Writing Instruction from John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”

  1. The function of the beginning of a story is to introduce the principal characters, establish their initial relationships, set the scene for the main action, expose the background of the situation if necessary, plant motifs and foreshadowings where appropriate, and initiate the first complication or whatever of the “rising action.” . . . Middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it and fetching him to it. (p. 77)
  • Narrative ordinarily consists of alternating dramatization and summarization. (p. 78)
  • Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction. It is also important to “keep the senses operating”; when a detail from one of the five senses, say visual, is “crossed” with a detail from another, say auditory, the reader’s imagination is oriented toward the senses, perhaps unconsciously. This procedure may be compared to the way surveyors and navigators determine their position by two or more compass bearings, a process known as triangulation. (pp. 73-74)
  • A single straight underline is the manuscript mark for italic type, which in turn is the printed equivalent to oral emphasis of words and phrases as well as the customary type for titles of complete works, not to mention. Italics are also employed, in fiction stories especially, for “outside,” intrusive, or artificial voices, such as radio announcements, the texts of telegrams and newspaper articles, et cetera. They should be used sparingly. If passages originally in roman type are italicized by someone repeating them, it’s customary to acknowledge the fact. Italics mine. (p. 72)
  • A fine metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, in addition to its obvious “first order” relevance to the thing it describes, will be soon upon reflection to have a second order of significance: it may be drawn from the milieu of the action, for example, or be particularly appropriate to the sensibility of the narrator, even hinting to the reader things of which the narrator is unaware; or it may cast further and subtler lights upon the thing it describes, sometimes ironically qualifying the more evident sense of the comparison. (p. 74)
  • Initials, blank, or both were often substituted for proper names in nineteenth-century fiction to enhance the illusion of reality. It is as if the author felt it necessary to delete the names for reasons of tact or legal liability. Interestingly, as with other aspects of realism, it is an illusion that is being enhanced, by purely artificial means. (p. 73)
  • The more closely an author identifies with the narrator, literally or metaphorically, the less advisable it is, as a rule, to use the first-person narrative viewpoint. (p. 77)
  • The inverted tag in dialogue writing is still considered permissible with proper names or epithets, but sounds old-fashioned with personal pronouns. “Don’t seem like Fourth of July without fireworks,” said Uncle Karl. (p. 81)
  • In fiction the merely true must always yield to the plausible. (p. 93)
  • The action of conventional dramatic narrative may be represented by a diagram called Freitag’s Triangle:

or more accurately by a variant of that diagram:

in which AB represents the exposition, B the introduction of conflict, BC the “rising action,” complication, or development of the conflict, C the climax or turn of the action, CD the denouement, or resolution of the conflict. While there is no reason to regard this pattern as an absolute necessity, like many other conventions it became conventional because great numbers of people over many years learned by trial and error that it was effective; one ought not to forsake it therefore, unless one wishes to forsake as well the effect of drama or has clear cause to feel that deliberate violation of the “normal” pattern can better effect that effect.