Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction

Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction

The following essay was previewed in the class that Stephen Graham Jones taught for LitReactor, Your Life Story Is Five Pages Long.

1. The reader should never have to work to figure out the basics of your story.

Who’s whose wife or husband, what the time period is if that matters, why these people have broken into this house, and on and on, just the basic, ground-level facts about your story. If you don’t relay that stuff up-front, as quickly and efficiently as possible (and please don’t be fancy), then your story becomes a game of three-card-monty, with you hiding information under this or that shell, trying to keep everything moving fast enough that nobody knows what’s going on. Which is to say your story becomes about the reading of the story, not the experience the story is trying to get the reader to engage. And you don’t want to just write a game, because games are either won or lost, then walked away from. You want to write something that can feel like a memory, that, five or ten years from now, the reader might wonder if this was something they lived or something they read.

2. The reader is smarter and more sophisticated than you think.

Meaning you don’t have to lay every last detail of every last thing out. Your character can move from the living room to the bedroom without you having to find some clever way to make the hall interesting for us. Just bypass that hall. Halls are stupid anyway, and we more than likely know they didn’t teleport, or use a magic wand. The best writers are the ones who can cover the most distance with the fewest words. The ones who can suggest and imply. That puts the story in the reader’s head, where it should be. You’re not drawing a map, you’re telling a lie, and the way to make a lie convincing is to let the person you’re lying to think they came up with this or that by himself, to make them complicit in the creation. With fiction, you don’t always have to render every last moment of falling in love, say. We’ve all fallen in love to some degree or another, and will write our own stories in over the text anyway. Why not leave us room to do that?

The best writers are the ones who can cover the most distance with the fewest words.

3. Readers expect a story to keep the promises it makes.

It can be as simple as if the story opens with what feels like a dramatic frame—two people sitting by a fireplace, talking over brandy—then we already expect the story to circle back to that fireplace. But this isn’t a Chekhov’s gun kind of imperative, where if you show something you have to use it. It’s more a case of, if your story is about a baseball player, then we fully expect the story to have its big climax on the baseball diamond, somehow. If not, then why a baseball player? And, everything you do in the first ten or fifteen percent of a story, that’s a promise. Keep those promises diligently, always, and the readers will repay you with their loyalty.

4. Each page needs to hook the reader all over again.

You open with a hook, of course—the title—then you hook with the first line, then, usually at the end of the first paragraph, you set that hook. But each new development, each new scene, it has to be a hook as well. Not a sudden dinosaur in your fast-food order, maybe, but a hard left turn within the rules of your story, just one of those built-up-to soap opera moments, those “You mean you’re my mom and my dad?” kind of things. So, if any of your scenes are simply delivery-service scenes, to get us from what happened before to what’s coming, then consider cutting them. The same goes for any scene that’s solely providing exposition. Really, any scene that’s only getting across what’s happening on the surface of that scene—two guys loading boxes into a truck, say—then that scene’s dead. Instead, let those two men load boxes, but only one of them knows the other’s tranquilized pet is in one of the boxes. It changes everything, for the better.

5. Readers are reading in order to be taken somewhere else.

They’re not reading so you can render for them their already quotidian lives. If that’s what they were after, they’d just take more stimulants, so as to experience more of their jobs, more of their home life, more of riding the bus. No, they want their world, but heightened. Made exciting, made vital, such that each decision made has so much import that it’s almost ridiculous. Granted, each reader’s sense of ‘heightened’ is different, but that’s what the different genres are for: some people are into tea parties and some people are into space warfare. In either case, though, the reader takes how important the decisions in that story were back into their own lives, and, for a while anyway, they can imagine their lives are that exciting, their decisions that momentous.

6. Make sure the key scenes actually happen on the page.

It seems obvious, yes, but every stack of manuscripts, you see it: a mom, dad, and kid at the park on a Sunday, the mom’s ex suddenly there, harsh words exchanged, and, instead of actually showing the dad trying to use a plastic fork to stab his wife’s ex in the throat, which is a dramatic, intense scene, we get the slow pan over to the kid in the sandbox, building a very thematic castle. Yes? And the writer feels literary and subtle and properly indirect for showing the story’s tensions through that falling-apart castle, sure, but what’s really happening is that writing about attempted murder with plastic picnicware is very difficult to do. People actually do stuff like talk with exclamation points, and throw stuff like punches. It’s all very plebeian and beneath certain castes of writers to scrabble in the cut grass like that. But it’s also very wimpy, it’s them lying to themselves about what they can and can’t do. Be better than that. Make that fight real. You might have to write it fifty times, then go pick a fight at the park to figure out the exact mechanics, but, nobody said fiction was going to be easy, right?

