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Benjamin Obler

A fiction lesson in a one-act play

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Photo by Marcelo Uva on Unsplash.

SETTING: A dark, bare stage. Beaten wood floors, well trod. Two chairs are set out, at oblique angles to one another.

YOUR CHARACTER: Can we talk?

YOU: Sure. What’s up?

YOUR CHARACTER: I feel like we’re growing apart. Like we don’t know each other anymore.

YOU: Oh. (scratches chin) Okay.

YOUR CHARACTER: Don’t get defensive.

YOU: No, I’m not —

YOUR CHARACTER: Don’t make excuses either.

YOU: I —

YOUR CHARACTER: Just hear me out.

YOU: Okay, okay! You got it. What’s this about? What can I do?

YOUR CHARACTER: Thank you. This means a lot to me. Because this…


On numbers in fictional prose

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The mayor, spotted at the opera. Photo by alevision.co on Unsplash.

Be specific is solid advice to give to a fiction writer. I don’t feel very connected to a character who lives in “the city.” Not as much as I do when they live in Chicago or Astoria, Queens. And how marvelous when a surgeon drives a green Aston Martin DB4 to the hospital at dawn instead of “his English car.”

The flip side to the specificity coin is that mathematical specificity has little place in narrative prose. Though many people anchor their lives around the wondrous reliability of measurable distances, times, and temperatures, these people are the last ones you’d…


The enduring value of the diary/notebook/journal

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Photo by Kyoshi Reyes on Unsplash

Ever had a friend who’s an illustrator? Illustrators, cartoonists, and other visual artists almost always carry a sketchbook. They can sit down in a park, a café, on a bus, just about anywhere, and draw what they see. Or draw something from their imagination. It might be a figure, a character in certain garb. It might be just an interesting face. Or the outline of a building, a tree, a street lamp — a simple scene. Whatever it is, the sketch is not complete, it’s not perfect. It’s just a sketch. It’s not finalized, colored in and transferred to a…


A good narrative generously orients readers to a character’s life

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The selfless guide takes the least comfortable position, and wears the least protection. Photo by Chastagner Thierry on Unsplash

Show context again and again throughout a story. Repeat the broad context that surrounds your protagonist’s goal and struggle. When you zoom in, you must zoom out again. There are many analogies; one is that of the tour guide.

A writer is simply a tour guide to the terrain of a character’s life, in particular the wing of the museum where the goal and conflicts are housed.

Think about how a good tour guide acts. The guide knows the territory, the terrain, and can traverse it unimpeded without much attention to her course. Without even thinking about it, without even…


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The only image resulting from an Unsplash search for “unreliable.” It’ perfect: a single key on the cluttered ground. Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of writing students attempt something narratively that it has never occurred to me to attempt: going to the page and making a calculated effort to take a set of events in a character’s life and depict them in a way that distorts their reality, in hopes of triggering a realization in the reader that the character is not on their rocker.

“Unreliable narrator,” (U.N.) this is called, for lack of a better term. I’ve developed a fair amount of disdain for this type of narrative, to the extent that it can be called…


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You’ve probably been told to use the five senses in your descriptions before. But ask yourself, what is the environment doing to my character?

There are two ways you can describe details in your character’s world: passively or actively. Describing something straight-forwardly, telling only of its presence on the scene, is called a passive detail.

This is not to be confused with the passive voice, which means having an object with no subject.

A passive detail is dropped in, set like a knickknack on a mantle and left there to decorate the room. But the thing about a knickknack on a mantle is that it can go unnoticed. Passive details are okay, and some elements can be done this way. For example:

“On the…


A young woman climbs rocks, reaching for a handhold through a treacherous passage.
A young woman climbs rocks, reaching for a handhold through a treacherous passage.
Doing a coy dance across the room from one’s aspirations usually ends up in the aspirations leaving with another partner. Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash.

Little did I know when creating Aspiring Writer Syndrome that some writers are opposed to the term “aspiring writer.” During the process of making sure search engines know about the new site, as well as these Medium publications, I noticed several articles out there advising writers to abjure the moniker “aspiring writer.”

I agree that there’s no need for anyone to think of themselves as undeserving of the title “writer” just because they haven’t published. A writer is one who writes, no question. If you write, you qualify. You can wear the badge. John Irving got that right in The…


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August 16, 2020

Hello, I’m Benjamin Obler, Editor-in-Chief of AWS.

We all know that corporations are people, thanks to Citizens United. Since this legal decision in 2010, I’ve been trying to corporatize myself, with little success. Something internal resisted it. Call it ethics or disposition.

I made a very valiant effort when I launched Aspiring Writer Syndrome in 2019. I envisioned a site so heavily stylized and branded that it would subsume my personal identity, allowing me to obliterate my personal website, benobler.com. …


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Once I had a student writing a story set in 1887 to 1915 or so, in Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island. The author did copious research and handled many aspects of this job exceptionally well. Her novel dealt with both fictional characters and characters from real life, including some leading American suffragists. The author was incredibly tidy writer. I’d never seen manuscript so correctly punctuated and free from usage errors.

One of the quirks of the author’s style, however, was a tendency to dramatize very incidental events and in these scenes make allusion to the bigger events in characters’ lives…


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Most stories go along, reporting actions and events, delivering internal thoughts of characters and direct dialogue, offering imagery, metaphors, and other devices — and this is enough. It’s very robust, in fact. These elements make for a rich text, with ample variety, a full reading experience. As a writer you’ve got your hands full attending to these things such as the five senses in your descriptions: the sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes in your character’s fictional world. But there’s a sentence type that falls outside this scope. It’s a different breed entirely. Not all writers even use it. …

Benjamin Obler

Instructor at @GothamWriters, NYC. Ed.-in-Chief of AspiringWriterSyndrome.com, where fiction is the focus and inspiration is the goal. #Javascotia @PenguinBooks

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