The Three Stages of Good Fiction

First of all, a little shameless plug: All Hail the New Flesh, a scifi short fiction anthology containing a piece by yours truly is out TOMORROW, Sat 25th Jan on Amazon for your e-book or paperback pleasure 🙂 If you’re a fan of dystopian futures and stuff generally going badly for humanity (as well as obligatory killer robots) it’s for you. You can read an advance review here.

Also, it might interest you to know that Dagda Publishing are now accepting submissions of flash fiction for their popular blog. It has focused mainly on poetry this far but is planning on branching out. They have chosen a piece of mine, Caffiene Low, as their first post, which makes me inexpressibly chuffed to say the least.

If you’re interested in getting some fiction up there, check out their submission guidlines.

So now, yes! Something about writing…

It’s as ‘easy’ as 1, 2, 3…?

I have waffled before about the Analytical Eye – that pesky but useful attribute that picks apart what you enjoy and what you don’t in order to inform your own creative process. For me, this means I don’t just read any more, but ponder, reflect, analyse, define.

Such is the plight of the fiction writer. But I can’t deny that it can be useful.

And so it was, as I was reading the other night, that I had the revelation about how I enjoy a book, or how a good book enjoys me: The Three Stages.

It’s my fiction-writing Holy Trinity. For me, stages one and two have to be met and passed for me to even commit to finish the book. If it passes stage three too, that more than likely means the novel has that page-clenching quality that all my favourite books have, which not only keeps me gripped to the end but, more often than not, will make it likely I will return to it for a re-read.

Stage One – The Language

These stages aren’t in priority order, but chronological. Language is the first stage because it’s the first thing I discover about the book and is the first thing to make me decide whether I want to read on. I can usually tell by the end of the first paragraph, maybe even the first sentence, whether the language is the sort to carry a good novel. Someone can have the most amazing story ideas, kick-ass cover art, top-notch recommendations but, if I’ve read that first page and the language isn’t doing it for me, I find it hard to muster the commitment to continue.

Oh, I sound picky, don’t I? But I don’t demand much from language, not really. Original style, established voice, professional tone: all good and something all writers should all aspire to achieve, but these, for me (and I can hear the professionals and my tutors from uni pressing hands to forehead and crying woe-is-me) are just the icing on the cake. Language, for me, at it’s most basic level, just needs to be handled well and edited well. The stuff needs to be well-written, basically.

Sound obvious? You’d think so. But it’s not always a given.

Over-writing, convoluted, clumsy or misplaced imagery, redundant motifs, over-use of a particular word or sentence structure are just some of the things that will reveal themselves very quickly and lead me to put a book aside. Even if the story is amazing, with clunky language, I just can’t submerse myself in it. You don’t want to see the writer as you read. Just the story.

I ’m not going to even touch on spelling or grammar mistakes because if it the book has been released it simply shouldn’t have any. End of discussion.

Stage Two – The Story

So I’ve got a few pages into the book and the language doesn’t blow, woohoo! I can confidentially expect that whatever follows will be told well. Therefore, stage two has a little more wiggle room than stage one: if the writer has handled the language well it’s a pretty good bet they’ve got something enjoyable to read lined up, so I am willing to give it a chapter or two to see what the story does for me.

So it’s got wiggle room and time to get established, but stage two still needs come about pretty quickly. A story. A good one, too. One that’s paced well, with the right amount of tension and a good amount of action. And I don’t need action literally, necessarily. But there does need to be stuff going on. Plot moving forward and discoveries being made as a result of the characters’ decisions.

Ah, yes. This active v. passive malarky. That’s a fun one.

I had a minor panic about the novel I’m working on at the moment and its own stage two. I was worried that it was too passive. A lot happens, don’t get me wrong: death, explosions, tears, confrontation, redemption, all the good stuff. But I did have to have a sit and a good old think about whether my plot was too passive: sure, loads of things were happening, but were they happening to my characters, rather than because of them?

A plot generated by the action of the characters is more organic, as well as more engaging, not to mention more realistic. Sure, the overarching backdrop parts of the storyline might be out of their hands, but the immediate narrative, the bit the readers are seeing through your protagonists’ eyes, has to be effected by what they think, say and, most importantly, do. If a bunch of things just happen to them, they’re a hapless victim of circumstance and you feel out of the loop, like your standing on the edge of the action rather than being immersed elbow-deep in the morass.

It’s a difference between watching a whodunit where the detective just keeps asking questions until the murderer admits what they’ve done and why (I’ve seen a few of these. Dull doesn’t begin to cover it), or one that has you on the edge of the seat and your jaw on the floor at the time of the grand reveal because the detective has actively chased up the clues, followed the evidence and pieces something together and made the discovery happen.

