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Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques

Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques

James Hynes,
Novelist and Writing Instructor

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Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques

Course No. 2541
James Hynes,
Novelist and Writing Instructor
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Course No. 2541
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  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features on-screen text in each lecture to emphasize key points made by the professor. Diagrams dissect the books you know and love so you can see their construction, while artwork and other illustrations further enhance the learning experience.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how to create and develop meaningful fictional characters - both major and minor.
  • Explore the dynamics of good dialogue, and learn how to integrate it into a narrative.
  • Distinguish between points of view to determine which one will work best for your story.
  • Investigate the pros and cons of writing drafts - and the importance of revisions.
  • Get a realistic, business-oriented view of how to make a living as a fiction writer.

Course Overview

Whether you’re huddled around the campfire, composing an email to a friend, or sitting down to write a novel, storytelling is fundamental to human nature. But as any writer can tell you, the blank page can be daunting. It’s tough to know where to get started, what details to include in each scene, and how to move from the kernel of an idea to a completed manuscript.

Writing great fiction isn’t a gift reserved for the talented few. There is a craft to storytelling that can be learned, and studying the fiction writer’s techniques can be incredibly rewarding—both personally and professionally. Even if you don’t have ambitions of penning the next Moby-Dick, you’ll find value in exploring all the elements of great fiction.

From evoking a scene to charting a plot to selecting a point of view, Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques offers a master class in storytelling. Taught by acclaimed novelist James Hynes, a former visiting professor at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Michigan, these 24 insightful lectures show you the ins and outs of the fiction writer’s craft.

More than just delivering lectures, Professor Hynes offers the first steps of an apprenticeship, showing you not only how fiction works but also how to read like a writer. Here you’ll find explications of novels and stories across the ages:

  • Rediscover classics such as Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, and others.
  • Gain new insights into bestsellers such as the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series.
  • Explore the world of literary fiction, from Chekhov’s “The Kiss” to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
  • Reflect on what makes characters such as Anna Karenina and Sherlock Holmes so memorable.
  • Find out how to create suspense like Dashiell Hammett, George Pelecanos, and John le Carré.

In addition to showing you how the elements of fiction work, this course is an interactive toolkit. Professor Hynes closes each lecture with an exercise to get your creative juices flowing. Only you know what story you want to tell, but the many examples and writing prompts in these lectures will get you from thinking about writing to the act of writing—often the toughest part of any project.

Begin with the Basics

William Faulkner once said that writing a novel is like a one-armed man trying to hammer together a chicken coop in a hurricane. That may be an exaggeration, but finding your way into a story can take an equal amount of creative experimentation. In the opening lectures of this course, you will learn how to:

Evoke a Scene: There is a fine art to selecting just the right imagery to bring a scene to life. Whether you’re heeding the old advice to “show, don’t tell,” or you’re seeking to create what novelist John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream,” scenic detail is the life-blood of good fiction. Professor Hynes shows you how to choose rich details while keeping your narrative uncluttered.

Develop a Character: When you create a fictional character, you’re creating the illusion of reality—suggesting a real person rather than replicating one. Four lectures on character development teach you how to build characters who think and act in plausible ways. See how novelists such as Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, George R.R. Martin, and many others develop their believable and memorable characters.

Craft Great Dialogue: Just as characters are illusions that suggest real people, so too does dialogue suggest authentic speech. Good dialogue serves at least one of a few key functions in a narrative, such as evoking character, advancing the plot, or providing necessary exposition. A two-lecture unit sheds light on balancing dialogue with narration, with examples from the work of Charles Dickens, Alice Munro, and Toni Morrison, as well as the professor’s own fiction.

Build the Story’s Structure

Literature creates order out of chaos. To do so, you need to provide structure to your story, which can be one of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction. Among the topics you’ll study are:

Story versus Plot: Whether it’s a novel, a short story, or a blog post, one of a story’s primary functions is to keep the reader reading. One way to achieve this is by creating a compelling plot. After exploring the difference between “story” and “plot”—as defined by E.M. Forster—Professor Hynes unpacks the many techniques of storytelling, and he concludes this six-lecture unit with some thoughts about keeping momentum in relatively “plotless” fiction such as James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

Point of View: As you’ll see in this three-lecture unit, much of a story hinges on the perspective from which it’s told. From the omniscience of Middlemarch to the free indirect discourse of Light in August, and from the double consciousness of Huck Finn to the unreliable narrator of The Aspern Papers, Professor Hynes surveys the range of narrative possibilities.

