As a yet-to-be-published fiction author, I find I’m still learning the craft of writing. I’m not sure the learning ever stops. Maybe once I sell John Grisham quantities of books, I might feel a little more secure about my authoring capabilities. Still, not having sold a single fiction story, I’m not even sure I qualify as a beginner. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know a few things.
There’s a difference between knowing and applying. You can choose or be incapable of applying what you know, but you can’t apply what you don’t know. So while I continue to learn how to apply my knowledge, I thought it would be fun to share a few things that I have learned over my journey thus far.
Maybe you know all this already. If you’re a published author, I’m sure you do. But sometimes, reminders such as these can be helpful as well. So take a journey with me to the Fiction Kitchen, and let’s review some of the ingredients to a good story (without the ongoing kitchen metaphor.)
1. Have a problem to solve
Every story must have a problem, challenge, or puzzle to solve. A story without a challenge for the MC to overcome is, well, underwhelming at best. The challenge can be physical, mental, spiritual, or even emotional. Many stories have more than one going on at the same time. A good writer ensures that their characters have a challenge beyond the plot. Something personal or hidden deep within the MC that she must overcome before the plot can be resolved.
2. Exaggerate the problem, not the solution
The challenge your MC faces should be big. HUGE, in fact. Maybe the vastness of the challenge remains hidden at the onset, but somewhere along the way, it must appear insurmountable to the characters. Something far, far bigger than themselves.
But where it’s okay to hype the size of the problem, be careful that you don’t do the same for the solution. In other words, the solution must be almost as difficult as the problem itself. If the solution to a massive problem comes easy, well, it really wasn’t a massive problem. Your problem can be outlandish. The solution must feel real.
3. Start with the end in mind
This is a hard one for us pantsers, but it’s important for you to have a direction to point your story toward. You don’t need to know exactly how the story ends, but you should have an idea of what the characters are going for. Might that change as you write? Sure. But starting with an end in mind goes a long way to keeping your story on track, with fewer large-scale story revisions required later.
4. Develop your story
There is nothing worse than characters making huge leaps in logic just to serve the plot. It’s certainly okay for them to have “ah-ha” moments, but these should be few and far between.
One particular pet peeve of mine is when characters come across the solution to their problem by accident. Like they just happened to be in the right place at the right time doing completely unrelated things. This, to me, is lazy writing. I’d rather see a slightly longer story that shows the characters using their skills to earn the solution rather than stumbling upon it.
Detective: “What did you just say?”
Character 2: “I said, I talked to Colonel Mustard just this morning. He was lighting candles in the library.”
Detective: “That’s it! It wasn’t blood at the crime scene… it was KETCHUP! Miss Scarlet wasn’t murdered. She choked on a hot dog.”
5. Keep your characters in character
Another way writers propel the story forward is to use dialogue. This is perfectly fine, so long as the dialogue fits the character. Don’t let characters do or say something that is not in their nature. Not for the plot. Not for anything.
As I was writing my novel, I often had to change dialogue from one character to another. But in doing so, I always rewrote it to ensure it was true to that particular character’s voice.
But be careful that a character never suddenly knows or reaches a conclusion that they have no foundation for. Let your characters be who they are, and don’t let them stray from that for any reason.
6. Have someone to root for
Some authors write main characters that are so unlikable that the reader cannot take the journey with them. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an MC with unlikable personality traits, but there has to be something about them that the reader can get behind.
Personally, I love characters that are written to be unlikeable. But underneath the rough exterior, the writers have to show the character’s human side. Without that, the MC might as well be the bad guy.
7. Don’t break the rules
As a sci-fi writer (and more specifically, time-travel), my biggest complaint is when the characters break the “rules” for the sake of the plot. But even non-sci-fi novels can have the same problems. We all build worlds, and in those worlds, some things can and cannot be true. As authors, we must keep our characters rooted in the reality of the worlds we have built for them. There is nothing more annoying than an out-of-nowhere miracle.
Years ago, I read a novel by one of my favorite authors. All of his work is rooted in political reality, but one of his novels, at the very end, ventured into miracle from God territory. In one way, it fit the story, but there wasn’t enough world-building set up for it, so it just seemed to come out of nowhere. All it needed was characters talking about the possibility (no matter how outlandish it would seem to them) to make the out-of-nowhere-miracle work.
8. Some rules were meant to be broken
If you can find a legitimate and compelling reason to break the rules, then you’re free to do so. But, as I said above, you have to find a way to lay the groundwork for it. In my novel, I went through great pains to establish the rules. But I also laid crumbs, so I was free to break the rules if/when the time was right.
If you’re going to break a writing rule, you must first know the rule and why it exists. Then know why you’re breaking it. Otherwise, it’s just sloppy writing.
9. The bad guys sometimes win, but the hero always overcomes
In every novel, you have to let the bad guys win. In fact, they should rack up far more victories than the MC. Some big and some small. The more the bad guy wins, the more the reader becomes invested in how the MC will overcome. But you’ve got to let the MC win some too, and, of course, the MC must always overcome the bad guy in the end.
10. Learn from the past
Your MC needs to undergo some personal growth or change. They don’t just solve the “problem” in the plot, they also have to solve the problem(s) from within themselves. It’s this internal growth that helps them find the external solution.
11. Look to the future
Characters live in the present, but they plan for the future. This is the drive in the plot. If you don’t dangle that carrot in front of your characters (and audience), then your story is stuck. It’s just people talking, acting, and reacting to whatever is immediate, with no driving force. There has to be an underlying drive—an urgency they are striving toward.
12. Stay rooted in the present
A good plot has a lot to do with the future. What will the MC do to get out of this jam? But while it’s important to have a place to drive the story, you also need to keep the characters rooted in what’s going on right now. And it’s not always about what they are doing, but how they are feeling. How are the ongoing events impacting them in the present? And how does that drive the decisions they make for the future?
But there’s another angle to this as well. Regardless of when your story is set (past, present, future, all of the above), your story must feel relevant to the reader today. If it only addresses “future” or “past” problems, you’re missing an opportunity to impact your readers in a genuine way. And what’s the point of a book if not to impact your readers?
13. Everything is expendable
One of the things you could count on from TV shows twenty years ago was that no matter what happened in an episode, by the end, the status quo would return. You knew Voyager would never make it home (until the end). We knew that no matter how many times they shut down the X-Files in a cliffhanger episode, they’d be opened right back up again so Mulder and Skully could continue their work.
Thankfully, many TV stories told today embrace change. They are not afraid to kill off loved characters, drive characters out of their known safety, or jump forward several years to drop the characters into totally new surroundings. Even in stand-alone books, we need to embrace change. It doesn’t matter how much we love our characters, settings, or situations. Everything–and I mean everything–is expendable. Many things outlive their usefulness in stories. Be willing to kill them off. Killing off old characters and strategies leaves room for something new and fresh.
This is just a start
Some of these lessons were harder learned than others. It’s taking me time to learn and master these few simple tricks, but I’m getting there. And then I’ll make room for more. There will always be something new to learn and apply in my writing, such as how to get rid of passive voice, choosing stronger verbs, and giving characters more meaningful reactions than sighing.
Hey, I’m still a work in progress.