I can tell you how to write great fiction in ten words. There are only two rules:
- Tell a good story.
- 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.