Ever since I’ve gotten back from Odyssey, I’ve been struggling with how to integrate their teaching with my own system of fiction. Since the system I wrote under originally sold two books for me, I wanted to hold onto it. But the central principles of Odyssey kept echoing in my brain, so that when I did something (on purpose) that was different, I had a hard time.
My sister, in a moment of brilliance, suggested that I write down my own system. After all, it’s hard to hit a target if you don’t know where it is. So I took two days and wrote down what I think makes good fiction.
Here’s my results, in general: the ideas by which I think books fail or succeed. I’ll be expanding some of these ideas in future blog posts over the next few weeks.
1. Good fiction makes you feel.
Whether it’s the excitement of a chase, the thrill of falling in love, or the burning anger of revenge, fiction makes you feel. Bonus points for the book being interesting and unusual, but if you don’t feel something, and feel something strongly, it’s missed the mark.
From this perspective, Twilight succeeds; while a lot of writers (and readers) make fun of it, the book makes you feel intensely for the characters and that’s a good, good thing.
2. Good fiction has characters that change.
This is what writers call a character arc. The person your character is at the beginning of the book is, in a greater or lesser degree, not who they are at the end. Events impact them and force them to show who they are (and are becoming) through the decisions they make. It’s not about a number of events or a structure of a story here – it’s about how the events and the structure impacts the character.
This requirement is why I like a good romance novel. While you know what’s going to happen plot-wise with the whole book, a good romance book has incredibly strong characters who, through meeting each other, change for the better. Who they are is unique, how they change is interesting, and the net result is a story that feels fresh every time. Making me connect and feel for the characters and showing me how they change as a result of the story is enough for me – however you chose to get me there.
3. Good fiction isn’t boring.
Maybe this one should have been Requirement #1. A writer can get away with practically anything if they keep this rule. Throw in an egregious car chase. Pick up a quirky character. Make someone die, or have a heart-to-heart at the worst of times. But if the prose is lagging, the characters aren’t moving, and I can’t remember the last time something important happened, I will put down the book. And I won’t buy your next one.
4. A good book doesn’t drop threads.
While it lacks the punch of my previous rules, this one’s just as important. If you bring up ducks four times in twenty pages, I expect them to mean something to the story. If you start the book as a romance and then it turns into a mystery (with no romance in sight), I get annoyed. If you introduce the world’s most interesting character and then they disappear, I throw the book across the room. Great fiction doesn’t drop anything; it pulls all the themes, all the elements, all the plots and subplots, all the way through the book to a real resolution. It keeps its promises to the reader.
Bonus: #5: A great book is creative and interesting.
If a book accomplishes Requirements 1 through 4, it’s a good book, regardless of a lot of other things. But I’ll be honest, the smell of something new, creative, and interesting makes me sit up as a reader and pay attention. A new approach to an old subject excites me. A surprise or a bit of cool information adds a lot of delight to my experience as a reader. Be as interesting and creative in your book as you possibly can – assuming you can accomplish the other four points. Otherwise, no matter how new and original you are, in my opinion, you’re missing part of what makes fiction good.
That’s my model. What about you? What makes a book great from your perspective?