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. This is interesting. I think of myself as a generous writer, I guess (but then who wants to brand themselves a fool).
    In the past, I had a writing professor tell me that reading in order to emotionally identify with the characters doesn’t allow the reader to fully appreciate and understand the story. He urged us to read objectively instead. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this professor (ok, so actually, I thought he was mad and that his bowties looked stupid), but I do think the debate about reading objectively versus reading and connecting emotionally with characters is an interesting one. What do you think?


    1. This certainly is an interesting thought, but not one I think I understand … unless your professor was speaking about how to read for analysis, not for enjoyment. And I think this is the very reason so many people are turned off by the classics “studied” in high school English classes.

      But speaking strictly as a reader, if it’s fiction and I feel no connection to at least one character, I’m not likely to finish the book. And my purpose as a writer of fiction is to make my imaginary world real to you so you can escape there for a while. You might be interested in this earlier post of mine:


  2. Those are definitely interesting observations. I’ve been making notes to myself about similar things as I read through the draft – what to reveal when, how to reveal things subtly (and, at times, not-so-subtly), how to do all this while making the reader invest emotionally…so this was a timely post for me! 🙂 So: thanks! The book sounds pretty good, perhaps I’ll have to pick it up.


  3. So… no surprise endings? I actually agree with that in a novel, but I like the occasional trick ending story or movie – especially in flash fiction (though I’ve never actually written one). I’m generous to a fault! 😉

    Still, I’ve heard that editors frown on trick endings, and I know my professors always did. So maybe it’s good advice after all.


    1. Judy, I thought about this too. I know a lot of flash fiction uses a surprise, not necessarily a trick, ending. And I thought about movies like the Sixth Sense. I can’t speak for Gardner, but maybe he wasn’t talking about genre fiction. Then again, in the Sixth Sense, for example, when you watched it a second time you picked up the clues that the mc was dead. So, did the screenplay violate the rules of generous writing? And even in the flash stories that use a surprise ending, does the surprise come because information was purposely withheld by the writer or because the reader assumed something in error?

      I also think this applies to staying true to the character and also to pov.


  4. I try to be generous, but I tend to leave out just enough information for readers to think they understand my stories, except they’re imagining something completely different than I’d intended.

    For example, in the rushed closing of a flash story (900 words), a forest ranger fires a gun into the air to distract a herd of elk. Unfortunately, all the critiquers saw the ranger as a member of the MC’s family who shoots one of the elks, and none of the critiquers seem particularly happy with their version. Big fail on my part.

    Another example: In a short sci-fi/action story entered as part of a challenge last year, the critiquers imagined relationships that didn’t exist and that, for the most part, didn’t matter for the story. Especially interesting was that everyone chose a different side character to root for.

    I really need to slow down and give more detail in my stories.


    1. Sometimes it’s the reader’s fault; for whatever reason, they make a wrong assumption and then build on it, but if several people got the wrong idea, you’re probably right that you didn’t give enough detail. I think there may be a fine line between giving just enough and giving too much.

      Once, someone whose critiquing I value said to me, “You are an artist who works in subtlety.” She meant this as a compliment, and yet I always wonder if I’m being too subtle. But that’s one of the values of a critique group, isn’t it? It’s a way to find out if readers are “getting it” or not.


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