By Magdalena Ball
Even highly celebrated and well-paid authors miss them. While almost all writers are clear on the importance of plot, there are other writing skills such as a strong narrative voice, good deep characterization, and relevant, subtle scenery description that set a work of fiction apart, rendering it literary or great. In my work as a reader for a small publishing house, I have seen these omissions in nearly every manuscript that has come across my desk.
If these three elements are patchy or not well-controlled, a piece of fiction will be amateurish, shallow, and potentially unpublishable (unless your name is Grisham or King). No amount of exciting plot or poetic description of the surrounding environment will make up for it.
Following is a list of the three most important elements of fiction writing, along with a series of exercises and references to help writers improve in these critical areas.
The very best way to improve your writing in these, and other areas, is to read lots of writers who have excellent control in these areas. They are also referenced. There will always be something subtle that extends beyond writing classes and even articles such as this, and that is the writer’s ear. Extensive reading of good quality literature can help develop that subtle ear for what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, the following tips will help clarify where the main areas for writing great fiction lie. Hint . . . it isn’t in the plot.
Strong narrative voice
The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.
However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and it has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.
A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story. More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.
Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:
- Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fuelled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
- Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
- Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
- Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator. Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.
References for more information on narrative voice:
"Paradigm, Point of View, and Narrative Distance in Verbal and Visual Arts" by George P Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University
A simple but useful guide to the different narrative voices, from Candace Schaefer: http://www.qcc.mass.edu/booth/102/ptview/index.htm
A slide show by Sheila Booth of at QCC Mass — including a complete overview of the narrative voice: http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellibst/PowerPoint/Lect11/sld019.htm
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Jane Burroway, Longman; 8th edition, 2010. ISBN 0205750346
Characterization is related to narrative voice, as the narrator is generally a character too. While most writers understand the importance of characterization, and it is not as subtle a skill as the narrative voice, modern bestsellers and genre writing still tend to be plot rather than character-driven, especially in our world of fast paced, instantly gratifying television and film. Cliched, superficial characters are the mark of a poor writer. A great character can save an overly simplistic plot, but no amount of action will make up for unbelievable or shallow characters. A good character has the same kind of depth, complexity, and believability as an interesting person. The reader wants to know more about them; to spend time with them; to imagine their lives beyond the boundaries of your fiction. There are a number of books written about creating good characters (see References below). However, the basics of characterization are as follows:
Ensure that your reader cares about the characters. Solid characters are not enough—they have to inspire strong feeling.
Good characters are complex. A reader’s response to them should also be complex. This means they grapple with the same things real people grapple with—morality, the meaning of life, love, death, time management, etc. No one is purely good or purely evil. The most unloveable protagonist must still have something to make their story interesting to the reader, and believable. Cliched, cardboard characters will ruin the best plot. This means that characters should be well-drawn, and detailed. Their dialogue must align with their history, and every character, even minor ones, must have some sort of history that is discernable by the reader.
All characters must count, and must be related to the meaning and narrative of the story. Extraneous characters who appear and disappear without relevance to the plot will confuse the reader and weaken the fiction.
Characters should sit at the heart of any story. This means beginning, and continuing with characterization throughout the entire story. It is not enough to describe your characters at the start and then forget about it. People are full of contradiction, depth, and corridors to explore. Characters should be too.
Avoid contrived description. Characterization should be woven into the plot and handled with subtlety.
Some tricks to help characterization include:
- Pick a passage from great fiction (any of the examples above will do, or anything you might be reading, as long as it is literary), and identify the character. Describe, in writing, his/her back story. How is it relevant to the overall novel?
- Do the same thing for a piece of your own work. Take one of your characters and write out a page of “back story.” This is something that isn’t going to appear in your work, but it will form the basis for the things your characters do.
- Try writing a few paragraphs of “stream of consciousness” for one of your favorite characters. If you aren’t sure how to do this, try doing it for yourself. Just spend a few minutes listening to the interior voice in your head. Close your eyes and let your mind wander at will, and then quickly write it down as close as possible to how it was. Leave out punctuation and let the thoughts flow, stop and start in the same chaotic rhythm as they do in the mind. If you are still unsure, check out the masters; James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner in The Sound and The Fury; all do wonderful things with this technique.
