7 Things I Hate And Love About Fiction
Writing Lessons Learned From Devouring 56 Novels Last Year
I’ve consumed over fifty fiction books in the last twelve months. That number includes both reading and audiobooks. As a writer, I’ve learned to take notes about what I liked and disliked about the novels I read.
I do exercise this to teach myself what makes a good story, and more importantly, what can ruin one. Whenever I skim over passages or increase the playback speed on an audiobook to 2X, I ask myself why. What made me want to skip ahead? It’s not a perfect science, but neither is art.
Avoid Unnecessary Information (But Not Always)
Conventional wisdom teaches us that useless information should be edited out. If it doesn’t move the story along it doesn’t belong. I mostly agree with this, but I’m not a hardcore believer.
I’ve dug into a few hardcore science fiction novels that berate the reader with endless technical details that only distract from the story. I find the vomiting of technical jargon, pedantic background details, and esoteric facts a self-indulgent act as if to say “look at all the research I’ve done.”
In some circumstances, extra tidbits of info can enhance the story. It can provide insight into the world the author created. The information often does nothing to move the story along, but it’s interesting, and it helps round out the universe and gives it a more realistic feel. It’s best when sprinkled in little bits. Brandon Sanderson does a great job of this in the Stormlight Archive series.
David and Goliath Moments
There is a scene in the book, Shogun by James Clavell, where the character Mariko is in conversation with one of the war-lords. The war-lord denies a request of hers. She asks him to reconsider. He declines and invites her to stay in his domain as a guest. She politely declines and repeats her request.
This scene plays out in a back and forth verbal battle with both parties trying to maintain the courtesy and manners expected of a samurai. Mariko has no power over the war-lord other than the willingness to commit suicide. My description of the scene fails to do it justice, but it elicited an intense emotional response.
It was the combination of the power dynamic (David vs. Goliath) and the stakes, packaged in an absurdly polite conversation. The scene would not have been as effective if the two sides were yelling and cursing at each other. The polite conversation and adherence to good manners might seem at odds with the stakes, but it was the obvious below-the-surface danger that made it memorable.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
We make decisions all the time in real life. Some have far-reaching consequences while others have almost no effects worth mentioning. I recently read the book Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.
I have mixed feelings on the book, but there is one scene where the seven remaining female survivors of the human race gather around a table to discuss the repopulation of humans. They are deciding on what kind of genetic alterations or enhancements they should be allowed to choose. They disagree, of course, but they do come to a decision.
Once the discussion begins, you know whatever they decide will have far-reaching consequences on the future of the human race. How could you not want to see how that plays out?
In real life we face transformational decisions on rare occasions, so you can’t put in a scene like this on every page. It’s important to note, most of the tension exists in the lead up to the decision, so make it last.
One of the reasons I’m not into detective novels is because the characters are often one-dimensional. They don’t change much, if at all. Not every character needs to go through a transformative change, but I need at least one character to experience a realization, transformation or even a refusal to change in spite of his or her experiences. I recognize I may be in a minority as there are lots of best sellers with somewhat stale characters.
Wait. You Forgot…
I recently watched Dan Brown on masterclass.com. I’ll admit, I’m not the hugest fan of his novels, but there is no doubt he’s a successful brand. You can learn from writers who don’t suit your taste, as I learned a lot from his lessons.
The lesson that stuck with me most was his belief in making a promise to the reader. Every time you create a mystery or an unanswered question, you are making a promise to the reader. You are promising to answer the question or solve the mystery by the end of the book.
He keeps track of all those promises both big and small and makes sure he address all of them. It was one of those head-slapper lessons. You’ve probably had the experience where you finish a book, and you think “whatever happened to…” or “she never closed the loop on…”
A satisfying ending answers all those open questions. It fulfills the promises you make to your reader.
Wow! What a coincidence
Absurd, unbelievable coincidences send me into a minor fury. If you read a lot of fiction, you know where I’m going with this.
The protagonist is in a bind, but a series of unusual events lead to a fateful turn.
He’s fired from his job.
His car breaks down on the way home.
The tow truck won’t get there for another hour because of an unamed emergency.
He walks across the street to a convenient shopping mall.
A sage, old wise man who also happens to be working as a mall Santa bumps into him and offers advice that changes the course of his life.
He gets back to his car. A female tow truck driver fixes his car. He asks her out on a date.
That was an absurd example, but it shows you what I mean. There is a difference between a plausible coincidence and an unrealistic coincidence. A good setup goes a long way to add plausibility to a coincidence.
“I don’t believe you,” he snorted.
“Get out of here already,” he snorted.
Every writer has their crutch words and phrases. These are soundbites for which we feel some bizarre fondness. I notice them every time I read over a first-draft.
Sometimes they’re attributions, like in the example above. Sometimes they’re nonsensical descriptions like “a caustic grin.” Do you know what a caustic grin looks like? I don’t either, but it was a constant facial expression of a fictional character. I gave up on the book because I couldn’t take it anymore.
Sometimes you wonder how these repetitive crutch phrases slip past the editing process. A little variety goes a long way.