Friday, September 05, 2008

Guest Appearance by Joshua Henkin, Author

I won a copy of Joshua Henkin's New York Times Notable Fiction book Matrimony through a giveaway hosted by Dewey of The Hidden Side of the Leaf at the beginning of the year. The author was kind enough to personalize the copy I received, and I admit that as I read the novel, I flipped a few times just to read the inscription (yes, I've done it again as I write this too). Joshua Henkin has generously offered a signed copy to one of my readers as well. Stay tuned for the giveaway announcement tomorrow as well as my review of Matrimony.

Please welcome Joshua Henkin!

In addition to writing fiction, I teach fiction-writing to undergraduates and MFA students, and I’m often struck by my students’ reluctance to do what a friend of mine, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, calls the writer’s principal obligation: to get the reader to dance with you. In short, they seem disinclined, or unable, to do what is the cardinal requirement of every writer: to tell the reader a story. The same people who can tell a story to a friend over coffee or a beer panic when they sit down in front of the computer. They will write some beautiful sentences, they may have a sense of character, both of which are essential when it comes to fiction-writing. But unattached to narrative, to story, the pretty writing and the sense of character won’t do the work they need to do.

Lack of Urgency

Anyone who’s been to a Passover Seder is familiar with The Four Questions: “Why is this night different from all others?” From a liturgical standpoint, it’s what makes Passover Passover. It’s also, I would argue, what makes fiction fiction. When a writer sits down to write, he must always ask himself: What’s important about today? Why have I chosen to tell my story now? What, in short, is the occasion for the telling? If the story can’t answer this question, then no matter how well written it is, it’s not a story; it’s a mere event or a character sketch. But many fiction writers don’t understand this. They’ll release their characters into the world and think that if the writing is good enough, nothing else matters.

Sometimes I’ll tell a student that what they’ve given me feels less like a story than a slice of life. To which they’ll say, “But aren’t all stories slices of life?” Well, they are, in that a writer is always choosing some things and leaving out others. But a successful piece of fiction is very carefully sliced life. It’s not someone haphazardly lowering a knife onto the pie and seeing what shape comes out.

The Passive Protagonist and the Problem of Watching

I once had an undergraduate, a talented writer who wrote a story that could have been called “Stuff I Thought While I Was in my Car.” Her protagonist drove somewhere, passed places she recognized, people she knew, and gave the reader her observations, often quite eloquent and insightful, about what she witnessed. Line by line, the material was quite good, but in no meaningful way was it a story. I think subconsciously my student was hoping that the forward movement of the car would substitute for a deeper narrative forward movement. But it didn’t, and simply putting your character in a car will not make a story a story.

Now, the case of my undergraduate is extreme, but it’s by no means unique. Time and again, my graduate students write stories in which the main character simply observes what takes place around her. On some level, this isn’t surprising. We as a society spend a lot of time alone, and much of our contact with others is both inadvertent and anxiety-producing. On the subway, we avert our glances when someone catches our eye; we avoid knocking into people on the street. For our safety, and our sanity, we are conflict-averse, and writers may be temperamentally the most conflict-averse of all. We do our jobs alone in front of a screen, often in our underwear; we are born—or at least trained—to observe. But it’s bad for a writer to be conflict-averse, at least bad for him to be so on the page, because conflict is what makes for tension in stories, what pushes fiction forward and informs character.

“What’s wrong with watching?” a student will ask me, and I will say, “Nothing, if you do it in moderation.” Watching, after all, is part of the human experience. But if it’s all your protagonist does, then your story is going to be inert. That’s because watching is a passive process; it involves no action, no choice, and therefore it has no moral complexity. In a good story, a character is forced to make choices. And if you have trouble getting your characters to make choices, you need to put them in a situation where they have to choose. What if you’re seated on a bus and a stranger puts his hand on your thigh? You can scream; you can tell the person to remove his hand; you can, I suppose, encourage him; or you can do nothing at all. But in this instance, even doing nothing is doing something; not choosing is its own sort of choice. What I tell my students, then, is they have to make their characters do something. They need to put people’s hands on their characters’ thighs.

The Victim Story

Almost as common as the watching story is the story about a character who’s been victimized. Bad things have been done to this person, and the story is a chronicle of how he’s been wronged, with an implicit plea that we feel bad for him. And we very well might. But this isn’t especially interesting because being victimized, unless it’s portrayed in a more complicated way, doesn’t involve choice, and choice, as I’ve been suggesting, is what gives stories tension and makes for complex characters. Another way to look at it is that rendering your protagonist powerless is a mistake, because a character needs a certain amount of power in order to behave badly, and behaving badly—or at least the possibility of behaving badly—is what makes fiction interesting. Charles Baxter says as much in his wonderful book of essays Burning Down the House. Baxter, who teaches fiction writing himself, draws a distinction between “me” protagonists and “I” protagonists. “Me” protagonists, he argues, are characters to whom things are done, whereas “I” protagonists actually do something. In Baxter’s opinion, there are too many “me” protagonists out there, and I agree.

