Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

Ursula K. Le Guinby Ursula K. Le Guin

Questions With Answers: Session 2, Round 1

  1. Alex: You’ve spoken about rhythm in prose, including some rhythmic analysis of your favourite work. When you review and edit your work, how do you tend to check the rhythm? Is it a case of listening to it read aloud, or do you go as far as to analyse it in a foot/verse kinda way?

UKL: We’re talking about prose here, not poetry, so metric feet and verses won’t enter into it. Prose rhythms are regular, if at all, only on a very much larger, longer scale. And they’re hard to talk about, since we have no vocabulary for them.

Whether I’m composing or re-writing, I don’t think consciously about the rhythmic factors in a story. I’m more like the guy in the helicopter monitoring traffic on I-5, looking out for problems in the flow, irregularities, slowdowns, stoppages.

Of course I hear it rather than see it — so yes, reading it out loud is absolutely one of the best ways to get into the swing of your narration. Reading aloud, you’re aware of a word or a phrase that tangles up the pace and needs to be moved or removed, and places where the story crawls along or rushes too fast. Wherever you hesitate in your reading aloud may reveal a fault in the rhythm, the forward flow of the words. If you can read it aloud easily and steadily, that probably means the rhythmic flow is strong, and your readers will get in the swing of it too.

2. Isaac: As an essayist wading into the waters of short fiction, I am interested in exploring endings and in crafting ones that resonate on both structural and aesthetic levels. One of my writer friends told me that she prefer endings that come off a bit slant and detached, as it serves the function of taking the edge off the climax; the sharp brake returns the reader to the real world and leaves them thinking.

My question is: What do you think are the keys to crafting an effective ending that serves the story?

UKL: I don’t think there are any general keys to finding the end of a story.

To think analytically about a story you’re planning or writing, to think about it in pieces — the opening, the climax, the ending — strikes me as a mode of thought better suited to criticism than to composition. The question “What will make an effective ending?” sounds as if the story were a mechanical object that might be fitted with one of many parts, like a Lego toy. I recommend thinking of a story as an organic whole, in which the beginning will imply the end and the end will fulfill the beginning.

As a reader, as a critic, one may favor slant endings, or happy endings, or detached endings, whatever — that’s fine, so long as the preference doesn’t become a requirement.

But as a writer, the person making up the story, it seems to me the job is to find where where this story must go. Only that will provide its right and proper ending.

The author may plan this ending, and the way to get to it, from the first conception of the story; or may not know what the end is going to be until it is achieved. That depends on the author — and on the story.

An angel asked God, “Lord, how did you ever plan anything as gorgeous as a peacock’s tail? Did you think a lot about tails, the kind of tails you like best and find most effective?” And God said, “Well, I tried that, but the peacock I made that way looked really terrible. So I said, Oh, well, all right, leave it to evolution. Let the peacock figure out what kind of tail it needs! And that fool bird did a great job of it, didn’t he?”

3. Anthony: How do you approach change through conflict throughout your story and make it an meaningful experience? Are there any questions you commonly ask before starting this process?

UKL: Anthony, did you figure out for yourself that a writer has to deal with “change through conflict,” or did you read somewhere that conflict is essential to story-telling?

In my book Steering the Craft (p. 123) I wrote,

Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

To consider conflict the most important or the only agent of change a writer needs to consider in plotting or writing a story is a gross oversimplification of a complex matter — and a very narrow view of what’s important in human life.

I don’t see any need to worry about the element of conflict when I’m thinking out or writing a story (or reading one). Conflict arises in the story when its time comes. It serves its purpose in the story as needed. I don’t have to think about it. It may motivate the plot or events, it may not. Its mere presence will not strengthen the story, its mere absence will not weaken it.

“Story is conflict/conflict is story” has been an article of faith for quite a while, but thoughtful teachers and critics are pointing out its tremendous limitations. However, it’s still the mantra of the lazy-minded — see Lauren’s report of what a literary agent said (Question 5). When teachers, editors, agents demand “Where’s the conflict?” all too often what they mean is that the story simply didn’t interest them or rouse their emotions, but they don’t want to bother to find out why.

I keep thinking of a short Chekhov story (I read it years ago and haven’t yet located the title) about a little boy taken far from his home village, left with people who mistreat and abuse him. The child writes his grandfather a plea to come rescue him. Most of the story is his letter and his thoughts as he writes it. He mails the letter, addressed: “To Grandfather. In the Village.”

Now, there’s cruelty in that story, and fear, and misery; there’s also love, hope, and trust in it, all to be heartbreakingly lost through the child’s ignorance. But “Where’s the conflict?”

