Blog 27. The Must-Do in Fiction

How do you write fiction?

An artistic woman asked me that question. In part, she was asking about the mechanics of drafting a novel. In part, she was asking how you get past the stinging criticism when someone accomplished in the art reads your first draft. One answer is this: don’t show a first draft. Show an edited manuscript that’s as good as you can make it. Maybe the 21st draft. And don’t expect support for your ego. You ask for technical advice regarding the book, not for approval of yourself. By the 21st draft you will see a reader’s (or agent’s) response as a shared idea, not as personal criticism, because you have cut, smashed, rearranged, and tortured the text yourself, always making it better.

I present a few ideas for socially significant fiction in a guest post on Terry Odell’s blog, appearing on September 24, 2013. Terry is an accomplished writer of romantic mystery. Her blog offers tips for writers, reporting information from professional conferences and contact with special persons-such as a coroner. If you write stories (or if you like to cook), visit Terry. It’s a free education for both interests.

There are things that fiction can show, perhaps better than a photographic slide show. And there are things fiction, particularly a novel, must do.  I’ll reserve the can-shows for subsequent posts. There are things that fiction, particularly novel-length fiction, must do. I’ll offer a few must-dos here, obtained from conferences, books, magazines, and blogs.

A novel must do (in no particular order):

1. Tell a story. Tell a story about one or more characters who experiences changes. A novel is not a still-life painting. The character might not be a person. It might be a potted plant, but it does things and lives through events that create problems. The reader must feel some sympathy, some association with the character, even if he’s a bad guy.

2. Offer a unique plot. Twenty-thousand Leagues under the Sea had been written but, even so,  The Hunt for Red October was unique. One is adventure in exploration, the other is adventure in subsurface intrigue.

3. Create the Four E’s. David L. Robbins says* the reader wants to be Elevated, Educated, Entertained, and to Escape.  The novel must be meaningful a new experience outside the reader’s daily existence.

4. Hook the reader.  A hook is a comment, a revelation, or an event that compels the reader to turn the page, wanting to discover more. The opening page needs a hook, and each chapter ending or transition is better with a hook.

5. Show goal, motivation, and conflict. Debra Dixon published a writer’s guide with this title. For every significant character, show what he wants, why he wants it, and why he can’t get it. Characters must experience external and internal conflict.  A detective pursuing a bad guy will find external conflict in the clues and in the chase. If he’s addicted to the thrill of his work, and that takes him from a family he loves, he has internal conflict. Without internal conflict, he’s one-dimensional.  No depth., no personality.

6. Retain point of view. Every scene occurs within the view of someone. The point of view (POV) may be a character, or the writer (first-person memoir), or an omniscient viewer who reports everything in the current scene. Don’t jump heads, don’t switch POV except at a break of scene.

7. Develop through change. Every scene must develop the story, create some change. It can be an outer change, a progress in the plot. Or, the POV character may experience inner change, a personal development.

7. Show tension.  Conflict and desire beget tension. Some events solve small problems but raise larger problems for a character. Tension must cycle, up and down, gradually increasing until near the end the character faces a choice between two alternatives, each of which portends disaster.  A rock and a hard place.  How he resolves it displays his growth or his decay.

8. Have structure. A novel is often similar in structure to a three-act play, the first creating the setting, the second developing the plot, and the third leading to the black moment of choice.

9. Show don’t tell. Let the reader experience the action and feel the character’s emotions. Don’t describe the scene-let some character experience how it smells. Don’t describe the emotions, let the character show them. Minimize use of adjectives and avoid adverbs-those words ending in -ly. Tell: She felt the pain of the needle strongly. Show: The needle stabbed her palm, grinding bone.

I’ll offer observations about can show in the next post. For those who are new writers, I hope these thoughts help. For those who read, not write, I hope to provide insight into what’s behind the captivating story you may be reading.  I say “captivating,” because if it is not, you probably aren’t reading it.

* The Writer magazine, Feb. 2013