50 Moves You Can Use in Your Fiction
The Blunt Instrument's list of go-to moves in contemporary fiction can give you some ideas of what to try—and what to avoid
Dear Blunt Instrument,
I just finished writing a novel and am dreaming up a new one, and while I chafe at writing rules, your piece on moves in contemporary poetry gave me a fresh way of thinking about writing—challenges to meet, rather than rules to adhere to—but I’m not a poet! What are some moves in contemporary fiction?
That list of moves (which I cowrote with the poet Mike Young) has an enduring popularity. Almost every time I go to AWP, someone tells me they still use it as a teaching tool. Of course, it pissed some people off, as if I was trying to kill the “magic” in poetry. I wasn’t! And it wasn’t meant to be an indictment of recognizable moves. (A move is not necessarily a cliché, though it can be.) I just enjoy (some forms of) classification. The challenge, as you say, is to use moves well and surprisingly, as in dancing.
So here is a big, arbitrarily arranged list of recognizable moves in short and long fiction—some small (occurring at the level of the phrase or sentence), some large (occurring at the level of character or structure or narrative).
A few “duh” disclaimers: Some of these moves I like more than others; they are not limited to fiction, much less contemporary fiction (nothing is ever really new!); and the list is not meant to be in any way exhaustive.
- Explicit symbolism via the “as if” or “as though” or “like” construction – A character does X, as if X (the author spells out the symbolism of the gesture or what it’s meant to suggest), e.g., “Her eyes darted around the room, as if she were looking for an escape hatch.” That’s a made up example, but here’s a real one from the Sally Rooney story “Color and Light”: “She looks around vaguely, as if she doesn’t know what he means by ‘here.’” Another, from My Name Is Lucy Barton: “My mother closed her eyes as though the very question might drop her into a nap.”
- Filler lists – This is what an old antique shop is like, this is what a party at a rich person’s apartment is like, dusty clocks, platters of sushi, you get the idea. See the antique shop in The Goldfinch or the opening party scene The Heavens. Or, going further back, Orlando.
- The “everything happens so much and so fast” – Evoking the fullness of life or history in a brief list (“The continents shifted, wars raged, factories were built, a plane flew into the north tower”).
- Character looks in a mirror – They consider their reflection, so we can know what they look like. Or they don’t recognize themselves.
- The move of no causation – A character “finds herself” somewhere or doing something, without having made the decision, as if they woke up there. Usually occurs at the opening of a chapter or section.
- Unconscious action – A character does something for a reason, but they don’t know what the reason is. This is slightly different from the above, in that there is no gap in awareness.
- Action against one’s will – A character seems to do the opposite of what they want (as in “Cat Person” or “Color and Light”).
- The first sentence tells us a main character’s name – Rampant everywhere and everywhen but for old-school examples see Moby-Dick and Mrs. Bridge. More recently, Crudo.
- The narrator has the same name as the author – Especially a first-person narrator (autofiction alert).
- First-person narrator has no name (that we know of) – We can only refer to them as “the narrator.” E.g., The Sellout.
- First-person narrator is obviously self-deluding – A variation on the unreliable narrator in that we’re not meant to trust them. See Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
- The Stranger – The protagonist’s spouse or partner suddenly seems like a stranger to them; are they a doppelganger or just being a dick or is the protagonist the one who has changed, does she have Capgras syndrome, etc.?
- The Google – A character performs an internet search.
- Art imitates art – A character or occurrence is compared to someone or something on TV or in a movie, or in another book.
- Essayistic theorizing – See Flights, The Third Hotel, Pond.
- Aphoristic, tweet-like fragments – See How to Be Safe, Literally Show Me a Healthy Person.
- Protips – First-person narrator offers helpful tips to the reader for life and living. I associate this move most with A Far Cry from Kensington, but for a more contemporary example see The Anthologist, which actually has some good writing tips.
- The long, detailed, “boring” digression.
- Detailed sex acts or sexual fantasies – especially played for humor value (as in The First Bad Man).
- Key to everything – A flashback to a moment that explains the protagonist’s whole worldview/personality (as in Tai Pei).
- Extreme overreaction – A character decides to ruin his own life to punish someone/everyone.
- The throwaway “times are dark” detail – The weather is always “unseasonably warm” (10:04), there’s war footage on a background TV.
- Pathetic fallacy variation – Weather imitates scene. For example, in a moment of uncertainty, it may seem like it’s about to rain, but does not rain.
- Full-on climate dystopia.
- Ambiguous attribution – Requires dialogue with no quotation marks, but goes a step further to blur the line between dialogue and unspoken narration/free indirect, or between verbatim dialogue and paraphrase. See Outline.
- The metanovel – A storyline that seems at first to be THE novel is revealed to be the creation of another character, a novel within the primary novel (see Trust Exercise; Eleanor, Or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love).
- Ouroboros metafiction – The process/practice of writing the book is part of the book (as in Motherhood).
- The withholding narrator – The narrator knows something you don’t, until they decide to reveal it at the end.
- The extremely “unlikeable,” misanthropic narrator – See Ottessa Moshfegh.
- Nicknames – Characters go by epithets instead of regular names. See “Pussy Hounds.”
- He said, she said – Same story is told twice from two different viewpoints (see Fates and Furies).
- The homage or “cover” novel – A retelling of a classic (see Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl), sometimes corrective (Pym).
- Extremely online – Inclusion of emails or texts or online chats, often preserving similar formatting to the original medium (Leaving the Atocha Station, The Idiot).
- Rotating narrators – as in Boy, Snow, Bird.
- Every chapter has a radically different form or voice/style – even if the narrator doesn’t change (Broken River, A Visit from the Goon Squad).
- Unnumbered chapters – This has the effect of making chapters feel less chapter-y.
- Narrative movement through a succession of encounters – See Rachel Cusk, Teju Cole; a non-comic version of the picaresque.
- Unresolvable ambiguity – For example, is this character having a mental breakdown in response to trauma or grief, or is she living in an alternate reality? See The Heavens, Familiar, The Third Hotel, A Pale View of Hills.
- The amalgam or stand-in setting – Action occurs in a familiar but made-up place.
- Huge jumps forward in time – Especially entailing entirely new sets of characters (The Stranger’s Child, Comemadre).
- Whole novel in a day – Action takes place over 24 hours or less, as in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, The Mezzanine.
- A theme is established through a narrator’s obsession or project – See the Jonestown research in New People.
- Theme is extremely foregrounded via constant reminders – as in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.
- First-personal plural POV – as in Then We Came to the End.
- Second-person POV – as in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
- Nonfiction and fiction published in the same volume – Blurring the distinction between essay and short story (see recent collections by Geoff Dyer, J.D. Daniels).
- Story in the form of a list – See Carmen Maria Machado.
- The modern epistolary novel – See We Need to Talk About Kevin.
- Ending a chapter with a question – See Find Me.
- Ending a chapter with the main character going to sleep.