Imagining the Well-Imagined Story

From the start of The Writers Circle, I made it my weekly habit to share interesting readings about writing, publishing and the writing life. The very first one, I recall, was Francine Prose’s Atlantic Monthly article “Close Reading” which introduced the core topics of her equally wise book, Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s premise – that to learn to write well, one must read not only well, but closely – invited all of us to read for details of technique, voice, character, plot development and more. By doing so, we all become students of the true masters of literature.

I find myself enlightened and amused once again by an Atlantic Monthly essay, this time Tim O’Brien’s “Telling Tails“. O’Brien points out a blunt but inescapable truth: that unsuccessful stories don’t necessarily lack of technique. Sometimes, they are simply boring.

Many writers workshops harp endlessly on the need for truth portrayed in full detail. But lacking imagination, all the exquisite detail in the world won’t hold a reader’s attention.

O’Brien lists several things that a well-imagined story is NOT (I’m paraphrasing here):

  • It is not predictable, or not wholly predictable;
  • It is not melodramatic, relying on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes;
  • It is not formulaic or cliche;
  • It does not rely on coincidence to achieve dramatic effects;
  • It does not use purple prose to attempt to elevate events beyond their due.

But what IS a well-imagined story?

O’Brien’s answer: a story that is “…organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”

This doesn’t mean that all good stories must dip into the supernatural or superhuman. Everyday people often face unexpected events that shape and reshape their understanding of the world. How each person handles them, with all the idiosyncracies of character, history and circumstance, are the stuff that make extraordinary fiction.

A well-imagined story must force us to pay attention. It tries to reach into the rich complexity of existence, even as it might be destined to portray very ordinary lives. Each sentence must be crafted to build upon that last, begging us to read just a little bit farther. And within those sentences that depict our characters and their struggles, we are helped along immensely by vivid, engaging and believable detail.



  • lois cantwell

    tim o’brien is one of my favorite writers — ‘the things they carried’ made me cry. i have always thought that the job of the writer/artist is to ‘take’ everyday things and illuminate & accentuate their innate beauty.

  • Christi Craig

    Thanks for your post. It gives me much to think about, especially these two points:

    # It is not formulaic or cliche
    # It does not rely on coincidence to achieve dramatic effects,

    since I sat down – finally – last night to start a rewrite on a novel.

    • Judith

      Christi, welcome! It’s sometimes hard to find the nuances that raise a story above the cliche and coincidental. A good friend of mine jokes (only half jokes) that you have to put your characters up in a tree and throw rocks at them – see what they do if you make things really hard! Good luck with your novel. Keep us posted.

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