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Elements of successful fiction layer and fold back in on each other to create resonance, nuance, subtext, and undercurrents of great storytelling. – Kiffer Brown
In this enlightening and instructional blog post by top-tiered editor and one of Chanticleer’s exceptional Master Writing Craft teachers, Jessica Morrell, will expand on the following components of exceptional fiction.
Elements of Successful Fiction
- The Dramatic Question
- An Intimate Simmering World
- Characters Built from Dominant Traits
- Emotional Needs
- Motivation Entwined with Backstory
- Inner Conflict
- Midpoint Reversal
- Satisfying Ending
Compelling fiction is based on a single, powerful question that must be answered by the story climax. This question will be dramatized chiefly via action in a series of events or scenes. If you are writing a romance, the question always involves whether the couple will resolve their differences and declare their love. In a mystery the dramatic question might be will Detective Smith find the serial killer in time to prevent another senseless death? In The Old Man and Sea, the dramatic question is will Santiago catch the big fish and thus restore his pride and reputation?
An Intimate, Simmering World
An intimate world isn’t created by merely piling on details. It means your story world has the resonance of childhood memories, the vividness of a dream, and the power of a movie. It’s filled in with shadows and corners and dogs and ice cubes and the sounds and smells of a dryer humming on wash day and a car blaring past, rock and roll music shaking the windows. Details lend your story authority, potency, and a palpable physical existence.
An intimate story takes us to a specific place and coaxes us to remain there. An intimate story is lifelike and feels as real and complicated as the world the reader inhabits. When a reader finishes the final pages and leaves the story world, the reader should feel the satisfaction of the ending, but also a huge sense of loss. Much like a friend has moved to another town just when the friendship had reached a level of closeness and trust.
Characters Built from Dominant Traits
Create main characters with dominant and unforgettable traits as a foundation of personality. These traits will be showcased in the story events, will help him achieve or fail at goals, and will make the story person consistent. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ dominant traits are that he is analytical, Bohemian, opinionated and intelligent. These traits are showcased in every story he appears in along with secondary and contrasting traits. When the character first appears in the first scene, the character should arrive in the story with dominant traits intact.
Protagonists and the main characters are people with baggage and emotional needs stemming from their pasts. These needs, coupled with motivation, cause characters to act as they do. For example, in Silence of the Lambs Clarisse Starling is propelled by childhood traumas to both succeed and heal the wounds caused by the death of her father.
The storyline focuses on the most significant events in the protagonist’s life.
Kiffer’s Note: As we were taught in journalism school, this is the “So what?” that our professors would continuously ask us. What were, are, and will be the significant events? Your story will show the “why and how.” Make your readers care. Make your readers interested and keep them caring.
Motivation Entwined with Backstory
Motivation, the why? of fiction, is at the heart of every scene, fueling your character’s desires and driving him to accomplish goals. It provides a solid foundation for the often complicated reasons for your character’s behaviors choices, actions, and blunders. Motivating factors provide trajectories for character development, as a character’s past inevitably intersects with his present. Your character’s motivations must be in sync with his core personality traits and realistically linked to goals so that readers can take on these goals as their own.
See The Expanse SciFi series above. It said to be the current Game of Thrones of TV series streaming.
Desire is the lifeblood of fictional characters. Not only do your characters want something, but they also want something badly. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea desperately wants to restore his reputation and also wants his friendship and partnership with the boy to resume. And in the lonely hours when he is far out at sea, desperately struggling to hang on to the fish and fighting off sharks, we see his fierce desire acted out and the price he pays for it.
Here is a fun link to: 25 Things You Might Not Know About A League of Their Own
You can bestow on your character flaming red hair, an endearing, crooked grin and a penchant for chocolate and noir movies, but if she doesn’t want something badly, she’s merely a prop in your story, not a driving force. But if she wants to win the Miss Florida contest, take over her boss’ job, or become the first female shortstop for the Atlanta Braves, then you’ve got a character who will make things happen and a story that will be propelled by desire.
Fiction is based on a series of threatening changes inflicted on the protagonist. In many stories, these threats force him or her to change or act in ways he or she needs to change or act. Often too, what the protagonist fears most is what is showcased in a novel or short story. It can be fear of losing his family, job, or health with this dreaded outcome providing interest, action, and conflict.
Events in fiction are never random or unconnected. They are always linked by causality with one event causing more events later in the story, which in turn causes complications, which cause more events, which cause bad decisions, etc.
A fictional character doesn’t arrive at easy decisions or choices. Instead, he is burdened by difficult or impossible choices, particularly moral choices, that often make him doubt himself and question his actions. Inner conflict works in tandem with outer conflict—an physical obstacle, villain or antagonist–to make the story more involving, dramatic, and events more meaningful.
Complications A story builds and deepens by adding complications, twists, reversals, and surprises that add tension and forward motion. Plots don’t follow a straight path, instead, there are zigzags, dead ends, and sidetracks. Complications create obstacles and conflict, cause decisions to be made, paths to be chosen.
The middle of a novel comprises more than half its length. At about the midpoint of most novels, a dramatic reversal occurs. The hunter becomes the hunted; a second murder occurs proving the detective has been wrong in his suspicions; a former lover arrives in town to complicate a budding romance. This reversal keeps the middle from bogging down and becoming predictable and also breathes new life and often a new direction into the story.
Every story needs an ending that satisfies the reader while concluding the plot. The final scenes, when the tensions are red hot and the character has reached a point of no return, must deliver drama, emotion, yet a logical conclusion. This is not to suggest that every plot ends with a shoot-out or physical confrontation because some endings are quieter, more thoughtful. Some endings are ambivalent, some a dramatic or a violent clash of wills. But there is always a sense that all the forces that have been operating in your story world have finally come to a head and the protagonist’s world is forever changed.
Below is a scene from The Martian that heralds that maybe—just maybe—our protagonist may make it home—alive. It is a fun and creatively acted scene. What a scene stealer! – Kiffer Brown
A reversal of fortune in The Martian by Andy Weir
The end is just the beginning…
A Note from the Editor: A satisfying ending is one of the top, if not the top, reasons why books go viral and what will make your reader want to read your next work. Make sure that the you put as much effort in to a satisfying ending as you do into your opening hook. Kiffer Brown
I hope that you found the visual examples enlightening. Determining and then searching for my favorite ones was fun! – Kiffer
Jessica Page Morrell is a top-tier developmental editor for books and screenplays. Her articles have appeared in Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines. She is known for explaining the hows and whys of what makes for excellent writing and for sharing very clear examples that examine the technical aspects of writing that emphases layering and subtext. Her books on writing craft are considered “a must have” for any serious writer’s toolkit.
Jessica will teach Master Craft Writing Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference VIRTUAL Conference that will be held from Tuesday, Sept 8 – Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. She will present sessions and Master Classes on September 17, & 18, 2020 in conjunction with the virtual conference. She and Kiffer will also host a fun kaffeeklatch for Word Nerds at VCAC20.
Did you know that Chanticleer offers editorial services? We do and have been doing so since 2011.
And that our professional editors are top-notch and are experts in the Chicago Manual of Style. They have and are working for the top publishing houses (TOR, Macmillan, Thomas Mercer, Penguin Random House, etc.) and award-winning independent presses. If you would like more information, we invite you to email Kiffer or Sharon at KBrown@ChantiReviews.com or SAnderson@ChantiReviews.com.
Click here to read more about our Editorial services: https://www.chantireviews.com/services/Editorial-Services-p85337185
A great way to get started is with our manuscript evaluation service. Here are some handy links about this tried and true service:
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