3 Tips for Great Fiction Writing (From a Non-Fiction Writer)

Full disclosure: I write very little fiction. However, I have noticed a number of great fiction writers use the essential tenants of non-fiction to make their work stand out in terms of both story and craft. So, before you poo-poo the techniques of those of us from the more dismal arts, take a look at these three non-fiction essentials that make for universally good writing (including fiction).

1. Tell your reader everything up front.

In high school, your English teacher may have had you do an exercise in which you wrote out a thesis statement at the top of your essay before you ever get into any explanation. The intention was probably to help you remember to inform the reader of the purpose of the entire paper and your position before you dive into any kind of facts or supporting arguments. While it might look a little silly in a paper, new writers often get distracted by the flashy facts or salacious secondary themes that they discovered during their research, and fiction writers can fall into the same trap with other parts of their story.

Many of the greats tell their readers how the story will end on the first page, sometimes in the first line. Of course, some will decry this technique. “If they know how it ends, what will keep them interested?!” they will yell between huffs of eye rolling. To this I say, you have it backward. Knowing the end from the beginning is what keeps people interested.

A few examples. First, Shakespeare did this in many of his plays. In Romeo and Juliet, he literally starts with someone walk on stage and telling the audience everything that is going to happen. Two lovers from warring houses are going to bite it, along with a ton of other people, and that will motivate their families to bury the hatchet. So, why does anyone read or see this play if they know what happens? The introduction acts as a blurb to interest them by making the audience ask questions. Why are the houses fighting? How do Romeo and Juliet fall in love? How do they die?

Some may argue that this is a poor example, because that play is 400 years old. The Bard might be super dead, but plenty of the best modern authors use the same technique, though more subtlety. In his novel Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson opens the story with the line: I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. Do we know who Steelheart is, or who is speaking? No, but we do know that the whole book is going to be about attempting to kill the seldom bleeding person, and since this is a story, the speaker will almost certainly succeed. So, we know how it ends from the first line. Why not stop? Because we need answers to everything else.

When you put the end at the beginning, you answer the most boring question first–the what–while exposing the most interesting ones–the hows and whys.

2. Tell the reader only what they need to know

This advice might seem like it contradicts the last point, but stay with me. All writers, fiction and non-fiction, have significantly more material than goes into the final product. If this isn’t the case, then they suffer from one of two problems. Either they haven’t done enough pre-writing to figure out the background of how elements of their argument/story are connected, or they are emotionally attached to unnecessary elements and left them in (yes, non-fiction writers get just as sentimental about our facts and figures as you do to your characters). In either case, the piece is bloated with useless and confusing asides that dilute the impact of the work.

Often, beginning writers have the first problem, and up-and-coming or semi-pro writers have the second. In either case, the first step to redemption is the same: delete a bunch of stuff. Read your story and for every scene, character, and bit of narrative ask yourself whether or not it directly advances the plot and the themes of the work. If the answer is, “No,” or, “Well, it connects to this other thing that connects to a thing that connects to the main points,” then delete it.

Cutting large portions of a work can be painful for an author, so I will give you the advice that one of my political science professors gave me. Cut out the offending sentence/paragraph/page, and paste it into a different file. Finish the edit and do a second edit, and smooth out the prose. All of a sudden, the offending passages don’t fit anywhere. You aren’t so attached to them anymore, and you can delete the extra file without too much heartache. Deleting stuff might not feel productive, because your piece just got shorter, but a nugget of gold is worth more than a pile of trash.

Note: I typed another two paragraphs in this section. Then, I deleted them, because I felt that I sufficiently covered those topics in the other paragraphs. Advice in action!

3. Understand the needs of your reader

This phrase has two meanings. The first is practical, and the second has the potential to be more artistic. First, the author must consider what the reader needs to know about the elements of the story: how much background do they need to understand the themes, what is happening, etc. The previous two sections cover this well, so we won’t talk about that here.

The second way to interpret what your audience needs involves connecting with the audience in such a way that they want to do something because of your work. In non-fiction academic writing, this means fitting the voice to the context of the work and presenting the evidence in a way that will make the reader want to learn more on the subject and find applications for the research. In fiction, it is basically the same thing but the author uses story and characters to deliver the message instead of data.

In any kind of writing, the author wants the reader to come to a conclusion and feel a certain way about the world. When we think of stories with a strong message, we often think of high-stakes political dramas and cautionary works like 1984 or A Handmaid’s Tale. While these are great examples of this principle, all good fiction can change the way that people think.

In Charlie Holmburg’s The Paper Magician, the main character spends half of the book walking through the chambers of her love interest’s heart. Through this experience, the audience learns something about the nature of love; it can only come from truly knowing another person. Whether or not one agrees with that argument, the entire book pushes this theme forward, and the book implicitly encourages the reader to believe and act accordingly.