7. Readers are very aware of contrivance.

Of developments that are dramatically convenient, that serve as a necessary bridge for the story to move from A to B. What they want, what will let your story be real, are developments that are organic, that are from the world, not from your own need or laziness. Contrivances break the dream, make us see this fiction as written. And any time the reader sees that—when they’re not supposed to be seeing that—they usually stop reading. Reading that reminds the reader that they’re reading is a strange kind of loop for fiction to take, or want to take. It can be a rhetorical device, of course, if the story has that many levels to it, but if it’s done on accident, then the story nearly always fails. And, like I was saying, the readers out there, they’re sophisticated, they’ve been played before. But they go into a text trusting you nevertheless. It’s your duty to be worthy of that trust.

Being intelligent is the wrong game to be playing with fiction, really, because sooner or later you run into a Nabokov, a John Barth, a Borges, and it hits you all at once that you’re not so smart after all. You were just good at talking the talk.

8. Readers can tell when you’re trying to be smart on the page.

And, sadly, it has just about the same effect as trying to be smart at the office cocktail party: pretty soon nobody wants to talk to you.  Instead of being smart, though, instead of showing off that you can pull off these pristine, convoluted sentences, that your vocabulary is stunning, your education bulletproof, try to be smart like Vonnegut: with insight, delivered with the lightest possible touch and no small amount of irony. Reading Vonnegut, you came away impressed with how capable he was on the page, not how intelligent he was. Being intelligent is the wrong game to be playing with fiction, really, because sooner or later you run into a Nabokov, a John Barth, a Borges, and it hits you all at once that you’re not so smart after all. You were just good at talking the talk. An MFA can give you that, granted. But you have to learn to write past that, to a simpler space. A more direct space.

9. Readers expect any given piece of fiction to adhere to the rules and conventions they’re already accustomed to.

This isn’t to say don’t innovate, either. Without innovation, fiction dies. But, if you’re going to use punctuation in a specifically ‘wrong’ or untraditional way, or if you’re going pull off some Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker kind of vocabulary or syntax, then, first, keep it all consistent—don’t break your own broken rules—and, second, have a good, in-the-text reason for doing it. Just doing it to be different (thus attracting attention) or because you think it looks cool—not using apostrophes or quotation marks, say—that’s twisting the form of your story just for the sake of twisting it. Which is fine and good in your own notebook, but isn’t nearly enough to qualify it for mass consumption. We don’t want your doodles, we want your real work that you’ve written in blood. And then we want more.

10. Readers don’t go for endings that are vague.

Ambiguous can be all right, as it effectively doubles the meaning, and a merely ‘suggested’ but not quite said ending can work as well, if you’ve shaped the story towards that, given us a few false runs as conditioning for that kind of ending, but vagueness, all that is is the writer being unwilling to take the necessary risk at the end, to try to ‘mean’ something, finally. To tie it all up or leave it all untied in a meaningful way. Like Richard Hugo said once and forever, though, the writer’s job, it’s to come as close to that line of the melodramatic as possible, then not quite step over. Which is to say take that chance, don’t be afraid of coming off sappy or sentimental or cheap. Instead, balance right on that line as best you can, wave your arms around to keep steady. It’s a tightrope act we as readers love to watch. And you fall sometimes, sure, that’s part of it. But sometimes you don’t.

Click here to be notified of the next time a class led by Stephen Graham Jones becomes available.

To Read More Exclusive Writing Essays, Join Our Writers Workshop!

