Updated: Feb 23
I’ve watched many painters paint pictures. I’ve yet to see one start at the upper left corner of the canvas and work from left to right in even rows until getting to the bottom right. Instead, painters move around to whichever part of the canvas needs their attention the most.
But when writing stories, we start at the beginning and work our way through until the end of the story and then we’re done. Right?
Perhaps that’s true for famous authors. The rest of us are like painters.
It’s all about the magic
We want our readers to forget everything about themselves and live entirely in our stories. And when they’re not reading, we want them to wish they were.
There are many books and articles on how to write fiction. Most are of no help to me (Stephen King’s On Writing is an exception). The problem with advice from authors is they like to write lots of words.
I’ve spent considerable time compiling the fewest number of requirements for attractive, compelling, and immersive stories. I tried to reduce the list to three items because human beings can remember at most three things at a time. Hence the story of The Three Little Pigs and not The Fifteen Little Pigs.
But I think I’ve made up for it by providing an order. When writing a story, if you’re having trouble meeting all four requirements at once, drop back and work on the first requirement, and then the second, and so on.
If you work out of order, you’ll waste a lot of time because you’ll have to tear up much of your work on meeting Requirements 3 and 4 as you make your story comply with Requirements 1 and 2.
The four requirements of a magical story
For your readers to obsess over your story, it must be,
Relatable (touches the heart)
Clearly written (correct grammar; optimal word choice; efficient word use)
Attractive (entertaining; pretty; enjoyable)
Immersive (use of five senses; deep POV; rich description and developed characters)
A story that isn't relatable is of little use to anyone no matter how clearly it's written. A story cannot be immersive until it's at least attractively written. People don’t jump into ugly swimming pools!
Thus, when you’re overly buried under the work of creating the world's greatest novel, focus on Requirement 1 before progressing to Requirements 2 through 4.
Non-fiction writers need worry only about Requirements 1 and 2. This is why people who write non-fiction are not as interesting, engaging, and entertaining as those who write fiction.
What do these four requirements really mean?
Relatable means emotionally recognizable. The story connects deeply with its readers. When you’re in a dark room for a time and you finally see something you recognize, you will gravitate toward it. This is what a relatable story does to its readers.
The beauty of Requirement 1 is it requires no writing skill. Rather, the author must have a deep awareness of what touches people. A person who has never written a word and has never set foot in a classroom can create extraordinary relatable story ideas.
Always keep a small notebook with you. When you’re staring into a beautiful scene or daydreaming while washing dishes, write down touching thoughts that come to you. Do this when you’re not writing stories. Keep the list for later use when you start your next story.
What can be more clearly written than the following:
Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
-- Sara Josepha Hale
This poem has been read to children around the world for nearly two hundred years. Clearly written text is easier to write correctly. If you’re concerned about proper grammar and optimal word choice, then focus on writing clearly.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” -- Ernest Hemmingway
The following is a random paragraph from the novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville:
“At last, stepping on board the Pequod, we found everything in profound quiet, not a soul moving. The cabin entrance was locked within; the hatches were all on and lumbered with coils of rigging. Going forward to the forecastle, we found the slide of the scuttle open. Seeing a light, we went down and found only an old rigger there, wrapped in a tattered pea-jacket. He was thrown at whole length upon two chests, his face downwards and enclosed in his folded arms. The profoundest slumber slept upon him.”
-- from Moby Dick, Chapter 21, “Going Aboard,” by Herman Melville
Read each sentence one at a time. Are they easy to read? Is the flow of thought calm and straightforward? Does it feel like a humble sailor may have written them?
Reading this passage from Moby Dick is like watching a professional golf swing. Professionals make it look easy. But anyone who has tried the game will tell you it is not!
Let’s compare a few sentences from the passage from Melville’s Moby Dick to how an amateur would write them:
Melville: At last, stepping on board the Pequod, we found everything in profound quiet, not a soul moving.
Amateur version: It was quiet when we got onto the Pequod.
“In profound quiet” is an interesting phrase, as if everything Ishmael saw was nestled within some sort of warm, comforting soup. Or maybe the opposite: the ship lacked any form of life and manifested only a gray death. How is “profound quiet” different from “quiet”? “Not a soul moving” sounds more interesting than the stilted, “no one moved.”
Melville: He was thrown at whole length upon two chests, his face downwards and enclosed in his folded arms.
Amateur version: He lay across the top of two chests.
“He was thrown” sounds passive—as if something (alcohol?) tossed the man across the two chests. Why the words “at whole length”? Isn’t “thrown upon two chests sufficient?” Perhaps the phrase “at whole length” gives the reader just a bit more time to imagine the scene of the man sprawled across two chests.
Melville: The profoundest slumber slept upon him.
Amateur version: He was fast asleep.
“Slept upon him,” suggests that the sleep was doing the action—giving an excuse or explanation for the man’s strange predicament. This causes the reader to form questions and judgements in his or her mind and come up with varied imagenings about the character.
Even while nothing moved in the quiet and motionless scene, much is moving in the reader’s head.
There are two kinds of attraction. One is where people are attracted to something they want, such as a new car, a better home, or the hot girl. The other kind of attraction is where people are drawn toward something or someone they relate to. Fiction readers want to relate to the story’s characters, themes, and ideas. These are the bait that attracts readers.
I dare say that if your story fulfills Requirements 1 through 3, it will automatically be immersive.
Expert use of description, a close and consistent POV, and rich characters will enhance your readers’ immersive experience, but none will be sufficient if the story is not relatable, clearly written, and attractive.
But how do I do it?
I’m going to tell you how to make stories relatable, clearly written, attractive, and immersive, but you won’t like it. I know because I don’t like it either. It’s the same thing all the great authors have done before you. And you must understand that most of them didn’t have the Internet or even much schooling—certainly less than you.
To write relatable, clearly written, attractive, and immersive stories, you must first:
Practice. A lot. Write multiple times every day. Complete stories and save them. Don’t throw away a single one! Improve them later when you get better.
Read. A lot. Read anything, both well and poorly written fiction in all genres. Do this daily.
This is what even the great writers must do. Look for passages that strike you as relatable, clearly written, attractive, and immersive. Underline them. Yes, mark up all your books! You will gain more from doing this than from reading how-to books and articles.
There is no other way.
To reward you for reading this far, here is a quote from Ernest Hemmingway, which I believe summarizes much of this post.
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
-- Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon