Advice, Craft, Fiction, Tips, Writing

Are you a generous writer?

I’ve been reading more of John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and I’d like to share some quotes on generous and ungenerous writers.

In the best fiction, plot is not a series of surprises but an increasingly moving series of recognitions, or moments of understanding.

Gardner calls this generous fiction. Here is his definition of the opposite.

Ungenerous fiction is first and foremost fiction in which the writer is unwilling to take the reader as an equal partner.

He uses an example of a story where a man (Frank) moves into the house next door to the house of his teen-age daughter (Wanda), but she does not know that he is her father. Then he gives the examples of how foolish and wise writers might differ in their storytelling.

What the foolish or inexperienced writer does with this idea is hide the father-daughter relationship from the reader as well as from the daughter until the last minute, at which point he jumps out and yells: “Surprise!”

The wise or more experienced writer gives the reader the information he needs to understand the story moment by moment, with the result that instead of asking, as he reads, “What’s going to happen to the characters next?” the reader asks, ”What will Frank do next? What would Wanda say if Frank were to … ” and so on. Involving himself in the story in this way, the reader feels true suspense, which is to say, true concern for the characters.

Gardener then goes on to say that by being a generous writer you allow your reader to worry about, understand, and care about your character. Your reader will become emotionally involved in the story.

Are you enabling your reader to live vicariously through your characters?

24 thoughts on “Are you a generous writer?”

  1. I keep reading the excerpt that you’ve given us, and I’m trying to digest it. At first I thought I disagreed because I enjoy a bit of surprise. On the other hand, reader involvement is paramount.

    However, if I consider it in more general terms, it makes more sense. Gardner was not merely talking about surprise endings, he was talking about “a series of surprises.” Eww. I don’t want to read that sort of plot. I want meat.

    So . . . even though I haven’t read the book (I’m checking the library), I’m hoping that he is telling us to keep the reader involved – without giving him so much that he won’t need to finish the book.


    1. Sorry, I don’t have the book now to look. I know he said a lot more about this and one point he made was about viewpoint. If you wrote it from the father’s pov without revealing their relationship that would be a cheat because, of course, the father would be well aware of this. And if you wrote it from the daughter’s pov, with her being unaware of the relationship, there would be no suspense, no emotional involvement from the reader wondering how the situation would be resolved.


  2. I love this discussion about generous vs. non-generous. I think Judy brings up a great point with flash fiction. To add to that part of the discussion, in flash fiction there simply isn’t time to get to know the characters in an emotional way. But, with a novel, I think we (the writer) do want the readers to become more attached, slip into the mind of one or other of the characters. That seems to happen with slow reveals more often than a surprise at the end.

    Talking about surprise endings, Flannery O’Connor often shocks the readers at the end of her stories (or she always does me). Yet, she makes it clear who the villain is right away. Have you read “A Good Man is Hard to Find?”


    1. I’m not sure you can’t get a little involved in flash. It’s harder to write that in, for sure. But certainly it should be there in a novel.

      Do you mean O’Connor’s story by that name or the whole collection by that name? I read that book a few years ago, and do remember the title story, but don’t recall a surprise at the end … well, not the very end. Maybe you didn’t mean that. I’ll have to look again.


      1. I mean the short story by that name. Though I haven’t read all of her works, the stories I have read all have the same style to them.

        In fact, in reading Cynthia Newberry Martin’s series on taking a story apart, I wonder about looking at Flannery O’Connor’s stories. That would require me to sign up for an MFA program, though, or at least find a good mentor. I couldn’t break down Flannery O’Connor alone.


  3. I have not read this book. Interesting viewpoint. I had to say though that I think the first scenario of us not knowing Frank is the father could work really well as well. Depends how it’s done. Caring about a character is first and foremost for me as a reader and a writer.


    1. I didn’t quote enough of Gardner’s book to do him justice, I’m afraid. The full scenario he presented did support his reasoning that it would be cheating the reader to not reveal the father-daughter relationship.


Do you have a comment?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.