The themes or connection to the reader don’t have to be some sweeping social commentary. They just need to resonate with the target audience such that people compare the idea to real life. This is the impact of a compelling, well edited story that knows its audience–at least in the opinion of this non-fictionist.

No Player’s Sky: A Meditation on Gaming and the Role of Narrative

It would seem that no game could possibly live up to the pre-release hype of No Man’s Sky.

So argues Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku, pointing out that while Hello Games promised (and failed to deliver on) quite a few things, they never promised “The Ultimate Video Game.” Rather, it was the players who promised that one to themselves–and when it didn’t show up in their Steam library, they were quite upset.

Of course, ‘upset’ might be putting it a bit lightly. At the time of release, No Man’s Sky boasted over two hundred thousand concurrent players; after two months, just over one thousand players–a measly 0.5% of the original player count–can be found on the game at a time. Recent reviews are totaled as “overwhelmingly negative,” placing the game within the bottommost qualitative tier on Steam. I would cite some other games which have warranted this ranking, but none are worth mentioning–and that is possibly the biggest indicator of the sort of game we are talking about; it is ranked with the games which no one speaks of, which no one knows anything about.

It could have been better, at the very least. The advertised image of the game was godlike; players could navigate an endless universe, explore countless millions of worlds, each planet unique and full of a diverse array of procedurally-generated flora and fauna; players could upgrade their ships and their persons and become nigh-invincible combatants in galactic conflicts; the game promised both a wealth of content and a blank check, assuring that players would never, ever reach the bottom of what the game had to offer.

The dream proved almost impossibly too good to be true. In fact, the dream could not have been true, in part because the dream exceeded the capacity for any game to sufficiently render it, especially a game of this sort.

I speak here of games without provided narratives–or rather, games which encourage or demand self-imposed narratives, games which approximate the cumulative narrative of actual living.

When we consider stories and tales–which are our bread and butter here at LTUE–we tend to consider the characters which inhabit them, or the worlds they open up to us, or the gripping plots which ensnare us and keep us reading late at night, far past the hours at which sane people turn in and shelve their media.

It’s far less often that we consider with some degree of depth the narratives which constitute the substance of the story, or the ways in which we opt for a narrative that fits our cognitive demands.

When we start reading, we start small. Children’s books often provide a piecemeal narrative, episodic at best and usually undemanding; it’s not until we get older that we start delving into complex narratives, unreliable narrators, twist endings, unsolved mysteries, or narratives approximating the unknowable nature of the universe.

And yet these more-developed narratives still occupy the role which narratives offer to readers: structure–and with structure, defined limitations.

Let’s talk about this for a bit. A story extends only so far as its plot. Even though we recognize and assume that an operable world exists in the background, we don’t actually go there over the course of the story; instead, we follow the protagonist, who might end up passing through that world; then again, they might not. We often enjoy the passing references to things outside the immediate foreground of the story; these provide a sense that the story inhabits a strong milieu, a world worth exploring and spending time in. And yet that world remains palpably beyond our reach. It’s only an imagined world, after all.

As such, the structure of the narrative defines limitations for the reader. (Fanfiction writers tend to operate through a rejection of these limitations.) These limitations might feel constraining; and yet it is these same constraints which allow the plot to have direction and substance. After all, if the reader were able to wander off in some direction other than where the narrative went, they would miss out on the story.

Most games provide some degree of narrative. There are certain things which need to be done; there are certain ways to go about doing them; there are certain obstacles in the way. This constitutes the conflict inherent in gaming–that the path to the end of the narrative requires effort. In that sense, it can be an even more rewarding form of narrative than reading; after all, all you need to do to reach the end of a book is to read.

But what about games without a narrative? What about games where you just happen to ‘do’ things?

In this case–and there are an increasing number of games which feature this sort of ‘directionless’ gameplay–the narrative is provided by the gamer, not by the game’s creator.

Sandbox games, we call them. What narrative is there in a sandbox?

“Look, I just built a castle. And then a meteor crashed into it. And now there’s an all-out conflict between the green and tan Army Men.”

The only narrative in a sandbox is the one provided by the person playing in it. To much the same extent, the only narrative in a sandbox game is the one provided by the gamer.

Remember how narratives provide structure and limitation? In a sandbox game, those limitations are determined by the limits of the gameplay–the things which are possible within the constraints of the game’s content.

Essentially, the main reason that No Man’s Sky failed is because the narrative provided by the gamer failed to find expression in the game provided by the publisher.

And even more so–the narrative provided by these countless anxious gamers could not have been met by No Man’s Sky. Or any other game. This is because gamers looked for something beyond anything which gameplay could reasonably provide. They wanted a game which could cater to the literally limitless narratives they wanted to provide for it–something which, to this date, no game could ever possibly provide.

Indeed, the only medium which caters towards anything approaching this degree of complexity is life itself–real living, with all of its messy corridors, its closed opportunities, its drastic limitations, and the narratives which we impose on it in order to make sense of it–and which we edit over and over again.