The Story Where the Author is Trying to Make a Point

Years ago, a friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on the way adults groups objects versus the way children group objects. Adults group the apple with the banana, whereas children group the monkey with the banana. Children, in other words, are more natural story tellers than adults. Part of teaching writing, then, is to get adults to think like children again. This involves convincing them that they’re not writing principally about big ideas. There’s room for ideas in fiction, certainly, but a writer’s job is to tell a story and the ideas come in only through the back door. When my students tell me that they want to write about loneliness, or about the ravages of war, or about how much pain there is in the world, I tell them in that case they should be writing philosophy, or political science, or sociology. As long as they’re writing fiction, they need to eschew the abstract for the concrete. It might be said that Lorrie Moore writes about lonely single women who use humor to cover up their pain, but you can be sure Moore didn’t think this way when she sat down to write “You’re Ugly, Too.” She started with Zoë and gave her a sister, then took Zoë on a trip New York to attend her sister’s Halloween party where she meets an eligible single man wearing a bonehead. That’s how a fiction writer needs to think—in terms of Halloween parties and men wearing boneheads, not in terms of ideas about loneliness.

A Practical Guide

Most writers struggle between knowing too much at the beginning of a story and knowing too little. If you know too much, your story can’t surprise you. You straitjacket your characters in a preordained plot, and you end up with what a friend of mine calls “Lipton-Cup-A-Story.” On the other hand, if you know too little, you end up writing a lot of pretty sentences about mountains and sunsets that don’t go anywhere. What I try to do is write about situations where conflict seems likely even if I don’t know what that conflict will be. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Thanksgiving dinners, family reunions: these are all ripe for exploring, and they all answer the Passover question. A writing professor of mine once said that there are only two kinds of stories in the world, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip. Which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view.

Second, if you’re stuck, open up your story. Add another character. Odd numbers are good. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, as roommates (and lovers) will tell you. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of moving your characters somewhere else. A student of mine recently wrote a story about an elderly woman who invites her three children to her Brooklyn brownstone to discuss how she will divide her possessions once she has died. Now, this is a perfectly good situation for a story—good enough for Shakespeare in King Lear, and for Jane Smiley a few hundred years later. It’s all in the execution, of course, and my student’s execution was good—at least initially, but as the pages passed, the story started to repeat itself. There was plenty of tension among the characters, but it all got laid out at the beginning and there was nowhere for the story to go. This was so, in part, because the story consisted of one long scene in which all the characters were seated at the dining room table. But what if, I suggested, two of the characters left the table and went outside to smoke? What would get said in the presence of some people that wouldn’t get said in the presence of others? By dividing the characters into different physical space, the writer invites confession, betrayal, the concealing and revealing of secrets. And secrets are essential in fiction. In fact, the discrepancy between what characters know is often the engine that drives a story forward.

Third, I tell my students to go through their stories and see how much of the important action takes place in the here and now and how much of it takes place in flashback. All too often, the great majority of action is taking place in flashback. Ask a writer to write about something that’s happening now and she panics, but ask her to write about something that happened two years ago, and she has no problem. This is another way of being conflict-averse: you set the conflict before the story starts. Much of the flashback I see in student work could just as easily take place in the here and now, and if enough of it can’t, then perhaps the writer hasn’t found the occasion for the telling and the story should really be set earlier. Flashback, after all, is supposed to illuminate the here and now, not the other way around.

Fourth, when I sit down to write I always ask myself the following questions: Who’s my protagonist and who’s my antagonist? What does my protagonist want? What does he think he wants (this is not necessarily the same thing as what he actually wants), and how is he setting out to achieve those wants? What these questions are concerned with is desire, which is the lifeblood of fiction. This is really the problem with a lot of watching stories. The only desire the character has is to be left alone: to be allowed to continue to watch. I’m often reminded of Nathaniel Hale’s words: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” That’s what we need in fiction—not patriotism per se, but the feeling that our characters would die for something. Because if our characters themselves aren’t passionate, we can’t expect our readers to be passionate about them.

Joshua Henkin is the author of Swimming Across the Hudson and his most recent novel, Matrimony. You can learn more about the author and his book Matrimony at his website. Joshua Henkin has also made guest appearances on the following blogs: Planet Books, Books on the Brain and The Elegant Variation.


  1. Hi Wendy! Hi Joshua!

    Thanks for sharing with us these great pointers about fiction-writing. I am not a good storyteller and definitely don't write fiction, but these are gems. I particularly enjoy reading the "The Passive Protagonist and the Problem of Watching". Writers definitely have to make their characters do something, make some kind of choices or decisions.

    Have a good weekend!

  2. These are great pointers, Joshua. I, too, teach writing and I confess I started reading your blog for pointers I could steal. Found it relevant to my own work in progress, though, so I know it's good. Especially the bit about not tying down our characters too much. I write mysteries, and it's always so easy to focus on plot and make characters subordinate. Not good.

  3. Thanks for an enlightening guest post, Josh (and for visiting my friend Wendy's blog). One thing that struck me while reading it is that some of the points you make highlight a key difference between fiction and nonfiction writing. Most of my own writing is of the nonfiction-essay variety; "watching" and reporting is sufficient for that, I think, but fiction requires more, and you've explained that very well.

  4. Hi Wendy and Josh,

    Another great guest post! There are so many excellent pointers here, and I love the way you present them i.e. the hand on the character's thigh. That is such a visual way to express that idea of getting the character to take action, to do something. Great tips-thanks, Josh!

  5. Thank you for the helpful writing advice. I have an old story tucked away that has some problems, and I have never been able to figure out how to fix them. Your simple, straight-forward advice has given me some great ideas.

  6. That was a long post. I hope you don't mind that I printed it out to read more in detail later. Some great tips in there, thanks!

  7. Thank you Josh for such an amazing post! I, too, came away with some new perspectives I hadn't really considered before. Thank you to those who commented and stopped by!

  8. As a writer, I found this post very helpful! Thanks so much!


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