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The Common Elements Of All Great Fiction Writing
Stop for a Moment and Think Back
What is your favorite work of fiction? If you are a prolific reader like I am, that might take you a moment of reflection. For this writer it has always been, and most likely always will be, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I was in awe of Harper Lee’s work fifty years ago and I still am today, and in truth that is the standard by which I measure all fiction I read today….and all fiction I write today.
What I have found over the years is that great novels all share some common elements. Leave it to a former teacher to not only read to enjoy but read to analyze. Hey, I’m not one to reinvent the wheel. If certain writing elements worked for the Masters of Fiction then I see no reason why I shouldn’t hitch my wagon to those elements as well.
What follows, then, are the key elements I believe to be crucial for any writer attempting to write the next great novel.
GREAT CHARACTERS THAT WE CAN RELATE TO
Dynamic comes to mind when I think of the great characters of literary fiction. There was something about them that made them memorable; there was also something about them that I could identify with.
Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” is, for me, the epitome of this element. He was such a good man….he was such a kind man…he was such an everyday man….he was, in short, a man I wish I had known. However, not all fiction characters are like Atticus Finch. Take, for example, Hannibal Lecter, as despicable a human being as you are ever likely to meet, and yet there was something about him that was disturbingly likable.
Give your characters depth. Give them dynamic qualities. Give them identifiable qualities. If you can do that then you have accomplished the first step in great fiction.
WE ALL WANT ENTERTAINMENT
Why do I read a novel? Quite simply to be entertained! I have spoken to great lengths about the importance of the ten second rule of writing, namely that if you don’t grab your reader’s attention in the first ten seconds you are going to lose them forever.
But what happens after that first ten seconds? You can fool a reader for ten seconds; what do you have after the initial stimulation occurs?
If your story does not maintain interest, and if your story does not continue to entertain for 100,000 words, in the end it will simply be a writing exercise. Great fiction is an enjoyable marathon and not just a stimulating sprint.
Advice from a man who knows and has been there
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YA GOTTA BE ORIGINAL
How many novels have been written? I have no clue; perhaps an easier question would be how many great novels have been written? With that qualifier we can safely say the number drops into the thousands at most, and I guarantee you that all of those great novels were original in concept. Oh, the basic storyline may not be original….boy meets girl….tragedy ensues….conquest….happily ever after….but somewhere in that story there is an original twist or original treatment of a common theme.
It is in that originality that we find greatness.
ALL THE SENSES ARE “ATTACKED”
We all have five senses. Great novelists understand that and write to all five senses.
They can paint a scene with their words that would bring envy to an artist. The reader can see the scene, can smell the scene, can hear the scene, can feel the scene and can taste the scene.
When I first read “To Kill A Mockingbird” I could visualize the dusty streets of Maycomb, Alabama. I could hear the birds singing in the trees on hot afternoons, and I could feel the dust in my shoes. I imagined the sweat on my brow and the smell of fear in the main characters.
Brilliant writing will bring our senses alive. Words are powerful tools in the hands of a craftsman.
AN EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER
Do you want to engage your readers? There is no quicker way to do it than to play to their emotions. Find a way to tap into the anger, happiness, sadness, or fear of your readers and you will have taken a giant step towards being successful with your fiction.
We all share common emotions. They are, in fact, what makes all humans alike. Our experiences may be different, but our emotional responses to those experiences are the same.
Strap your readers into the seat of your own literary rollercoaster and wring those emotions out of them. Bring them to tears and then flick the switch and have them laughing. Do that and you have a winner on your hands when you are holding your novel.
BIRTH FROM A “WHAT IF” QUESTION
What if a small-town lawyer was asked to defend a black man in a rape case of a white woman in the Deep South during the 30’s?
What if dinosaurs could be cloned?
What if a family lost their land and was forced to move from the Dust Bowl to California?
What if there was a mass murderer preying on innocent women who all were the same body shape?
These are the central questions upon which novels are written. It is, in fact, the hook that grabs the reader by the throat and holds on for the entirety of the story. Make your “what if” question powerful enough and you will have no problem holding onto your readers.
No matter what genre your novel fits into, in order for it to appeal to a mass audience it must have elements that allow that to happen…..the internal struggle of man…..the love and protection of family….the eternal battle of right vs wrong….these are characteristics that allow a science fiction novel to appeal to more than just science fiction readers, or a horror genre novel to appeal to science fiction readers.
I was reading a mystery the other day by Reed Farrell Coleman about a private investigator trying to solve a crime; nothing unusual about that. However, the lead character is so easy to identify with that you can’t help but enjoy the book. He struggles with many of the same doubts that you and I struggle with daily. He is the vehicle that makes the novel appealing to a wide-range of readers.
If you can find that vehicle then your novel will have a lot of miles in it.
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Do the Litmus Test
Try these out and see if I speak the truth. Take your favorite novels and see how they do with this list of elements. I think you’ll find they have them in spades and that is the reason the novel is a royal flush in the literary world.
Now it’s your turn.
I will leave you with this thought, a little bonus inspiration for you all. I was reading an article written by Gilbert King about his experience writing “Devil in the Grove” which won him a Pulizter Prize. He explains that his personal story is about a writer who chose to do the work that made him proud rather than trying to please others, and a Pulitzer just happened because of it.
Do the work that makes you proud. In the end, you are the one who has to live with it.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”