If you don’t believe it…

In fiction, narrative passages can be the most challenging of all literary devices – those long paragraphs that say so much, but if done poorly, can seem endless. We trust them to pace the story, to hurry through events that need brief mention, to slow down a scene for a closer look, and to describe setting. They are a challenge because they require the writer’s full ability: strong writing, eye for detail, and fundamentally, comprehension of what needs to be said and how. And if you don’t buy what you’re writing, chances are, your reader won’t, either.

What’s the solution? Practice, which only time can give you; but along the way you may also find help from the shopworn adage, “Believe in yourself.” Gabriel García Márquez, the writer who introduced magical realism to Latin American literature, says that he was able to make anything believable once he learned to trust his narrator’s voice. It’s a good lesson: if you don’t feel like an authority as you write, you can’t convince your readers otherwise.  You’re the source of all force in your writing.

The first challenge for beginning writers is often technical – mastering sentence flow and creating a rhythm. If this is you, the best way to learn is by example. Pick up some stories by authors whose strength is their prose (e.g., Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor) and read a few paragraphs out loud. Pay attention to sentence length, comma placement… in short, boil the writing down to its bare bones to get a sense for its mechanics. Also find yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and read it cover to cover until you can write an efficient sentence in your sleep.

For intermediate writers and above, the challenge becomes subtle: your task is more mental than technical. You begin with a blank page and can go anywhere from there. But how do you invite the reader to come with you? As García Márquez says, the trick is to write with authority. In fiction, the reader wants to believe. He trusts you. Take your authority and run with it – have fun, throw out some great details, and give yourself permission to get carried away. You can pare the story down in its next draft. For now, it is enough to love what you’re writing.

The benefit of this exercise is that it gives your narrator confidence. Confident prose is the literary equivalent of a strong handshake; it fortifies you as well as your reader. With this in your bag, along with Strunk & White’s lessons, you will be on your way.

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