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Craft: Good Fiction

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

Note: This is a question that comes up repeatedly in the Aids4Writers Program, so I thought it’d be a good idea to have it available all the time in the Writers’ Aids Library.

17. I’m relatively new at writing and something is confusing me. I keep hearing that editors and agents want “good fiction.” I’ve asked, but no one can say exactly what “good fiction” is. Can you define it for me?

I can give you my opinion of what makes “good fiction,” but it will be no more or less definitive than the opinions of the others you have asked. This is like defining beauty. It’s in the eye of the beholder, right? Well, so is “good fiction.”

Personally, I think good fiction is any fiction that makes you look hard at your own life. Maybe it opens a door in a closed mind. Maybe it entertains someone who desperately needs the escape. Brings back a pleasant memory, a feeling impossible to recreate in real life, a resolution. Maybe it gives new insight that doesn’t change someone’s opinion, but helps them to better understand the opposing side.

Good fiction can do any or all of those things and more. But who defines it as good?

The reader who needs that look within, who peeks inside that open door, that escape or recollection or insight and gets it from your book. It’s a crass analogy, but I think an apt one. Supply and demand. The reader needs something and gets it from the book–that makes it good fiction to him or her.

What writers can do is look at the common elements in novels deemed good fiction by large numbers of readers. Regardless of the type of story, they do have some things in common. Here are a few I consider most important:
1. Three-dimensional characters who have the ability and skills to carry the weight of their story roles.
2. Three-dimensional characters who are well-motivated to act, who do
actually act (versus reaction to events thrust upon them), and who have worthy goals, worthy adversaries, and strong internal and external conflicts.
3. A plot that logically progresses from beginning to end, incrementally
increasing the obstacles, risks, and doubts about characters achieving their goals in the reader.
4. A plot that does not rely on coincidence or stupidity in characters’
actions. (Strong villains–smart, sharp, excellent and capable of causing great grief–elevate your protagonist, who must be smarter, sharper, more excellent and more capable of preventing great grief.)

5. Realistic settings—even when in other worlds. Strong sensory input

and concrete, specific details.

Those, in my humble opinion, are the biggies of good fiction. Others will have their own priority listing. The important thing, again, in my humble opinion, is to understand that “good” is a relative term.

Really, does “good fiction” have to be so cerebral?

I don’t believe it does. Let me give you an example.

I have a friend who spent months of days and nights at her husband’s hospital bedside. He’d had a stroke. First it was “he probably won’t live,” then “he’ll probably be a vegetable,” then “he’ll never be as he was,” then “it’ll take years before he can resume any kind of normalcy.” That’s a lot to handle, particularly for a woman in her early 30s.

So imagine this woman sitting at her husband’s bedside during one of those long nights in ICU. She’s exhausted, she’s worried sick, and she’s scared out of her skin (wouldn’t we all be?). He’s resting, so she tries to get her mind off things for even a moment. She picks up a book, reads a page, then two, and then a few more. For a few minutes, she gets swept into a fictional world and a few minutes respite from her troubles and worries and fears.

Now, regardless of what book it was that she read, isn’t it good fiction?

I’ll bet if you asked her, she would say yes.

If I’d written that book she’d been reading, I’d know my writing made a difference. If to no one else, to her, at that moment, when she needed a difference to give her a brief moment to catch her breath.

My point is, think beyond the typical expert answers and get down to soul level. That’s where the reason you write resides, so of course, it’s also where your deeper truths reside. And see how YOU define good fiction.

To me, good fiction isn’t just that which rattles or challenges our thoughts. It can do that, but it can also be fiction that soothes or calms or gifts us with a needed respite.

Good fiction can be gentle or violent, erotic or tender. It can be anything really, so long as it is what that reader needs at that moment in time.

I guess my bottom line is that I can’t label what is “good fiction.” I know the profs do in college; I listened to them, too. But good truly is relative. We need all kinds of stories, with all kinds of plots, characters, and written in all kinds of styles so that readers–who have different tastes and needs and desires in books–have the opportunity to find the kind of book they need when they need it.

So good fiction is relative.

Good storytelling, however, is another matter.


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