- Plot: Plot = story. Something has to happen. And if you hope to have any chance of keeping any readers, that something should probably be interesting. A family of four sitting and watching TV or anybody’s daily routine where nothing out of the ordinary or nothing that causes the character any tension happens does not designate a plot. Some kind of tension is necessary, be it mysterious tension, romantic tension, daily life tension, horrific tension, etc. All good fiction that keeps readers reading requires some kind of tension to pull them along. And the character has to work toward resolving that tension in order to give a plot its most basic foundation.
- Prose: Well written, clean, inviting, and readable prose (or writing). I suppose you could say “well written” speaks for itself, but I’d be inclined to disagree. It takes some writers years to learn modern techniques of good writing. And there are a lot of reasons for this.
1. Not everyone agrees on what is good writing. Styles are often different. So while there may be a predominant mainstream when it comes to what sells popular fiction, that example no more simplifies defining good writing than popular cinema simplifies defining good film-making. Tastes vary.
2. Due to the complexity and nature of subjectivity to the craft, many great writers refuse to publicly pass on what they have learned while many other writers tackle the subject either prematurely or from very particular subjective points of view. To be clear: I would go as far as to say that there is no book on earth that can teach you, from point A to Z, exactly how to write well. Many books will give you hints and clues, and many authors will tell you what works for them, but no two writers are exactly the same and neither will their methods be. That’s not to say there aren’t good teachers or good books out there. There are, but no one can learn to write well by merely reading or learning about it. It takes an interactive approach that combines learning and doing.
3. Which brings us to number three. Learning to write well is a huge commitment that requires a great amount of determination and willingness to experiment as well as an insatiable thirst for reading and writing. Many people who decide one day, “Hey, I want to be a writer,” will never have enough determination to make the kind of commitment to the craft that is required.
- The Hook: The Hook is the first sentence or group of sentences of your story, novella, or novel when crafted to hook the reader. Not all great books have a hook within the first paragraph per se and I would go as far as to say a hook is not always necessary. Really great writers are able to hook most of their readers purely through the power of their prose, voice, or characters. But many will argue with me, and understandably so, that today’s reader is easily distracted and has far too many choices on their real or virtual bookshelf to risk losing them on the first page. And this is true. Many readers—myself included—get distracted and jump from book to book.
Although that can happen for many reasons (i.e. sometimes it’s just not what the reader is in the mood for, or this particular reader inherently doesn’t like some element of the story and never will, or the book just isn’t interesting enough in general), having a hook at the beginning of your book certainly can’t hurt. For short stories I would say a first sentence hook is damn near necessary. A hook is accomplished in many ways. Many people insist on starting with action or in the middle of an intense situation that started prior to the beginning of the story. This can work if it’s not done just for its own sake. But to say it’s the only way to create a hook is ridiculous. Hooks can be created with action, mystery, intrigue, odd sentences that don’t fully make sense without reading further, great dialogue, or countless other ways. It all comes down to imagination. A hook at its most basic explanation is a line or more that makes the reader want to read more. The possibilities for how to execute such a thing are endless.
- Believable Characters in Believable Situations: Now right there it sounds like I just took the idea of genre (especially speculative fiction) and pissed all over it when it comes to what’s essential for crafting fiction. But this is not the case at all. Readers of genre and speculative fiction set aside a degree of belief when they read. It’s no different than when you read something fictional based on the real world. Even though you don’t actually believe what you’re reading is happening right now before you, you still, in some way, believe what you’re reading is something (more or less) true in some sense. And this is usually due to several important factors:
1. Relatable characters the reader can identify with and therefore empathize with. When you read about a character, like meeting people in real life, you instantly look for traits and features about them that are similar and different to your own. And many of us have a number of traits that we feel highly about almost unanimously in society. For instance, many of us especially think highly of someone who is kind or helpful to others. Heroes, for example. People who sacrifice their time or what’s important to them for others. Those who are smart, attractive, funny, do good deeds, etc. And these are wonderful traits to use but combining too many of them can be overkill. And at the same time, believability is even more important. If you relate to a character but you don’t find them believable, what’s the good in that? Will you bother to keep reading about them? Probably not. And what’s the most believable thing that people have, that everyone has, that anyone can relate to? Some kind of flaw or flaws. Everyone has them. Some of them are endearing. Some… not so much. Many, however, are very relatable to others. So a balance is necessary. Good, believable, relatable characters have good and bad traits.
