Musings

Fiction Writing 101

November 14, 2008

So, you’ve been reading fiction all your life, and you’ve said, hey, this seems pretty easy. Any idiot could do this! Well, guess what, you’re right. For this blog entry, I’ll be sharing with you, aspiring writers, everything of value that I took from four years of creative writing classes, boiled down into a few simple paragraphs. Why spend the money on a B.A. when I’ve got you covered? I’ll give you the most straightforward advise you’re likely to get, if you’ve got the writing bug and want to get started without delay.

First rule, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This sounds incredibly simplistic, but when you’re starting out, if your story doesn’t feel quite “right,” or if something seems to be missing, the first question you should probably ask yourself is whether any of these three essential elements are lacking. There can be such a thing as starting a story in the middle, where the reader is going to feel that they’ve missed out on some crucial exposition, character development, or other story elements that are necessary for them to become successfully engrossed in the action. Alternatively, the middle can be missing. The story can go from a definitive beginning to the final action without an appropriate amount of buildup and tension. When that happens, usually the ending doesn’t seem justified. Endings need to be earned. If the ending doesn’t feel earned, you need to go back, retool, and reexamine. Finally, there needs to be an end. If you’ve got your beginning down, and you’ve worked toward the climax, that climax, much like in sex, needs to come. Otherwise, what was the point? The worst of the three parts to leave out is the ending. Humans need to have things end. They need that satisfaction, particularly when it comes to fiction.

That brings us to the structure of story. Stories of any length, that take any form- short story, novel, novella, screenplay, comic book, whatever- need to have rising action, climax, and falling action. Another way I’ve heard this referred to is the inverted check mark. Think of a check mark, upside down. The rising action is what occurs as you are coming up the hill of the check mark, toward the peak. The lowest point of the check mark is the beginning of the story. You get to the middle of the story, and things intensify, or build, as you continue to climb. The top, or peak, of the check mark, is the climax of the story, almost at the end, but not quite. You still need to drop down from that peak, to complete the check mark; this is falling action, what occurs when the protagonist has dealt with whatever was fueling the conflict of the story, and is reconciling themselves (or not) to whatever has happened. I’ve heard it described another way that I liked too; as one of my professors told us, you get your guy up the tree, you throw rocks at him, you get your guy out of the tree. In other words, you introduce the conflict, you pit the protagonist against whatever is challenging them, you resolve the conflict, thus concluding the story. 

The next rule is as follows: only trouble is interesting. Let me say that again, just as my professor did: only trouble is interesting. That’s another way of saying that no one wants to read a story where there are no challenges, where everything is a walk in the park, and nothing of consequence goes wrong. The essence of fiction is conflict. There must be problems, there must be calamity, there must be catastrophe. Without it, there’s no point in writing. A boring day is just that, boring. Readers want to read about trouble, they want to squirm delightedly because they’re experiencing the trouble vicariously. They’re not the ones getting the flat tires, they’re not being fired from work, they’re not being caught masturbating by their moms, their worlds aren’t being threatened by aliens. But they want to read about these things, because they want to experience all of it, indirectly, from one degree away, the shame, the fear, the excitement, the titillation, the hope, the exhilaration, the desperation, the confusion, the madness, the sorrow. These are the calling cards of good fiction. These are the reasons your audience has come to the show. An addendum to the rule, before we move on. You can write about things that seem boring to you. You’re allowed. Doing so won’t necessarily make you lose the reader. The only thing you have to do is find the mystery in the mundane. You have to convey the boredom, the tedium, the monotony, in a way that makes it seems interesting. It’s challenging. But good writing always is.

Next, as another professor of mine once told me, in selecting what you want to write about, keep this in mind. You’re going to be able to write most effectively, and most realistically, about the things you know best. If you’re from Little Rock, Arkansas, and you’ve never been anywhere else in your life, you’re probably going to be able to write most realistically about Little Rock, Arkansas (and incidentally, if that is the case, then I feel profoundly sorry for you). This is not to say that you can’t write a story that takes place in Helsinki, Finland, or Paris, France, or on the surface of the moon, if you want to. Will it be as effective as the story taking place in Little Rock? Will the characters be as convincing, or the dialogue? Maybe, but probably not. This is not to say, however, that you should only write about what you know. On the contrary, you should write about things you know nothing about, because only then will you improve as a writer. But we’re only talking about getting started, so in the beginning, my advice would be, stick with what you know.

We’re getting close to being ready to begin now. To review: we know that we’re looking for a beginning, middle, and end, we know that we need rising action, climax, and falling action, we know that only trouble is interesting, and we know to stick with what we’re familiar with, as least in the beginning. Now, here’s three things you’re going to need to get right, because if you blow even one of these, you’re going to be severely hurting your finished product. You need to get the beginning right, the ending, and the title. Now, we already knew we needed a beginning. But that’s not good enough: you need a good beginning. You need an opening that’s going to suck the reader in, right from the start, an opening that’s going to compel the reader onward. A good exercise from my creative writing class days that I would recommend is writing several first sentences that are immediately gripping. You want to start strong. A powerful narrative demands it. Next, the ending. If you’ve gotten the beginning right, and the middle, the rising action, then, by God, you need an ending deserving of all the work you put into the rest of the story. Without a good ending, all you’ve worked for has been for naught. You’ll know, if the ending is weak. It won’t feel right, and believe me, the reader will notice it too. Nothing is more unsatisfying than a weak ending, or an ending that feels wrong, or unearned, or unjustified. Finally, the title. If your story is perfect, down to the tiniest detail, give it a title deserving of it. The best titles fit the tone and theme of your story perfectly, and it’s even better if they work on multiple levels. A bad title kills the story dead before it’s even started. A couple of examples: Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Fransisco. 2 Fast, 2 Furious. Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. See what I mean? They never had a chance. In my personal creative process, it’s not uncommon for me to come up with a title, or a beginning, or an ending, and then craft the rest of the story around it. I have titles of things, for instance, that I came up with fifteen years ago, that I still haven’t written the stories for. I know the stories exist. The titles are strong enough that they almost have to.

That should be enough to  go on for now. There are a multitude of other story elements that are needed for a convincing narrative, and we could spend all day dissecting and discussing them, irony, silence, symbolism, character development, convincing dialogue, mood, tone, theme, choice of tense, and selection of first, second, or third person, to name a few. I’ll write about some of these more later. But the final thing you need to know about writing, and perhaps the most important, is that sooner or later, at some point, you just need to do it. Anyone can. Whether you can do it well remains to be seen, but just remember, practice makes better (there is no perfection in writing), and you can’t get better at something until you eventually start doing it. Remember, if you were destined to be a writer, then you’re going to be compelled not only to do it, but to continue doing it. Eventually, you’re not going to have any choice in the matter. I’ll just leave you with this last tidbit of thought: there are worse things than writers, especially fiction writers. The desire to write fiction is evidence of creativity, and if you’ve ever even thought about doing it, then there might be hope for you. Just don’t do it better than me, cus that would really piss me off. Good luck, and good writing…

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1 Comment

  • Reply Helen January 18, 2009 at 2:25 am

    Hello Steven,

    I enjoy reading this. Can I print this article and pass it to my writer friends? With your name and web site address on it, of course.

    Thanks.

    Helen

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