter added Foster’s book to our home library. However, I discovered that this user-friendly little paperback also serves as a terrific revision tool.
“How’s that?” you ask, and I hear the skepticism in your voice. Well, Janet Burroway, author of the fiction craft text used at Whidbey Writers Workshop, says there are two kinds of symbols in every story: personal symbols specific to the piece at hand and universal symbols understood by almost everyone within your intended readership. If you came to writing with a degree in literature, these symbols may be part of your conscious repertoire. However, if you’re like many of us and never even took Comp Lit, but have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, the symbols may sit like landmines in your subconscious. They are incredibly powerful, but if you step the wrong way, they can mangle the story you want to tell by misdirecting your reader. At the very least, failure to recognize an under-developed symbol may lead to missed opportunities to fully exploit the situation you have created on the page.
After I read How to Read Literature Like a Professor, my daughter asked me which character in my manuscript filled the “Jesus role.” I told her no such character existed. Unless, I said, she meant the beatific old dude whose side had been pierced with a spear-like piece of copper tubing, told my protagonist he had been wandering a proverbial desert for 40 years because he had been sent to save her soul, died on the third day, and rose again via a kava-induced vision to comfort her. So what if my subconscious mixed up Moses and Jesus? Once I understood the genesis (no pun intended) of that character, I had to decide whether to augment his Jesus-like attributes or get rid of them.
I don’t recommend use of this book during the drafting phase of a novel or short story. Some of us already put too many obstacles in the way of our own creative process. But I did find it very useful as I started to analyze the material that had overcome my roadblocks and arrived on the page in front of me.
When I reviewed characters, settings, and events in my manuscript, I found many instances where a small change could prevent a reader from making a wrong turn (no, in this case that tunnel is really only a tunnel. I don’t want you to think I’m telegraphing my character’s sexual attitudes). I also found places where my subconscious handed me gifts that I’d been too stubborn to recognize. Once I saw them, I could use the situation to greater advantage. For example, in one scene I needed to have an object go missing from a room. I thought the choice of a travel alarm came to mind as an expedient choice. When I looked with fresh perspective, I realized the character in question understood time was running for an important relationship. I went back and threaded the clock through the story, made it visible in key scenes, and gave it a prominent place in the resolution. We’ll see if my thesis advisor agrees, but I think it’s a good addition. And to think I might have inserted a stuffed animal instead!
Foster devotes short chapters to everything from weather to names to Shakespeare to vampires. As a bonus, many of the short stories he uses as examples are commonly taught in undergrad and graduate writing programs—like Whidbey Writers Workshop. If I had read Foster before we discussed “Sonny’s Blues” in Wayne Ude’s craft class, I would have sounded much smarter online: the cup of trembling at the end of the story? Foster’s chapter on biblical allusions held the key. More importantly, I would have appreciated this great story at a deeper level.
I think I’ll go read it again.
Review by Nancy Cluts
The Seven Basic Plots is a comprehensive look at the history of story and the basic archetypes found in many stories from the earliest written story, Gilgamesh, to modern film such Star Wars. Several reference books have already been published about the novel and story basics, each with different theories. Northrup Frye’s Aspects of the Novel and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces are arguably the best known examples of books that distill the art of storytelling down to its most basic components. While reading The Seven Basic Plots, I could not help but think that all seven of these plots could easily be categorized as a take on the classic Hero’s Journey described in detail in Campbell’s book.
The Seven Basic Plots is organized into four sections:
Part One: The Seven Gateways to the Underworld, a detailed description of the seven plots mentioned in the title.
Part Two: The Complete Happy Ending, exploring the necessary steps to create that satisfying Hollywood Happy Ending.
Part Three: Missing the Mark, how story has changed and modern novels that break the rules of The Seven Basic Plots.
Part Four: Why we tell Stories, an in-depth psychological look at the basic human need to tell stories.
Parts One and Three are nuts and bolts examinations of the seven plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth as well as the basic archetypes present in many stories. According to Booker, all seven plots have the same basic structure:
1. The Anticipation Stage (what Campbell terms the Call to Action) – the hero has to decide whether or not to take the challenge.
2. The Dream Stage – all goes well for the hero.
3. The Frustration Stage – the hero faces escalating conflict, usually in sets of three.
4. The Nightmare Stage – all hope is lost.
5. The Miraculous Escape from Death – against all odds, the hero triumphs (Overcoming the Monster)! The bastard son turns out to be the legitimate heir of a huge fortune (Rags to Riches)! The grail is found (The Quest)! The hero returns from battle, gets the girl, he becomes king and they live happily ever after (Voyage and Return)! All mistaken identities are sorted out and we all have a good laugh (Comedy)! The hero dies, but that’s okay because the hero was actually an antihero and the good guys win (Tragedy – think Macbeth)!
Booker provides numerous examples of stories to bolster his theory from classics like The Odyssey to James Bond novels. I found this interesting and entertaining although there were many examples where I felt that the author was stretching a bit and several stories that could be categories as a hybrid between plots. For example, is Moby Dick a story about Overcoming the Monster (the whale) or is it a Quest (Ahab’s quest to kill the whale) or is it a Tragedy (Ahab dies)?
Parts Two and Four of the book are laden with psychological explanations for the seven plots. I skimmed. The sections are incredibly redundant, so much so that I skipped many pages, and rigid, any plot that doesn’t fit into the tidy seven including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Waiting for Godot and The Sun Also Rises are considered flawed and unsatisfying. Hmmm … then why do I re-read them so often? They remain in print, so a fair number of readers find the stories just dandy. There is one very funny section that discusses the dichotomy that can happen when people are determined to fit a story to meet their agenda – Jack and the Beanstalk, as interpreted by socialists (Jack is the downtrodden proletariat and the giant represents rich corporations) and Freudians (Jack must separate from his mother and the beanstalk represents…).
The book is dense 750 pages, almost as long as Dickens’ Bleak House, and if I only had time to read one, I’d opt for Bleak House hands down. If, however, I were a writer interested in the structure of story and I had time to ruminate and read I might find parts of the book useful and entertaining.