The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

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Category: Classic
Date Published: June 4, 1991
Number of Pages: 240
Print Price: $11.20
eBook Price: $9.99

Gardner’s book is highly recommended reading for all aspiring or novice writers.  Written by an excellent creative writing instructor and a fiction author in his own right, the book is an essay on what professional fiction writing is all about.  The beginner will discover what it takes to do the job well and whether this is really something he or she would like to do.  In what follows, I will touch briefly on some of Gardner’s main points, but his book deserves a thorough reading without substitution.

Essentially, good writing takes practice.  In writing, as in all other fields, that practice and work is motivated by enough taste to know when the thing is not done right yet (ix-xii).  Taste demands that the novice revise the “awkward, phony, or forced” (114); it makes the novice aware of “sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism” (115).  The successful writer has mastered the rules of fiction well enough to know when and why it is time to break them; every true piece of art has its own laws within itself (3).  The result should be “harmony or indivisibility of presentation and the thing presented” (124).  Requisite life experience is obtained by age four, and the writer can research whatever he has not experienced first-hand (14-15).   Practice under-girded by taste is the only special quality that separates good writing from bad writing.

The first question a writer must ask about any story and character is whether they are interesting (31) and enjoyable (41-42)?  For Gardner, fiction is about what we love, both in people and in the world (42).  It follows that characters must also have loves, aspirations and fears, so that they can be of interest (43).  “No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others” (65).

An author’s main priority is to convince the audience by way of detail that the story really took place, might have happened, or is entertaining to imagine (23).  Creating a “vivid and continuous fictional dream” is paramount for Gardner (97).  To achieve this end, an author must provide concrete details, and it’s best to avoid filtering these details through a character’s consciousness, allowing a more immediate experience for a reader (98).  Whenever the author makes fiction look really difficult or distracts the reader in some way, or whenever details are so sparse that even the probable appears dubious or lifeless, the author has failed (31-32).  Therefore, once the descriptive foundation is set, Gardner coaches the novice writer through techniques such as sentence variety, sentence focus, rhythm, (accidental and therefore distracting) rhyme, needless explanation, and thoughtless shifts in perspective (99-112).  He provides much advice and models throughout.  Most helpfully, Gardner provides an epilogue of creative writing exercises, in addition to those suggested within chapters, designed to give writers portable techniques for every writing project.

Plots are most viscerally and emotionally moving when they are first and foremost about concrete things rather than ideas, he advises.  An author may feel most like he knows where things are going when he plots from the abstract and writes a tightly contrived allegory, for example, but it is always a disappointment to the audience once it is found out; it feels contrived and loses its force, no matter how well-written it is otherwise (165-168).  To counteract this tendency, Gardner encourages writers to use causal profluence rather than logical or intellectual profluence (165).  No matter the author’s inspirational starting point, the writer’s task as he structures his plot is to set up the climax with enough justification that readers find it “meaningful and convincing” (169).  Ideally, that justification should be character and circumstances rather than intellectual assumptions which have been dramatized (165).

Theme emerges from within the great story and changes the way the story is told, the details reported, etc. (177).  The major images, rhythm, length, and so forth are all decisions that the writer is able to make after the theme is chosen (or emerges from the text), and these choices will be intuitive once the writer has gotten this far (179).  Of course, the author keeps thinking through the theme throughout the whole writing and revision process (177-178).

“If the plot is to be elegant […] the reader must know the full set of causes and (essentially) nothing else” from the exposition (186).  Generally, we are given an initial character and situation in the exposition, and then the situation becomes unstable in such a way that the character “feels compelled to act, effecting some change, and he must be shown to be a character of capable action” (186).  From there, the writer is servant, not master of his story, and details that emerge practically demand to be reused throughout the story (192), especially in the novel.  “Leave nothing—not the slightest detail—unexamined; and when you discover implications in some image or event, inch those implications toward the surface” (194) by repetition, metaphor, or some other means of placing the detail into the symbolic subliminal understanding of the reader (194).  The final result must be a balanced approach between the overly obvious, preachy narrative and the too subtle, whispered theme that never seems to surface (194).

While Gardner does not address a specifically Catholic novice writer, he tells some deeper truths about the kind of fiction that could be specifically Catholic.  For example, he believes that fiction tells a “moral” truth about human existence (129).  “We are not profoundly moved by Homer, Shakespeare, or Melville because we would like to believe the metaphysical assumptions their fictions embody—an orderly universe that imposes moral responsibility—but because we do believe those assumptions” (184-185).  A Catholic work of fiction can embody a more specific meta-physic  than this, and a Catholic reader will be more profoundly moved by virtue of that brave work.  This is an encouraging thought.  However, Gardner warns writers to be aware that one’s study of the truth, like a sociological experiment, is a sort of intrusion on reality and truth which has effects upon the results of the experiment (130).  In other words, the way in which a story is told affects the outcome or truth which is told, so writers have a grave duty to tell stories responsibly.  In light of his philosophical considerations, unexpected in addition to his excellent technical advice, Gardner’s book becomes an indispensable resource for specifically Catholic novice writers, however unintentionally.

ISBN-13: 978-0679734031
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches

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Juliana Weber works in religious education for a parish in the Archdiocese of Washington. She holds degrees in theology and psychology, but she’s also an avid musician and aspiring writer. For her book reviews on pastoral topics, visit

1 Comment

Jan 18, 2015 Carolyn Astfalk

I know I'm "supposed to" like this book, but I loathed it. I found the author's pomposity annoying. The second section contained some useful tips, but nothing I couldn't find in another book without having to slog through this misery.

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