Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What makes fiction good?

Creative Commons: Woman with books

Writing fiction is different from writing non-fiction. It’s harder.

With non-fiction, you may answer a need: “How to hammer nails straight,” or “How to deceive yourself into believing that this diet will actually work next week.”

In fiction, however, it’s completely up to the writer to make the reader need to read the content. And as I read fiction lately, I find myself trying to deconstruct the appeal some writers hold for me.

First, I want a story that pulls me along. I have to want to find out what happens next. While this strikes me as obvious, some writers apparently need to be told: don’t bore me.

I also appreciate originality. Many writers, particularly of cop or spy stories, seem to be trying to write an episode of their favourite TV show, rather than making up their own stories. Another tip: don’t make everyone beautiful. I’ve said it before: if you look around you, you won’t see a lot of beautiful people. A few, sure. But most humans are tolerable-looking, maybe attractive.

There’s also the depth of characterization, the writer’s ability to make a character or a situation real. Dialogue has a lot to do with this, but writing believable dialogue is very tricky. If you were to write down exactly what people actually say, it would make for very boring and incomprehensible prose — people make up what they say as they go along, and there are a lot of false starts and changes in tense and tone in ordinary speech. And then there’s all the information conveyed by tone of voice and body language. It takes an extraordinarily skilled writer to capture all of that.

How a writer writes

Writing style has a lot of impact on my enjoyment. There’s word choice, and sentence structure, but I don’t have patience for writers who are trying to impress me with their vocabulary. TELL THE STORY.

Many have said: “Show me, don’t tell me.” The writers I like best are those who, simply and clearly, bring me right into the situation.

Here’s a great example from the independent and best-selling Martin Crosbie. In the opening of My Temporary Life, he brings you intimately into the character’s life — and you don’t even notice his style:

I think I first smelled booze on Gerald when we were eleven, and as far as I know he’s been drinking ever since. We’re thirteen now, almost fourteen, and he still carries a mickey to school a couple of times a week. I know how he does it. He told me once. He raids his parents’ liquor cabinet and takes a little from every bottle, making up a toxic mixture of alcohol. He’s small and wiry, almost invisible really, so it’s probably quite easy for him to sneak around in his house, stealing things, unnoticed.
Another great Canadian independent author is Montrealer Beverly Akerman. This is the opening of the first story in her collection, The Meaning of Children:

When the arguing started, their voices would get louder and louder, till they broke into my dreams. That night, I woke and listened in the dark for what felt like a very long time. Perhaps I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. For one thing, they never yelled at Lisa or me, and for another, they argued so often I was used to it. Besides, I learned a lot when they fought. But that night, the uproar was exceptional. Even Lisa woke up after a while, and she stood there in the crib in her fuzzy footed pyjamas, fingers in mouth, he eyes shiny and round as marbles. I finally got out of bed and padded down the hallway to see what it was about this time.

Both examples give you a lot of information, but not too much. They tell you about a character and make you want to read more, without overwhelming you with the dreaded “information dump.”

What not to do:

Here’s an example of an information dump (details altered to protect the guilty):
Michael Chapman stood wearily in line at the ferry’s bar. It had been a long trip, but he was nearing its end. Four years ago Michael was a twenty-eight-year-old investment counselor with a corner office in one of the gleaming glass towers of Atlanta. He thought he had it all — until his marriage disintegrated in a messy divorce in which his wife got the house, the kids, and everything else important to him. After eight more months of pointless activity, he walked away from his job, cashed in what remained of his investments, and bought a ticket to England.
Not only does that use a lot of clichés (“gleaming glass towers,” “marriage disintegrated,” “messy divorce,” “walked away from his job”), there’s no reason to dump all this here. Get on with the story: he’s in line at the bar — does he get his drink? Or does something get in the way? Where is the ferry going? How long has the journey been?

As the writer, you can build the back-story in as it's needed. Show me the pain of the divorce when Michael meets another potential romantic partner, or some other situation that calls for it. And he's 28, with kids and a corner office? In what universe, other than EL James's?

In On Unfaithful Wings, fantasy author Bruce Blake is a little more descriptive. But he doesn’t overwhelm you while making you feel for this character:

I stood with my back to the church, much the way I’d lived my life.

Rain poured down the eaves, splashing my shoes. Each drop pattering against the leather felt as though it landed directly on my mood. I tugged my suit jacket tighter and glanced at my watch — almost eleven p.m. If the rain didn’t let up soon, Trevor would be in bed, his belated birthday present another day late. After letting him down again, Rae probably wouldn’t let me give him the gift, anyway. A heavy sigh drew the taste of rain on dry soil into my lungs as I suppressed the desire to call her names in my head, to blame her for everything. It wasn’t her fault.

One more example to stress the points I’m trying to make: make it a close-up. It’s been said before: we find the universal in the particular. In A Birthday to Remember, Thomas L. Scott uses simple, clear language to take us all back to our own fifth birthdays:

Once, on a Saturday morning when I was just five years old, our house burned to the ground. Just before it happened, I was alone in the family room right off the kitchen, probably doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, like jumping on the furniture or bouncing a ball against the wall. You know, kid stuff. Well anyhow, the fire turned out to be one of those things which really wasn’t anybody’s fault, no matter how badly you wanted it to be. Circumstances came together and it just happened. Nobody likes to think stuff like that goes on but it does. It was my fifth birthday.
All these good examples put the reader right into the situation. They’re personal. Readers can identify with the character. If it were a movie, the director would be starting with a very close focus. Context comes later, naturally as the story rolls out.

In the next post, I’ll give you some more examples of the kind of writing I don’t like. Because you’re all writing for me, right?


  1. Yes, we are all writing for you, Scott, and why not? You're blogs are on target and if you're our reader, we've done our job. Excellent post.
    Elaine Sangiolo

  2. That was very informative. The info dump was lifeless. We learned about the character, but nothing was happening. As soon as we went into back story, the image of the bar completely disappeared in my mind. He could have been anywhere.