Image of Growing Up Dead in Texas
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Price: $12.46
Publisher: MP Publishing (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 254 pages


falloutexpart's picture
falloutexpart April 15, 2014 - 10:56am

I am overwhelmed by your post with such a nice topic. Usually I visit your blogs and get updated through the information you include but today’s blog would be the most appreciable.visit our website

falloutexpart's picture
falloutexpart April 14, 2014 - 1:59pm

Excellent submit. I'd like to understand your time that was invest to create this kind of articles or blog posts. I am hoping their own wholesale Green Coffee Bean Extract quest to build up the actual assignments in the open, determining mastering ambitions & milestones, creating training would have been a accomplishment. Hold placing!website

northsmithy's picture
northsmithy April 13, 2014 - 1:42pm

This website have a lot of latest new online movies and also have funny videos and different kind of tv channels so this is amazing site to watch it


skyrimexpart69's picture
skyrimexpart69 April 1, 2014 - 1:46am

Excellent submit. I'd like to understand your time that was invest to create this kind of articles or blog posts. I am hoping their own wholesale Green Coffee Bean Extract quest to build up the actual assignments in the open, determining mastering ambitions & milestones, creating training would have been a accomplishment. Hold placing!repayment of credit card loans

skyrimexpart69's picture
skyrimexpart69 March 30, 2014 - 10:40am

First of all thanks for the post. Really it is awesome post. I do like your hard workings and appreciate your concept. I can refer you another site where one can get huge assistances concerning education. To learn moiré, please click here. Thanks...website

tracypaul's picture
tracypaul March 28, 2014 - 8:46am

Nice to be visiting your blog again, it has been months for me. Well this article that i've been waited for so long. I need this article to complete my assignment in the college, and it has same topic with your article. Thanks, great share. is bubblegum casting legitimate

Patel Sharp's picture
Patel Sharp March 13, 2014 - 3:34am

Useful information.I am actual blessed to read this article.thanks for giving us this advantageous information.I acknowledge this post.and I would like bookmark this post. website development | Website Design Mumbai | digital marketing services

Patel Sharp's picture
Patel Sharp March 13, 2014 - 3:32am

The post is absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration both of which we all need! Also like to admire the time and effort you put into your blog. For more info visit. seo company mumbai | web design mumbai | search engine optimization

Patel Sharp's picture
Patel Sharp March 13, 2014 - 3:31am

I am really appreciate by making my site one of your reference. It's a good choice or initiative. By keep visiting this site you can have more information about the things that you need. Keep posting. website development mumbai | web development mumbai | website design and development

Patel Sharp's picture
Patel Sharp March 13, 2014 - 3:30am

Thanks for such an interesting article here. I was searching for something like that for quite a long time and at last I have found it here. website design and development in mumbai | Website Design | seo services mumbai

backy's picture
backy February 28, 2014 - 10:55pm

Buying a  <a href="http://pitbullsarea.com/2014/02/23/buying-pitbull-kennels">pitbull kennels</a> that does not suit your dog is like throwing away your hard earned cash.
<a href="http://www.tattoority.com">tattoos for girls</a>
<a href="http://www.tattoogunkits.org">tattoo gun kits</a>

tonydaniel's picture
tonydaniel February 7, 2014 - 5:12am

Thanks for writing this tremendous blog. This is one of the best writing ever I have read.Making a phd thesis is a practical way to in a few words express an arguable idea. Analyze the differences and similarities between the arguments related to the topic. computer monitor problems

Justinreuban's picture
Justinreuban January 31, 2014 - 5:27pm

Really your post is really very good and I appreciate it. It’s hard to sort the good from the bad sometimes, but I think you’ve nailed it. You write very well which is amazing. I really impressed by your post...... http://www.courseworkhelppros.co.uk/

leronline's picture
leronline January 29, 2014 - 8:21am

Really rich content and very useful information. I found my problem’s solution starting over here. I exceedingly advocate his/her machinery by means of the valuable enlightening information. POKER IA : Miro Sports : Vollenteers 4 Sports : Patya Casino : Poker Run : All Egro Games : Vernons Gambling : Slot Ezine : Omaha Poker : Cash Out Poker : Fun Casino Games : Safe Casino Watch

leronline's picture
leronline January 29, 2014 - 8:16am

Actually writing an dissertation is not as hard as you think it is. You just don’t know how to do that correctly. Please visit my website also by clicking here

Patel Sharp's picture
Patel Sharp December 24, 2013 - 6:36am

Nice blog thanks for sharing this blog its very cool blog. its provide the information about the Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction nice topic. capsule dipping bath fabrication I think everybody like this blog and read this blog its awesome. Addressable Central Battery Emergency Lighting System and also like some link its very usful link for every blogger open this link. Aluminium Fabrication || Real Estate CRM Software || Stainless Steel Fabrication || led emergency lights || Self Contained Lights || real estate management software || Exit route lighting || Emergency lights manufacturers || Infrastructure Solutions || construction project software and this erp construction.

Jasmine Peyton's picture
Jasmine Peyton December 20, 2013 - 9:11am

Superb describe this information for viewers, Many thankful to you. write my dissertation for me

skyrimexpart's picture
skyrimexpart December 18, 2013 - 3:41pm

Excellent blog you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I'd really like to be a part of group where I can get opinions from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks a lot!


skyrimexpart's picture
skyrimexpart December 14, 2013 - 2:41pm

I enjoyed reading your post and remember 2007 while I was in Amsterdam. I wanted to see a tulip garden, and asked around but no one was able to point me one. We drove at least 2 hours to find one but no luck.loan modiication scams

Timmyjasem's picture
Timmyjasem November 27, 2013 - 6:03pm

Thanks For sharing. Great post, Health is a Important for every one. I am hoping you will benefit from this site. Health improvement

shamim1985's picture
shamim1985 November 17, 2013 - 11:47pm

I easily have a glimpse here and emerge persuading to seek out this periodical. Made content composing hand and exceedingly cooperative website. I yearn most of we are inclined to attached countries bureau locality unit to request out these methods of things, here we will observe everything. I’m with the content tribute and do esteem him as a decent supplier. Thanks for your work and you too. title loans Riverside

vpn software's picture
vpn software November 6, 2013 - 8:29pm

This is the initial second I even have glimpsed your content and do harking back to to mention to you – it's really nice to observer and i greeting your arduous work. although if you probably did it in AN undemanding method that may be very pleasant. although over all I exceedingly proposed you and assured can anticipate a lot of mails like this. Thank you most. . best-vpn-reviews

Sandyq's picture
Sandyq November 4, 2013 - 7:17am

Interesting article Steven, good share!


Fortsätt att läsa om binära optioner

alicia19855's picture
alicia19855 November 3, 2013 - 12:37pm

This is the foremost wink I surround glimpsed your snug and do approximating to announce you – it's if reality be notified pleasant to examine and that i perceive your laborious work. although if you likely did it in AN easygoing approach that will be exceedingly fastidious. although over all I extremely guided you and certain can foresee additional mails like this. Many express gratitude such a allotment. payday loans

male enhancement products's picture
male enhancemen... October 31, 2013 - 5:23pm

This blog is an exact representation of skills. I appreciate the blogger for posting the most excellent thought. This topicposted by you is trustworthy. I like you recommendation.Your recommendation is of well use to people. A great article post,this is something very interesting. A great concept that reflects the excellent thoughts of the writer. male enhancement products

Nathan Fredrick's picture
Nathan Fredrick October 28, 2013 - 7:18am

Really awesome work with the blog. I do like your hard work on and will wait for more post as from you as post gave me pleasure and gives some helps to do same work right here. Thanks a lot…………………………


stembear's picture
stembear September 25, 2013 - 6:51pm

Thanks for sharing....... Great post. From this site you can find information about Holiday Properties, Country house in Italy, etc. I am hoping you will benefit from this site. Country house in Italy

juliaware's picture
juliaware September 24, 2013 - 8:47am

I have read all the comments and suggestions posted by the visitors for this article are very fine,We will wait for your next article soonly.Thanks!!Aluminium ladder Extension Ladder

juliaware's picture
juliaware September 23, 2013 - 1:17am

Thanks, I have recently been looking for info approximately this topic for a long time and yours is the greatest I’ve found out till now. However, what about the conclusion? Are you certain concerning the source?Thanks , I have recently been looking for info approximately this topic for a long time and yours is the greatest I’ve found out till now. However, what about the conclusion? Are you certain concerning the source?Peptides

kaka0099's picture
kaka0099 September 20, 2013 - 2:13am


Though the positioning isn't blacklisted, Scamvoid has declared that the positioning incorporates a low trust rating and dangerous vender dependability.

kaka0099's picture
kaka0099 September 19, 2013 - 6:16am

credit card processing

It appears that you've put a good amount of effort into your article and I want a lot more of these on the web these days. I truly got a kick out of your post. I do not have a bunch to to say in response, I only wanted to register to say marvellous work

oliverdylan's picture
oliverdylan September 16, 2013 - 3:27pm

Thanks for sharing.... Nice post.

I am hoping you will benefit from this site....

Never Miss A Greeting.www.greeet.com

alexanderjake's picture
alexanderjake September 12, 2013 - 3:38pm

This site provides home Cleaning service,office Cleaning service,etc. I am hoping you will benefit from this site. Cleaning services in London

kaka0123's picture
kaka0123 September 7, 2013 - 2:33pm

During Associate in Nursing apocalyptic event you will not have access to power. If you've got a one hundred watt light-weight bulb that's bright right? but however bright would a one hundred watt bulb be in a very 2000 sq foot space? It'd still be bright however would not fill the total area.  term paper help Deborah Livingston  a number of sensible steps can assist you higher buy the proper food dehydrator.

rupol9900's picture
rupol9900 September 5, 2013 - 4:52am


machine is at this net addressYou will quickly notice the many scam reports by folks reveal the straightforward Spy mobile phone Spy at dramatically and wide variable simple Spy costs. however on earth square measure these big worth discrepancies square measure possible?

rupol9900's picture
rupol9900 September 3, 2013 - 1:55pm

free casino slots

This article contains some normally used words of appreciation to assist you ... appreciation for everything an individual means that to you is totally necessary.

clipping path's picture
clipping path September 1, 2013 - 3:14pm

Hello, i think that i saw you visited my web site so i came to _return the favor_. I'm attempting to find things to enhance my web site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

clipping path

robertbruce's picture
robertbruce August 29, 2013 - 1:35am

This is the primary occasion I stopover this blog. Actually this is overwhelming labor with the blog. It is extremely enjoyment to obtain it as I got enormous helps right here. I extremely be grateful for the bloggers workings and will stay for more post from the direction.
dissertation help

Margaret's picture
Margaret August 28, 2013 - 3:32pm

One of the most intriguing blog i has found after such a long time,the way you interpret each and every topic is been admiring,the aligning of each an every topic is also superb. coursework help by courseworkpoint.co.uk

sony0123's picture
sony0123 August 16, 2013 - 2:12am

magic voodoo spell

There ar several stages of a subject wherever i used to be too astonied to scan the strategy and debatable problems, written by you. however i'm glad to scan that you just centered all execs and cons of the subject.

andrew jerry's picture
andrew jerry August 2, 2013 - 10:30pm

I want to find some useful information in this blog really nice place.guidance about this idea

alickbret's picture
alickbret July 30, 2013 - 5:26pm

Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction is a great article This site provides you with information about fiction And provides 10 tips about fiction http://www.buzzpr.ca/

mou009123's picture
mou009123 July 30, 2013 - 2:58am

credit card processing

This posting is marvelous and what a fantastic research that you have done. It has helped me a lot. thank you very much. Feel free to visit my buy portfolio lighting site.

Danny Young's picture
Danny Young July 21, 2013 - 6:36am

Great! Truly affluent content and incredibly practical in a row. I got it my explanation from over here. I extremely advise his/her works with the functional enlightening information. Thanks a lot……….

cash advance st. louis

hoho190's picture
hoho190 July 19, 2013 - 3:26am

It's been a great essay, Artikelstammdaten you got pretty valuable info on the subject. Thanks for sharing it with us. 

CELANDINE123's picture
CELANDINE123 July 17, 2013 - 7:30pm

Thus we tend to work effortlessly to form each paper http://essaywritingadvisor.com/write-my-papers/ attention-grabbing, sober and filled with sensible ideas. we will write essays of every kind on any topic and discipline.

asimkhan's picture
asimkhan July 16, 2013 - 12:59pm

Eхcellent goods fгom уou, man.
I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re јust
extrеmеly gгеat. I rеаlly like what уou hаve acquired here, cеrtainly
lіke what уou аre ѕtating аnd the wаy in ωhіch you say it.online camping stove-onlinecampingstove.blogspot.com

asimkhan's picture
asimkhan July 16, 2013 - 12:58pm

Ahaa, its nice discussion concerning this post here at this blog, I have read all that, so now me also commenting here.free online cheapest car insurance quotes uk

women's duck boots

Chris Rogers's picture
Chris Rogers July 15, 2013 - 6:04am

Oh! Amazing labor with the piece of writing. I discover little assistance over here related by this post to perform my task nicely. I highly recommend this. Thanks a lot………

payday loans oceanside

Chris Rogers's picture
Chris Rogers July 14, 2013 - 5:21am

Oh! Amazing employment with the editorial . I locate few helps over here related by this post to accomplish my task nicely. I highly recommend this. Thanks a lot………

help with test