Just tell a goddamn story

Another writing post from the indefatigable Caleb J. Ross… — PJ

Just Tell a Goddamn Story

It’s been my experience that new and veteran writers alike would often do well to circumnavigate classically learned fiction processes entirely and instead focus on one universally important guideline: tell a goddamn story.

By graduation, any university-trained fiction writer will have hacked through years of jargon-infused, overwrought bramble en route the elusive Perfect Piece of Fiction, emerging from the academic experience with a portfolio a few inches fatter, but eluded still.* I’ve met graduates who were stunned, yes stunned, that their nautical themed prose poetry chapbook, despite its technical and linguistic superiority to the mass market paperback tomes filling Wal-Mart shelves, somehow evaded the throngs of avid readers and with them the six-figure advances thrust upon those “Pattersons and Evanobitches” and their knee-padded, open-throated agents. Yes, stunned.

Why the disconnect? Why, after years of studying and perfecting the mechanics of writing are would-be professional writers left to roam as hobbyists?

Two reasons: 1) a false belief that consumers need art, and 2) a false belief that the literary, and all that term implies, is meant to supplant plot.

Function first, then form. Never, for the professionally minded writer, the other way around.

Consumers don’t need art

Fiction writing students are encouraged the way any visual artist is encouraged, to create something of beauty, something with cerebral staying power. The problems is that while this mentality is great for holistic self-worth and liberation (re: liberal arts) from the hard sciences, in the all-important supply v. demand economy not many people care that you created something pretty. People can see pretty for free by looking out their windows.

What people do want is comfort, an escape from everyday life. I know what you’re thinking: “But Caleb, there are plenty of literary masterpieces that make fortunes for their authors.” First, there are fewer than you probably imagine. Second, those literary masterpieces may be technically and linguistically brilliant, but they are amazing stories as well. They sure as hell aren’t prose poems chapbooks.**

Function first, then form. Wall first, then paint. Story first, then the flourishes.

During the 2010 AWP conference in Denver, Colorado, author Tod Goldberg said something important. Very important. He revealed that he teaches writing in his classes as a trade. It’s his job (I’m paraphrasing) to ensure writing students are able to actually work as writers. What a concept, right? This concept once again came to my attention just a few weeks ago when Jan Friedman authored a blog post titled “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction” which explores the idea of story as a product, writing as a commodity. Be sure to check out the comments; to some readers, Jane’s words come across nothing less than sacrilege. ***

Calling a work literary should never be a way to mask your terrible story-telling

Most university level writing classes emphasize all else above plot—focusing on elements such as character development, empathy, metaphor, allegory, and on and on, which I will refer to as “academic elements” for the sake of simplicity—to the extent that a susceptible student might truly believe that round characters and a few footnotes (to help out all those future critics, of course) are all that a story needs. While I agree that academic elements are an extremely important component of a strong piece of literary fiction, the remaining portion—plot—cannot be forgotten.

Function first, then form.

The priority placed on academic elements may be the result of an assumed understanding and appreciation of plot. Perhaps the thought goes that since writing students have spent the first 18 years of their lives watching mainstream, plot-heavy television sitcoms and dramas that professors are basically playing catch-up, trying desperately to elevate an understanding of the academic elements. So, plot gets tossed aside in favor of what is assumed to be lacking (never mind for a moment that the best fiction professors will help students deconstruct those plot-heavy television sitcoms and dramas to help them better understand why they work).

I understand this assumption. I really do. It makes sense. Add to the assumed understanding of plot the fact that academic elements—developing a rounded character, for example—is generally more difficult than creating a plot, and you can see why university writing classes legitimize themselves by liberating students from their self-acquired storytelling knowledge. Anyone can tell you that a man is traveling through dangerous lands to rescue a princes (plot) but it’s much harder to give me a compelling reason why this particular man is traveling through these particular dangerous lands to rescue this particular princess (character development).

A commercially successful fiction writer has to fool readers into art. Feel free to elevate your language, to invert established tropes for the purpose of witty culturally commentary, to craft a page full of beautiful words, but please, don’t forget to tell a goddamn story.

*It is very important that I note how pivotal my university writing experience was. I was one of the lucky ones, instructed by a fantastic professor (Amy Sage Webb, author of the recently released story collection Save Your Own Life), who never overpromised the commercial validity of finely crafted fiction. She is a realist. But I’ve met plenty of writers who weren’t so lucky. This article is for them.

** Prose Poem is certainly a term invented by some writer to appease his own need for categorized validation; the term prose poetry surely isn’t one invented for readers.

*** I must say for the sake of full disclosure that I do not support myself and my family on my fiction writing alone. Every-once-in-a-while I make enough to pay my mortgage, but that’s a stretched every-once-in-a-while, for sure. Personally, I write for the story and the beauty of the language.


  1. I appreciate this, Caleb. I don’t understand why so many writers neglect plot. How hard is it? Outline a really cool series of events and develop your characters along the way. I think what happens a lot of times is that folks are just diving in and seeing where the story takes them. They discover everything along the way. Sometimes this causes the plot to suffer. And I don’t like that.

  2. I met Tod Golderg a couple months ago at a local writer’s event– he had the table next to mine, I was hawking my podcast, he was hawking his program at UCR. Really cool guy, funny, and very nice. I haven’t read his work, but I got the impression that he was really supportive of his students– and I think it’s a “lost art” (haha) to be realistic with graduate students about their futures. Too many people get graduate degrees and can’t find “work”. It’s likely better on all accounts to focus on how to make your writing make you money in grad school– if that turns students off, then at least they have an idea of what they will be up against if they try to monetize their art.

  3. “and their knee-padded, open-throated agents. Yes, stunned.”

    What a description. Awesome article. Character development is a pain to write, I wish it focused a little more on it.

    Good stuff!

  4. This piece comes at a good time for me, being one who—though not formally educated as such—first became enamored with writing for the language beautification but now sees it as you do. I choose most of my reads by which ones combine both, and strive to be much plottier in my own work. Description and characterization come easy; well-constructed plots are hard.

  5. I went to do an MA in Creative Writing at quite a prestigious university. I had just had my first novel cut from a mainstream publisher’s list and though that I might benefit enough to not have the next one cut. On the first morning the tutor looked at me and, dismissively throwing the first chapter of my new book down said, ‘Well, I suppose this is the sort of thing that becomes a best seller but you need to do better than that to get an MA.
    I never recovered. I spent the year feeling second class and trying for a more ‘literary’ style – everyone else in the group, sadly, was a literary writer. The writer the tutor adored had great descriptions of food and underwear in her story and a great germ of a plot but actually very little happened in the plot and there was very little story.

    It took me years to be able to start writing again in my own style.

  6. I usually find a plot eventually through character actions, and dialouge. I’m one of those, drive in, see where the story goes. If I have an outline, it’s mental, very short, very flexable. I don’t worry about it too much. I always seem to find a gem in there and dig it out, polish it up around the second draft and call it a plot.
    To many plot driven books are like a value meal, oh I know that one. That’s a number 3, with extra ciche, and super sized. Functional, yeah, predictable, always, and I usually regret reading it later. I don’t want to do that.
    I feel like I’m underestimating the reader a bit by serving them a story this way, and I don’t feel very good about the work. I know it works for bestsellers, but it has to work for me too.
    Good article.

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