Literary Theory (For Michael)

Michael suggested this topic, and when he did, he probably knew it was too broad to fit into a single post.  It’s something he’s been studying for years.  It’s something that the lit-fic crowd argues over.  From what I can tell, there’s not even great consensus on what literary theory even means.

Instead of wandering off into sophistry, I’ll talk about what this topic means to me: what does it take to tell a good story?

That’s something I can talk about.  The topic is still broad to the point of being unwieldy, but I think I can get into the nuts and bolts for a little while.


A good story should invoke the reader’s imagination.

Consider one of the first things you read when you first started reading.  A nursery rhyme.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

There’s not much to this story, but there is enough to evoke the imagination.  We have two characters.  We probably imagine them as children, but that’s most likely because there had been illustration accompanying the poem.  We know what these characters are doing, we have a little bit of setting (the hill) and we’ve thrust the characters into some kind of crisis.  Jack is definitely hurt, and Jill probably isn’t doing much better.

One of the great things about this story is that it uses verbs that you can imagine.  Jack went to fetch.  He fell, and Jill tumbled.  These are good verbs.  They paint an image.

Let’s take Jack and Jill and try giving them another scenario, with verbs that are less strong.

Jack liked Jill, in the valley or on the hill, and wanted to get her alone

If Jill liked Jack just as much back, do you think they’ll have sins to atone?

It’s a little wonky.  Give me a break.  I just made it up on the spot.

But I think it demonstrates what I was talking about.  It’s the same number of lines, but there are no verbs that drive the story.  Jack liked, Jack wanted, Jill liked, you think.  None of these verbs paint an image.  They don’t invoke the imagination.

The original Jack and Jill can stand on its own because it uses good verbs.  This addendum, on the other hand, doesn’t give the reader anything to work with.  There are still a couple of characters, but they’re not doing anything visible.  They are no longer in a setting.  Nothing has happened that the reader can imagine.


A good story should give the reader just what they need to see the story, and not a jot more.

Let’s consider Jack and Jill again.  We have enough in those two sentences that we get the story.  We could do with more, but we don’t need it.  We assume Jack is a boy and Jill is a girl, based on their names.  Depending on the tale we’re trying to tell, we could include more details.  We could completely change it up.

Let’s make it scandalous!

Jack, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, took hold of Jill’s hand, her dark skin contrasting with his.  He pulled her along the beaten path up the shallow hill, following the way that so many teenagers like them had gone before.  He looked over his shoulder, first at his lover, then beyond.  The path behind them remained empty.  They climbed alone.

That’s not too bad.  We have a different idea of what they look like.  They’re older, and the reason they’re climbing the hill is no longer as innocent as to fetch some water.

In this example, I still haven’t given that much in the way of details, but the details I provided are enough to get the point across.  I included the important details (their skin color, their age) and left the rest for the reader to imagine on their own.

The reader should always be allowed to imagine their own details.  If everything is spelled out for them, they are no longer engaged, and their enjoyment is diminished.

Here is an example of what not to do.

Jack Johnson, a 17 year old white American with a hint of Native American heritage expressed through his dark eyes and patchy facial hair, wore partially faded denim jeans, a black t-shirt, and steel-toed boots that came to him second-hand.  The black t-shirt once held a logo, but time and washing had faded the image to illegibility.  Standing just under six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, Jack towered over his companion, Jill Stevens.  Jill, an African American girl, wore…

I’m bored writing this.  None of these extraneous details are necessary for the story.  In a longer narrative, these details might be important, and maybe they should be included.  But they certainly shouldn’t be dumped on the reader as one huge info block.  For the story we’re trying to tell, that level of detail is too much and goes too far.


A good story invokes the reader’s emotions.

Let’s leave Jack and Jill alone for a moment, and head over to Les Miz.

I don’t cry often, but when I need to, I listen to Les Miz.  I get swept up in the story of the musical, and towards the end, one line is delivered that shatters all of my walls and makes me cry:

Come with me where chains will never bind you

That line is the culmination of a journey that has taken us across Jean Val Jean’s life.  It’s such a small description of heaven, and yet, it tears me up.  For Jean Val Jean, a place where he never needs to be worried about being chained again is heaven.  That speaks to his character.  It speaks to the simple beauty of heaven.  It hits me hard, every time.

It doesn’t take much to get a hold of the reader’s emotions.  In the Jean Val Jean example, I’m experiencing joy and relief and peace because that’s what the character is going through in that moment.

That’s the trick.  Give your readers characters that they can relate to, and when you character experiences an emotion, your reader will experience the same emotion.

I think that’s why I don’t like Grim-Dark.  My last attempt into that genre made me very upset.  I stopped liking any of the characters, and the emotions I was going through were just a wretched slog.  Other people like Grim-Dark.  More power to them.  A person may be able to go to town on a plate of ghost peppers, but I’m not going to consider that a meal.  I don’t consider Grim-Dark (at least what I’ve seen of it) to be good storytelling, either.

The ideas that invoke your reader’s emotions don’t have to be complicated.  A father’s love for his child.  The persistence of a grave injustice.  Lovers coming together, in spite of the odds.

If you want an example of a storyteller invoking a reader’s emotions through simple ideas, I highly recommend reading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.  You don’t have to read the others in the series.  Just read that first one.  It’s amazing.


A good story sits on top of good prose.

This is more of a guideline than a rule.  It’s also one of those areas that can be improved without a huge effort on the part of the writer.

Consider the following example:

Arthur was sitting in a bar.  He was looking at a postcard from his partner.  The bar was empty except for a few regulars and the smell of stale beer.

This is three examples of passive voice.  Honestly, it’s okay to fall into passive voice every once in a while.  If you have a whole page of this crap, though, you have some work to do.  And it’s easy work.

Here’s how I would revise this:

Arthur sat alone in a bar.  He looked from his postcard to his drink, barely touched.  Behind him, empty chairs and empty tables huddled beneath a broken ceiling fan, which did nothing to diminish the scent of stale beer or wasted dreams.

It’s still not my best work, but the sentences are stronger.  The verbs are doing work.

I think this example does a pretty good job of demonstrating a previous point as well, which is that it evokes emotions.  Without coming right out and stating it, we get the impression that Arthur is sad and alone.  That’s the idea that we wanted to get across.  Along with that, you get glimpses of the setting.  The atmosphere lends itself to the emotions I’m looking to convey.

I’m sure other writers might look at that example and tear it apart for different reasons.  Good prose can be a subjective game.  If you have strong characters, a good plot, and a solid setting, you can get by with weaker prose.  Just look at the latest books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.


There are other things I could talk about, such as strong characterization, cohesiveness of plot, consistency, clarity, and freshness, but I think these main points are enough.  There’s also the matter of “show, don’t tell,” but I think we’ve covered that indirectly.

Most of the writer’s journey is subjective.  What’s important to one may not be important to another.  And reader’s tastes are subjective, too.  And the end of the day, at the end of the story, if the reader didn’t like what you wrote, then it doesn’t matter what advice you take.

As writers, our job is to deliver the best story we can to our readers.  The advice I’ve offered here should help, but do whatever you need to in order to achieve that one objective.