- Try a form of “mind-mapping” for your characters. Place one of their names in the middle of the paper, and draw a circle around it. Now around that circle, place aspects of that person in lines that emanate from the central point. This will give a good feeling for the complexity that makes up this person. Once you have done this, you will have a much better idea of who this character is, his/her motivations, and hidden internal dialogue.
- Developing your writer’s ear for what constitutes good and poor characterization is critical for every fiction writer, and the best way to do that is to read fiction by wonderful and challenging authors. All of the narrative masters cited above are also masters of characterization, and there is also Charles Dickens, whose characters tend towards the comic, but never unbelievable, Tim Winton, Toni Morrison, or James Joyce (who can ever forget Leopold and Molly Bloom from Ulysses?).
References for more information on characterization
The Key to Making Your Characters Believable by A.C Crispin
Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, Henry Holt, July 1990, ISBN: 0805011714
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. Pocket Books, May 2001, ISBN: 0671024256.
The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft., Douglas Bauer, Univ of Michigan Pr; Enlarged and Revised Edition 2006. ISBN: 0472031538.
Subtle Description of Setting
Many creative writing classes focus on the writing of scenic description. Good descriptive writing is an excellent skill; however, it can be overused to the detriment of a piece of fiction, especially when combined with poor characterization. An abundance of natural scenery or the telling of a setting, unrelated to the characters, will seem gratuitous and amateurish. Gorgeous scenery is not an error in itself. Descriptive writing can be powerful, creating the setting and backdrop for the work, and providing some very moving passages. However, purely purple prose tends to be glossed over by readers, as an attempt at writing prettily rather than writing meaningfully, and it can actually be quite dull.
Every single piece of description must have some relevance to either the character development or the plot. The classic maxim is to always show rather than tell. Paint the scene, delicately, and let the characters find your scenery for you; let the scenes unfold. Let your reader enter your fictional universe and visualize the setting themselves through scenes, events, dramatization, symbolization, or open ended description in which the reader can participate directly.
Some tricks to help improve scenery description include:
- Try to write a paragraph of setting description with no adjectives at all. This will not only create a very vivid, dramatic scene, but will also force you to show rather than tell, as multiple adjectives are at the heart of telling.
- Read the following short passage from Kafka’s The Trial(165–6):
He went over to the window, perched on the sill, holding on to the latch with one hand, and looked down on the square below. The snow was still falling, the sky had not yet cleared. For a long time he sat like this, without knowing what really troubled him, only turning his head from time to time with an alarmed glance toward the anteroom, where he fancied, mistakenly, that he heard a noise. But as no one came in he recovered his composure, went over to the washbasin, washed his face in cold water, and returned to his place at the window with a clearer mind.
How much of the setting does this seemingly simple paragraph reveal? How much have we learned about both the situation, the character, and the scene? Try and do something similar in a different setting, with a different character (use of your own if you have a story in progress).
- As with narrative voice and characterization, read authors who excel in writing good setting. This will, once again, help you develop your writer’s ear for this, and ensure that you can spot purple passages in your own work.
- Re-write, re-write, re-write. Julian Barnes has been cited as saying that he re-writes every page something like 47 times. This may seem excessive, but the heart of good writing is re-writing, and this is critical for your setting and description of the environment within your fiction. Cut out anything that seems the slightest bit superfluous. Your writing will be more professional, stronger, and more powerful.
References for more information on description of setting:
Lori Handeland’s article on setting.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Noah Lukeman, Simon & Schuster, January 2000. ISBN: 068485743X.
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White, Alllyn & Bacon, January 2000 (reprinted), ISBN: 020530902X
The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition), John Grossman, University of Chicago Press, Sept 1993, ISBN: 0226103897
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Benni Browne and Dave King.HarperCollins, Second edition 2004. ISBN: 0060545690.
Of course it takes more than a good narrator, good characters, and good, subtle scenery description to make a great piece of fiction, but these three areas will set a great piece of work apart from a mediocre one. The most common error is patchy narrative voice, and all writers should approach this area with some thought and caution, since it is much less well-taught in writing classes than techniques like plot development and characterization. Once again, the best way of becoming a master in these critical fiction areas is by being aware of their importance, and by reading good quality literary fiction, noting always the way the author deals with the narrator, the character development, and the subtle relationship between scenery and character, setting and plot.
Magdalena Ball is content manager for The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author of The Art of Assessment: How To Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in hundreds of on-line and print publications.