Time, Place, and Pace: A story’s setting is a powerful way to create mood. Think of London in Bleak House, or Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Time plays an equally important role in fiction—the era of a story’s setting, the sequence of events that occur, and the timing with which information is revealed to the reader are all pivotal elements. You’ll learn how to syncopate action and exposition, scene and summary, short scenes and long scenes, present-time narrative versus flashbacks, and more.

Drafts and Revisions: All stories must come to an end. In this course’s final unit, you’ll step back from the specific elements of scenic composition and consider the story as a whole. How do you build a complete draft? What are some strategies for revision? And what do you do when you’ve finished?

A Practical Toolkit to Get You Writing

As a working novelist, Professor Hynes is able to imbue his teaching of the elements of fiction with the wisdom of personal experience. He uses vivid examples from the history of literature as well as lessons and anecdotes from his own time in the novel-writing trenches. He shares his personal processes and techniques, and even examines specific examples where he struggled as a writer, revealing how he overcame those difficulties.

But this course is meant to be a toolkit, not an instruction manual. The beauty of fiction writing is that it’s a creative field. There are no right answers, no single way to tell a story. A wealth of exercises will get you writing so that you can practice the many techniques you learn. Along the way, Professor Hynes is an able guide, showing you what has worked for him and other novelists, and pointing out pitfalls to avoid. Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques is truly an exceptional course for anyone interested in storytelling.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2014
  • 1
    Starting the Writing Process
    Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a writer like facing the blank page. Start your course in fiction writing with some strategies for beginnings. You'll examine several ways to ease into a story, including the "5W's" of journalism, outlines, and opening in medias res ("in the midst of things"). The good news, as you'll see, is that there are no hard and fast rules. x
  • 2
    Building Fictional Worlds through Evocation
    "Show, don't tell" is the mantra of many writing workshops. But what does this mean? Find out how to choose just the right detail to evoke a scene, develop a character, and advance your story. After arming yourself with several strategies for "showing," you'll consider when it's OK to "tell." x
  • 3
    How Characters Are Different from People
    Characters are illusions, and the illusion often hinges on how much access a writer gives us to a character's thoughts. Begin this unit on character with an examination of how writers choose which moments in a character's life to dramatize, and then consider how knowledge of a character's thoughts affects the story. x
  • 4
    Fictional Characters, Imagined and Observed
    Continue your study of character with a look at several approaches for building a character. Some writers draw from life, whereas others draw from the imagination. Some build characters "inside out," others from the "outside in." Some develop characters by psychology, others by circumstances. Professor Hynes shows you a range of options. x
  • 5
    Call Me Ishmael: Introducing a Character
    Now that you now have a wealth of strategies for developing character, how do you get your character into your story? In this lecture, you'll run through five different ways authors introduce characters. You'll also see two methods for building a story: the exploratory method and the "iceberg theory" of character creation. x
  • 6
    Characters: Round and Flat, Major and Minor
    Books come in all forms and sizes, and so do characters. Learn the hallmarks of different character types, like round vs. flat and major vs. minor. See what purpose each type of character serves, and discover the relationship between a character and his or her desires. x
  • 7
    The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue
    Shift your attention from building characters to figuring out what they should say. This lecture provides an overview of the nuts and bolts of dialogue, from the rules of punctuation to the way writers use dialogue tags to add clarity to a conversation. See how what a character says can create meaning and evoke mood. x
  • 8
    Integrating Dialogue into a Narrative
    Turn from the mechanics of dialogue to discover how it can be used to evoke character or advance the story. After surveying how dialect is a powerful tool, if used carefully, Professor Hynes shows you how writers smoothly weave exposition into dialogue, and he considers the significance of what is not said in an exchange. x
  • 9
    And Then: Turning a Story into a Plot
    Characters breathe life into your story, but without plot, even the most engaging character can fall flat. This lecture opens a six-lecture unit on plotting, a critical skill for any writer who wants to keep the reader turning pages. Professor Hynes begins the unit by breaking down story and plot into a few fundamental components. x
  • 10
    Plotting with the Freytag Pyramid
    Whether you're writing literary fiction or a potboiler, your story needs a structure. Freytag's Pyramid is the classic structure for moving a story from an initial situation through a series of conflicts to a resolution. Examine every stage of the pyramid with examples ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Middlemarch to Game of Thrones. x
