Common elements of literary fiction

If you’re trying to write fiction that lasts and tell the readers their stories, consider some of the elements mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell believed common to stories found all over the world: fear of death; need for love and intimacy; a will to survive; a need for spirituality and belief in an afterlife, among others. These are some of the common elements of our shared humanity, what’s universal. When novelists and short story writers tap into the universal by creating characters whose emotions and struggles echo the reader’s, they’ve written the reader’s story. This separates literary fiction from genre. Literary fiction writers tap into what’s universal.

Genre writers might capture a universal need, love, for example. Romance novelists write about love. But the emphasis is on plot, what happens, not on the why, and it’s not the what in fiction that lasts, it’s the why. A reader’s needs and emotions at a particular time in life live on in memory, entertainment lives on for three hours, or twenty-four, or maybe weeks. Which is not to say good fiction shouldn’t entertain. Do not bore. The study of craft and the practice of it, writing, writing, writing, can get you to a place where you write an engrossing story, well-told. Practice the craft. Apply rule number one. Write.

The old Café Noir in Monterey, California was also a great place to write. Musty couches and chairs upstairs, the same aging men sitting at the table next to the door, old arguments resumed, shouting and hurling the Italian language at each other while drinking cappuccino every morning. Nothing lasts. A new name now, all sleek tables and cold, stainless steel chairs. I’ve long since moved on. Back to the problem. How does a writer tap into the universal? By reading as many works of fiction where you recognized your story and figuring out how the author did that. Look at Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Pi fears death, needs to affirm life, is a spiritual boy, and he loves Richard Parker, the tiger, all told in an engrossing story. In The English Patient three people seek love and intimacy to recover from loss.

Write what you love. How to do that? Break Rule No. 1. Get up from the chair and think about why certain novels or stories influenced you, why you remember them. Figure out how the author tapped into what’s universal. Essential to writing is sometimes to do nothing. In those hours of the wandering mind creation arrives.

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