As I see it, fiction contains two components: content, or story, and the means by which the author delivers that content–the writing itself. In a comment last week Austin Gunderson referred to these two aspects of fiction as the bones and skin. I like that analogy.
I don’t think one component should be emphasized to the detriment of the other–after all, bones without skin won’t work, but neither will skin without bones. However, I think perhaps in emphasizing improved craft, we’ve forgotten about the bones. Whether on blogs or in conference writing instruction or how-to writing books, it seems to me there is much more discussion about point of view and avoiding passive verb constructions and steering clear of forms of “to be” than there is about what ingredients go into a good story.
This wouldn’t be a concern if the majority of the Christian fiction I read–most of it speculative–had engaging stories that took me on an adventure of one type or another. Essentially, as a reader, I want to live the story with the characters. That’s not happening as often as I’d like.
So here are a few ingredients I’ve identified that do, in fact, pull me into a story.
- A unique premise. Stories have been told and retold, so there’s nothing wrong with the orphan boy becoming king or the magic sword saving the day. However, a story with those familiar underpinnings needs a new and different spin. The orphan boy becomes a king and he is evil, for example. In short, a story needs to be both familiar and new.
- A character who wants or needs something from the outset. This can be something internal or external, but his awareness of his need causes him to act.
- An active character as opposed to one that is reactive. I want a character who does not sit back passively or in a defensive position, warding off attacks. I want the protagonist to make the attempt to solve his problem. He may fail or be wrong, but it is in his attempt to win, conquer, find, solve that I as a reader can cheer him on or worry over him in his struggle.
- Conflict. Something needs to stand in the way of the character achieving his desire. These aren’t random problems that assault him but should arise as a result of his efforts.
In the first a character is on his way to achieve his goal, but a swarm of bees attacks, it starts to rain, and a rock slide blocks his way. In the second, he is on his way, but doesn’t look at his map, makes a wrong turn, stirs up the swarm of bees, flees from them, runs for safety toward the river where he loses his pack in the water. In other words, his own decisions lead him into greater conflict rather than random things unrelated to his choices happening to him.
- No easy solutions. I don’t want our hero to get out of hot water too easily. He needs to struggle and perhaps even fail because easy wins generally don’t leave their mark. Hence the character goes through easy wins with little learned. He doesn’t grow or develop as a person.
The dragon assaults him, he draws his sword and pierces it in its tender underbelly. True, he won the battle, but how did he change because of it? The problems a character faces should affect him.
- Stakes that are sufficiently high. I want the events in the story to matter. If the main character fails, what will he lose? What will others lose? In good stories something valuable is on the line–if the hero fails, all will be lost, for him and for those he cares about.
- The possibility of failure. Given sufficiently high stakes, readers must actually believe the hero might lose and that the story could just as easily end tragically as happily.
- Proper character motivation. Yes, sometimes characters act in surprising ways, but there still needs to be a reason for them to act against their usual pattern of deciding and doing. Anything out of the blue, any unexplained coincidences will seem like author manipulation.
- Foreshadowing. Readers shouldn’t be blindsided but neither should they see the twists and surprises coming a mile away.
What is important to you that I haven’t included? Which of these nine matters most to you and why? And here’s the key question–which ingredient is most often missing in the Christian speculative fiction you’ve read recently (no titles necessary)?