GUIDELINES FOR WRITING EFFECTIVE FICTION
Part 1 of this series explained the meaning of fiction and the components that it is crafted from. This second part of the series delves into what makes fiction excellent and impactful and how to write such fiction.
What Is Effective Fiction?
Effective fiction means fiction that is excellent and serves its purpose/s. That is to say, it meets literary standards for good craftsmanship. It also entertains, which is the primary function of this form of creative writing. Furthermore, fiction can also educate and persuade.
A contemporary American writer famous for his legal thriller novels, John Grisham, has explained that his main goal is to write an interesting story, but if he can tie that to an important issue like homelessness or the death penalty, he does so. To make their writing interesting and hence entertaining, authors of fiction use literary devices and coinages to adorn their language. They also add humour and touching accounts that evoke emotional reactions from readers, some of which may be cathartic.
How does fiction educate? Fiction educates because of the abundance and accuracy of the facts it provides as the context for the imagined story. You see, writers of fiction usually do some research before composing their stories. If a story is about a lawyer or a medical doctor, they study the duties of such professionals, observe them at work physically or virtually, and pick up some of the jargon from their fields in order to write convincingly about these characters. Hence, the reader, who is unfamiliar with these professions is bound to learn some things about how the practitioners operate.
Authors of fiction do the same for places and periods they want to set their stories in. As a result, readers learn about distant places they have never been to and periods they were not privileged to witness like foreign countries and past centuries. I recall how I learnt so much about major European cities just by reading several Sidney Sheldon novels. I also learnt about social stratification and norms in 19th Century England and how these were related to inheritance and wealth when I read some of Jane Austen’s novels.
Similarly, fiction can influence our way of looking at issues. How does it do this? It’s by the passion with which the writers deal with some subjects. It can also come about through the sheer repetition of some themes. For example, vast reading of detective fiction like the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle left me with the impression that there is no perfect crime; that excellent detective work can uncover something the perpetrators overlooked which would ultimately unravel their scheme.
Let me further elaborate on the possible purposes of fiction mentioned so far: entertainment, education and persuasion. Entertainment is diversion from the pressures and stresses of life. The writer crafts his story to bring pleasure to the readers through his masterful handling if language. Also, since he controls the tale, he can arrange for outcomes that readers find satisfying even if they would be deemed miraculous in real life.
Education, on its part, is intellectual and moral training. We learn in the course of being entertained by fiction. We learn new words that enrich our vocabulary, new expressions and techniques that improve our writing and other communication skills. We also learn so much about cultures, countries, occupations, lifestyles, crime, you name it. In the process, we imbibe values and standards for behaviour which are implicit or explicit in the stories we read.
With respect to persuasion, we can be influenced in our attitudes and behaviour through the stories we read. For instance, we may be motivated to donate to or participate in causes through fictional stories we read about them.
All these are possible outcomes of reading well-written fiction. They are the signs of its effectiveness. A great English novelist who lived in the first half of the 20th century, George Orwell, once explained that when he wrote, his goal was not to produce a work of art but to expose some ills or shed light on some situations. No wonder his works remain relevant not only for their literary excellence but for their humour and socio-political critiques which serve as cautionary tales to date. Two examples in this regard are Animal Farm and 1984 in which he shows how power corrupts and the evils of totalitarianism.
Below are some features that a writer should incorporate in his story if he wants it to pass as effective fiction. It can be observed that these features are not only reflections of the writing prowess of the author but they are also related to the kind of meaning/content he conveys. The features are presented as guidelines below.
Guidelines for Writing Effective Fiction
• Achievement of verisimilitude: A story that has the appearance of reality is more believable and more likely to evoke the required reactions from readers. Realism has also been suggested as a means of boosting the popularity of other art forms, like Nollywood movies. This, of course, does not preclude the creation of fables with mythical creatures and characters as in adventure stories and fantasy fiction.
As 20th century American journalist and author, Hunter S. Thompson, once said, “Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist, you have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it.” Similarly, famed English writer, Virginia Woolf, who also worked in the 20th century, held that, “The truer the facts the better the fiction.”
To make their works convincing therefore, besides weaving plausible tales, fiction writers often superimpose their imaginary storylines on real locations and historical events, as I observed in my book, Magazine Article Writing.
• Graphic description: The people, events and places in a story should be described in such detail that enables readers to see them in their minds’ eye and live the tale. The writer shouldn’t say a house or a car. Is it a mud hut, a log cabin or a skyscraper? Is the car a coupe, a saloon or an SUV? A writer should tell the readers about colour, shape, size – whatever will help them form mental images of his writing.
Apart from helping the reader see the story unfold in his mind and thus possibly participate vicariously in it, description should reduce the pace created by fast action and dialogue so that readers are not left exhausted and breathless in the course of reading. However, it should be inserted at appropriate points in order to do this. Description should also be entertaining, relevant to the story the author is telling and enhance understanding of the plot.
But the writer should not feel compelled to describe everyone and everything in his story as this may create long passages of slow-moving prose which readers may consider boring, irritating and a distraction from the story they are reading. Contemporary American bestselling author and master of horror/fantasy fiction, Stephen King, corroborates the idea to not overdo description in his quote on characterisation presented as a graphic in Part 1 of this series.
Besides, as award-winning Irish writer, Anne Enright, remarks in an article in The Guardian, “Description is hard.” Do not labour at it so much that it seems pretentious and disconnected from the rest of your writing.
• Narrative flow: Is the story readable? Is the sequence right, drawing the reader effortlessly from page to page?
But as I explained in Magazine Article Writing, the writer should moderate the pace of his story so that it is neither too fast nor too slow. If it’s too fast, the reader will be out of breath at some point like someone who just ran a sprint but if it’s too slow, the reader will be bored and might doze off.
• Proper use of dialogue: Dialogue should be inserted occasionally to break the monotony of hard prose but it should be properly crafted to reflect the characters and suit the occasion. In famous 19th century American author, Mark Twain’s criticism of one novelist’s writing style, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, he made these points and more about dialogue in a story as shown in the passage below which has been slightly rephrased and compressed:
When the characters in a story converse, the talk shall be such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, a show of relevance, remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, be interesting to the reader, help out the tale, and stop when the people have said all they need to.*
Also, each new line of dialogue and its response should be presented as new paragraphs. See “Either SUV Or Burst.” And once the characters speaking are established, the writer can stop adding attribution which appears clumsy at the point since it’s redundant.
• Inclusion of socially relevant message: Although fiction is primarily for entertainment, having an underlying message gives the writer focus and helps him to compose a coherent story. And when the story addresses an issue that is of current concern to people, it increases the attention it gets and its chances of remaining in people’s minds for long, possibly furthering the cause it is about. See “Deception.”
This segment of our series on fiction writing has laid out what the writer needs to craft fiction that is sound in literary terms and impactful.
The next segment will discuss how to review books of fiction.
I look forward to receiving your questions and comments. You are blessed!
*Original phrasing of Mark Twain’s quote cited in this post:
“When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.”
Ohaja, E. U. (2004). Magazine Article Writing. Lagos, Nigeria: John Letterman.
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