Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is the most important aspect of fiction?

There are 6 billion things to know and learn about writing fiction. I've counted. Stayed up all night once counting and counting.

Inevitably, the question arises: What is the most important aspect of fiction? What is the essences of what makes fiction necessary? It's a question I've been thinking about for a long time. And I'm going to share my answer with you.

Yes, I have an answer.

Really. I do.

Stop smiling, I'm serious.

In order for me to tell you my answer, I must tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I sat at a kitchen table reading part of a manuscript. The author sat across from me and watched me read. She fidgeted, picking at her nails, crossing and uncrossing her legs, noisily tried to be quiet. Her squirming made me squirm too. She wanted my opinion regarding the quality of her writing and what I thought of her work in general. That’s what I thought she wanted. But I was wrong. I read on, and as I did, a strong emotion rose in me: boredom. Uh oh.

When I finished reading the scene, I pushed the pages toward her, across the table. She pulled her hands back, as if the papers might be poisoned. She wouldn't touch them. "Should I keep writing?" she asked. "Am I good enough? Or should I just forget it?" She didn’t want my thoughts on her work, she wanted something very different. Impossible.

I pulled the pages back and glanced through them again. I’m not sure why I did this. Perhaps I hoped the answer was written somewhere between the neatly typed lines. But I understood what she was asking. It’s the question that keeps most writers awake some nights.

I read through the first several lines again.

She had skills. Technically, her writing was nearly perfect. Her transitions were smooth, her characters well defined. She had nice, clean descriptive, and enviable grammar.


Hmmm. Something was missing. What was it? Plot? No, she had a plot all plotted out with plot points and pointed plotting. Better go over my handy-dandy fiction must-have checklist:

Writing skill ............... Check!

Clean manuscript ......... Check!

Good plot ................... Check!

Believable characters...........Check!

Yet, the thing just laid there like a dead mackerel, staring up at me with its one good eye.

Then it hit me! (the answer, not the dead mackerel)

It was missing one thing. The MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL.

I had to answer her. We were in a small kitchen and she was blocking the only exit. I said, "You’re the only one who knows if you should keep writing. My advice is to stop writing so hard and start telling stories."

She was technically flawless, and nothing more.

Readers want a great story told in an interesting way. They want to be engaged, have fun, get lost, fall in love, feel something new, and forget time and place.

But doesn't great writing help all of that to happen? Yes, but good writing is seamless--so good it disappears in the background and the reader can focus on the story.

What's the most important aspect of writing? Storytelling.

Writing is only the means. The story is what matters.

Writers are far better off mucking around in storytelling than we are perfecting our grammar, or mastering punctuation, or detailing endlessly boring events in an attempt to “show not tell”. Story barrels down the hillside and sweeps us along with it. It roars, and whispers, and demands attention. It is bigger than its writer and readers combined. An untamed thing. Telling it takes everything we have: our skill, our action, our guts.

Have you got the swagger of a storyteller? Are you willing to abandon safe places for the sake of story? Have you done so? Share!


Andrea Mack said...

This is such a great post. It's so easy to get bogged down by the how-to part and lose sight of what's important. Thanks for the great reminder.

Jack G Hardy said...


Anonymous said...

I've been writing a lot of unsafe stories this year. In fact, I rewrote one for the Ruminate short story contest. Just the writing of it made me feel a little afraid. But I felt the story driving me, the character needed me to tell about her. It was NOT a happy story and the resolution wasn't safe or comfortable.

Samantha Bennett said...

Gorgeous! Thanks for this, Bonnie!

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

As both a fiction reader and seller - AMEN!

Nicole said...

Couldn't agree more. Passion.

Like you I've read "technically perfect" literature and yawned through it, forcing myself to finish it to do the inevitable review.

I don't do "it" "right". Yeah, I break some of the rules on purpose, but most writers do to some extent. No, I used omniscient POV (gasp!) for part of a story I wrote as a fictional biography. I write love stories/romance from a male POV (no!). So, yeah, unsafe. Perhaps unsound! But, hey, it's gotta come from the heart or it's just more words.

Steve G said...

This is why I read stuff that is poorly written and makes a literary novelist cringe. While the story being told doesn't interest everyone, it does me. Many best-sellers would fall in this category of so-so writing but a story that people want to read (and perhaps why there seem to be a lot of one-book wonders out there). That is a strength of book series (and why publishers seem to like them).

