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From Theory to Practice: The Elements of Fiction

Quickly, name the elements of fiction. You can probably tick them off on your fingers: character, setting, plot, theme, point of view. Writers immediately recognize these terms but some, I suspect, rarely think about how they function in a given work.

This month I thought I’d use my novella, Ninth-Month Midnight, to show them interacting to produce fiction.

Characters

The seed for Dolores Walsh, my protagonist, was planted by a reading of McEwan’s The Child in Time and McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Without a vivid memory of specifics, I suspect what lingered in my unconscious was the sense of the powerful emotions generated by the loss of a child. After I conceived my character—a mother who is driven to extremity by the death of her four-year-old and seeks her out in the afterlife—I re-read the novels and set to work focusing on the impact of the loss on Dolores.

Let’s see if I can recall my process: I jotted down notes to myself. I did a character interview, parts of which I integrated into Dolores’s sessions with her psychiatrist. I imagined a Natalie Wood look-alike and copied a photo of Natalie Wood into my word processing program to keep the character’s image vivid in my mind. I made her a chain smoker, I think because I once used cigarettes to cope with stress, and stress was threatening my character’s hold on reality.

Dolores’s lover, Salvador Esperanza, was put to use to reveal the character of the protagonist, to advance plot through an extra-marital love interest, and to beset Dolores with internal and external conflict.

Sal’s character was calculatedly designed to produce ambivalence. I heightened the mystery surrounding him with the book’s tag line: Is he a selfless savior or a self-seeking seducer? The reader must determine if he’s mostly antagonist creating conflict or villain creating havoc.

To reflect the ambiguity of his character and to individualize him, I gave Esperanza arresting bi-colored eyes and a machismo softened by tenderness toward his grief-stricken clients.

Setting

My attention to setting was primarily focused on the séances, which I charged with sensory description and with the reactions of participants to multiple stimuli. Some writers, I find, depend on visual and aural images, neglecting smell, taste, and texture, yet all the senses are important to capturing the essence of a place, time or event.

In the case of the séances, I paid attention to the spectral nature of the conjured dead, the foul odors of fiendish spirits, the contrasting voices of the psychic and the spirits he conjured, the aura of candlelight, the rushing wind of released spirits, the brush of a passing soul. Participants were at different times ecstatic, horrified, saddened, credulous, and skeptical.

Dream settings and reveries I suffused with Dolores’s memories of her child, with the soft touch and sweet scent of baby flesh, the horror of blackened eyes, and the cries of pain.

Plot

Structuring plot became a process of trial and error. The first draft of Ninth-Month Midnight was a straightforward chronological narrative that began with the discovery of cancer in the protagonist’s child and chronicled its devastating effects over a year.

Many drafts later, I decided Ninth-Month Midnight would be the story of the mother’s arc from suicidal depression to acceptance with a twist of fate. I needed a hook to get the plot rolling, so I opened the book with the protagonist’s explosive refusal to leave the gravesite of her four-year-old daughter.

My ultimate goal was to shape a book that would hold the reader’s interest from start to finish, and I strove to capture that interest in a number of ways. For one, I included powerful scenes that would spark excitement. For example, when the protagonist’s husband confronts her in the psychic’s apartment, emotional fireworks explode.

Other strategies: I withheld information, like details regarding Dolores’s past, till key moments when it would have the most impact, and I ended the novella with a surprise I won’t give away.

Theme

I didn’t start my book with a theme in mind, but it does seem I’m drawn to end-of-life issues; they appear in my short stories as well. With regard to Ninth-Month Midnight, I discovered the theme early in the process of writing the first draft.

The novella’s epigraph is a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which gives voice to the idea that life reasserts itself in constant replenishment, like the tides of the primordial ocean.

Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that in Ninth-Month Midnight this theme is expressed in the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the existential pain that results when death intervenes to test that bond.

Point of View

I played with using Dolores, my protagonist, as a first-person narrator for a draft or two, but decided the voice sounded too whiny. Although Dolores is flawed, this voice turned her into a less sympathetic character than I wanted her to be.

Again after trial and error, I settled on a limited third-person POV. Although the limited third-person is technically as constricting as first-person since everything is filtered through a single consciousness, in effect it allows a wee bit more of an objective sensibility.

In Ninth-Month Midnight, the third-person narrator, which often seems to inhabit Dolores’s mind, nevertheless gave me the distance I needed for the thematic final paragraph:

Awake at dawn, she gazes through the window, where a pink glimmering suffuses the sky over Long Island Sound, where the rolling billows of the incoming tide glow with the blush of the April sun, its light-struck rays emerging out of the shadows.

To sum up, the elements of fictions are the bricks we layer to construct a narrative. The more adept and creative we are at arranging the bricks, the more beautiful our constructions and the higher they soar.