By a strange coincidence, two people asked the same question at more or less than same time. One asked me the question directly, the other posted it on an internet forum. Their question was:
“I write non-fiction. How do I learn to write fiction?”
It’s a great question. My immediate thought was “it’s obvious, innit?”. Then I stopped, paused, thought. No, it isn’t obvious.
You see, I’ve been writing fiction since I was ten. One day, the teacher asked the class to write a story for their homework. Most of the class wrote a couple of pages about unicorns or football or something similar. I wrote a 26 page novella.
It was like pulling at a loose thread on a woolly jumper. The thread kept on coming and coming and coming, until I had a tangle of wool in one hand and a lot of nothingness in the other where the jumper had been.
Ten years old was a long time ago. I am now no longer “pushing fifty” – I am dragging it behind me. Writing has become an essential part of my life. I have written four awful “first” novels which will never see the light of day. A further four self-published novels with another about to be published.
This meant that I had to stop and think how to write fiction. I have been doing it for so long that I have forgotten how to do it.
What follows isn’t the only way to write fiction. It’s my way. As they say on the internet, your mileage might vary.
First, I want to put an image into your head. Do you know those party games where you have to act out a phrase or movie title, but you can’t say it? Everyone else in the room has to guess the word from your actions?
There are several different versions of this. If you act it out, it’s called charades. If you draw it, it’s called Pictionary. You wave your arms around, point to your bottom, make rude hand signals. Then eventually someone calls out “Terminator 3; Rise of the machines.” Everyone cheers.
If charades works well, everyone in the room gets that forehead slapping moment. Of course! It’s obvs when you think about it.
You know the sort of thing? Hold onto that thought. You will need it in a second.
For me, every piece of fiction starts with an idea. Something that I want to say. A common theme for me is that we all have good and bad in us. A “bad guy” can sometimes be good. A good guy can sometimes be bad.
Some people think that they write fiction without having an over-arching theme. I’m not so sure about that. I think every writer has themes in their head. They just don’t always realise what they are.
Next comes the charades/ Pictionary part. The art of writing is to pass that theme on to your readers without saying it out loud. You have to act out your theme.
Except you aren’t the one doing the acting out. You have to invent characters to act out your theme for you.
These characters need to be believable. They ought to have three dimensional characteristics, traits and beliefs. The reader needs to believe that your characters are real.
How do we create believable characters? We need to play charades again. If we decide that our main character is brave, we are not allowed to say that he is brave. We have to get him to do brave things.
We need a setting – a stage where our characters can do their stuff. This time we are allowed to say where the action happens, but we also have to act it out. Our readers need to be reminded that we are in medieval England, or Middle Earth, or on board a pirate ship, or whatever. We don’t need to describe everything about the world. Just enough so they know where they are.
Have your characters go into a roadside inn with a thatched roof and ale that comes frothing in pewter tankards. Your readers will know you’re in Middle Earth or Westeros.
Then we need a plot. Stuff has to happen. This might sound complicated but it’s actually quite simple. The only plot that you need to get started in fiction is that your characters need to solve a problem. They need to kill a dragon, find a husband, destroy a death star, survive an apocalypse, become world heavyweight boxing champion. Whatever.
You don’t need to keep this one secret from your readers, but like the setting it helps if you keep reminding them what the problem is. In Star Wars, the Empire have to use the death star to destroy Alderaan. We need to show the readers that the death star is a nasty thing. Just like playing charades, we aren’t allowed to say “the death star is a nasty thing”. We have to act it out. The audience needs that forehead-slapping moment where they get it for themselves.
The ideal plot leaves the reader wondering what is going to happen next. It pulls them through the story like a golden thread tied to a fish-hook stuck in their cheek.
Then we need words. Lots of words.
This might seem like the easy part. We all know lots of words, don’t we? “The cat sat on the mat.” Simple, right?
Well, no. It turns out that there are a million ways of saying something. The Siamese reclined on the Persian rug. Each different variation of phrase or word tells us something about character, setting and plot.
When we choose one set of words over another we are playing charades again. We are hinting at things that we should not say out loud.
Let’s take one of the most famous sentences of dialogue. Luke Skywalker is flying his X-wing through the death star canyon when the ghostly voice of Obiwan Kenobi says:
“Use the Force, Luke”
It’s a simple little four word sentence. And yet it doesn’t take much tweaking to make it sound very different. What if we take out the last word?
“Use the Force.”
That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? It sounds more like a command. The addition of “Luke” reminds us that Obiwan was Luke’s friend. It has a warmth to it.
“Please use the Force.”
Ugh. That doesn’t work at all. Jedi Knights shouldn’t say “please” and especially not in moments of high tension.
“Trust in the midichloriens to guide you. Turn off your targeting computer. Allow them to direct your movement.”
Too much information. Too many words.
“Increase power to the forward shields.”
Too Star Trekkie.
And on it goes. Have one of your characters say “yea, verily, my liege” and we can sense that we’re in a sword and sorcery novel or a historical story. Have that same character say “yo, dude, what’s happening?” and we’ve got a very different setting in mind.
Like playing charades, we need to think what our readers will take from our words. What sort of hints are we dropping?
That might seem like a lot to take in, and it probably is. Writing a good story isn’t easy. But this, for me, is at the heart of writing fiction. We are telling stories by dropping hints and giving clues, so that your readers can reassemble those clues and work out what we are saying.
Let me give you an example. I wanted to write a novel on theme of “there is good and bad in all of us.” I wanted to make an anti-hero who was surprising, reluctant, unlikely, uncertain.
What would make the most surprising and unlikely hero? A zombie. Okay, I’ll make my main character a zombie. A walking, talking, friendly zombie.
How can I make him seem loveable? I’ll give him a girlfriend. She is cleverer than him and more grounded.
How can I make him seem ordinary? I’ll make him a trainee estate agent/ realtor.
How can I make him heroic? I’ll give him a quest to go on, and an evil Prime Minister who wants to kill him.
How can I make him believable as a sentient zombie? Why not write it in the first person with him as the only narrator?
And on it goes. Each decision we make about our writing is like playing charades. We know what we want to say, but we’re not allowed to say it out loud. We have to drop very big hints.
Then practise, practise, practise. Write until your fingers bleed and your head spins. The first few things you write will be rubbish. Trust me on this – they will be rubbish. But you won’t know it yet. Write a lot, read a lot, write a lot more.
And keep on playing charades. Your job as an author is to drop clues so that your readers find the answers for themselves. Their imagination is far better than anything that any author has ever written.
It’s a book. And a movie. Three words. Second word is “and”. First word rhymes with …