image by troismarteaux c/o Flikr
This has been a wonderfully productive week. This time last week, I was stumbling around trying to figure out why my characters were misbehaving–now I’ve got a clear(er) vision of what they’re up to, and I’ve set aside the scaffolding behind the book to settle on the actual writing. I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed 2242 words in total since Sunday’s update. This means I’ve finished the re-write of my Knight of Sand scene (with a new character!) and have half finished Queen of Rain, the first scene in the second story. With luck, I’ll have that finished by tomorrow and will be well on the way toward finishing Court of Rain by the end of next week.
All this work last week on the structure of my book got me to thinking about how fiction is, well, structured. So I thought I’d share something today that I’ve long thought at the core of a good novel or story: the Three Pillars of Fiction.
These aren’t by any means the be-all and end-all of writing fiction, but I think they’re a pretty well distilled group. I don’t think you can write a story without them–and if anyone knows of an example, I’d love to read it! I think all three are necessary, too–you can’t have one without the other. They’re like a tripod holding a brazier: knock one leg down and the others will topple, spilling embers and setting fire to the whole temple.
Anyway, in no particular order:
This is the meat of your story, and has always been my favourite part to write. One of the most quoted adages of writing is “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what description is all about. This can be done well, or very poorly, and how it’s handled will give the reader a very strong image of the book as a whole either way. If you have some great descriptions, it can bring a reader into the World of your book like no other way can–but if your descriptions are tepid, cliched, or dull, they’ll just want to put it down.
This, I think, is where the book really comes alive. In a way, description is where you as an author get to whisper in your reader’s ear. You set up the tone and the feel of the story for them, lead them through it. When I’m writing description, I often think of my background in the theatre–it’s like directing a play. You have a particular image you want to portray, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to show it to your reader. The best part is that, done right, this pillar isn’t all that difficult–the secret is in allowing the reader some leeway with their own imagination. They’ll fill in more detail than you could ever conceivably put down into words, and make your descriptions stand out with as much vibrancy as they like.
Anyone can have a character tell the backstory, but doing so in a compelling and informative way is not easy at all. The trap here is falling into a lecture. The last thing a reader wants is a five page history lesson about the background of your main character–even if it’s crucial to the plot. Exposition should be used like salt: a little dash here and there.
There’s an excellent article about this here. Roz Morris says it as succinctly as anyone could: “The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural.” Exposition–as required as it is in some form–just seems jarring when it’s not done well. Would you enjoy a movie where the main character took ten minutes of screen time speaking directly to the audience trying to explain the story? No. In fact, having a character take the time to explicitly explain the story is a tell-tale sign that you’re not trusting your reader. You don’t have to beat them over the head with it, they’ll figure it out. And if they don’t, maybe your writing is too obscure in the first place.
On the other hand, exposition is very important for any story. Any reader is going to ask “why should I care?” when they first pick up a book. What drives them to want to read it? What’s it’s about? You have to get that across somehow. The trick is doing it subtly enough that your reader doesn’t realize it’s happening. Morris shows a great example from Orwell’s 1984 in the link above. To use another theatre analogy, one of the best ways to inexpensively build a set is to use Indicative Props: items you put on stage to hint that you’re in a particular place. A couple trees shows you’re in a forest, a scarecrow and sheaf of corn shows you’re in a field–you don’t need a whole painted backdrop. Writing is the same: sprinkle hints here and there, and you’ll get some nice “Indicative Exposition” to coin a phrase.
Another of my favourite techniques (though I’m not too good at it myself) is The Watson. This is a character who exists to ask the same questions the readers need to ask to get involved in the story. The Watson might be a major character or a narrator, and have other reasons for being there–but part of their purpose is to get the reader to identify with them. Effectively, the reader experiences the exposition vicariously through the Watson’s eyes.
This, for many people, is the big one. Honestly, I hate dialogue–I don’t think I’m very good at it, which is precisely the reason I don’t write stage plays. Dialogue has a lot of small factors you need to get right before it sounds real: accent, colloquialisms, tone, phrasing. And so on. It’s like maintaining a large machine without knowing how all the individual parts fit together.
For me, the hard part about dialogue is getting characters to sound different from one another. I’m not expert, but I think the trick in this case is to do character sketches. The way a character talks should reflect their character as a person. Someone who’s been brought up with a silver spoon in their mouth probably won’t swear as much as the dock worker who needs to bust his hump ten hours a day to feed his family. If you have a well fleshed out character, dialogue is a bit easier to write.
I think the most important thing to consider about dialogue is how it reads. That might sound redundant, so let’s rephrase it: you should hear how it sounds out loud. Read your dialogue as if you were reading a script. Have a friend read the other part, and have an actual conversation. If it sounds stilted or forced, re-do it. If it doesn’t sound like people talking, it’s not good enough. Dialogue that sounds unnatural sticks out on the page like a sore thumb, and it’s another easy turn off for a reader. On the other hand, if it reads like people talk, it’s easy for the reader to follow along–and more importantly, to connect with the characters.
Well, there we have it. Three Pillars of Fiction–do you have more to suggest? I’d love to hear your comments below!