Ten Little Words

I can tell you how to write great fiction in ten words. There are only two rules:

  1. Tell a good story.
  2. Put the reader in the scene.

Back in the 1980s I had a 3×5 card with those two rules thumbtacked on the wall above my typewriter. By now I don’t remember whether I picked them up in a how-to-write book, or whether they were my own insight. The book I was working on at that time, Walk the Moons Road, was soon bought and published by Del Rey, a fact that suggests those notions may not have been entirely off-base.

The tricky bit is in knowing what the rules mean, and how to apply them.

We can have long, earnest debates about what does or does not constitute “a good story.” At the risk of oversimplifying, I’d say a good story is one the reader cares about. If the reader stops caring, or never starts, it’s not a good story. Recently I was reading a crime novel called Skeletons by Kate Wilhelm. I’ve liked some of her books, but about 2/3 of the way through this one I put it down and haven’t picked it up again. I had stopped caring. There were good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys were really creepy, and the good guys were in great danger … but that was the extent of it. An annoying level of danger, but no reason to care.

The fact that you, the writer, care about your characters is a good start, but it’s not enough. As they say in classes on logic, it’s necessary but not sufficient. Your readers will have to care too. This is why books on writing tell you to choose a likable lead character. Even a zombie can be likable, I suppose; I don’t read zombie books, so I’m not an authority on how to make a zombie likable; I’ll leave that up to you.

Another way to phrase Rule Two would be, “The writing must be clear.” You must provide enough sensory details that your readers can picture the scene, and you must arrange the details in such a way that the mental effort needed to assemble the picture is not too arduous.

How arduous it will be depends on how intelligent you anticipate your readers will be. Some novels require considerable mental effort — and reward it. Others, though marketed to adults, are carefully written at an 8th-grade reading comprehension level. I’m sure the authors of the latter sort of stories know their market.

Writing clearly is really the whole enchilada. Every sentence and every paragraph must serve somehow to make the scene clear to the reader. However, the writing skills you’ll need are various. Pronouns will need clear antecedents. Adjectives and verbs will need to be chosen with care. (As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”) When you’re drafting an action scene, events will almost certainly need to be set down on the page in strictly serial order. Your readers will probably be curious what the characters look like, so you’ll need to tell them. When two characters are interacting, readers will need some hints about their facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Whatever decision you make about viewpoint, you’ll need to handle it with care.

And so on ad infinitum. But it all boils down to that very simple idea: Put the reader in the scene. In the scene. As if the reader were standing there invisibly, watching the drama unfold.

If the drama is not clear to you in your own mind, you won’t be able to put the reader in the scene — but that’s a topic for another time.

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3 Responses to Ten Little Words

  1. Marco says:

    All your life in the arts (music, writing) and you talk about rules. Ok, generic rules. Still rules though.

    Rules can be taught, yet being an artist can not. It is not adherence to the rules that makes great artist great. Sometimes it is the opposite. I believe art is about what (personal, unique) YOU can bring to the table, not about how well you follow the rules.

    “Sure” you may say “the one (rules) does not exclude the other (originality)”. My disagreement is about the attitude. In a world full of ready made recipes and how to guides, it is completely misleading to attach such importance to the rules. And more, art is unconventional and daring and rebellious in nature. It is an act of self identification and self expression and rules are more like a uniform.

    Tell me if you read in the back-cover of a book “this writer follows all do’s and dont’s of good writing”, then how attractive would that book be to you?

    Btw, one of my favorite books is all dialog – without any other “sensory details”.

    • midiguru says:

      Yeah, the word “rules” makes me a little nervous too. I was aware of that while writing this little essay, but decided to stick with it because it’s simple. In principle (oops, there’s another rule), any so-called rule can be broken by any artist at any time — and works that break the “rules” sometimes turn out to be the most compelling. On the other hand, for every wonderful rule-breaking work of art there are approximately 10,000 dreadful failures by would-be artists who thought they didn’t need to follow no steenkin’ rules. Generally speaking, works of art that go beyond or abandon what is considered a norm are created by people who have spent years working _within_ the norms. They know precisely which rules they’re breaking, and why. Picasso _could_ paint perfectly nice realistic paintings, but at a certain point he felt a need for something different. The early works of Schoenberg operate within the framework of late 19th century tonality as it was then understood. James Joyce wrote a bunch of conventional, comprehensible fiction before he threw out the rules in Finnegan’s Wake.

      With respect to this book that’s all dialog, I’d like to know what book you’re referring to. My bet would be that it’s actually a story-within-a-story, that the dialog actually _tells_ a story that _does_ have sensory detail. I mean, Plato wrote dialogs, but nobody considers them stories.

  2. Marco says:

    Thanks for your reply.
    The book is a little (less than 100 pages) novel in Greek, called “Against Marlboro”.
    It is not a story within a story. It describes through dialog the mid life crisis of a yuppie who works in marketing.

    But to be fair to you, I must admit that it does have an descriptive introductory sentence for each little chapter.
    For example:
    “Driving back home after the party he had a headache”
    [Dialog with his wife in the car]
    or
    “The rock singer and his agent came half an hour late to the meeting”
    [Dialog with singer and his agent]
    or
    “Peter called him at 10 o’clock in the morning”
    [Dialog with Peter]

    One of the charms of the book (and you as a writer would admire it) is how many details and info, for example that Peter is his closest friend and makes a lot of money and cheats his wife etc, can be given to the reader explicitly or implicitly thru the tone and the general feeling of the dialog and the dialog itself.

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