The following is a broad overview of the subject. As the site develops, each of the line items will be turned into a link connecting to one or more articles discussing that concept in detail.
Consider the following a sort of, "table of contents" for the subject as it will be discussed on this site.
To understand this subject the best place to start is with the product.
What product do we "storytellers" produce? What product do we exchange with our readers?
Fiction writers produce stories because that's what our readers are buying - a story.
- Why do we tell stories, what's the purpose?
Stories are how we make sense out of life and how a culture defines itself. Stories are how we attempt to understand where we've come from, who we are, and where we're going.
- What is a story - exactly?
Definition: story - a fictional narrative, consisting of an introduction leading either to an event (or two causally related incidents, culminating in an event) and ending with a conclusion of the premise of the narration.
(note: you will not find this definition in any dictionary)
- What the reader wants
All the buying public wants is: a good story, well told.
Our familiarity with the product is the problem. It gets in the way of our actually studying the subject of fiction, as a subject.
We've been reading, watching, and hearing stories our whole lives. So we start off as writers thinking we know what they are.
But reading fiction is vastly different than writing fiction. The trick is to replace familiarity with certainty and guess-work with expertise. Composing good fiction is simple, once we know how. But that's the trick, isn't it - learning how to create good story's and telling them well.
- How do we learn to write effective fiction?
Any subject to be learned must be systematized. The student can't learn and the teacher can't teach a non-system. To be understood, any subject must be sorted into its components and organized into a hierarchy of functions, relationships and dependencies.
Simply put, it's like understanding the engine of a car. We must not only know what each component is, and what it does, but we must understand how each of these pieces work with all the others to make the wheels turn and propel us down the road. And to understand that we also have to understand (at least in broad general terms) the laws of physics as they apply to the workings of engines.
So too it is with learning to write fiction. There are laws of storytelling like there are laws of physics. There are component parts to a story like there are component parts to an engine. And then there is how the laws apply and how the components interact to take our reader on an emotional and intellectual ride down the road of our story.
To the degree that we understand stories and storytelling -- like a mechanic understands car engines -- we can tune, adjust, repair, rebuild and even build them from scratch.
But if we don’t understand stories like a mechanic understands car engines, when it doesn't run right or we can't get it started - all we can do is kick the tires and call a tow-truck. And the readers of our stories won't hesitate to call the tow-truck and rent some other story.
So, if we are going to build and sell our books, then we must become story mechanics.
To improve our ability to create stories and tell them well we need to learn a lot more (dare I say everything) about what stories are, how they work, and what they do.
- Where do we start?
There are two major subdivisions to the subject of writing fiction -
A.) creating a good story and B.) telling it well.
- Good story
To understand what constitutes a "good story" we have to look at purpose. What is the reader buying and why are they buying it?
Entertainment is too shallow an answer. People only buy solutions to their problems.
And stories solve two problems for the reader: relief from boredom, and distraction from his problems. That's what the reader is buying - relief from his life or problems. They could use booze, drugs, a movie or a rollercoaster ride. Any of those things could provide some "relief" but some of these solutions are more beneficial than others.
To the degree our story solves the reader's problem, it's a good story.
- Well told
What makes a story "well told"? What is "telling well"?
Again we have to look at purpose. To achieve "relief", the telling of the story (and the story itself) must catch and hold the attention of the reader long enough for him to experience enough relief that they feel satisfied.
A story must also provide an emotional and intellectual experience. This is part of how it catches and holds the readers attention. It engages their attention on an emotional and intellectual level - some of each. Emotional and intellectual are the two ends of a gradient scale. Each story could be placed at some point on the scale between total emotional and total intellectual.
No story can be written that is all one and nothing of the other.
- How do we proceed?
- Writing fiction is a subject - like any other
First we must understand that fiction is a subject like any other subject. There is something to know and it can be known.
Any subject is easy once we understand it. The problem is getting to that point of understanding.
- Organize to understand
This subject of composing fiction must be organized before it can be studied and it must be studied before it can be understood.
- What do we need to know?
There are things that we need to know. And there are things that we don't need to know to understand a subject.
In the category of "need to know" are these categories: product, nomenclature, tools, resources, structures, sequences, and techniques -- in about that order of importance.
The writers product is a "story" which we already covered above. However what you might not realize is that the above definition is "new". We writers haven't had such a workable definition for what a story is, for over 1,000 years. And ones ability to create stories is directly proportional to ones understanding of exactly what they are.
But we have no product unless and until someone reads what we've written.
Get the Truth about
Words are best understood as a hierarchy of related concepts. The words of a subject are related to each other like the leaves on a tree. An important part of any word's meaning is its relationship with other words of the subject.
There is a nomenclature associated with the composition of fiction and we must understand all the terminology of the subject.
This is a long list starting with words, grammar, spelling and punctuation, all the way up to and including human nature, history, geology, geography, physics, etc.
The ability to observe, research, think about, and evaluate information is undoubtedly the writer's greatest single resource.
There are only two basic story structures.
- Long story: introduction, first incident, second incident, event, conclusion
- Short story: introduction, event, conclusion
The story creation sequence is simple, if we don't skip any steps.
- Story Conception
Story conception is just getting an idea that can be turned into a premise.
- Story Design
Designing a story is simply working out the general idea of the major components that make up any story such as: premise, antagonist, protagonist, objective, problem, duration, location, time, motivation, consequences, and outcome.
Design also includes decisions regarding the genre, target audience, and word length.
And from there the design would move on to the major actions of the introduction, first incident, second incident, event and conclusion, and the smaller actions leading up to and away from each of these.
- Story Composition
Composition is what most people think of as "writing". But there are two steps before composition; otherwise one would not know what they were writing about, why they were writing about it or the point they were trying to make with their narrative.
- Story Editing
Good editing starts broad and works down into the details. Does the story work? Is it doing what it was intended it to do? Does it illustrate the intended premise? And working down to things like: Is each scene pulling its weight? Does the dialogue work? Is the tension right? etc.
Techniques are often referred to as systems, or methodologies. There are techniques for conceiving, designing, composing and editing. For example, some of the techniques of composition are: prose, poetry, exposition, dialogue, suspense, mock-ups, scenes, person, viewpoint, etc.
- General Principles
Only to the degree that we can systematize and structure the data that comprises the subject we can master the subject.
Each component of the subject must be understood, not only in and of itself, but in relation to the whole.
The subject of storytelling is ancient and it's gathered a lot of false information over the centuries. So, we must be able to sort out and discard the false information while learning the correct information. That means; we must be able to tell the difference between what works and what doesn't.
The above is only a broad outline of the subject. To master the subject one obviously would need to study the details - many of which you will find on this site.
Richard A. McCullough