What Are the Origins of Great Fiction?

A note from the writer, Peter Damian Bellis: The name of this column is taken from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The entire passage is as follows: “My dear, dear girl [. . .] we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire—a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three-cents-worth of lime and iron—which we cannot get back.”

So what is this column about? It is about everything which we cannot get back, which is everything we are and were and hope to be. As a writer and publisher, that naturally covers a wide and varied terrain filled with random musings, philosophical rants, academic punditry, writerly insights, reflections on the nature of society, the nature of life, great books, children, family, love, sex, death, God—all of it. So to start things off, to prepare us for this journey into the unknown, especially given the literary purpose of The Collidescope, I thought I’d share with you some of my thoughts about what a writer should focus on if he or she hopes to write great literature. For those of you interested in reading only great literature, you could use these musings as a standard to be applied to whatever you read.

At its core, great writing, great fiction, is about relationships, memory, voices, and perception as they relate to some event. The act of writing simply explores these four aspects as they relate to the event. You get to define what this event is, but do not limit yourself by focusing on the plot as a series of events leading up to some great climax–this is like putting the cart before the horse. Plot and character are merely structural byproducts of the exploration of these four aspects as they relate to an event. The key here is to take the time to dive behind and beneath each aspect, let them flow over you and through you, record everything you see and hear and smell and taste and think. When you are finished you will have written a beautiful and original story. Your structure (which I define as the dynamic between your plot and characters) will arise naturally from the depth and focus of your exploration. (If you focus on plot and character as the central departure point of writing and not as byproducts of this kind of inner exploration, your writing will be formulaic, never original.) You will, of course, have to spend some time thinking about the appropriate points where you can enter your story (and you will probably have to do this when you begin each new chapter or major section), but as long as you are willing to commit to the kind of detachment from the world required for this kind of inner exploration, whatever you write will be profoundly interesting. And that should be your goal. Your responsibility as a writer is to be interesting, absolutely interesting, at every point in your story.

One more thing. I can hear some of you saying, yes, but I always plot out the events and the time sequences and I write character sketches, and blah, blah, blah…. I’ll wager that most of those writers who do extensive plotting rarely follow their complete outlines. Once they forget where they thought they were going they actually enter the place of deep inner exploration, this is why some writers say the story took over. Try something different. Try writing down your thoughts about the relationships, the different and differing memories, voices, and perceptions as they relate to the event you’re writing about. See what you come up with. If you understand the kind of deep inner exploration required to create great fiction, then the story will never really take over and you will be in complete control of how you express the story, which means you will use language with greater precision, greater beauty.

Just a few things to consider.

Peter Damian Bellis is the author of One Last Dance & Other Stories (1996), which was a 1997 Minnesota Book Award Finalist, and The Conjure Man (2010), which made the informal long list for The National Book Award in 2010. He is also the publisher of River Boat Books.

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One thought on “What Are the Origins of Great Fiction?

  1. I recall the writer John Irving being quoted much to the opposite regarding plot, and I had an immediate adverse reaction, not necessarily because I disagreed, but because the way it was put was very much as if there was Irving’s way and no other, to which I always say fuck you, because, well, because fuck you. And I mean all writers who presume to tell writers how to write. Advice is one thing. But published advice becomes as deadwooden as cliche (cart before horse): the author of this column, I am deadwoodsure would never use that cliche in his fiction. But in talking about fiction, in my belief, particularly in a way that presumes a hierarchy–me writer, you maybe jane writer–one loses much of what it is-.and in fact what the fuck is it?–that makes us writers. For that matter, if my coat-tugger keeps asking me for advice and I keep giving it to Herm, and Herm never writes anything worth a shit in anyone’s opinion, even Herm’s, even Herm’s dogs’, that does not necessarily make of Herm a lesser writer than any of us.

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