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- in Fiction Writing
- by Shennandoah Diaz
It’s difficult to give an exact formula for what makes great fiction. Once we lay down all of the rules, someone comes along and breaks them. The rules of fiction are made to be broken and the ones who do well are the ones who break them well. Where most of the rules are broken is in terms of style, but when it comes to the core elements of strong fiction even the rule breakers know that they need a solid foundation before they can start shifting the paradigm.
The foundation of strong fiction is established through dynamic characters, an intriguing plot, a compelling voice, and a vibrant setting.
Strong characters are what create the emotional bond between the reader and the story. A good character is memorable, dynamic, and drives the plot forward through his or her actions and reactions to what the other characters do.
Strong characters are:
They change, react, and adapt as the story goes on. They evolve as the story progresses, becoming a slightly (or dramatically) different person—for better or worse—by the time the last word is written.
Strong characters have flaws. Perfect people are boring, and it’s impossible for them to evolve since—well, they’re already perfect. We like characters for their good qualities, but we either love or hate them for their flaws. Love and hate are more intense emotions, and they evoke a stronger response from the reader, which is exactly what you want.
Whether by greed, love, envy, or a deep hatred for their second-grade teacher who made them go to detention when it was clearly little Sammy’s fault, characters must be motivated by something. You need to identify those motivations and understand the nuances and instinctual responses that happen as a result of them. They will drive the plot forward and create that sense of desperation or need that readers look for as they root for (or against) the protagonist.
If you need help developing your characters I suggest you take a look at The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits and Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction.
The plot is the sequence of events that lead up to an end point, either in terms of achieving an emotional goal or following a narrative thread to its conclusion.
Plot generally occurs in five stages:
This introduces the reader to the plot.
- Rising Action:
This is the development of events leading toward the climax. This portion takes up the majority of the book.
This is the epic battle scene, lovers connecting, families either joining or splitting apart—it is the dramatic fallout of your rising action and generally takes place near the end of the book.
- Falling Action:
This shows the effects of the climax on the characters and other story elements.
This is the conclusion, often an unraveling of the complicated intricacies of the plot. Not all stories have a resolution. Some even go without the falling action and end at the climax. Whether or not you include all five depends on the nature of the story and your ability to divulge enough information for the reader to draw their own conclusions.
The plot is often compared to a three-act play. In Act 1 the audience is introduced to the characters and the main conflict or problem the characters must solve. The majority of the play happens in Act 2 and follows the characters as they address the main conflict. Act 3 is the climax and the resulting falling action and resolution, tying up the many issues and subplots explored throughout the play.
One of my favorite books for help with writing plots is Story Structure Architect. It breaks down almost every possible scenario and plot structure to its core elements, making it easy to build a solid story.
The narrative voice must carry the reader through the story in an engaging way. Personality is key—and not necessarily the personality of the writer (although it does come through) but the personality of the narrator, whether it’s the main character talking in first person or a third-person narrator. Also, to truly be compelling, the narrator must “show” the reader the events as they unfold rather than “tell” about them. I have a detailed article that goes into the difference here, but for now here is a brief example :
Telling: Suzie hated Tom.
Showing: Suzie inched her chair further to the right, putting as much space as possible between her and Tom. His cheap drug store cologne choked what little fresh air remained in the tight cubicle, further agitating her sensitive allergies. She shifted her computer screen away from his roving eyes and did her best to focus on the report and not on the fact that it was his fault she had to stay late and rewrite the whole damn thing.
Setting includes the time and place in which a story occurs. Setting affects both plot and character. The depth at which setting affects those elements varies depending on the what the setting is and how it relates to the characters ability to move and interact within it as they address the plot.
Sometimes the setting establishes the plot, such as in a disaster movie or in situations like Lost, in which characters are displaced in a setting that is both strange and dangerous. Under such circumstances, the characters are deeply affected and must adapt in order to survive. Regardless of how much setting affects the direction of the story, it always serves as a foundation, creating the basic backdrop and physical boundaries within which the plot will unfold.
Setting should also appeal to the senses. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell all affect the readers experience. Thanks but This Isn’t For Us has a great section on how to flesh out your setting plus tips on how to edit for each of the key elements of fiction. I would also suggest you check out Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass for more tips on what makes a great novel.
So long as you have a group of dynamic characters, a solid plot, a compelling voice, and a setting that appeals to all of the senses, you can muddle all of the other rules of fiction. We can forgive diversion in style. What readers can’t forgive are flat characters, a boring or weak plot, a voice that puts them to sleep, or a setting that’s a blank canvas.