What are some takeaways from this?

We might consider the pervasive influence of narrative. Even where narrative seems like a non-issue, consumers are likely to provide their own–often to the mutual detriment of both fans and creators.

We might consider the nature of sandbox narratives and the perils of undercutting the capacities of a sandbox–or of overhyping them. After all, there are few things quite as disappointing as a sandbox without enough sand.

Finally, we might consider the value of the narratives which we storytellers and writers provide the rest of the community. We foster the desire for plot and story; we provide the healing drug which the rest of the world hungers for. Through us comes that which No Man’s Sky could never ever hope to accomplish–to provide an impetus for endless narratives, and to further a medium which breathes life and meaning into them.

The Ultimate Video Game might still be a pipe dream for media developers. But the Ultimate Narrative is well-within our reach–and some lucky few of us might live to write it.

Cray-zy Thoughts

Written by Alpheus:

A couple of weeks ago, my ten-year-old daughter asked me a question that put me in a weird state of mind. She asked, innocently enough, “Was there anything you really wanted when you were a kid?”

“Yes”, I said. The answer came quickly, and I said the first thing that came to my mind. “ A Cray XMP supercomputer.” Yes, I was a weird kid. (I also wanted my own scanning electron microscope, among other things…)

So I immediately searched for an image to show my daughter,

Cray xmp (https://www.cisl.ucar.edu/computers/gallery/cray/xmp.jsp)

and she didn’t believe it was really a computer! Out of curiosity, I tried to look up the specifications of the Cray XMP; apparently, this supercomputer was about as powerful as an IBM desktop computer with a 386 microprocessor and 16MB of RAM. While I could never say I’ve owned computers at the bleeding edge of technology, I have been owning supercomputers for most of my life without even realizing it: desktops, laptops, tablets, cell phones!

Although I’d have to check deeper on the specifications, it’s even possible that a local technology conference made supercomputers available, as a kit, to augment attendees’ name badges, for about $30. At the very least, this processor had access to far more memory than a 1980s supercomputer…

I thought back to one of the technology companies I worked for, where a prospective employee was asked about how he might optimize an algorithm. After giving a solution, he then added, “It’s most likely best, though, to just add servers, because it’s more expensive to use software engineer time on the problem than it is to add hardware.” The Cray XMP cost about $15 million for the most basic model; nowadays, when we want something to go faster, we just throw supercomputers at the problem in consideration!

Perhaps this line of thought shouldn’t have caught me by surprise. Indeed, I have always had a difficulty calling my pocket nanocomputer a “telephone”; after all, if I had more time, I’d figure out how to use it as a full-fledged computer. I had always wanted a computer that I could carry around with me everywhere I go, and so far, my tablet and my telephone are the closest I have come. If only I could get rid of that pesky Android OS, and replace it with a Real Operating System!

Science Fiction snuck up on me, even though I should have seen it coming. This is particularly weird, since I have grown up with computers, and I should have seen this happening all along. And it isn’t just computers, of course – Robert A. Heinlein once observed that he was born in the era of horse and buggy, and lived to see men walk on the moon. Today, we may be on the verge of autonomous cars…and these cars may come about gradually enough that the legal issues that so many people fear will kill this prospect will be resolved before anyone realizes what happened.

These changes seem to happen so gradually, it’s a little tempting to question the value of Science Fiction – after all, it doesn’t reliably predict the future – but then, I have always been attracted to both Science Fiction and Fantasy, not for their predictive power, but for the way they construct new worlds on a few basic assumptions. I then try to figure out what the worlds might look like based on these supposed changes. As a mathematician with engineering tendencies (pretending to be a computer programmer), I cannot help but appreciate opportunities to imagine the world in new ways, even if, in a tantalizingly cruel way, I currently cannot help to pull the future in the more desirable of those directions.

What if’s

Since the beginning of time, humans have created stories about the way the world around them works. If they couldn’t figure it out on their own by observation and experimentation – the best time to grow food is planting in the Spring and harvesting in the fall – they created a story about why things seem to work the way it does – why does the weather get cold for 6 months out of the year? Hades, Demeter and the pomegranate.

As time moves forward, those things that were once in the realm of fantasy move in closer to the speculative and then to the realm of science. Greek myths have men building wings to fly free from enslavement. Leonardo Da Vinci drew sketches of flying machines. And then the Wright Brothers (and others) successfully built them. Now, we send machines in to space to investigate the planets that had been named after the gods.

Those stories about the What If’s and Why’s of the world continue today with fiction writing and most especially in Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. Even today, what were once “What If’s” in a book or a movie are now becoming reality. Video conferencing? Smart or flip phones? Tablets? E-books? Driverless cars? All postulated and written about in a multitude of books and movies, though the most common comparisons seem to come from Star Trek.

Since humans are wired to dream beyond what is immediately available, science fiction and fantasy will always be around. Let’s see what the future holds for us!