Fiction Writing Basics

Character vs. Plot

Character versus plot is a far larger, more controversial conversation than whether or not to use the Oxford Comma. In literary fiction, the focus must be on character. According to many, plot isn’t necessary in literature, which explains why the classics can be arudous reads, in my opinion. How many others can relate to trudging through the classics? (I can’t name them because my students read the great classics all on their own and enjoy the books while I think: more power to you.) Many of the same experts then state genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, historical, etc.) is dependent on plot.

I have attended many writers conferences geared towards genre fiction though and I can tell you character is stressed over plot. The difference comes down to this: genre fiction must have a plot, and it should be well-structured plot. However, a well-developed character is as essential to genre fiction as it is to literary fiction.

Crucial Beginnings (for all types of writing really)

In my opinion, the beginning is the most important part of the story (essay, article, proposal, etc.). The beginning must be interesting enough to engage your reader and make them want to read more regardless of the form of writing. I am an inpatient reader with more books (in my house, in my office, in my sons’ bedroom, in my classroom, in storage) than I will ever be able to read, so if a book doesn’t hook me in the first three to five pages, I put it down (or return it to the eLibrary) and will probably never try reading it again. The beginning must hook your reader.

Effective ways to hook your reader from the first paragraph include a shocking statement, in medias res (in the middle of the action), or a powerful description using sensory details. Combining all three = awesomeness. Pay careful attention to syntax and diction with any technique you choose and revise until you are satisfied. Do focus on voice and style.

Students: Do NOT start your narrative, essay, or research paper with anything remotely like: Today I’m going to tell you about… No, no, NO. This is possibly the worst way to start any writing assignment.

The Importance of Endings

Endings are bittersweet. In the case of a good book, I’m always sad to say goodbye to cherished characters – or atleast until the time I read the book. Nothing bothers me more than a disappointing ending. For novelists, the ending needs to see your next book, so it needs to satisfy the readers expectations. To be clear: Don’t disappoint your reader with a lame ending or plot cliffhanger.

I don’t get the cliffhanger. All my students write their fiction pieces with cliffhangers, and yet most hate encountering cliffhangers in their reading. Better yet, who can get away with writing cliffhangers? Rick Riordan for one, but he didn’t do it (that I remember) until the third book of his second children’s series The Lost Hero series. Meaning he already had a loyal fan base and seven uber successful books sold in the Percyverse. Another author who could do it, Suzanne Collins, because that Catching Fire ended with a huge cliffhanger. But average writers or wannabe writers, which should include anyone reading this page right now, have no business ending their story with a cliffhanger because chances are there won’t be sequel. Sorry.

End your story in a way that leaves your reader satisfied. No last minunte, unexplained plot-twists. No tying up loose ends at the last minute because you maxed out on your word count (guilty). No … (elipsses). No trite, cliches. And please, please no: The End.

“Show a lot. Tell a little. Explain nothing.” Who said this?

I wish I could remember who said this. It was either a writer or an educator of writing. I came across this in one of courses last term. But it is perfect and exactly what I needed to hear because I explain too much to the reader.

The old Show, Don’t Tell advice is old, tired, and not true. Sometimes it is better to tell. If you showed every detail, you would lose the impatient readers like me. Concise writing is very much appreciated and sometimes it’s best to tell over show. But when you feel like you must explain something to your reader, then you should revise the writing to make it clearer. Tell if you must, but don’t insult their intelligence by explaining.

The All Important Story Structure

As I interpret it, solid story structure is required for genre fiction. What encompasses genre fiction: fantasy, sci-fi, historical, contemporary, mystery, the sub-genre of dystopian, (but really, shouldn’t dystopian have its own category by now?) and more. Most narrative, fiction writing students do for class fall under this category. Many consider young adult fiction not genre but an age range and I am one of them.

Story Structure in Three Parts:

An Engaging Beginning that sets the Before Picture, introduces the key players (characters, but limit to just the key ones) and hints at the main conflict. This should take 10% of the story at the most – so up to a page for a 10-page short story, up to 30 pages for a 300-page novel and so forth.

A Rich Middle, one that will make up about 70-80% of the story. This includes the inciting event (the event that forces the protagonist to do something significant with immediate consequences), the rising action (multiple events with setbacks that raise the stakes – always raise the stakes of the protagonist), and ends at the climax.

An Ending needs a solid climax followed by fast-paced falling action, and a satsifactory conclusion that makes your reader want to read more.

Drawn by yours truly, obviously.