Elements of Successful Fiction
© Jessica P. Morrell The best fiction touches the deep layers in us. A writer achieves this effect by embedding dozens of techniques into his or her story.
Dramatic Question Compelling fiction is based on a single, powerful question that must be answered by the story climax. This question will be dramatized chiefly via action in a series of events or scenes. If you are writing a romance, the question always involves whether the couple will resolve their differences and declare their love. In a mystery the dramatic question might be will Detective Smith find the serial killer in time to prevent another senseless death? In The Old Man and Sea the dramatic question is will Santiago catch the big fish and thus restore his pride and reputation?
An intimate, simmering world An intimate world isn’t created by merely piling on details. It means your story world has the resonance of childhood memories, the vividness of a dream, and the power of a movie. It’s filled in with shadows and corners and dogs and ice cubes and the sounds and smells of a dryer humming on wash day and a car blaring past, rap music shaking the windows. These details lend it authority, potency, and a palpable physical existence.
An intimate story takes us to a specific place and coaxes us to remain there. An intimate story is lifelike and feels as real and complicated as the world the reader inhabits. When he finishes the final pages, and leaves the story world, he should feel the satisfaction of the ending, but also a huge sense of loss. Like a friend has moved to another town just when the friendship had reached a level of closeness and trust.
Characters built from dominant traits. Create main characters with dominant and unforgettable traits as a foundation of personality. These traits will be showcased in the story events, will help him achieve or fail at goals, and will make the story person consistent. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ dominant traits are that he is analytical, Bohemian, opinionated and intelligent. These traits are showcased in every story he appears in along with secondary and contrasting traits. When the character first appears in the first scene, he arrives in the story with his dominant traits intact.
Emotional need Protagonists and main characters are people with baggage and emotional needs stemming from their pasts. These needs, coupled with motivation cause characters to act as they do. For example, in Silence of the Lambs Clarisse Starling is propelled by childhood traumas to both succeed and heal the wounds caused by the death of her father.
Significance The storyline focuses on the most significant events in the protagonist’s life.
Motivation entwined with backstory Motivation, the why? of fiction, is at the heart of every scene, fueling your character’s desires and driving him to accomplish goals. It provides a solid foundation for the often complicated reasons for your character’s behaviors choices, actions, and blunders. Motivating factors provide trajectories for character development, as a character’s past inevitably intersects with his present. Your character’s motivations must be in sync with his core personality traits and realistically linked to goals so that readers can take on these goals as their own.
Desire is the lifeblood of fictional characters. Not only do your characters want something, they want something badly. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea desperately wants to restore his reputation and also wants his friendship and partnership with the boy to resume. And in the lonely hours when he is far out at sea, desperately struggling to hang on to the fish and fighting off sharks, we see his fierce desire acted out and the price he pays for it.
You can bestow on your character flaming red hair, an endearing, crooked grin and a penchant for chocolate and noir movies, but if she doesn’t want something badly, she’s merely a prop in your story, not a driving force. But if she wants to win the Miss Florida contest, take over her boss’ job, or become the first female shortstop
for the Atlanta Braves, then you’ve got a character who will make things happen and a story that will be propelled by desire.
Threat Fiction is based on a series of threatening changes inflicted on the protagonist. In many stories these threats force him or her to change or act in ways he or she needs to change or act. Often too, what the protagonist fears most is what is showcased in a novel or short story. It can be fear of losing his family, job, or health with this dreaded outcome providing interest, action and conflict.
Causality Events in fiction are never random or unconnected. They are always linked by causality with one event causing more events later in the story, which in turn causes complications, which cause more events, which cause bad decisions, etc.
Inner Conflict A fictional character doesn’t arrive at easy decisions or choices. Instead he is burdened by difficult or impossible choices, particularly moral choices, that often make him doubt himself and question his actions. Inner conflict works in tandem with outer conflict—an physical obstacle, villain or antagonist–to make the story more involving, dramatic, and events more meaningful.
Complications A story builds and deepens by adding complications, twists, reversals and surprises that add tension and forward motion. Plots don’t follow a straight path, instead there are zigzags, dead ends, and sidetracks. Complications create obstacles and conflict, cause decisions to be made, paths to be chosen.
Midpoint Reversal The middle of a novel comprises more than half its length. At about the midpoint of most novels, a dramatic reversal occurs. The hunter becomes the hunted; a second murder occurs proving the detective has been wrong in his suspicions; a former lover arrives in town to complicate a budding romance. This reversal keeps the middle from bogging down and becoming predictable and also breathes new life and often a new direction into the story.
Satisfying Ending every story needs an ending that satisfies the reader while concluding the plot. The final scenes, when the tensions are red hot and the character has reached a point of no return, must deliver drama, emotion, yet a logical conclusion. This is not to suggest that every plot ends with a shoot-out or physical confrontation, because some endings are quieter, more thoughtful. Some endings are ambivalent, some a dramatic or a violent clash of wills. But there is always a sense that all the forces that have been operating in your story world have finally come to a head and the protagonist’s world is forever changed.
Begin with a Name
I once taught a workshop when a writer proudly announced that he’d written an entire novel where none of the characters had names. It’s a story I never want to read. All plants, animals, objects, places and people have names that identify them. Naming people and things in fiction has a practical purpose because it appeals to the reader’s logic, imagination, and memory. We name characters to differentiate them, to suggest their age, social standing and personality, to make them solid and distinctive, and signal readers that the story person is worth noting.
