A Masterclass in Writing Fiction pt. 1 – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 12

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

Today we are honored to have a presentation from Mark Farrington, an assistant director and professor at Johns Hopkins University. He’s going to speak with us about ways to get started writing fiction. We begin by exploring two quotes:


A story is not made like a bookcase, he says. You don’t assemble the materials, draw up a plan, and then follow the plan to put it all together. We have stories inside ourselves already. That doesn’t mean you can’t teach fiction writing; it’s our duty to help students master the skills and techniques to bring their stories out and tell them in the most effective way. I’m reminded of George Hillocks who wrote that we’re always planning and always prewriting and always engaged in some form of inquiry.

A successful piece of fiction has to do two things. It must demonstrate craft, skill, thought, judgment, and control. It also must produce surprise and mystery and tension and spontaneity. Mark divides the writing process into two sides: discovery and communication. We discover the affective and natural content within us and then work rhetorically to shape it into an effective mode of communication. Children, Mark says, have the discovery side down. Say “birds!” to them and they’re off writing. Adults, on the other hand, are wrapped up in the control side. If you say “birds!” to them you’ll hear “What kind? How many? What’s the point?”

Writing Prompt: He guides us through a visualization exercise involving creating a room and a person in our mind. Someone in our mind that might remind of us our Uncle Fred is not our Uncle Fred. It is ours. We own it. He tells us that fiction writers are thieves. We write. 

I see an angular, modernist room. The type you would find in a Frank Lloyd Wright home. It has white walls, luxurious white carpet, and built-in book cases stuffed with books old and new on every possible topic. The book shelves surround the room on all sides. Large fluffy couches line the perimeter of the room. In the back is a giant desk littered with papers, dog-eared books, and various colorful trinkets. Inside the room with me is a man who resembles Michel Foucault. Tall, bald, well-dressed (but not pretentious), and with round spectacles. He is friendly and erudite, eager to talk with me about what I’m thinking and reading and writing. He never tires of conversing with me. He is always positive and interested in my intellectual pursuits. 

We share out about how it felt to do this. Personally it was quite enjoyable. I tried to let the details come into focus naturally without forcing it.

If you don’t want to use this visualization with students, have them study photographs and begin to tell the story of that person. Start with the discovery and then shape and communicate it. Take what you have and make it your own.

Mark’s Rules for Fiction:
1. Fiction is character under pressure. It becomes interesting when characters are pushed outside of their comfort zone. You find out how someone really is by how they act and respond to pressing situations. There are two kinds of pressure: internal and external. Characters face external pressures tend to be not necessarily super dramatic. Internal pressure often comes from some sort of desire, he says. The best fiction has both.

I’m struck by the fact that we haven’t spoken about plot diagramming, human vs. human conflict types, exposition, etc.

2. The lifeblood of fiction is tension. What causes worry creates tension. For people who care about you see you worrying, they feel tension. The same happens in fiction. When we care about a character, we are invested in their tension. This means figuring out what the character is worried about, not figuring out how to put as many crazy things into a situation as possible. We have narrative tension (what’s gonna happen?) and textual tension (when the reader is questioning the text – what’s true? what’s metaphorical?),

Mark says to put tension on every page. One big tension is not enough. If the only question is whether or not Romeo and Juliet will get together then we might as well skip to Act V. We need big worries and little worries. Little tension that get in the way of dealing with big tension.

3. Almost all stories eventually move into a notion of “one day.”

4. Stories move toward a moment of illumination. Mark says thinking that a story must involve character transformation isn’t quite right. He says that instead either the character, the reader, or both must have a moment of new understanding. Seeing something different.

5. If 10% of a story is the intro, and 20% is the ending, what happens in the middle 70%? This is when to make the story believable, to show relationships and present character, to increase tension, and to build in themes (if necessary). Make the story feel believable for what it is. Moby Dick, he says, is about a guy with a crazy boss. If you’re going to make it work at a story level then you have to sell the guy with the crazy boss. You have to build it in consciously.

6.”What happens” in a story is less important than what it means to the characters it happens to. This is one of the most important things to realize, Mark says. I think immediately of all the student writing that deals with crazy plot events but with anemic character relationships. What is it like to be that person in that situation?

7. Writing fiction requires the writer to move back and forth between the conscious, critical mind and the subconscious, intuitive mind. Different genres require different percentages of time spent in each phase.

Next up we check out some first lines.


What observations can we make about these? What commonalities do we see? They imply future action. They leave you with a sense of space or character, but they don’t tell the whole thing. You’re intrigued, but not confused. Mark says the sentences tell us forward (what’s going to happen next?) and backwards (how did we get here?) at the same time. They raise questions. They also have a strong sense of voice, often with a key word or phrase embedded in the sentence that makes you want more.

Feel the difference between “There are cavemen in the hedges again” and “There are cavemen in the hedges.” Or “In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits” vs. “In walks these three girls in bathing suits.”

Prompt: Write a first sentence to a story. You can only write the first sentence.

Okay. Here we go. 
-I saw him coming through the front door. Only this time he didn’t see me.
-Coffee trickled across the pavement towards the body.
-This time, their secrets wouldn’t be enough.”
-The combination of tears and gasoline proved to be too much.

We share out. These are amazing! Mark suggests we put our first sentences in a Google Doc and pick one (that’s not ours) to continue. Amazing!

Continued in Pt. 2



  1. Pingback: A Masterclass in Writing Fiction pt. 2 – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 12 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
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  3. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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