Very insightful, Lovely!

Bonnie Grove said...

Andrea: I get bogged down all the time, too. It's great to be able to encourage one another. :)

Jack: Thanks!

Susie: Writing wild costs so much, but telling the story is always worth the cost. You are getting some great stories out there, Susie!

Samantha: Thanks so much!

Bonnie Grove said...

Chris: Glad this resonated with you.

Nicole: Sometimes the story transcends form. As long as the writer knows how to lead the way in a manner the reader can follow and enjoy, breaking the rules can be the best thing in the world to do.

Steve: Book series does have that wonderful rich reading promise going for it, and if people love a certain series, it can be satisfying. As long as the story really is a series, and not simply rolling thin a singular idea. But the one book wonder comment has me wondering what you mean.......

Beth K. Vogt said...

This post was a breath of fresh air for me. I'm working on my second contracted novel and I've frightened myself into not writing. (Yes, I know--second book syndrome.)
You've help me to remember to relax and tell the story. I like the story. I do. Now I'm going to take the whole month of November and the NaNoWriMo madness and just tell the story.

Bonnie Grove said...

Beth: We'd love to hear how your NaNoWriMo experience goes! I think the idea is great, but so far the timing of the event hasn't worked for where I was at in my writing (for some reason, I'm always editing in November).

Chase the story!!

Ellen Staley said...

Great post, Bonnie. Always such excellent knowledge and tips!

Patti Hill said...

NaNoWriMo isn't working for me either, but this post came at just the right moment. Thanks, Bon.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen: thanks so much. How is your wild story coming?

Patti: Mwah!

Anonymous said...

'If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him.' - Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Not always, but sometimes my fixation on the other things is an avoidance of following my characters into their sufferings...and thus, my own.

Good words, Bonnie of Grove...

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Yes, Ellen, I don't think Bonnie and I are the only ones looking for an update.... We believe in you AND your story.
I'm very grateful that I wrote most of my story on plain instinct rather than knowing rules. It can only get stronger now as I rewrite to bolster and refine according to what I learn.
Stories are organic. They germinate and sprout and grow and reproduce and suffer. They have souls that connect and love and hate and respond to their environment. And, best of all they are eternal. We resurrect the best ones over and over in the retelling.
And the Author of the Universe is the best story teller of all.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bonnie, for that encouragement!

And, thebeautifuldue, I was just thinking about the sufferings of one of the characters in my novel. I regretted having to rewrite a section, therefore making her go through the pain all over again. I had to remind myself that she isn't real. Very nice quote and thank you for sharing it!

Marian said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Bonnie Grove said...

thebeautifuldue: Great quote, thanks for that. And the reminder that the biggest roadblock to great story is sometimes ourselves.

Henrietta: I wrote my first novel without knowing all the rules, too. And it's taken me years to unlearn them. I've only tonight finished edits on a novel that is the product of my unlearning. I hope it moves.

Susie: You're welcome! I think you're doing some great stuff.

Marian: You are the sweetest thing.

Ellen Staley said...

Hi Bonnie!

I'd reached almost 3/4 done when I stopped in March to get ready for Mt. Hermon's writers conference. Now just readdressed the first chapter based on suggestions during the mentoring clinics. And am pushing forward towards the ending.

Last night, I received a rather heavenly message. I was listening to Chuck Swindoll's radio program on the prophet Haggai concerning finishing what we start. And he said (I'm not kidding), "...finish the book you said you were going to write!"

Gulp. "Yes, Sir."

Ellen Staley said...

Thank you for your encouraging words. I hope to one day in the near future shout, "First draft done!
And then search for the joy in rewrites.

Nikole Hahn said...

I noticed since I found my voice several years ago that story has been seeping out of my pores. It's even infiltrating my Facebook statuses. I love telling stories. I fell in love with Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen: great to hear this update! Keep going, don't give up, even if you have to pause sometimes. :)

Nikole: I agree, Facebook statuses are a wonderful place to play with story. People respond to every 'story' update I post. Thanks for that reminder.

Rachel said...

I've been stuck in a writers block for nearly two years. Maybe I just need a good story to tell.