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The Literary Skeleton

Last week, we looked at broad categories of literary stories. This week, we look at the individual building blocks.

The overall story problem is usually a wrenching, life-altering, personal decision or life event.

The reader asks: What are they feeling and how will it change?

Theme is key. Literary can have a specific plot or be a slice of life vignette. Literary fiction does not always follow the traditional story arc, but the protagonist should undergo a point of change no matter how minimal.

The Literary story can be mixed with elements of any genre, but the focus is largely on the psychological dissection of the event. You can have a Literary ghost story or a Literary war story, but the reader is waiting for the protagonist’s resolution of their personal dilemma rather than the outcome of the war. Coming of age stories are often Literary. A child undergoes a transformation to adult because of some crisis or situation. Literary stories often explore heavy hitting issues such as abuse, illness, sexuality, parenthood, aging parents, etc. 

The focus in a Literary story is the language used to convey it, the writer’s unique prose or voice. Genre pieces can be written with the lyricism of Literary and a Literary novel can follow a genre story arc. The difference is the pace and the lyricism of the tale. Literary stories take the time to express philosophies and explore the human condition in ways the other genres cannot. Conflicts are often subtle.

In Literary stories, the options for protagonist are endless. It can be a child coming of age or an elderly person facing end  of life. It can be a person dealing with an illness, a complicated friendship, a divorce, or a legal or ethical dilemma.

There doesn’t have to be an antagonist per se, rather an antagonistic situation. The characters are the focus rather than the events. The subtle tension must make the reader so invested in the characters, they are willing to wade through the slower pace and lyrical wording to find out what happens. The luxury of the literary novel is the language and situation used to convey the thematic premise are the focus. It does not always end happily and theme is crucial.

External Conflict scenes don’t have to involve dramatic fight or chase scenes. They don’t require action-oriented thriller moments. They may not have the swoon-inducing desire of a Romance, though it may include those elements. Whatever the story line, it requires tension. These scenes bring the camera in close to dissect the protagonist’s psyche. Even so, elements in the external world the character navigates affect their personal metamorphosis or cause a drastic change in their way of thinking.

Antagonist Conflict scenes in the literary novel are often less overt than in any other genre. There may not be a “bad guy.” It may not be good versus evil. It may be making the right choice versus the wrong one. It may be a split in the protagonist’s psyche, the devil sitting on his shoulder. However, there is some antagonistic force working against what the character knows is the right decision. It can be society, medical realities, the legal system, or a friend or relative with an opposing agenda. The antagonist’s POV is rarely explored in these stories though there are antagonistic forces.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes follow friends and foes that confuse the issue: a love interest, a bullying boss, or dysfunctional relatives. There will be those who debate various sides of the thematic argument. Some characters push them toward the wrong decision and some toward the right one.

Internal Conflict scenes are at the heart of the story problem in the literary fiction novel, but there can still be a smaller personal issue that makes his decision that much harder to make. These scenes reflect the subtle shifts in his thinking or behavior.

Next week, we take a look at Mystery subgenres.

Check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Literary Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

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