You sit staring at the screen, faced with the task of getting the words in your head down to your fingers and onto the page. The ideas are there, and you’ve put in some time reading help articles and how-tos. You’ve learned about show versus tell, point of view, pacing, and hooks. But what are you actually going to write?
If you ask authors and critics across the industry, almost invariably, you will hear them call for “story.” After all, the story is the reason we read fiction. We don’t pick up a novel expecting to slog through 100,000 words of a character’s internal thought, or descriptions of Paris in spring, or the entire history of Daenerys Targaryen’s family all the way back to the Stone Age. No. Readers need for something to happen. They need a conflict in search of resolution. They need a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and some sense of satisfaction when they turn the last page.
Today I was enjoying my usual weekly “Ramble” with @shadowspub and PYPT (Pimp Your Post Thursday,) when another participant spoke up and said, “I have written a few short stories but never shared them with anyone.” @princessmewmew went on to ask where to start if one is a beginning writer. This led to a conversation about … you guessed it! Story.
I can’t stress this enough. Without a story, fiction isn’t fiction. It’s something else—an essay, maybe? A bunch of words on a page?
A good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has an inciting incident that kicks off the plot, conflict as the main character is thwarted in his or her attempt to reach a definable goal, a climactic scene in which everything the character has been striving for is finally either realized or lost, and a solid, conclusive ending. In all of this, the reader seeks to understand what it is the character wants, what’s stopping them from getting it, how they manage to get it, and how getting it changes the character. A writer should never make their readers work overly hard to discover those things. Furthermore, if you take away any of those components, your reader is going to feel that something is missing, and even if they can’t articulate it, this feeling is going to affect their opinion of your work.
I should caution you about backstory and description. While both are necessary, both are best delivered in drips and drabs. New York literary agent Andy Ross had this to say about backstory:
Editors believe how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely, as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.
Whether you are an experienced writer of fiction or someone sitting down for the first time with an idea and a laptop, you should read this article by Andy Ross. It’s about Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules For Writing.” Leonard, arguably one of the most successful American writers of our lifetime, crafted one of the most frequently and persistently quoted manifestos in the modern fiction industry. I’ll share the bare bones outline of it here, but I strongly encourage you to click the link to the Andy Ross article for better understanding. If you intend to write for a commercial audience, you’re doing yourself no favors by ignoring Leonard’s advice.
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. –Elmore Leonard
This is a lot to digest, especially for writers who already feel intimidated by the prospect of sharing their words with the world. So, I’ll leave you with this: write what you like to read. But write it in a way the everyone else will want to read it, too.