John Dufresne is the author of the new book Storyville!: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction. His many other books include the novel Louisiana Power & Light and the writing guide The Lie That Tells a Truth. He teaches in Florida International University's MFA program.
Q: You've written a variety of writing guides--how did you come up with the idea for Storyville!?
A: Because I teach fiction writing, I am always thinking about it—how does it work? how might it stumble?
Then I was asked to do a TED Talk, and I thought I’ll tell the world how to write a story in 17 minutes. My first draft went 35 minutes. They said, 17. And I had to memorize it, so 17 was good. But I had all these other ideas, so I just kept going.
Q: You begin the book by stating, "You need at least two skills to be a fiction writer. You have to be able to write and you have to be able to tell a story. Telling a story is the harder skill to master." Why do you think that's the case?
A: You must have a love of words and you must the music they make when they gather in sentences. Words are all we have, after all.
But, no matter how luminous your prose or how fascinating your characters, if you have no plot—no narrative shape—if the characters have nothing meaningful to accomplish, the reader will put down your story.
Plot is the gravity that holds the world of your story together. It’s your weapon of suspense. Wield it wisely, and the reader will want to know what happens next. That’s storytelling, what Chaucer called the craft so long to learn. Plot is the architecture of action.
The reader says, tell me a story. She does not say, show me how clever you are. The reader wants to know why the characters do what they do and tell me about me. The reader wants to be moved by a character’s struggle, not to be impressed by a writer’s adverb. (But, of course, you can do both.)
Aristotle told us that plots proceed through a series of reversals (a character tries to get what she wants and makes it worse) and recognitions, (a change from ignorance to knowledge).
The basic plot of every story is (and I’m paraphrasing John Gardner here): a central character wants something intensely, goes after it, and as a result of a struggle comes to a win or a loss.
You take this definition of the basic plot and see how you might let the necessary plot do your thinking for you and lead you quite naturally to considerations of characterization, theme, tone, point of view, setting, and so on. and how you might, in so doing, create the emotional and intellectual experience our reader hopes for.
Don’t make the plot happen, let it happen.
Q: What do you think Evan Wondolowski's illustrations add to the book?
A: Besides being fun to look at and arresting to the eye, Evan’s illustrations help make some complex ideas complex ideas more accessible and understandable. They are especially helpful to those visual thinkers, like me, who find it easier to grasp what is seen rather than what is printed.
I really love all the fun he had with turning the text into art and organizing some of those long lists I have into comprehensible units.
Q: Who do you see as the readership for the book, and what do you hope they take away from it?
A: I think anyone who is interested in telling a story will find the book helpful. More specifically, I had in mind the people who don’t get the opportunity to study fiction writing at a university or in a workshop setting.
This is a book that slows down the writing process, takes you step by step through the writing of a story, demystifies what is really not so mysterious at all. Writing is work. And you need the right tools in your kit before you begin the job.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My big project is a novel I’ve been writing for a few years. I’ve just gotten notes from my editor, my agent, my writing pal Deborah Monroe, and I’m plunging into revision.
I also have a couple of long stories that might grow into novellas or novels and a book of stories pretty much together. And I’m always writing flash fiction.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just how much I appreciate your doing this. April in the tine of coronavirus was an unfortunate time to launch a book. Had to cancel my readings and talks.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb