Easy Techniques to Write Great Fiction
The most memorable and loved stories include plots, characters, and scenes that are fascinating, intricate, and driven with purpose. In the story-writing workshops I have taught, I have noticed that there is one thing amateur story-writers struggle with: creating stories that can give their readers the truth in beautiful potency through their characters, scenes, and plots. In this article, I hope to show you how to rejuvenate a dull story by weaving a tale that is as graceful and beautiful as it is salty and potent.
"Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt..." Colossians 4:6
The Tried-and-True Plot
Every story must have at least one defining conflict that carries the momentum and takes the characters through a series of difficulties. Many writers described the essential structure of every story: "Put a man in a tree. Throw stones at him. Get him down from the tree." The conflict is the man getting stuck in the tree. The resolution is the man getting down from the tree. A more complex plot could include more conflict, but that conflict must still be centered around the original conflict (getting stuck in the tree) as in this example structure: "Put a man in a tree. Throw stones at him. Light the tree on fire. Make a hoard of crocodiles circle the tree. Get him down from the tree."
When you are writing a story, it is important that you know what your main conflict is. After you have decided on a conflict, your goal is to make that conflict come to a single, most-important, most-stressful, high point of trouble, when the characters can't imagine it getting any worse and they are at their wit's end. Your goal is to make your readers wonder how the plot will ever resolve for the main character's benefit, and how justice and peace can ever be achieved out of the situation. If your story doesn't have a main conflict and doesn't come to a climax towards the end of the book, then the story won't be very interesting, and your readers won't be motivated to read it. The Bible is a good example of this, understood from the perspective of literature. The Bible begins with a happy scene in the garden of Eden, but conflict is introduced soon after that in the form of the first sin, by Adam and Eve. Death entered the world at that point, and from there, the conflict only increases. Fighting the conflict of lawlessness and death becomes the single most-important goal of all of the good guys in the Bible. The conflict increases at the tower of Babel, when man's wickedness was so great that he wanted to be as powerful as God; it increased at the flood, when nearly all of mankind was wiped out as a result of their sin; the conflict grew as God separated out a people to be holy unto Himself, but they continually rebelled and complained as they wandered through the wilderness. The story of the Bible climaxed at the cross on Cavalry, when man's wickedness grew to the point of killing God's Son, the only perfect Man, and fully God. But every good story has a resolution of some sort, in which the conflict is solved and the characters are free and happy again, wickedness is punished and the "bad guys" receive their just desserts. The resolution of the Bible's story happened when Jesus conquered death and sin forever by rising from the dead, alive and victorious.
Scenes with Purpose
Write and re-write each scene for your story, having in mind the place in which that scene fits into the whole scheme of your plot. You must ask yourself: what is the purpose of this scene in relation to portraying the conflict of this story? what is the purpose of this scene in relation to increasing or climaxing the conflict? what does this scene contribute in necessary information about the characters, the situation, the themes or ideas of my story? If your scene does not move your story forward, increasing or developing conflict and character as you go, then that scene has no purpose in your story. It is boring to read a story that has several scenes or dialogues between characters in which nothing happens. Perhaps they talk about what they want for dinner. Perhaps they discuss their schedule. Perhaps they are described going to bed and waking up in the morning. These are the scenes that mean nothing to your reader and tend to drag the story on and on, instead of building on a conflict and giving your readers the suspense and anticipation that comes when they want to find out how that conflict is going to resolve. Do not think so highly of your story or your characters that you assume your readers will want to take in every blink, yawn, and sniffle that could happen between "Once upon a time" and "happily ever after." Make a file for "deleted scenes" and cut and paste your lethargic scenes into that folder. Your readers will thank you. Often the best work of writing is done when using your delete or backspace key. As the oft-quoted William Strunk said to his budding student-authors:
Omit needless words... Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Get rid of the scenes that only say the obvious, that only say what we would have guessed would happen but not what we were wondering about or had no idea could happen. Get rid of your characters' lines that don't reveal anything new about their characters, the conflict, or the mood. Get rid of words and sentences that repeat something you already told your readers or that they would already know. Your goal is not to give your readers a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but to make all medicine go down like sugar. Your story should be invigorating, intriguing, and incisive.
Make your characters real and believable people by showing their personalities to be complex, their motivations to be specific, their desires to be driving them, their mood swings and fears and hopes to show through what they say, do, and think, and their moral character to be a work-in-progress. Real people rarely fit into boxes. Don't let your characters fit into boxes either, unless you want your readers to box them up and stash them in the basement. At the same time, you must give your readers clues about your characters' personalities and personal strengths and weaknesses. To make a believable character that we can relate to as your readers, you must not make your character completely perfect unless you intend to portray him as a metaphor or symbolism for God. No one is good but God, and therefore all people under God are in various stages of imperfection. Yes, some of your characters may have more wisdom and depth of spiritual insight than others, but at the same time, God would not be done working on them yet, and He may have something to teach them. As the author, realize that you may have something to "sovereignly" teach your characters as well.
A practical exercise you can do to make to make your characters more realistic is to model a character in your book after a person you know in real life. Ask yourself: What makes him happy? What makes him sad? What funny habits does he have? What is he zealous or not zealous about? How does he talk, and how does that set him apart from how your other characters talk?
One Simple Thing You Can Do!
If you want to be a writer, and a good writer especially, you must read good books and great classics with a watchful, admiring eye. Look for unique descriptions, believable characters, teeth-gnashing conflict, subtle themes, and moments of pathos and change of heart. Savor the words in your head, in your mouth, in your ear, and copy down the especially delicious sentences that seem to ring with music or jolliness or to march with heroic concision. Study those sentences and learn from them, and your pen will be girded with strength.
How to Write a Story with Strength
Your story will thrive in the minds of your readers as you incorporate realistic, complex characters, plots charged with energy and purpose, and scenes that are driven by emotion, truth, and intention. Go back to that novel of yours and craft it, shape it. Take your characters in hand and study them, chisel them. Grasp your ideas with tangible words, and go and make your story live.
© 2009 Jane Grey