Conflict between whom, over what?

The story’s events, its emotions, very simple, yet meaningful, can’t be reduced to any simple concept — certainly not one as crude as “conflict.”

4. Beth: What are some graceful ways to indicate the ethnicity of a character (or is it even necessary to do so)? Sometimes I use names to imply ethnicity, but it’s not a satisfying solution. After all, anyone can have any name, and this often doesn’t work for secondary worlds. I lean towards not describing my characters physically much at all, but I worry that if I don’t give some indication, readers will think everyone is white.

When writing characters from different groups/cultures/backgrounds than my own, I worry that I’ll get it wrong. But I want to populate my fictional worlds with a diverse cast. When I picture my characters, they aren’t all the same. Also, I think it’s important that speculative fiction includes stories about everyone. (How boring it is to read story after story with protagonists from the same group.) Any advice for writing and describing a diverse cast of characters?

UKL: This is a question I’d really like help with from writers who are not White or who identify with a subdominant ethnicity. Any advice or opinion from members of a dominant/majority race or ethnicity is subject to correction from the people their society marginalizes.

As a woman, I know that so long as society is mostly defined and controlled by men, male judgment on matters of gender equality must be subject to correction by women. So I know that the outgroup has a view of the situation that the ingroup simply can’t have. Even when the outgroup’s view is unfair and incomplete, a fair and complete view can’t be achieved without it.

Sorry for the long preamble! But I approach this question — a really big, important one — without confidence in my ability to answer it, and in hopes of help from others.

First, I think you are absolutely right, Beth: if you don’t give some indication, your readers will almost certainly think everybody in your story is White. White is the North American default setting.

And you’re right that names often can’t indicate ethnicity, and invented names for people on invented worlds can’t do it at all.

An obvious solution: Describe your characters, even if you don’t like to. Describe just enough of their appearance to give the noticing reader a clear clue. Often one physical detail will do it.

You don’t have to do the describing; a character can do it for you. “Fthur admired how the amethyst gleamed on Hano’s short, silvery fur.”

(Keep in mind that you need to mention a white skin just as much as you need to mention a brown, yellow, red, black, or furry one. If your world is as truly diverse as our world is, it will have vast areas where white skin is rare or non-existent.)

But when it comes to your question about “writing characters from different groups/cultures/backgrounds than my own,” we’re getting into quicksand. If the book is set on Earth, in real history or the present time or a time close to the present, a White author’s non-White characters can be perceived only through the distorting lens of a White supremacist society — no matter how well-meaning the author. None of us is so great and wise as to be free of all the prejudices of our culture and society. (And though the US has freed itself from the worst legalizations of prejudice, nobody looking at the current election can pretend it’s not still a profoundly racist society.) So “colonialism” is still with us. You have to remember that for a member of the dominant race to use the voice of a member of a dominated race may appear, to the dominated, just another means of domination.

My own solution has been to set my story on an invented world, thus getting far enough from the awful quicksand of human history and its endless injustice that, though I can’t be free of it, at least I can get into a different skin, and see alternatives to the way we do things….

5. Lauren: Almost thirty years ago, you wrote an essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” It changed my life. Before, I accepted the notion that a “successful” novel had to be based on suspense! tension! conflict! violence! You called all of that into question and gave us Always Coming Home as an example of what a “carrier bag” novel might look like. It was brilliant.

But today I read an interview with an established NYC literary agent who said, “The most important element in a work of fiction is not necessarily ‘craft,’ but ‘conflict.’” Arghhh! Sometimes I feel like I live on the wrong planet!

Admittedly, it is hard to write a story without some conflict happening somewhere. In fact, I’m working on a historical novel that includes a massacre. (I don’t want to go there but that’s where the story’s leading.) Although we may not know each individual who was brutally killed, their collective memory should be respected and honored, not exploited in the interest of marketability. My question is: How can I describe the genocide but avoid aggrandizing the violence? Can you think of examples where similar scenes are handled with care and craft?

UKL: Welcome to the wrong planet, Lauren!

It’s great to be asked to take “conflict” onto a different plane entirely, to consider how to handle it when it leads a story inescapably into major violence.

Here of course tastes and standards vary hugely. There’s a very large audience for massacres and holocausts — maybe a larger audience even than for one-at-a-time murders, popular as they are. Right from the start, sf has been wiping out whole worlds without a shudder, and electronic games have encouraged the avidity for mass slaughter. There seems to be a relationship between the number of the slaughtered and the actual power of the scene: a mutilated corpse or two may make us flinch, a thousand orcs in agony leave us unmoved. So, if the magnitude of a literary massacre dilutes its emotional effect, you have less to worry about.