2. Rules. Unless you’re writing bizarro fiction, rules are very important. With real world fiction like literary or any other kind of non-speculative fiction, the rules are already obvious. The rules of physics, the rules of common sense, and every day life are the rules that your story will need to follow in order to be believable. As for speculative fiction like fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the rules are what you make them. But they have to be created and once they’re created and established, they have to be followed in order to be able to keep your situations believable. Any time you sit down to read fiction you have to do what’s called “suspending disbelief.” When you suspend disbelief you tell yourself, “What I’m reading right now is fiction and I know that but I’m going to believe it on some level as I read so I can enjoy this story.” But once the reader makes this decision, which we all subconsciously make every time we open a book of fiction, it’s no longer their responsibility to keep suspending disbelief. It is the writer’s. When a reader stops reading because they don’t find the story believable enough it is usually because the writer has done something to distract them or to remind them that they are, in fact, reading. One of the biggest causes of this is when a writer breaks the rules of their story. Another that’s probably far more responsible is poor writing and/or writing that points out something that takes away from what I like to call “immersion.” Suffice it to say that immersion is that feeling of reading and being fully immersed in the fictional world you are reading about. I’ll talk more about immersion in a later post.
3. Great dialogue. Great dialogue is a sort of balance. Each character has to have their own style of talking. Some similar, but there still has to be some variation. If all your characters talk exactly the same your dialogue will be dry and unbelievable for sure. And always following the rules of grammar too strictly will also make your dialogue much too stiff. If one particular character talks that way, then that makes sense. It can tell you a lot about them, but it’s something that should be unique to that character or a small number of characters per story. Yet, at the same time, making your dialogue too much like conversation and droning on and on about daily things can end up boring the reader. So the trick is to find the right balance between how people really talk and what’s important to the story. It’s not an easy balance to learn. And it can be different due to style. No one can really teach it fully to another person by explaining it. Great dialogue can be learned by listening to how people talk, reading the work of great writers, practicing continuously by writing your own dialogue often, learning to understand what’s important to each story as you write it, and developing your own style.
- A Strong Understanding of, and Infatuation with, Language and Grammar: Poor language and bad grammar form together another example of what can knock a reader right out of suspension of disbelief. Constant typos, bad grammar for no good reason (modern writing tends to bend the rules of grammar often but should only be done for good reasons), heavy or clunky language (using a very large and complicated word when a much shorter/simpler one will work, using too many unnecessary words, repetitive words/phrases, confusing language, etc.), or poorly used punctuation. This element is fairly self-explanatory, but I know a few writers who still struggle with it. Especially the “infatuation” part. They struggle because they don’t want to take the time to learn how to better understand grammar, spelling, etc. They choose to decide that their editors or beta readers, or friends/family, and even readers can do all the work of compensating for their lack of understanding and infatuation with language and grammar and their stories (and editors/readers) suffer for it! Eventually all writers who struggle with this and have enough determination to overcome it will do so. But until they do, they only hold themselves back. I mean, imagine a mechanic who hates tools! Or a professional pilot who has a phobia of flying. These things make just as much sense as a writer who doesn’t understand and cherish language and grammar.
- A Strong Satisfying Ending: Every piece of fiction needs one, right? But how do you explain how to write a good ending to any story? For that matter, how do you write a good ending? I don’t think this is something anyone can teach. There are many different kinds of endings. The twist ending, the happy ending, the sad or tragic ending, the scary ending, the bleak ending, the bittersweet ending, the cliffhanger ending… the list goes on and on. Every story has its own “right” ending and many “wrong” endings unique to itself. But there are some elements predominant in good endings. Here’s three that can help make your ending great when used properly:
1. Resonance. Resonance is that feeling like déjà vu you get when you finish a story. That feeling like all the pieces fit together or at least some particularly profound pieces did. This technique is almost always great. But it requires the story to have a sort of theme and/or parallel or contrasting element established early on. Resonance is probably one of the hardest rabbits to pull out of a writer’s bag of tricks. It is so ingrained in the story itself that to explain its inner workings would require examples and many more words than this entire blog post. Suffice it to say, resonance is not usually accomplished in a first draft. It typically requires a lot of analysis of the story as a whole and part by part—what Stephen King calls “Seeing the forest for the trees”—combined with anywhere from light to heavy revision to achieve the full effect successfully.
2. Change. The most obvious thing about plot is that it should bring about change in the end. This can be a change in the main character, changes in all the characters, their setting, or any number of possibilities. It is almost always necessary in any good story for someone or something important to be completely and utterly changed in some form by the end of the tale.
3. Emotional impact. Emotional impact is not always necessary, but when it is and it’s handled well, it can leave a reader in tears and eagerly awaiting your next work of fiction. Many readers know what I’m talking about here. When a book or story makes you cry, it’s a good bet you won’t soon (if ever) forget it. And the best thing you can accomplish as a writer is leaving a profound impression on your reader. Emotional impact can also be brought about with resonance. Some would say the two are the same, but I would argue that either one can be achieved without the other and therefore are not mutually exclusive.
firstname.lastname@example.org That’s it for this first edition of The Subtle Balance. Click here to read the next installment: The Subtle Balance Blog Series: Part 2 Point of View... Well, Some of it at Least.