Fiction: a fossil, a dream, or what?

So, I’ve not really kept up with my blogging, but I have been plodding away at my reading on the craft of writing. To date, I’ve read The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, On Writing by Stephen King, and I’m about halfway through The Art of Fiction by John Gardner.

While Strunk & White functions mainly as a guide to the precision of language and its appropriate usage – a worthy read for those who care about the beauty of the right word in the right place, and an important read for those who don’t – the other two books focus mainly on the larger task of writing fiction well. While I’ve come across a lot of things that would be worth posting about, I want to post today on two metaphors for fiction used in these books – fiction as a ‘fossil’ and fiction as a ‘dream.’

Stephen King frequently uses the metaphor of the ‘fossil’ to describe fiction in On Writing. He describes the process of writing your first draft as a sort of excavation, where you discover for yourself as a writer the story you are telling, in much the same way an archeologist discovers the fossil he is uncovering. For King, you begin with a premise – he uses the term, ‘situation’ – and from there you create characters which are placed in the situation and both you and they hurl through the story discovering what happens next as you go.

In the second draft, then, once you’ve discovered the ‘fossil’ in the first, you work on crafting the story and refining it so that things like symbols and themes and the like become clearer. In other words, you work without full knowledge of the story in the first draft, but with that knowledge, you revise and clarify in the second draft what you are about.

Gardner used the metaphor of the ‘dream’ to describe good fiction in The Art of Fiction. The author of conventional fiction (we won’t concern ourselves here with the unconventional forms he discusses), succeeds in his task if he creates a believable dream, into which the reader can step and stay a while as the events of the narrative play out. The dream works if all the aspects of the fictional world, from the characters and their choices to the unfolding plot and the scenes and the details used to create & sustain the dream all come together.

It is evident in some things Gardner has already said (in the half of the book I’ve read), that he both agrees and disagrees in some ways with what King argues. While King generally dismissed ‘plotting’ as something that negatively affects creativity and by extension, the interest of the story, Gardner seems to be saying so far that a careful plan and plotting are pretty important. The actual chapter on plotting comes last in the book, so I won’t know what precisely he says about it until I get there.

In another sense, Gardner seems to agree with King on the explorative nature of writing a novel. He says a number of things which suggest that there are discoveries made along the way which suprise even the writer. Perhaps then, their disagreement is not complete. King almost certainly operates with some real if vague ideas of where his story might be going, and even writers who work on plot more consciously before embarking on their tale, find their cast of characters sometimes up to surprising things. I know that was the case for me.

This is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up. While I’ve been a bit of a planner to this point in my short writing career, I see the value of both metaphors. I need to create a world that is a believable totality, a ‘dream’ into which my readers can step and stay. Whether this is envisioned and constructed completely the first time through the story or not, the dream needs to work. At the same time, creativity comes in many different forms and ways – and at different points in the process, any of which we are foolish to ignore. From the initial thought or premise which gets the writer going in the first place, to the strange and sometimes suprising things you end up having your characters do at the eleventh hour when you thought you’d figured it all out only to discover that you were wrong, there is an element of exploration and ‘fossil’ recovery going on too.

I promised to end, so I will, but with this encouragement – keep reading, you writers, both examples of your craft, and reflections upon it…

9 thoughts on “Fiction: a fossil, a dream, or what?

  • LB,

    I haven’t read either of the books your reviewing, so this is interesting stuff.

    I like the fossil analogy, but I think the process of uncovering a story can take place during the “plotting” phase and not only during the 1st draft.

    Plotting doesn’t have to be cold and calculating—you can get into your characters even at that stage and feel what they would do, even be surprised by them.

    I also like the dream idea … an author needs to pull the reader in and not let anything pop that bubble.


  • Those metaphors are very accurate, I would say. And yes, it would be every writer’s dream to have his book be a ‘dream’ for another person. Two series that I think could be characterized as a ‘dream’ are your The Binding of the Blade series, and Bryan Davis’ series Dragons in Our Midst/Oracles of Fire. I certainly envisioned myself as a character in the novels, watching the scenes play out.

  • Very good. I welcome any advice about writing–until it starts to contridict itself…which 98% of it does…
    I leave you with this quote:

    There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunitely, no one knows what they are.

  • Thank you. I have been wanting to write a novel ( a series of fantasy fiction books )for some time and now I feel more comfortable with, as King puts it, excavating the “fossil” of the story I have in my head and on the second draft, fleshing it out.

    Also, Mr. Graham, I want you to know that I loved your “Binding of the Blade” series. You have been an inspration to me. I hope to someday reach many people for the Kingdom while also giving them a wonderful story. Thank you for your example. Godbless. I cant wait foryou to write you next fantasy novel.

  • Very interesting topic. I have to agree with King in that a story is like a fossil, as you uncover more information and grow more detailed. I have found it especially true for my own story as it started off simple but has grown more complex and such over the past two years.

  • I agree with you, Rob, that plotting doesn’t have to be cold and calculating – that creativity can strike in that process as well as in any other.

    Also, Galadriel, you are right that if you ask a dozen people what the key to writing is, that you may well get a dozen different answers. However, while there may not be any completely infallible rules, there are general principles that are helpful more often than not…

  • Hi LB,
    Kinda off topic but i was just really curious if there was any update on your ‘bonus botb’ thing, cause thats something that i would really want to see if you got to do it 🙂

  • ok 🙂 thanks. i will be eagerly awaiting it

    i still have 9 days of school left :'(

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