Since the reader will encounter your characters’ names again and again, bestow names with care, and add subtle layers of meaning to a story via their names. Generally, the more complicated your character, the more distinct his or her name should be, (think Ebenezer Scrooge or Hannibal Lector) keeping in mind that names, like characters evoke a response in readers. All fiction writes need to collect names in a writer’s notebook or story bible, starting with the standard methods of gathering names by perusing phone books, obituaries, and baby name books.
Be especially careful with a villain’s name, and don’t choose a name that works against type. You wouldn’t select a name for an arch villain that suggests a softie, nor would you give a good guy a name that has dark connotation. If your story has a true villain, his name should reflect menace, coldness, and/or strength. You might consider using hard consonants and sounds to suggest menace or other characteristics. For example in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, a writer’s villainous alter ego is named George Stark. Then there is Tolkien’s Gollum and Ian Fleming’s Auric Goldfinger. Conversely, good guys will have names that suggest goodness, or perhaps strength, such as Tolkein’s characters Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin.
The best names reflect the genre and suggest the character’s traits such as Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. On the other hand, the head master is Albus Dumbledore. Albus is from the Latin word alba, white, and his last name is Old English for bumblebee. So the headmaster’s name suggests honor and a hard-working nature. Sirius Black is Harry’s godfather. His first name is the dog star, appropriate for a wizard who can transform into a black dog.
George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is replete with terrific and memorable names: Mance Rayder, Tywin Lannister, Walder Frey and Jon Snow. In fact, the series has such a crowded cast it comes with an appendix cataloguing names. One royal family is also named Stark. The family is from a kingdom of the north, Winterfell and the Starks are tough and cunning and hardened, with a lower hall filled with the bones of their ancestors.
It often works best to give tough, plain spoken, or unsentimental types, equally unsentimental names. Thus, your straight-shooting, beer-loving cop likely wouldn’t be named Julian or Florian, (no offense to the Julians and Florians of the world) but instead might be Jake or Jesse or Max. An alpha type needs an alpha-sounding name as does James (Jamie) Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Of course this works for women too as shown in Ma Joad of The Grapes of Wrath. Many writers use names that are suggestive such as Romeo suggesting romance, Holly Golightly suggesting a light hearted nature, and Scarlett O’Hara a beautiful flirt.
In Dean Koontz’s Forever Odd he gets the names just right and the villainess is called Datura which reflects her kinkiness, coldness, and cruelty. However, Koontz cleverly has chosen a name with layers of meaning, something fiction writers are always striving for. Datura is a flowering plant that is also called Devil’s Trumpets and Angel’s Trumpet. The Datura species, which has beautiful trumpet-like flowers exudes a narcotic-like scent, especially at night and is considered a sacred visionary plant. Datura plants have been used in many regions and by many cultures for medicinal and spiritual reasons, especially by shamans who use it for its clairvoyant powers. It is also interesting to note that all the Datura species contain potent alkoids which when taken in sufficient quantity have the power to kill.
Of course, like all parts of fiction sometimes writers go awry when naming characters. One problem is that they take this technique too far. Examples are naming a macho private eye Rod Magnum or Sam Blaster or naming a seductress Jezebel Flower.
Choose a character name that is age-appropriate and don’t make the mistake of choosing a name that is popular now for an adult character but wasn’t popular at the time of the character’s birth. To research the etymology and history of first names go to www.behindthename.com. If you’re writing historical fiction, it’s crucial that your names are historically accurate. Thus you wouldn’t name a 16th century character Tiffany or Shawna. But Geoffrey, Humphrey, and Giles have an authentic ring as do Eleanor, Phillipa, and Thomasina. And while Hester Prynne works for moniker of the scarlet woman of seventeenth century, her name wouldn’t work for a contemporary woman.
Another problem is featuring a story with too many names that sound alike—Jana, Jen, Jed, and Janine. Or names that rhyme like Ted and Ned. Or names that share the same vowels sounds like Sean and Dawn. So you want your cast names to have contrast and variety. Other problems are naming a character after a real person as in William Washington Clinton, Prime Minister of the Federated Territories.
Avoid also cutesy spellings or the alphabet soup syndrome most often found in science fiction or fantasy where the reader is left wondering how to pronounce oddball names like Aarghe or Zyyxr or T’muhra. Your might try combining two contemporary names or twisting a contemporary name to change it somewhat, or use mythological names or simply ones that are easy to pronounce like Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings.
Other tips: avoid androgynous names; pair unusual first names with simpler last names (Clark Bartholomew) or simple last names with complex first names (Reginald Clark); don’t use a name where the last letter of the first name is the first letter of the last name (Thomas Sinclair); and the more populated the story, the more the names should differ. Avoid pairing characters with obvious names such as a bad guy named Damon or Rafe and a sweet heroine named Angela.
Names are a terrific way to anchor a story with authenticity as Mario Puzo did in The Godfather with the Sicilian immigrant Don Vito Corleone and his sons, the tough quick-tempered one is Santino, Frederico is the weaker son, and Michael, the good son. Well, at least he starts out the story as the good son. Then there was Lucca Brazi who ended up sleeping with the fishes and Johnny Fontane, the singer whose name suggests the era. It’s also helpful to know how your character feels about his name. Many people don’t like their names, don’t believe their names suit them, or shorten or change their names—James is called Jim, Margaret, Meg, Jerome, Jerry.