Eleven Modes Comprise All Written Fiction
Many years ago, I wrote an article that became the basis of my first nonfiction book. The information is every bit as relevant today as it was then, and I'm happy to share it with you.
Best wishes and happy reading!
FICTION-WRITING MODES: The Tools of a Novelist
By Mike Klaassen
Years ago, when I first began writing fiction, I was bewildered by the jargon and concepts that describe novels and the process of creating them. Let’s face it, there’s lots of information out there, and much of it is conflicting. Year by year, book by book, I’ve been sorting out the terms, structure, and process needed to turn an idea into a novel. It’s an ongoing process, but I take heart in a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” That may be true, but each of us can improve by learning when, where, and how to utilize the basic tools of our craft.
Recently I had what was, for me, a breakthrough in understanding how fiction writing works. I suspect we all have “ah-hah!” moments in our lives when something is revealed to us and sheds new light on how we look at things. An “ah-hah” moment for me was many years ago when I was reading The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall.
One of the keys to successful fiction, according to Marshall, is to know what you’re doing and why at all times. He noticed that many beginning novelists don’t seem completely conscious of what they are writing. As a result, they misuse what he describes as fiction-writing modes—the types of writing of which all fiction is made.
Marshall listed five fiction-writing modes: action, summary, dialogue, feelings/thoughts, and background, each with its own set of conventions regarding how, when, and where it should be used. Over the years since I first read Marshall’s explanation of fiction-writing modes, I’ve incorporated them into my writing and my thinking.
Another “ah-hah!” moment for me occurred in reading Jessica Page Morrell’s Between the Lines: Mastering the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. She lists six delivery modes: action, exposition, description, dialogue, summary, and transition.
To the credit of both Marshall and Morrell, they have each recognized the need to identify and describe the various modes novelists utilize in the process of creating fiction. But their disparate lists raise several questions:
- Which is the most appropriate label for the concept: writing modes, fiction-writing modes, delivery modes, or something else?
- Are all of the terms appropriate for inclusion in a list of modes?
- Have all of the appropriate candidates for modes been included in the list?
Let’s take the question of a label first. The term delivery modes has some merit, but in my mind it creates an image of big vans driven by guys in brown shorts. So, let’s try another one. When I did a Google search using the key words writing modes, I was reminded that the term is already being used to describe four broad types of writing: descriptive, expository, narrative, and persuasive. I vaguely recall these terms from my school days, so in deference to English teachers and their students, maybe we ought to leave writing modes to the classroom.
When I looked at the Googled writing modes a little closer, I saw that narrative writing refers to storytelling. Ah-ha! Maybe we should label the modes as narrative modes or narrative-writing modes. Both have appeal, but the word narrative bothers me somewhat because it is one of many English words that mean different things to different people, especially writers. Maybe Evan Marshall has the right label, after all, with fiction-writing modes. Fiction writing is consistent with the concept of narrative writing but has little room for misunderstanding. Novel-writing modes might work, but that seems to exclude short stories, and the modes certainly transcend both forms of fiction. Until someone comes up with a better label, I’ll use fiction-writing modes.
Now, let’s look at the second and third questions. Are all of the modes listed by Marshall and Morrell appropriate to include on the list? Could there be even more? To answer that question, I combined both of their lists and then brainstormed for more. That resulted in the following list of mode candidates: action, summary, dialogue, feelings/thoughts, background, exposition, description, transition, recollection, flashbacks, narrative, introspection, sensation, emotion, scene, sequel, stimulus, and response.
I eliminated scene & sequel and stimulus & response, since I consider them to be structural components of plot:
- Macro-structure: beginning. middle, and end
- Midlevel-structure: scene and sequel
- Micro-structure: stimulus and response
I deleted flashbacks from the mode list because I consider a flashback to be a scene within a sequel or, less appropriately, within another scene.
Background didn’t make my list either, since it’s essentially the backstory of a plot, and I view plot as having three temporal dimensions:
- Backstory: what happened before the beginning words of the written story
- Current story: what happens in the “now” of the story
- Future story: that part of the story that might come after “The End”
Backstory, current story, and future story can each be revealed in numerous ways: dialogue, exposition, narration, recollection, and flashbacks. That said, I’ve eliminated background from my personal list of fiction-writing modes.
Marshall’s concept of thinking/feeling as a mode makes sense, but the term seems cumbersome. In its place I inserted introspection, recollection, emotion, and sensation.
Again, the term narration troubled me. Not only is it one of the four general writing modes, in a broad sense it also seems to encompass everything a fiction-writer produces. On the other hand, in a more narrow sense, narration is a specific type of writing where the narrator obtrusively communicates to the reader. With this more narrow application in mind, I’ve included narration as a fiction-writing mode.
Likewise, the term description in its broadest sense could be taken to include all fiction. What is dialogue but a description of conversation? Or action but a description of what is currently happening? But some writing is clearly focused on describing something specific and isn’t easily categorized in another mode.
I also noticed that all the remaining items on my list of writing-mode candidates ended, or could end, with the suffix -tion, with the exception of dialogue. But the term dialogue could be taken to exclude monologue, so I changed it to conversation.
After combining the Marshall and Morrell lists, brainstorming for more candidates, winnowing the list, and then converting them to words ending in –tion, I arrived at the following list of fiction-writing modes: description, action, narration, conversation, exposition, summarization, introspection, sensation, transition, emotion, and recollection.
(Arranged in order of the anagram D-A-N-C-E S-I-S-T-E-R):
- Description is the mode by which people, places, things, or concepts are described.
- Action is the mode of describing things happening, in detail, as they happen.
- Narration is the mode by which the narrator addresses the reader.
- Conversation is the mode of presenting characters talking.
- Exposition is the mode of conveying information.
- Summarization is the mode of restating or recapitulating actions or events.
- Introspection is the mode of conveying a character’s thinking.
- Sensation is the mode of presenting the five senses, or maybe even six.
- Transition is the mode of moving from one place, time, or character to another.
- Emotion is the mode of sharing how a character feels.
- Recollection is the mode of describing a character recalling something.
The five basic elements of fiction are character, plot, setting, theme, and style. Style is a composite of the myriad of choices an author makes, consciously or subconsciously, in the process of writing a story. Choices of when, where, and how to utilize the fiction-writing modes are a significant component of a writer’s style.
A master carpenter has many types of tools and the expertise to use them. If Hemmingway is correct, fiction writers may never become masters of their craft. But we can all improve by honing our skills with such concepts as fiction-writing modes.
Copyright 2007 and 2020
Michael John Klaassen
I continued to develop the concepts described in the article above and eventually wrote Fiction-Writing Modes: Eleven Essential Tools for Bringing Your Story to Life, which is available wherever new books are sold. You can check it out at this link: Amazon.com
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