In his excellent book, Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell suggests that "we are all continually in the process of learning to apprehend narrative structures, in their integrity and in their best possible wholeness
. The reader who wants to write as well has got to go beyond the intuitive grasp of form to the deliberate construction of form."
Form is, I think, the most difficult element of craft for any writer, especially the fiction writer, to understand and master. It can, and probably should, take a lifetime. That's certainly been the case for me. In all of my stories and books, both the published and unpublished ones, I strive to understand not only my subject but also how to give my narratives the most effective shape and focus. That has sometimes been a painfully long process, but in most cases it's been a source of aesthetic pleasure and an integral part of my apprenticeship and ongoing development as a writer. Helping my students figure out their subject matter and discover the traditions and forms that give their stories meaning has been and continues to be one of my most important goals as teacher. Form, in fact, is the element of craft that most shapes the design and organization of my creative writing courses—such as Sudden Fiction, Short Story Cycle, and Forms of Fiction. The primary thing I've learned is that there is no magic recipe, no special secret. There are, instead, many different ways to think about form. I'd like to briefly discuss five of those ways.
Length, of course, is the primary determinant of form in fiction, dictating practical issues about plotting, pacing, and characterization, as well as basic assumptions about what exactly a story is. For instance, if you're writing sudden fiction (short-shorts and flash fiction), you're dealing with methods of narrative compression and traditions that depend on brevity (e.g., jokes, parables, fables, among others). As a narrative lengthens, the demands, expectations, and pleasures change. When considering form in terms of length, we focus on the differences between narrative summary, half-scene, and scene. The shorter the narrative, the more reliant it will be on summary (on telling); the longer the narrative, the more reliant it will be on scene (showing). That old workshop cliché—"show don't tell"—is a relative truth, depending entirely upon the length and scope of the narrative.
Beyond length, what we often mean by form is shape, structure, and design. Plot, in other words, and the relationship between structure and meaning. We can, for instance, think of Homer's The Odyssey as having the shape of a journey. Its plot, however, is structured around the twelve different stops of that journey—a structure that James Joyce famously mimicked and deconstructed in his mock-epic, Ulysses. Those who conceive of form in terms of shape, structure, and design are essentially Aristotelians, concerned primarily with the artful and suspenseful presentation and arrangement (and at times subversion) of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.
We can also think about form in terms of genre. Unfortunately, there's not been much serious teaching of genre, at least not in most college and university workshop settings. Genre has a bad reputation, carrying with it the taint of commercialism. When asked by people, "What kind of writing do you do?" I usually answer, "Literary fiction," which is considered a genre category by publishers. When asked what that means, my stock response is: "Writing that doesn't make any money." Despite my flippancy, I do believe that genre is an important method of conceptualizing form in fiction. Genre is, in fact, the way most writers over the millennia have thought about form. Most of our best writers are actually great students and critics of genre—not just Sophocles, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Twain, but also Marquez, Doctorow, Proulx, Updike, Rushdie, Oates, Roth, McCarthy, DeLillo, Gordimer, and Lessing.
"Though the fact is not always obvious at a glance," John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, "the artist's primary unit of thought—his primary conscious or unconscious basis for selecting and organizing the details of his work—is genre." Although I'm intrigued by the many categories and subcategories of popular genres, I prefer the classical genre archetypes—romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire—which are still valuable in conveying to readers, through form, the meaning of a text. Romance, the genre of love and passion, for instance, emphasizes the beautiful and orderly, and presents an idealized vision of the world. Comedy, the genre of inclusivity and revelry, begins with characters in a state of opposition to one another and moves, through conflict, toward individual and communal harmony. Tragedy is the genre most concerned with irrevocable error and the process of death and disintegration—the end of things, the elegiac spirit. Satire is the genre of anger, of criticism and social correction, using ridicule and exaggeration to expose hypocrisy and injustice. Writers should explore the emotional purpose and social function of these archetypal genres and the way these forms allow us to communicate with our readers.
Technique is another essential way of thinking about form. There are hundreds of specific literary techniques, certainly too many for any one writer to contemplate, much less master—especially if technique is considered simply a grab-bag of tricks or tools for your toolbox. Instead, I find it more useful to think about literary technique in the context of larger aesthetic movements: traditional, modernist, and postmodernist. Traditional fictive techniques, for instance, focus on strategies for achieving unity of action in service of a high moral purpose. These strategies are often governed by assumptions about the moral value and authority of storytelling, beautiful symmetry, and complete rather than provisional resolution. Traditional writers essentially believe in the two ancient goals of literature: entertainment and instruction. Fiction is primarily a tool for exploring values, morality, and ethics.
In the first half of the twentieth century, modernist writers were less interested in moral instruction and more concerned with accurately depicting consciousness. They developed techniques of narration that subtly examined the unconscious life. Influenced by the breakthroughs of Freud and Einstein, among other intellectuals, the modernists also subverted traditional conceptions of authority, truth, and objectivity. Most of the formal strategies and techniques that evolved from the modernist movement concentrate on new ways of fracturing time and handling point of view. The postmodern movement that began in the second half of the twentieth century intensified the modernist impulse to deconstruct traditional forms of storytelling and examine not only consciousness but self-consciousness. If you're a postmodernist, then you are perhaps the most form-obsessed writer, because the motive behind postmodernism is to reveal storytelling as an artificial, self-referential process. To tear something apart means that you have to know how (and why) it was constructed in the first place. Postmodernist techniques aim to deconstruct and reshape traditional and modernist notions of storytelling, exposing the suspect processes of creation and the slippery nature of any kind of narrative truth.