Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction
Image by Magda Ahlers
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?
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.
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.
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