Learn to lie
by: Mark Winegardner
Fiction writers must be, or learn to be, good liars. Specific, definite, concrete details are, as every good liar knows, the stuff of persuasiveness. They are also the lifeblood of fiction: proofs, actually, like those in a geometric theorem. If you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay. If you let us use our sense and do our own generalizing and interpreting, we will be participants in your story – and then you'll have us.
Fiction writers must deal in details that come from the senses, and those must be details that matter. “Significant detail” Janet Burroway calls it in Writing Fiction
, noting the sort of detail that means both what it says and also more
than what it says. If you want to write fiction, you must not merely say what you mean, but mean more than you say.
Following is a bit of inept fiction writing. Revise, using significant detail, so that the passage shows rather than tells, dramatizes rather than summarizes. As you do so, strive to avoid cliches and stereotypes. Make sure that your revision of this is no shorter than 200 words and no longer than 400. Once you've completed the revision, read the note following the original text.
“When Mr. And Mrs. Stillwell got to the rural doctor's office, there was only one chair left. This made Mrs. Stillwell angry, although she considered herself too much of a lady to let on. She and Arlen were white, middle-class, and in their early sixties. She was very fat and extremely self-satisfied woman who believed that life had certain rules which well-bred people follow and who, though she was genial enough not to be unlikeable, was very judgmental and condescending to everyone. Also, though she was somewhat unaware of this, she had a tendency to henpeck Arlen.
Anyway, she looked for another seat in the waiting room, but the only possibility was a couch where a little boy was lying down. His parents mus be very irresponsible, Mrs. Stillwell thought, or else they'd ask him to make room. So, since it was Arlen who was the one that needed to see the doctor, she told him to sit down, and he did. That was a good example of how henpecked he was.”
The above passage is a mangling of the opening of Flannery O'connor's brilliant story “Revelation.” When I go over students' revisions, I discuss several – making sure there are a few good ones – before my, um, revelation of the source of this passage (and the terrible things I did to it). The point isn't to show that there's a “right” answer to this exercise, of course. O'Connor's opening is a wonder, but it's a mildly unorthodox wonder, one that gets away with things like calling Mrs. Turpin (Mrs. Stillwell in my passage) “very large” because of the rhythm of the sentence and the joke created thereby in also calling the waiting room “very small.”
O'Connor also had a way of writing expository prose at the beginnings of her stories that allows the reader to hear what the characters sound like before they ever open their mouths: a dazzling and surprisingly stealable signature technique, but surely an unorthodox one, too.
The point is that O'Connor's stellar opening is only one path to excellent writing; the students will have come up with a few more (a confidence builder for the class, even those students who bollixed this). I typically use this exercise very early in the term, often during the first week. Thus, one of its other virtues is that it gets them thinking about revision from day one.
Feel free to rewrite and constructively mangle other masterly passages of fiction. I've done this with several other stories, and the task always teaches me something, though the means are admittedly perverse.