The Seven Pillars of Successful Fiction
1. Core Ideas
At the heart of whatever it is you want to communicate as a writer, whether that’s a very definite idea that you want others to understand, or an emotion that you want them to feel, or something intangible that you want them to experience will be something, or perhaps a series of things, that you want to say as a writer. You could write these things down as a list, but of course they would be simply soulless statements in list form. Nevertheless, those core ideas are the source of the whole enterprise of fiction writing -they are that part of the writing which underpins and creates the whole thing and plans and directs the work. Or they should be.
Within the story, these core ideas give rise to themes.
You don’t see any simply-written, cold statement of the theme of psychosis in Shakespeare’s Macbeth -nevertheless, psychosis as an idea stalks its pages in the language and comes to life in the play on the stage; you won’t find a blunt anti-racist summary in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet every page communicates the novel’s anti-racist message to the reader in various ways.
E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, for example, is superficially 'about' the conflicting cultures of the British and the Indians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You could argue that the author’s 'idea' is to do with that -but in fact the central idea of the novel, around which everything else is built, is much bigger and deeper than that. It has to do with the universe and meaning and beauty -it’s very hard to sum up as a single blunt statement. Hence the need for a novel to communicate it. The novel itself is its metaphor; British and Indian relations are symbolic of something deeper and larger.
On a more popular level, it might be said that the Star Wars film series is about 'the Empire versus the Rebel Alliance, long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away' -and so it appears to be at first glance. But its success and resonance within popular culture suggest that the whole thing rests on more basic ideas, which is explored further in How Stories Really Work.
It’s not enough to have an idea as a writer, even if it’s a good one: you need to understand what the component parts of a successful text are, so that it actually works as a piece of fiction, not just a disguised essay about ideas.
One of these primary things is the item we currently know by the term 'character'. 'A character? That’s just a person in a story -someone that things happen to, or who makes things happen, right?' Yes, but there’s so much more to this that, once you have read the appropriate section in How Stories Really Work about character, you will never see a single character in a story in the same way again!
3. Creating Desire
It sounds too glib and simple, but readers have to really be engaged with a story for it to work in conveying your ideas. Increasing the desire of the reader produces the required level of commitment.
There have to be within the story fundamental generators which power the whole thing. No story, no matter how great the idea or even the structure, can survive longer than one page without these generators. What exactly they are and how they function is given in detail in How Stories Really Work.
When you take what you have known up until now as character, and then combine it with what you’re about to find out about generators, you have in your hands explosive material.
Even having a slight grasp of these generators is a key step in bringing your fiction to life.
4. Emotional Commitment
What desire produces is commitment. Commitment leads to a willingness on the reader’s part to forgo something. Readers in fact give writers permission to create effects on them. With some readers, this is easier than with others. Some readers resist having an effect of any kind created on them. It makes you wonder why they read at all -but they do, and if they do, you can get them to commit.
Just as certain materials are needed for tea to be made, any writer needs the certain key essentials in his or her work in order to be able to produce an effect upon a reader.
Every single successful story requires an exchange to take place between the reader and something in the fiction.
Emotion needs to be paid out by the reader; there needs to be some forgoing. Outwardly, this is the cash the reader pays to buy the book; inwardly, this is the emotional or spiritual commitment that the reader invests in the work because they see or feel a return on their investment. Without this capacity to obtain a deep commitment from the reader, a story will fail. Even if you’ve managed to hold the reader’s attention until the end of the tale, the book will be cast aside and probably never read again.
If you want to write something which is loved, which is read and re-read, which actually has an effect on readers, which is then recommended to others, you need to be able to extract commitment from them.
5. Building a Plot
In any fiction writing the story has to be built, created, assembled, in a particular sequence. The writer has to actually put the time in and put the words onto a page or screen. This is the ‘coalface’, the interface between writer and reader, where words appear in the right order so that what the writer originally envisaged actually takes shape in the mind of the reader.
Within the tale itself, the plot has to move the reader forward and deliver an effect. Even in Jane Austen’s Emma, for example, which students sometimes complain about as the novel in which 'nothing happens', there is a strand or sequence of motion or movement, commonly appearing as events, through which the reader moves towards the conclusion, where the final impact of the work is delivered.
Call this 'craft' or 'structure' or 'plot' -it’s the series of choices, made by the writer, which actively and carefully shift the reader’s attention around over a period of time.
All stories have Time in common, whether in prose or drama or even poetry: there is a movement, a progression from one thing to the next. But it is very much their own time, not necessarily -in fact, rarely- the time of the world around the book. This is the playing field where the writer furnishes what the reader wants, even if the reader doesn’t know it yet.
There are specific plot mechanisms -four, in fact- that a successful writer uses to hold the reader gripped until the end of the story. You’ve never heard of them before in this way -but you have fallen under their spell every time you have read, heard or seen a story that has had an effect on you.
As a matter of fact, they’re working on you right now, and this isn’t even fiction.
6. Fine Tuning
Any writer have some way of judging the quality of what he or she is producing and delivering and ensuring that it matches the readers’ needs. This sounds like common sense, but it becomes a little more opaque when you ask yourself 'By what criteria are we judging how close we are to a reader’s needs?'
And 'What exactly are a reader’s needs?'
Within the story itself, how does the aspect of quality manifest itself? What is happening on each page that tells us that we are getting nearer and nearer to (or further and further away from) what was desired in the first place?
Many aspects of this are fully explored in How Stories Really Work. You’ll learn how to use specific tools to ensure that your original effect actually arrives at the reader with full force.
Where is all this heading? To the moment when the writer puts down his or her pen and the reader puts down the book. This is when the reader either has the feeling or receives the idea which marks the magical closure of the matter. This is the Fulfilment aspect. This is the aim of all fiction writing.
The idea has become form through the character; the character has attracted the reader; the reader has forgone emotion and committed to the book. This has led to the furnishing of the story, fine tuned to meet exact needs. That leads to fulfilment, the Holy Grail of all fiction writing.