And you go, ‘Wooooah! They all did it?’

I don’t know what it’s like for you but it doesn’t take me long to get a feel as to whether a story is going to be engaging and active, as well as packed with your particularly level of action, intrigue and drama. Stage two gets more time to pass as it is more elusive as well as subjective. But it still has to come about organically and relatively quickly to draw me in. It also has to not let up. Stage two isn’t done until the story is.

Stage Three – The Arc

This is the third and final part of my trinity, and cannot be judged until the book is finished. This far there can be great language and good pace, and good immediate action, but what it needs to have had by the end is a conclusive arc. Unless you are being very clever and/or deliberately subverting the form, there needs to be some form of progression and conclusion. We can’t have just wandered around for three hundred pages, even with nail-biting tension, fantastic dialogue, intriguing characters, only to have the narrative peter out to nothing or run up against a wall.

I don’t mean everything should be tied up in a neat little bow. Neither should anything be contrived or shoe-horned in. It should by no means be forced. The best way I can think of to phrase what is needed is that if should feel, to the reader as well as to the writer, like the right place to finish.

You have reached journey’s end. You achieve redemption, or thoroughly fail to. The world blows up. Harry woke up and it was all a dream.

However you choose to end it, it has to have come about because the reason you decided to write this story, which is this particular section of these particular characters’ lives, has come together and concluded. The reader can close the book, possibly feeling warm and fuzzy, or like they’ve been through a wringer, but either way like they’ve come to the end of their emotional journey.

Until the sequel, anyway.

The arc also includes the backdrop as well as the journey of the immediate protagonists. It is overall setting, tone and pace. It’s structure, message and conclusion.

In short, it’s a biggie. But chances are if you’ve got the know-how and the talent/ability/practice to have nailed stages one and two, this will come naturally.

So…

This might all sound super scary, daunting, or unachievable. New writers are going, crap, are all readers this picky?

Truth? Some aren’t. A lot are. Some are even more so. I don’t demand my fiction be massively original, for example, or ground-breaking or even particularly thought-provoking. I’m not going to complain about any of these things, obviously. But they’re not a must for me. But they are for some.

But either way, never fear. Readers usually gravitate towards the sort of books that are likely to satisfy their particular tastes. So, as long as you are a good story teller and have a good idea of the sort of story you want to tell, you will have an instinctive feel for all three stages.

For me, the Stages are simply a way for my Analytical Eye and I (aye, aye, aye) to  break down what I feel makes up a good book. Now, I have a framework I can use for my own drafts. If I picked this book up off the shelf in a book store, or read the kindle sample, would it pass the first two stages? And, if so, does it reach a satisfactory stage three? If not, there’s still work to be done.

They say write the book you want to read, after all. I want to get my own narratives to a level where my Analytical Eye has nothing to blink at.

(Sorry, I was overcome with the powerful urge to include some cheesy industrial. Enjoy:)

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14 Responses to The Three Stages of Good Fiction

  1. Great news with ‘Caffeine Low’ =D

    STAGE 1: Language is a hard one to manage, especially when avoiding overextension.
    STAGE 2: Hmmm, thinking on my BP, Book 1 seems quite passive, with the active kicking in in Book 2. 400 pages too long for a ___tagonist walking through their world?
    STAGE 3: Agh! The end of Book 1 is the start of the true Arc!

    Thanks for the pointers. Food for thought =)

    • Remember this is all down to taste though, D. J. – I want to write a book that *I* would like to read. And this is what ‘does it’ for me. I know there are different styles out there and different people thrive on different sorts of language, stories and arcs. This is what does it for me, though. Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, for example, some of my favourite books of all time and can be described as epic high fantasy. But the language is still simple, not overly arch or formal, the story is always there, ticking along and being triggered or effected by Fitz’s thoughts and actions and each individual book as well as each series has an arc. This is what *I* like from a book, and what I hope to emulate in my own.

      Whether I manage it or not is another kettle of fish entirely!

  2. M. C. Dulac says:

    Another amazing piece J.S! Spot on. I definitely agree with the arc. I read a novel a few years ago which I thought was one of the great works of our age – until the end just got corny! No arc at all.

    Regular blogging, writing, flash fiction-ing will hopefully hone all these skills. WordPress is like the bright, intelligent writers’ group I’ve always wanted to find!

  3. 1WriteWay says:

    Great post, Jex! I’m 100% with you on this: “They say write the book you want to read, after all. I want to get my own narratives to a level where my Analytical Eye has nothing to blink at.” And congrats on your flash fiction. You’re going places 🙂

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