What is Good Fiction?
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
"The world is a book, and those who don't travel read only one page."
-- St. Augustine
When your prose is effective, your readers become someone else in a different time and place. They leave their living room and enter your book. And not just to visit: they'll sell everything they have and move in.
Speaking for myself, as a reader I want to be taken far away. Not because I hate life, but because reading is so difficult for me that I require a great reward for making the effort. This is what attracts me to science fiction. I want to read about something different. If I wanted to experience the anguish and drama of real life, all I'd have to do is go to work in the morning.
My parents don't like science fiction. When I arm-bend them into seeing a sci-fi movie (there's no chance of their reading a sci-fi novel), almost without exception, their first comment to me afterward is, "Where was the story?"
The truth is, they reject where the story takes them. But what if a science fiction tale were so overwhelmingly good that even my parents liked it?
I've witnessed my father enjoying exactly one science fiction movie in my lifetime. It was the original adaptation of Planet of the Apes (1968) with Charlton Heston. How could he not like a screenplay which was written by Rod Serling--backward--three times? (Serling finally gave up, not realizing the producers of the film loved his screenplay.)
Therefore, it is possible for fiction to achieve the impossible!
Allegory, parable, imagery, or vignette
However you classify it, good fiction casts a spell over the reader. When a hypnotherapist prepares her patient, she turns down the lights, provides soothing music, and puts the patient in a comfortable chair.
The more I learn about writing fiction, the more I realize the art isn't in the story or plot or even the characters. Rather, it is by creating a virtual comfortable chair and quiet room that is free from distraction. This is done by framing a relatable story using clear images and simple sentences.
I challenge you
Pick up any famous novel. Flip through the pages and read any random sentence. You'll find that the writing is clear and simple.
Stop trying to be clever. Imagine that you're lying on your deathbed. You have only enough energy to say one sentence to your surviving family. You think in silence and then whisper it to them.
There is your sentence.
Repeat this process thousands of times and you will have created a fine novel.
The challenge along the way is to,
learn the rules of writing
develop infinite perseverance
not let your readers know you're going through all this work
"Wait, what about that last part?" you ask.
I have a friend who tells her friends, "Show me the baby, don't tell me about the pain." Your readers want to see your results, not your work.
I heard the following sentence from one of my work associates. He told me to say this when I'm complemented on something:
It's easy when you're talented.
To me, talent consists of,
Possessing the knowledge of how to write a story
Telling the story in the simplest manner possible.
The problem is we make it more complex by trying to impress. Stop it!
"Show" don't "tell"
"Showing" (reliving; unfolding; demonstrating) a story is better than "telling" (lecturing; announcing) a story. Years ago, I played a video game called Dishonored. It was an outstanding game until the last scene, when a narrator comes on and tells how the story ends! That ending left me feeling hollow because I wasn't allowed to be a participant. Recently, I played Dishonored 2. It was an even better game. But again, at the end (the most exciting part), the narrator announces how the story ends. In both cases, the player is not included in the finish, but instead is "told about it." Bethesda Game Studios may make great games, but they don't know how to present a story.
For those of you who want more red-meat advice, I have four rules for you to follow. I promise you haven't heard these before, as evidenced by how rarely I see them in print. Movies ignore these rules even more often.
Because your readers are living beings, your writing must also be alive. Your work must satisfy an innumerable set of under-defined tasks and ever-changing standards. I will not address those because they are discussed ad nauseam on a thousand other sites. Instead, I offer you four short rules to help you write fresh, crisp stories.
I watch as many movies as the next person, and I read books as often as I can. There are four overused plot devices I increasingly detest each time they are thrown in my face—which is constantly! I decided that if I'm to write fiction, I will impose four cardinal rules upon myself. The rules are as follows:
No stupid characters
Respect for authority
No silly science (science fiction)
Conforming to these rules makes writing fiction much more difficult. But, doing so forces richer, more expansive, and original stories.
No stupid characters
By “no stupid characters,” I mean no irritating 2D place-holder idiots lazily plopped in to forward the plot. How many stories rely on clichéd villainous governments, corporations, or religions? What does Hollywood have against governments, corporations, and religions?
Within Hollywood's stories, authority = bad, or at least as ineffective.
Most people like "heist" movies, where the good guys are clever robbers. While these stories may be fun, they bother me because they teach that theft is heroic. One movie that made me angry was called, Flawless. It was about a victimized female employee who worked for a diamond company. She ultimately stole extremely expensive jewels. At the end of the story she sold the jewels and used the money to philanthropically help other people. The movie made her out to be a generous, giving, heartfelt heroine. The problem is, she was generous with someone else's money! It was not hers to give.
Had she truly been a genuine heartfelt character, she would have given the jewels back to the people she stole them from. The management of the diamond company should then have been held accountable and removed and replaced by those more respectful of their employees. That's how I would have written the story.
"What a boring story," you say.
Not if it were written well enough! That's my point. Here is the heart of the problem: ease vs. quality. Do you want to write well or make hollow, emotional appeals?
Speaking of jerks, I don't enjoy stories whose main character is a jerk. Yes, there are villains we love to hate (Darth Vader), but they are not typically the main character. I have no interest in seeing the musical Sweeney Todd because the main characters are evil serial killers.
Respect for authority
Why not make the situation in the story be the villain instead of the authority? Susie's boyfriend drops her and she can no longer speak. The neighbors give free cocaine to all the neighborhood kids. Dad gets in a car crash. Let the situation dominate rather than the fill-in-the-gap bad guy from the local police or the church that makes your story feel copied.
Instead of making authority be the problem, how about letting the criminals be the problem? I realize that there are criminals in positions of authority. But does every criminal in the fiction world have to be running a government, corporation, or religion? Can there be some variety?
Next are the amazing deus ex machina plot surprises that, through incredible luck, just happen to get the hero out of trouble. Like the incantation mumbled by a sidekick mage, a phrase never revealed prior to that moment. How convenient for the author. Poor readers. Instead, have the incantation introduced in advance but make the characters afraid to use it because it allegedly produces green warts. Then, finally, at the moment of greatest danger, one of the characters steps up and mouths the magical words. This way, a shallow fix isn’t sprung upon the readers that causes their deeply invested, empathetic feelings to be tossed away. All because you were too lazy to write better.
No silly science
Finally, as far as science fiction goes, the author must create a story which is either compatible with current science or one that involves a yet-unknown area of science, thus maintaining literary plausibility. Otherwise, the story becomes fantasy. See this post.
If you respect these four rules, your stories will be more difficult to write, but you will end up with better and more unique tales that stand above the rest.
Bonus: Hemingway's Rules
Your reward for sticking with me this far is to have Ernest Hemingway's own list of rules for writing fiction. Would you like that? Here it is:
Use short sentences.
Use short first paragraphs.
Use vigorous English.
Be positive, not negative (say what something is, rather than what it isn't).
Never have only four rules.