How Fiction Really Works

Claire Keegan


On the 15th of February of this year I attended what I can only describe as a Masterclass in how to write fiction with Claire Keegan at the Irish Writer’s Centre, Dublin. See

Hearing what she had to say uprooted my idea of what writing tries to achieve and is still having a positive impact on my work. If you get a chance to attend a seminar with her please do. She is due to speak at the London Short Story Festival this week. See

During her talk Claire cut to the bone about writing, there was no bullshit with her, she simply told the truth. On that day I took a few notes of advice from her, but they are by no means a substitute for hearing her speak.

Claire Keegan: How Fiction Works Seminar

The Irish Writer’s Centre, Dublin


“If you wish to write well you need to focus on text. Basic but essential. Do you want to be a ‘writer’ or want to write stories? There is a happiness in getting it down right. Most stories cry out ‘You left me when I needed you most’.

The basis of fiction? Time. As fiction writers we make an incision in time. It’s a temporal art. It allows us to say something about being human. What does it mean to be human? Time is universal. What does time mean for us? What are days for? ‘Days are where we live.’ Larkin

We cannot undo. Nothing ever happens again. In a story we cannot go back. Pivotal life-changing moments that cannot be undone. Knowledge that cannot be unknown. Eg: Gabriel in Joyce’s The Dead.

As fiction writers we dramatize how someone is moving through time. Making choices with consequences.

Plot- a character jumps through hoops. Do not believe in plot. If I’m writing about someone who is in a moment of time knowing their end its impossible to create anything fresh.

Writing in a time of great uncertainty. But plot knows the future.

The story emerges paragraph by paragraph. Robert Butler’s short story collection. ‘From where you dream.’ Fiction comes from the white hot centre of your being, the place you don’t want to touch.

Follow the story. Every great story is told with reluctance. Not wanting to tell the story.

Margaret Atwood. Time is not a line.

  1. Tension/Time. Each point is a moment in time rising and falling.

NO statement. NO explanation. NO analysis. NO preaching. The reader gets to do this.

TENSION is about the possibility of events happening and not happening.

Talent is the patience to dig deeper.

Efficiency- Almost perfect. A good story is never complete. When we have just enough. ‘Just Enough’.

Restraint. Efficiency.

Chekhov: Grace is the least number of points between two points.

Taste. You must be thoughtful to write great philosophical stories.

Read widely. Mythology. Folk tales. Magic realism. Read widely to develop taste.

Shining performance vs a quiet moment. A great story is just a stone in the water that muddies it a little.


The unit in time in prose is a paragraph. Moving from the GENERAL —à the PARTICULAR

Read: JOHN CHEEVER- short story writer.

It begins with?? Come in here…

It conveys a feeling. Trying to write a feeling in fresh prose, that’s the task. Unease fires a story. We move towards trouble.

You have to go out past the point in time where you can be saved. Facing into the subsidence of a drama. A moment where the truth of a life is realized and a choice is made.

What have they lost? What do they do with money?

A story is about loss?

Go out past the point where your character can be saved.


Whatever the character’s eye falls on. The object of their desire. What does you character want? Treat their desire as your own.

Chekhov: At the end of a good story you should say I would have done the same in the same circumstances.

Each paragraph is about a feeling. You have to SEE what the character sees and feels. An imaginative leap is made into another human being.

We create elegant efficient movements to build the story for the reader. It’s that simple and that difficult.



Within the restraints of uncertainty. Cliché is permitted in dialogue.

Don’t hide you central character’s desire. Don’t be subtle about it.


Every sentence needs to move. NO photographs. Statement is static. Your job is to write the uncertainty of life.

Suggestion is better than statement.

In moving from the general to the particular the feeling deepens. Think triangle rather than rectangle in the shape of a paragraph.

How we see things shows/gives away how we feel. We write where our character’s eye falls.

You covet what you see. Silence of the Lambs.

Stories lie in what we desire. What does my character desire?

You win paragraph by paragraph. Fiction is about people coping over time.


Tension needs to rise and fall. –à Denouement ‘untying the knot’

Startling openings may not always work.

Most of the story is the middle. But it is much neglected. The ending of a story should become inevitable if the middle has been given enough attention.


An invitation to a piece of troubled time. An incision in time through a point of view.

Develop but don’t add. Stay with one thing and add heat to it. There are emotional consequences to what we choose and how we cope with life. It then falls into place.

Flannery O’Connor. ‘Good Country People.’ Theme? How privilege makes up stupid.

Needs-the Hierarchy of needs.

‘O’Connor on Writing Short Stories. She did not know that he would steal the wooden leg. Endings. Nothing else could or should have happened.

Read: Carver ‘On Writing.’

‘Don’t push it. It’ll go up by itself.’

Start with character trying to cope with life.

Light can lend atmosphere to a scene. And it can be done freshly. It grounds the moment in the concrete. ‘The light from the fridge.’

Eudora Welty. ‘The eye of the story.’ Autobiography.

We look at things and places and reveal our feelings and desires.” Claire Keegan


As I said above these are just the bare bones of Claire shared with us that day, and maybe seem disjointed when take out of context, but I highly recommend attending one of her Masterclasses if you have the chance. She tells the truth.

Check out some of Claire Keegan’s work here:

Or read about her here:

2 thoughts on “How Fiction Really Works

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