The Five ‘Insider’ Secrets Of Top Fiction Writers
How do you write a ‘killer’ novel or story that brings you a contract with an agent or publisher? Or that leaps over the short-list to gain a top prize in a contest? There’s a secret to it. But more than 90% of fiction writers have never discovered it, no matter how experienced they are.
How do I know? And what’s the secret?
I’ll tell you… in a moment. But first, let me lay in some background.
Since 2009, I’ve judged more than 6000 short stories in the Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Award. That’s at least 16 million words. (Think of Pride & Prejudice 135 times over.) I’ve read every word and carefully assessed each story. And graded it across seven criteria, using a points system to separate the stars from the also-rans.
They’re the ones that score 44 or more out of a notional 50, the grade for a ‘perfect’ story.
What am I left with? A big problem.
Or rather, around 20 problems. That’s how many stories I’ll have in my short-list. Each is excellent. Which will win my top $1600 (£1000) prize? Which do I place second or third? No points system can help me there. In the last hour, it comes down to just one thing…
Which story has emotionally engaged me the most?
If your story doesn’t emotionally engage the reader, you might have a PhD in creative writing (as I do) but your tale will languish. If it does, you don’t need any basic training in the craft of fiction. You’re a natural. (That said, you’ll never stop learning new tricks…)
What’s emotional engagement?
Your tale profoundly moves the reader. Grief, horror, compassion, joy… it’s your call. If only for a few moments, that experience has changed the reader’s life.
In every contest round, I meet at least one story that makes me gasp, shudder, laugh outrageously or wipe away a tear. Does that entry win? Not necessarily. It takes more than a single great scene to make a story work.
But if a writer sustains – and skilfully balances – an emotional affect throughout the tale, it will march towards a top prize.
How do you engage the reader emotionally?
In a short story of up to, say, 5000 words you start in paragraph one; in a novel, in the first scene. From that point on, you never lose your grip on the reader’s feelings.
Here are five ways to do it:
1) Provoke an emotional response in your first lines.
Quickly introduce a conflict that the reader can relate to with sympathy or understanding. It need not bear directly on the plot but it must contain some element of question, problem or uncertainty. Otherwise, why should the reader read on?
For example, I began my historical novel Dream Of Darkness with a question:
‘You cannot have a murder without a body, can you? No. Or so I had always thought, being a coroner. But what do coroners know about the many ways of dying? They know only of bodies. Dying is a separate art.’
That passage presents the essence of the plot. It leaves the reader wondering (I hope): how can a murder occur without a body?
Did you notice something else about the passage?
A murder has taken place. Until the killer is captured, the entire community is under threat. That unresolved question invokes one of the five primal imperatives. What are they?
Survival of oneself. Of one’s Significant Other. Of the family. Of the tribe/nation/nurturing environment. Of one’s soul.
These imperatives are timeless. They’re engrained in our DNA. If your tale is well written – whatever its genre – and it centres on one or more of those imperatives the reader has no choice but to be emotionally engaged.
2) Let the reader bond easily with your main character.
Which character is your ‘I/eye’ in the narrative? Can the reader slip easily into their shoes? And walk in those shoes for a long while?
A successful short story will usually have no more than one ‘point of view’ (pov) character, two at most. In a longer work, you might get away with multiple povs where the viewpoint switches between several players, but it’s a hard trick to pull off. In short fiction, it’s almost impossible.
Stay safe. Limit the pov to one person or entity. Or you’ll confuse the reader. And make it effortless for the reader to empathize with that person.
One ploy that’s so easy it seems like cheating is to make your pov character very similar to your target reader. Who can doubt that Agatha Christie created her demure sleuth Miss Marple to appeal to ladies of a certain age? Or that she crafted the precious Hercule Poirot with a different readership in mind?
Tom Clancy’s novels were clearly written for young men, with a few wives and ninja girls dropped in to appease his female fans.
To be sure, these novels continue to attract readers of every background, age and gender but the authors knew their target markets.
So how do you create an engaging pov character (or narrator) if you’re not sure of your target market? Picture your most probable reader. Male? Female? Young? Old? College educated? Not college educated? And so on.
If in doubt, look in your mirror. There’s nobody you understand better than yourself. So, unless you relish the challenge of crafting an alien mind, write for yourself.
3) Play on your reader’s senses.
Our emotions are usually triggered by a physical stimulus, whether or not that stimulus is a memory or current event. Stirring music (auditory), a fine painting (visual), a delicious meal (gustatory), a pungent perfume (olfactory), the fur of a kitten (tactile)… all might induce an emotion, pleasing or not.
So it is with fiction.
Infuse your story with appeals to several of the physical senses and you’re half way to inveigling your reader.
For example, this opening passage from Kathy Reichs’s novel Mortal Remains invokes three of the physical senses (olfactory, visual, auditory) and also hints at tactility (the ‘newly turned soil’):
‘The air smelled of sun-warmed bark and apple buds raring to blossom and get on with life. Overhead, a million baby leaves danced in the breeze. Fields spread outward from the orchard in which I stood, their newly turned soil rich and black.
