Whether you’re huddled around the campfire, composing an email to a friend, or sitting down to write a novel, storytelling is fundamental to human nature. But as any writer can tell you, the blank page can be daunting. It’s tough to know where to get started, what details to include in each scene, and how to move from the kernel of an idea to a completed manuscript.
Writing great fiction isn’t a gift reserved for the talented few. There is a craft to storytelling that can be learned, and studying the fiction writer’s techniques can be incredibly rewarding—both personally and professionally. Even if you don’t have ambitions of penning the next Moby-Dick, you’ll find value in exploring all the elements of great fiction.
From evoking a scene to charting a plot to selecting a point of view, Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques offers a master class in storytelling. Taught by acclaimed novelist James Hynes, a former visiting professor at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Michigan, these 24 insightful lectures show you the ins and outs of the fiction writer’s craft.
More than just delivering lectures, Professor Hynes offers the first steps of an apprenticeship, showing you not only how fiction works but also how to read like a writer. Here you’ll find explications of novels and stories across the ages:
- Rediscover classics such as Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, and others.
- Gain new insights into bestsellers such as the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series.
- Explore the world of literary fiction, from Chekhov’s “The Kiss” to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
- Reflect on what makes characters such as Anna Karenina and Sherlock Holmes so memorable.
- Find out how to create suspense like Dashiell Hammett, George Pelecanos, and John le Carré.
In addition to showing you how the elements of fiction work, Writing Great Fiction is an interactive toolkit. Professor Hynes closes each lecture with an exercise to get your creative juices flowing. Only you know what story you want to tell, but the many examples and writing prompts in these lectures will get you from thinking about writing to the act of writing—often the toughest part of any project.
What You’ll Learn In Writing Great Fiction
Begin with the Basics
William Faulkner once said that writing a novel is like a one-armed man trying to hammer together a chicken coop in a hurricane. That may be an exaggeration, but finding your way into a story can take an equal amount of creative experimentation. In the opening lectures of this course, you will learn how to:
Evoke a Scene: There is a fine art to selecting just the right imagery to bring a scene to life. Whether you’re heeding the old advice to “show, don’t tell,” or you’re seeking to create what novelist John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream,” scenic detail is the life-blood of good fiction. Professor Hynes shows you how to choose rich details while keeping your narrative uncluttered.
Develop a Character: When you create a fictional character, you’re creating the illusion of reality—suggesting a real person rather than replicating one. Four lectures on character development teach you how to build characters who think and act in plausible ways. See how novelists such as Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, George R.R. Martin, and many others develop their believable and memorable characters.
Craft Great Dialogue: Just as characters are illusions that suggest real people, so too does dialogue suggest authentic speech. Good dialogue serves at least one of a few key functions in a narrative, such as evoking character, advancing the plot, or providing necessary exposition. A two-lecture unit sheds light on balancing dialogue with narration, with examples from the work of Charles Dickens, Alice Munro, and Toni Morrison, as well as the professor’s own fiction.
Build the Story’s Structure
Literature creates order out of chaos. To do so, you need to provide structure to your story, which can be one of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction. Among the topics you’ll study are:
Story versus Plot: Whether it’s a novel, a short story, or a blog post, one of a story’s primary functions is to keep the reader reading. One way to achieve this is by creating a compelling plot. After exploring the difference between “story” and “plot”—as defined by E.M. Forster—Professor Hynes unpacks the many techniques of storytelling, and he concludes this six-lecture unit with some thoughts about keeping momentum in relatively “plotless” fiction such as James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Point of View: As you’ll see in this three-lecture unit, much of a story hinges on the perspective from which it’s told. From the omniscience of Middlemarch to the free indirect discourse of Light in August, and from the double consciousness of Huck Finn to the unreliable narrator of The Aspern Papers, Professor Hynes surveys the range of narrative possibilities.
Time, Place, and Pace: A story’s setting is a powerful way to create mood. Think of London in Bleak House, or Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Time plays an equally important role in fiction—the era of a story’s setting, the sequence of events that occur, and the timing with which information is revealed to the reader are all pivotal elements. You’ll learn how to syncopate action and exposition, scene and summary, short scenes and long scenes, present-time narrative versus flashbacks, and more.
Drafts and Revisions: All stories must come to an end. In this course’s final unit, you’ll step back from the specific elements of scenic composition and consider the story as a whole. How do you build a complete draft? What are some strategies for revision? And what do you do when you’ve finished?
A Practical Toolkit to Get You Writing
As a working novelist, Professor Hynes is able to imbue his teaching of the elements of fiction with the wisdom of personal experience. He uses vivid examples from the history of literature as well as lessons and anecdotes from his own time in the novel-writing trenches. He shares his personal processes and techniques, and even examines specific examples where he struggled as a writer, revealing how he overcame those difficulties.
But this course is meant to be a toolkit, not an instruction manual. The beauty of fiction writing is that it’s a creative field. There are no right answers, no single way to tell a story. A wealth of exercises will get you writing so that you can practice the many techniques you learn. Along the way, Professor Hynes is an able guide, showing you what has worked for him and other novelists, and pointing out pitfalls to avoid. Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques is truly an exceptional course for anyone interested in storytelling.
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