  • 11
    Adding Complexity to Plots
    Now that you've learned the basic elements of storytelling, it's time to go beyond the fundamentals and explore several smaller-scale techniques that can make your plot more subtle and satisfying. Your study includes the elements of suspense, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and foreshadowing. x
  • 12
    Structuring a Narrative without a Plot
    Not all stories have a traditional plot that can be modeled along Freytag's Pyramid. Contemporary short fiction, for instance, is often relatively plotless. See what drives momentum in stories such as Chekhov's "The Kiss" and Joyce's "The Dead," and then turn to "plotless" novels such as Mrs. Dalloway. x
  • 13
    In the Beginning: How to Start a Plot
    Revisit beginnings. How do you get started with a story? In this lecture, Professor Hynes shifts from the techniques of plotting to offer several clear strategies for putting these techniques into action. He also provides invaluable advice about making choices on the page: and understanding the implications of those choices. x
  • 14
    Happily Ever After: How to End a Plot
    Starting a narrative may be daunting, but ending one can be just as tricky. After discussing some famous examples of bad endings, Professor Hynes gives you tips for creating believable, satisfying endings, whether this means finding an answer to the story's opening gambit, or tracing a narrative to its logical end. x
  • 15
    Seeing through Other Eyes: Point of View
    Starting a narrative may be daunting, but ending one can be just as tricky. After discussing some famous examples of bad endings, Professor Hynes gives you tips for creating believable, satisfying endings, whether this means finding an answer to the story's opening gambit, or tracing a narrative to its logical end. x
  • 16
    I, Me, Mine: First-Person Point of View
    First-person narration can be one of the most natural ways to tell a story: but there are several important guidelines to keep in mind. Professor Hynes helps you navigate the different types of first-person storytellers, including the double consciousness, the unreliable narrator, and the retrospective narrator. x
  • 17
    He, She, It: Third-Person Point of View
    While first-person narration is an effective way to tell a story, third-person narration offers a wonderful range and flexibility, and allows you to dive just as deeply into your characters' heads: if not more deeply: than the first-person perspective. Survey the spectrum of third-person voices, from the objective and external to the interior stream of consciousness. x
  • 18
    Evoking Setting and Place in Fiction
    Time and place are critical in most recent fiction, so today's writer must know how to evoke a setting. But, as with so many techniques in this course, setting exists along a continuum, from the richly detailed (as in Bleak House) to just a few sparse details (as in Pride and Prejudice). Find out when: and how much: to describe your story's setting. x
  • 19
    Pacing in Scenes and Narratives
    Every narrative has a tempo. Some stories are short, while others are long. Some move at breakneck speed, while others linger over every detail. Discover how to strike the right balance between length and time (the pacing), between length and detail (the density), and between scene and summary. x
  • 20
    Building Scenes
    A good scene serves two functions: it advances the larger narrative, and it's interesting in its own right. How do you build compelling scenes? How do you transition from one scene to the next? Learn the fine art of moving from point to point in your narrative so that your story remains smooth and compelling. x
  • 21
    Should I Write in Drafts?
    So far, this course has focused on the individual elements of good fiction. Now that you have a complete toolkit of writing techniques, how do you put it all together to create a whole story? Professor Hynes discusses the process of writing an entire draft, and offers some words of wisdom to help you maintain momentum. x
  • 22
    Revision without Tears
    Revision is a necessary step in most writing projects. Take a case-study approach to see what techniques authors use to revise their stories. To show you the ropes, Professor Hynes walks you through his own process. Although revision can be difficult, you'll come away from this lecture confident in your abilities to get your story where it needs to be. x
  • 23
    Approaches to Researching Fiction
    "Write what you know" is a common dictum, but what happens when you run up against the limits of your knowledge? What if you want to write a story about something other than your own life? What real-life details do you have an obligation to get right? Find out how fiction writers approach the unknown. x
  • 24
    Making a Life as a Fiction Writer
    You might have a mental image of the writer as a solitary genius toiling away in an ivory tower. But writers today must be adept at both the crafting of words and the business of publishing. To conclude this course, Professor Hynes surveys the publishing landscape today and gives advice for making the leap from hobbyist to professional. x

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James Hynes

About Your Professor

James Hynes
Novelist and Writing Instructor
Professor James Hynes is a published novelist who has taught creative writing as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Michigan, The University of Texas, Miami University, and Grinnell College. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Professor Hynes is the author of five works of...
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