What Makes Great Fiction 'Great'?


Writing fiction tends to begin with images. Writers pick up images from other books, from films, from life, and these manifest themselves in the imagination (‘Imagination’ could be called a ‘nation of images’) until they seem to take on a life of their own. They want to escape; they press themselves against the doors of a writer’s mind, urging their way towards freedom.

What usually happens next is that, if a writer gets the time to open those doors, these images pour out onto paper or a screen in a chaotic tumble of ‘this-happened-then-this-happened-then-this-happened…’ until that initial ‘tumbling energy’ wears off. This normally occurs pretty quickly, within a chapter or two of writing. The images lose momentum, they begin to wander. The writer begins to wonder. Specifically, the writer wonders: What should happen next? Where is the story going?

If by some miraculous chance the writer finds time to continue writing, sometimes the initial images are pulled together - chapter after chapter is squeezed out of them into the rough shape of a plot, a sequence of events supposedly culminating in a climax which then constitutes the ending of that particular story. This is often a process of generating more and more images, more and more events, each forcefully interacting with each other until a kind of synthesis results in a ‘finished story’. More often than not, though, even this fails in the medium or long term.

By far the greatest number of manuscripts are formed along the above lines: imagination exploding outwards then losing force, frequently collapsing altogether, but occasionally falling into line and forming some kind of system which more often than not burns up its own energy and then dies.

By far the greatest number of creative writers in the world are left staring at a kind of burned-out husk. It was once a collection of brightly coloured images, thriving in the mind, shining with potential, but somehow it ended up escaping into the outer world and fading into a manuscript made up of dead words.

But not all fiction is like that.

The great novels, the great epics, the grand tragedies and the lasting comedies, the superlative ironies - these things live on, not burning out at all but growing even brighter with each passing generation. Their au