But I think your real solution is simply your wish “to avoid aggrandizing the violence.”

The pornography of violence, the aggrandizement of brutality and cruelty and pain as an end in itself, has its audience — all pornography does. And mere human bloodymindedness apparently demands mindless and essentially meaningless scenes of mass killing, armies mechanically destroying each other, space wars, zombie hordes, etc.

But that isn’t where you’re going. You’re not writing a cash-cow plot serving up a massacre. You’re writing a novel that has to include a massacre, and your attitude toward doing so is the right one.

There are so many examples of powerful, intensely moving scenes of mass killing and death in novels that I don’t know what to suggest first. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, of course — particularly the awful retreat of the French Army, witnessed by their prisoner Pierre.

For the direct, accurate description of a horrible massacre and an almost equally horrible military defeat (both the responsibility of the heroic General Custer), written with unflinching humanity, see that underrated American classic, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man.

But I can’t help thinking of one of Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories, where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin see the Dutch ship that has for days been relentlessly pursuing them into the far South Atlantic take a great wave broadside and go down like a stone — five hundred men aboard her — a scene that could not be shorter, more silent, or more shocking.

Pity and terror are achieved more often through brevity, a few telling details, a great left unsaid, than through wallowing in a bloodbath. And I think pity and terror are what you’re after. Good hunting!

I invite questions about writing fiction from people who are working seriously at writing fiction.

And here’s how it works:


Send it via this form.

DO NOT send manuscripts or samples of your work.

Send me one question, of 200 words or less.

(Getting your question down to under 200 words may be part of the learning process. The more specific and exact it is, the better.)

Your question should concern only fiction — stories, novels, of any variety.

A question about the craft of writing fiction, the art of telling stories in prose.

A difficulty, a problem you have met, or keep meeting as you write. A question of technique. An uncertainty about how to write something you want to write. A puzzle: Is it bad if I do X? Do I really have to do Y? Can I get away with Z? My story-boat is stuck on a sandbar, how do I get it afloat again?

No autobiography, please. But it’s helpful to say how long you’ve been writing, and if you’ve published much.

Questions about how to publish, finding an agent, selling a book, self-publishing, marketing, etc etc, will be ignored. We won’t be talking here about how to sell a ship, but how to sail one.


If I have what I think is a useful answer for a question, I’ll post the question and my answer. I’ll keep the answer as brief as I can, but some topics will require or deserve discussion at some length.

If you think you can offer a better answer than mine, or offer a different approach, send it (as brief as you can make it!) and if I think it’s useful, I’ll post it.

If I think a question is a good one, but don’t have a useful answer, I’ll post it, inviting others to answer it. If you have what you think is a good answer, send it to me (as brief as you can make it!) and if I agree that it’s useful, I’ll post it.

And — this is new — if you have an idea about how I could add or do something useful here that I haven’t been doing, please let me know what it is.



Navigating the Ocean of Story (2) — 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for the wonderful answer to my question, Ursula ~
    Little Big Man is a perfect example that I’d forgotten about. (Yep, definitely an underrated American classic.) And I’ll check out Patrick O’Brian and War and Peace — that oughta keep me out of trouble for a while!

  2. I especially appreciated the topic of writing about an ethnicity different from your own (#4). Maybe some commenters could suggest books whose authors do this well?

  3. Thank you, Ursula. Both of these questions are pertinent and your answers give me license to breathe.

    A book I’ve found useful is Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It’s available in both paper and ebook. I’m working my way through it now.

    Hope the HTML comes through–the last upgrade made a wonderful app disappear!

  4. Beth, I’m really glad you asked the question about whether we should describe a character’s ethnicity and if so, how. It encouraged me to seek out a diverse group of writers to hear what they had to say. Obviously, the way we handle ethnicity in American fiction has far-reaching implications. As someone who had a “white kid” upbringing, I now see how unfair and clueless it is to write stories in which “white” is the default setting and understand how this strange practice came about.

    Here are some of the thought-provoking resources that talk about why we should describe every character’s ethnicity and how to do it in a sensitive way:

    Daniel José Older’s post “12 Fundamentals About Writing ‘the Other’ (and the Self)”
    Jan. 15, 2014, Buzzfeed Books

    David Mura’s essay “Notes on Questioning Whiteness as a Literary Practice”, April 23, 2015, Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literary and Fine Arts

    Toni Morrison’s book, playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, especially the first essay “black matters”

    (I hope the links work!)