Advanced Storytelling



Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 44–48)

In every dramatic story there is a "core" conflict. If you read a story and someone later asks you what it was about, the high-speed computer in your cranium will do a quick analysis of all the conflicts in the story, seek out the core conflict from the peripheral conflicts, and—voila!—your answer. It's about a ship accident, you'll say. The sinking of the Titanic.

  • The core conflict in The Old Man and the Sea is the death struggle between the old man and the big fish.
  • The core conflict in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is between Leamas and his East German interrogators.
  • The core conflict of A Christmas Carol is between Scrooge and the spirits.
  • In Lolita, the core conflict is between Humbert Humbert and Lolita.
  • In The Godfather, the core conflict is between the Corleones and the other New York Mafia families.
  • In Madame Bovary, Emma is in conflct with her strait-laced society; that conflict is at the core of the novel.
  • McMurphy's conflict with Big Nurse is at the core of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

In each of these novels there are many other conflicts. Scrooge is in conflict with his nephew, his clerk, and the gentlemen who come to ask him for money. McMurphy is in conflict not only with Big Nurse, but with the other patients on the ward and the other members of the staff. Leamas is in conflict with his girlfriend and his superiors. The Corleones are involved in all kinds of nefarious activities which generate dozens of conflicts. Emma Bovary has problems with her husband Charles as well as with her lovers.

So stories may and often do contain the threads of many developing conflicts. A character may be involved in a romance while he's plotting the overthrow of the king. A character might be going through a divorce while she's trying to get a decent job. But in a dramatic novel, there will always be an easily identifiable core conflict. The core conflict is what theorists such as Raymond Hull write about when they describe, as Hull does in How to Write a Play, the types of conflicts as "man against nature," "man against man," man against society," "man against himself," "man against fate," and so on.

Although the core conflict will determine what the novel is about, it does not necessarily determine its genre. Genre refers to a book's literary classification based on formulas, rules, and marketing conventions in the book trade. Book are marketed as "literary," "mainstream," "mysteries," "science fiction," and so on. Like it or not, as a novelist you will have to abide by these formulas, rules and conventions.

Americans are prejudiced in favor of being creative and often find repugnant the very idea of writing in restrictive genres. Unfortunatley, it is unavoidable. The reason: making judgemets based on type (in this case, genre) is the way the human psyche works.

Put yourself in the place of the reader for a moment. You have been given a book for your birthday titled The Fruitcake by James N. Frey. Your brother-in-law, who gave you the book, lost the cover (the boob!) so you have no jacket copy to tell you what this book might be. The title might mean it's a cookbook. A fruitcake is also a crazy person. You open the book. It says, "The Fruitcake" and right underneath that is written, "A novel."

You have just made your first judgement as to type. Ah, good, it's fiction.

The dedication reads: "To my loving wife, Elizabeth, who's had to live with the fruitcake and put up with all his nuttiness."

You now make your second judgement as to type. Upon reading the dedication you make a guess that, because the author has identified himself as the fruitcake, it must be an autobiographical novel about a nut.

It sounds like something Kurt Vonnegut would write and you like Kurt Vonnegut, so you say to yourself, hmmm, might be good. You have an expectation based on type. You read the next page. There's a quote from Shakespeare: "There's small choice in rotten apples." Okay, you say, this is a comedy. Exactly what kind you don't know, but if it starts with a quote like that it must be a comedy.

Chapter 1 is the account of the protagonist/narrator, identified as the author himself, having a rollicking good time in high school in Syracuse, New York, in the mid-fifties, getting drunk, making love to a giggly girl in the back seat of a '49 Merc, getting beat up by the defenseive end on the football team. Fun stuff like that. The tone is light, the dialogue breezy and witty; you decide it's a Catcher in the Rye kind of a book, but funnier. You've pinned down the type, the genre. You've made up your mind based on the title, the dedication, the quote from Shakespeare, and the contents of chapter 1.

Chapter 2 begins with the giggly girl introduced in chapter 1 found brutally murdered, and Jimmy, the breezy narrator, accused of the crime. The victim was pregnant with Jimmy's baby, it's discovered. You realize suddenly you were wrong in your guess as to genre. This novel now seems deadly serious. Your hero sets out to find the real killer. Based on your identification of the core conflict as the struggle to find the killer, you now classify the book as a murder mystery, your fourth guess as to type. Your perception of the book's genre has now changed substantially—from comedy to murder mystery.

Chapter 3 begins with Jimmy encountering aliens. These folks are from planet K-74, called The Fruitcake, way out in the galaxy; they had left the girl on Earth some years before and are now returning to pick her up. The extraterrestrials are bunglers, and the book turns into a bizarre farce where one of the extraterrestrials is put on trial for the murder of the girl . . .

So it goes.

You will notice that as the reader reads, he is making decisions along the way based on his expectation of the author's intentions as to type; it is the author's intention, perceived by the reader, that determines the genre. As you can see from the farce called The Fruitcake, it doesn't matter if there is such a type of book as "comdy/sex romp/murder mystery/sci-fi/courtroom drama." The reader adjusts his notion of genre as he reads, but there are some adjustments he will not make. Most readers want to be able to guess immediately what the genre is—from the cover and the jacket blurb if possible. If you fool them too much, they will abandon your novel. You lose. The Fruitcake, sadly, would be called a "zany" novel, and would have a very limited audience.

Some genres succeed in the marketplace better than others, since readers know by past experience, say, that they prefer murder mysteries to surreal fantasies. Simple as that. Easily identifiable types of fiction—genres—are easier to sell. Editors know what readers like. At least they like to tell themselves that they know. Few editors want to take a chance by breaking convention. Therefore, the conventions of genre become more and more rigid as the years go by, until they are so rigid that the writer is in straitjacket. When this happens, you have formula fiction, written under very strict guidelines. Romance novels have for the most part become formula fiction.

No matter what tradition you are writing in, literary, main stream, or one of the many other categories—science fiction, romance, mystery, gothic, fantasy, and so on—you will have to know the conventions, rules, and formulas of those types or you might just as well forget about being a published novelist.

How do you learn what the rules are? You go to the library and check out an armful of the type of book you'd like to write, and you read like a maniac. Sorry, but there are no shortcuts. If you don't read deeply in the type of fiction you want to write, you are doomed to failure. You must be steeped in the traditions, conventions, and pigeonholes—the genres.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.