Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques
Professor James Hynes is a published novelist who has taught creative writing as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, the University of Michigan, The University of Texas, Miami University, and Grinnell College. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Professor Hynes is the author of five works of fiction: Next, which received the 2011 Believer Book Award from the Believer magazine; Kings of Infinite Space, a Washington Post best book for 2004; The Lecturer's Tale and Publish and Perish, which were both New York Times Notable Books of the Year; and The Wild Colonial Boy, which received the Adult Literature Award from the Friends of American Writers and was a New York Times Notable Book for 1990. In addition to his work as a novelist, he has also written book reviews and literary essays, which have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Boston Review, Salon, and other publications.
Professor Hynes has received several literary grants and teaching fellowships, including a James Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa, a Teaching-Writing Fellowship from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and a Michigan Council for the Arts writer's grant. He lives in Austin, Texas, and his new novel, Sparrow, is being published in Britain, Canada, the United States, and Germany in 2023.
01: Starting the Writing Process
Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a writer like facing the blank page. Start your course in fiction writing with some strategies for beginnings. You'll examine several ways to ease into a story, including the "5W's" of journalism, outlines, and opening in medias res ("in the midst of things"). The good news, as you'll see, is that there are no hard and fast rules.
02: Building Fictional Worlds through Evocation
"Show, don't tell" is the mantra of many writing workshops. But what does this mean? Find out how to choose just the right detail to evoke a scene, develop a character, and advance your story. After arming yourself with several strategies for "showing," you'll consider when it's OK to "tell."
03: How Characters Are Different from People
Characters are illusions, and the illusion often hinges on how much access a writer gives us to a character's thoughts. Begin this unit on character with an examination of how writers choose which moments in a character's life to dramatize, and then consider how knowledge of a character's thoughts affects the story.
04: Fictional Characters, Imagined and Observed
Continue your study of character with a look at several approaches for building a character. Some writers draw from life, whereas others draw from the imagination. Some build characters "inside out," others from the "outside in." Some develop characters by psychology, others by circumstances. Professor Hynes shows you a range of options.
05: Call Me Ishmael-Introducing a Character
Now that you now have a wealth of strategies for developing character, how do you get your character into your story? In this lecture, you'll run through five different ways authors introduce characters. You'll also see two methods for building a story: the exploratory method and the "iceberg theory" of character creation.
06: Characters-Round and Flat, Major and Minor
Books come in all forms and sizes, and so do characters. Learn the hallmarks of different character types, like round vs. flat and major vs. minor. See what purpose each type of character serves, and discover the relationship between a character and his or her desires.
07: The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue
Shift your attention from building characters to figuring out what they should say. This lecture provides an overview of the nuts and bolts of dialogue, from the rules of punctuation to the way writers use dialogue tags to add clarity to a conversation. See how what a character says can create meaning and evoke mood....
08: Integrating Dialogue into a Narrative
Turn from the mechanics of dialogue to discover how it can be used to evoke character or advance the story. After surveying how dialect is a powerful tool, if used carefully, Professor Hynes shows you how writers smoothly weave exposition into dialogue, and he considers the significance of what is not said in an exchange.
09: And Then-Turning a Story into a Plot
Characters breathe life into your story, but without plot, even the most engaging character can fall flat. This lecture opens a six-lecture unit on plotting, a critical skill for any writer who wants to keep the reader turning pages. Professor Hynes begins the unit by breaking down story and plot into a few fundamental components.
10: Plotting with the Freytag Pyramid
Whether you're writing literary fiction or a potboiler, your story needs a structure. Freytag's Pyramid is the classic structure for moving a story from an initial situation through a series of conflicts to a resolution. Examine every stage of the pyramid with examples ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Middlemarch to Game of Thrones.
11: Adding Complexity to Plots
Now that you've learned the basic elements of storytelling, it's time to go beyond the fundamentals and explore several smaller-scale techniques that can make your plot more subtle and satisfying. Your study includes the elements of suspense, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and foreshadowing.
12: Structuring a Narrative without a Plot
Not all stories have a traditional plot that can be modeled along Freytag's Pyramid. Contemporary short fiction, for instance, is often relatively plotless. See what drives momentum in stories such as Chekhov's "The Kiss" and Joyce's "The Dead," and then turn to "plotless" novels such as Mrs. Dalloway.
13: In the Beginning-How to Start a Plot
Revisit beginnings. How do you get started with a story? In this lecture, Professor Hynes shifts from the techniques of plotting to offer several clear strategies for putting these techniques into action. He also provides invaluable advice about making choices on the page-and understanding the implications of those choices.
14: Happily Ever After-How to End a Plot
Starting a narrative may be daunting, but ending one can be just as tricky. After discussing some famous examples of bad endings, Professor Hynes gives you tips for creating believable, satisfying endings, whether this means finding an answer to the story's opening gambit, or tracing a narrative to its logical end.
15: Seeing through Other Eyes-Point of View
What happens in a story depends in large part on who tells it. The three-lecture unit on point of view begins with a quick tour of the major points of view, from the third-person omniscient to the subjective first person. You'll also see how point of view is linked to time. As it turns out, when a story is told matters just as much as who tells it.
16: I, Me, Mine-First-Person Point of View
First-person narration can be one of the most natural ways to tell a story-but there are several important guidelines to keep in mind. Professor Hynes helps you navigate the different types of first-person storytellers, including the double consciousness, the unreliable narrator, and the retrospective narrator.
17: He, She, It-Third-Person Point of View
While first-person narration is an effective way to tell a story, third-person narration offers a wonderful range and flexibility, and allows you to dive just as deeply into your characters' heads-if not more deeply-than the first-person perspective. Survey the spectrum of third-person voices, from the objective and external to the interior stream of consciousness.
18: Evoking Setting and Place in Fiction
Time and place are critical in most recent fiction, so today's writer must know how to evoke a setting. But, as with so many techniques in this course, setting exists along a continuum, from the richly detailed (as in Bleak House) to just a few sparse details (as in Pride and Prejudice). Find out when-and how much-to describe your story's setting.
19: Pacing in Scenes and Narratives
Every narrative has a tempo. Some stories are short, while others are long. Some move at breakneck speed, while others linger over every detail. Discover how to strike the right balance between length and time (the pacing), between length and detail (the density), and between scene and summary.
20: Building Scenes
A good scene serves two functions: it advances the larger narrative, and it's interesting in its own right. How do you build compelling scenes? How do you transition from one scene to the next? Learn the fine art of moving from point to point in your narrative so that your story remains smooth and compelling.
21: Should I Write in Drafts?
So far, this course has focused on the individual elements of good fiction. Now that you have a complete toolkit of writing techniques, how do you put it all together to create a whole story? Professor Hynes discusses the process of writing an entire draft, and offers some words of wisdom to help you maintain momentum.
22: Revision without Tears
Revision is a necessary step in most writing projects. Take a case-study approach to see what techniques authors use to revise their stories. To show you the ropes, Professor Hynes walks you through his own process. Although revision can be difficult, you'll come away from this lecture confident in your abilities to get your story where it needs to be.
23: Approaches to Researching Fiction
"Write what you know" is a common dictum, but what happens when you run up against the limits of your knowledge? What if you want to write a story about something other than your own life? What real-life details do you have an obligation to get right? Find out how fiction writers approach the unknown.
24: Making a Life as a Fiction Writer
You might have a mental image of the writer as a solitary genius toiling away in an ivory tower. But writers today must be adept at both the crafting of words and the business of publishing. To conclude this course, Professor Hynes surveys the publishing landscape today and gives advice for making the leap from hobbyist to professional.