A day made of diamonds.
A relentless buzzing dragged my gaze back to the corpse at my feet.’
The scene is three-dimensional. We are in it. Our emotions have been primed for engagement.
But be careful: the more sensory perceptions you weave in, the slower the pace. That’s why Reichs quickly added the phrase ‘the corpse at my feet’ to jerk the reader awake and start the plot.
4) Build in a firm structure
A compelling story has a comforting form. The reader likes to feel that, no matter how quirky its twists, the tale has a clear meaning or structure – at least, in retrospect.
Meaning and structure are often synonymous.
To perceive ‘structure’ in anything is, arguably, to create a sense of meaning. Without structure, there’s no meaning. How often do we look at an abstract painting, those unstructured swirls of shapes and colours, and naively ask ‘What does it mean?‘ The painter might reply ‘A piece of art is not intended to mean but be.’
That doesn’t work with commercial fiction.
Unless you’re writing experimental stories, which few will read or buy, give your story an emphatic shape.
Its plot might weave about at times, all the better to intrigue us, but – upon a second reading – it’s a unity. The reader must feel that nothing could have been cut or added.
Why does a strong structure help to engage the reader emotionally?
The perception of a pattern behind the story’s apparent chaos gives us confidence to proceed. We can relax. It’s safe to let the author play with our emotions. Clearly, s/he knows what they’re doing.
That’s why a pungent ‘slice of life’ tale which goes nowhere will rarely impress a publisher or contest judge, no matter how brilliantly it’s written. It has no shape. ‘What was all that about?’ they’ll ask, tossing the story on the floor.
Here’s a tip: Format your final draft in a very small type, eg. 8 point, and justify both the left and right margins. Print it out. Now it will resemble the format of a paperback book. At once, you’ll spot big grey slabs – paragraphs that go on too long. Break them up!
Balancing your paragraphs and sentences, by giving them different lengths, adds a reassuring visual pattern.
Then, using a red pen, strike through every paragraph that’s digressive, gratuitously poetical or adds little to the story. Cut or edit those paragraphs. Is a passage tautly written and indispensable to the plot? Tick it with a green pen.
I call this the Rose Bush technique.
Eventually, everything should be green. What’s more, you’ll now be able to see your story as a visual entity. Is its shape coherent? Do the scenes proceed logically, despite their beguiling twists? If so, that tale – if competently written – will leap into a contest short-list.
5) Close the story decisively.
The last scene of a powerful story should leave the reader emotionally stimulated, perhaps for a considerable time.
Relief, grief, hilarity, unease… again, the choice is yours. But unless you’re writing for Mills & Boon, the end should not be (entirely) foreseeable.
True, a classic detective tale might close predictably with all culprits unmasked, innocents exonerated and loose ends tied up by the clever sleuth. The structure of any genre story is typically as formulaic as a pancake recipe. Even so, for the story to work on our emotions, its closure should hit us from left field.
Michael Cordy typically ends his novels on a faux-upbeat note. All villains have been trounced, the hero and heroine announce their wedding, and the world is saved! Except that, the last line reveals… the world has not been saved.
A deliberate ambiguity or ‘double take’ can sometimes achieve the same effect. Mark Allerton won a top prize in the 2012 round of the Winter’s Village contest with World’s Turned Upside Down, a tale of racial bigotry in the deep south.
A woman gloats over the way she has tormented a black child. Her last thought is ‘The nightmares that little girl woulda had!’ It seems like a malicious snigger until we sense a ‘double take’. Has the bigot finally developed a conscience? Are those nightmares now tormenting her?
It’s a ‘twist close’. Of course, a twist in the last scene is such a long-whiskered tactic – especially in crime suspense – that its very predictability can threaten its impact. But the perfect twist is the one that challenges us, at the last moment, to re-evaluate every aspect of the preceding story.
Anthony Horowitz does this brilliantly in his novel Moriarty.
Two detectives in 1890s London are hunting the master criminal Moriarty, a man so clever that not even Sherlock Holmes could bring him to justice. In the last chapter, Moriarty is discovered. Predictable? No. With a sense of disbelief, we realise that everything we’ve read in the story so far has been a lie.
The narrator has played a joke on us.
Do we want to throttle Horowitz or award him the Booker Prize? Both.
That’s what I call emotional engagement.
What have I missed out from the rules above? Everything. Characterisation, plotting strategies, elements of style, the rules of presentation…
Let me tell you a secret. You can break almost any “Rule of Good Writing” – provided your story works. But to win a publishing contract or major award, you must follow one rule above all:
Engage your reader emotionally.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers’ Village:
by Dr. John Yeoman (@) March 13, 2016
What about you, Scriveners? Have you read stories that you know are “Well-written” but somehow don’t float your boat? Do think this was because you weren’t emotionally engaged? What works for you in getting an emotional response from your readers?
This week Anne is over at her book blog talking about witnessing verbal abuse in a critique group or workshop.
NOTE: Dr. Yeoman lives in the UK, so he’ll be going to sleep over there soon after this post goes up on Sunday morning in California. That means responses to some comments will have to wait until tomorrow.
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