You want to write fiction that your readers will fall in love with, but what is good writing, exactly? These are seven elements of fiction that readers love:
Engaging, compelling fictional characters
Your characters don’t always have to be likeable, but it helps if they are, and they definitely have to engage your audience, whether or not the reader feels a strong kinship or not. Active characters engage while passive ones rarely do. This means characters should want something, and they should take steps to get what they want. In fact, characters who pursue their motivations relentlessly are among the most compelling.
In her classic essay on creating memorable characters, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,’ Virginia Woolf describes observing two people on a train journey and notes how much she was able to discern about their characters from their dress, what they did, and what they did and did not say to one another. In doing so, she demonstrates both how much a writer can glean from imaginative observation and how much a writer can convey to the reader using the right details.
In a 2011 interview with Empire magazine, fantasy writer George R. R. Martin describes how he makes even his most unlikeable characters engaging:
‘In order to get inside their skin, I have to identify with them. That includes even the ones who are complete bastards, nasty, twisted, deeply flawed human beings with serious psychological problems. Even them. When I get inside their skin and look out through their eyes, I have to feel a certain – if not sympathy, certainly empathy for them. I have to try to perceive the world as they do, and that creates a certain amount of affection.’
‘High concept’ novels might have a somewhat easier time in the marketplace than novels where the stakes are lower, but the size of the consequences are less important than making those consequences compelling and credible. Your reader needs to feel as though nothing is more important than the problems the characters are facing whether it’s the end of the world or a relationship. In his piece on stakes in storytelling, writer Chuck Wendig points out that even in high-concept storytelling, a story’s stakes are better if they have a personal element:
‘It’s all well and good to have some manner of super-mega-uh-oh world-ending stakes on the line — “THE ALPACAPOCALYPSE IS UPON US, AND IF WE DON’T ACT LIKE HEROES WE’LL ALL BE DEAD AND BURIED UNDER THE ALPACA’S BLEATING REIGN” — but stakes mean more to us as the audience when the stakes mean more to the character. It’s not just about offering a mix of personal and impersonal stakes — it’s about braiding the personal stakes into the impersonal ones. The Alpacapocalypse matters because the protagonist’s own daughter is at the heart of the Alpaca Invasion Staging Ground and he must descend into the Deadly Alpaca Urban Zone to rescue her. He’s dealing with the larger conflict in order to address his own personal stakes.’
Readers will notice if characters are thin and uninspiring or the story fails to compel them. Not all readers will necessarily be looking at the prose style, but it is important all the same:
Prose that gives the enjoyment of language
There is no single type of ‘effective prose.’ What it is and is not can mean many things to different readers. Some writers will claim that prose should be as simple and straightforward as possible, but the fact is that different types of stories and storytelling require different styles of prose. “Effective prose” is more about what you shouldn’t do, and what prose should not do is get in the reader’s way. Choose strong, descriptive verbs over adverbs — although sometimes adverbs are fine — and avoid language that adds little such as words like “very” or “to be” verbs. Avoid passages in which little happens, such as describing someone walking across a room or their commute to work unless there is a particular reason to.
While most readers tend not to analyse prose, they will often put a book down that feels as though it is dragging without knowing exactly why, and sometimes that is down to the prose. Are your action scenes filled with long descriptions instead of punchy verbs? Are your sentences mostly passive instead of active? These are the types of flaws that, regardless of your style, can cause your reader to lose interest.
A strong narrative drive
Although best-selling novels tend to be plot-driven, it is not always necessary to have a strong plot. There might be more psychological drama than action, but something must drive the reader on. The key is that the reader wants to keep reading.
Narrative drive is all about building tension and escalating conflict. Tension and suspense are not just for thrillers. All types of fiction including literary fiction are driven by conflict(read more on how to use conflict in your story here).
Another aspect of great fiction is that it survives and transcends changing cultures, and here is how:
Timelessness and universality
Why do readers still embrace Jane Austen and audiences still flock to film versions of Shakespeare while books that are only a few decades old can feel outdated? Some of those outdated books might have been big hits in their time, but only in an ephemeral way.
The books that readers will embrace, return to throughout their lives and pass on to their children are stories that rise above their time and place and tell universal stories about things like love, war, betrayal and grief. Jane Austen’s books might be set in a Regency England that might as well be fantasy world for modern readers, but while the social structure and pressures are different today, we all must learn to find our way in the society we live in just like Austen’s characters. Young people whose families will not permit them to be together still fall in love just as they do in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Fully-realised story settings
As is the case with prose, readers may not always pinpoint this as the reason that a book just doesn’t seem to grab them. A strong setting is important for grounding a book. Creating a world that feels real and plausible is not just something science fiction, fantasy and historical writers need to do. Even if your story is a realistic one set in contemporary times, you still need to think a lot about how you build its world on the page. What country does your story take place in? What city or small town or rural area? What is unique to that area that the protagonist is likely to love, hate or feel indifferent to?
Your reader should get a sense of the texture of the place where your story is taking place. That means noticing details like the smells, the weather and the sounds. It doesn’t mean inserting huge chunks of description into your novel — that’s a surefire way to turn your readers off — but it does mean weaving the right details throughout the book so that the setting becomes so real that your readers are surprised on setting the book down to find themselves in their own familiar surroundings.
Satisfying story structure
Some writers swear by the three-act structure. Others are devoted to a variation of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. You don’t have to follow any particular formula, but you do need to pay attention to some kind of structure. That means ensuring that your book’s pacing works, that you do not dump too much information at a time or that your book does not consists of three-quarters meandering and one-quarter breakneck action at the very end.
One of the best basic structures to use for writing fiction is Freytag’s Pyramid because with its basic tracking of elements such as rising action, climax and denouement, it provides a structure that can be used in individual scenes as well as in the overall plotting of a novel.
What is good writing? Readers, writers and critics will disagree on many of the finer points, but nearly everyone agrees that elements such as strong characterisation, a sturdy structure and a command of dialogue and prose are essential. By studying how your favourite writers use those elements in their own work, you can move your writing from good to great.
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