Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Three Pillars of Fiction

Last week I examined some useful (I think) information I found in an informal study called “Immerse or Die.” Largely, this consisted in a compilation of mistakes the author found in fifty ebooks he’d read, mistakes that caused him to break out of his “immersion” in the fictional world.

This was interesting and useful because it provides us with real-world, concrete examples of common mistakes writers make. It gives us something to watch for as we write and, more importantly, as we edit.

It was good.

But there was more in the article to be gleaned. In his analysis of the data, the author had an interesting thought. He grouped all the mistakes into one of three categories: what he termed the three aspects of writing fiction. More accurately, they are the three areas that each must be done well for the fiction to work.

They are:

Mechanics: the nuts and bolts skills necessary to work effectively with the language: grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage.

Story telling: the traditional skills and elements we have been learning for years: plot, characterization, suspense, dialogue, etc.

Story building: weaknesses in the story design itself, such as tired old cliché plots, illogical economic systems, impossible physics, unbelievable characters.

What was very interesting about this part, I thought, was the results when he classified all the mistakes (I listed most of them last week) into these three categories. What he found was that 44% of all the mistakes were in the way the story was being told. Problems with the story building accounted for 31% of the problems. Surprisingly, problems with the mechanics, though including the most frequent single mistake, as a category only made up 25% of the total mistakes.

Interesting. Surprising, even. (Personally, I would have guessed that the mechanics category would have ranked higher, but what do I know?)

So what can we learn from this?

First of all, the easiest category to correct, Mechanics, though the smallest group of mistakes, still accounts for 21% of them. Study some grammar and usage and we can eliminate nearly a quarter of our mistakes.

Second, all the time we have invested in learning the art of storytelling was well-spent. Storytelling mistakes make up the largest portion of the mistakes he identified. It only increases the importance of continuing to hone our skills.

Lastly, how much time and energy do any of us devote to honing our story building skills? These were a full 31% of all the mistakes, so the category is not something to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, the mistakes we make in story building are often the most difficult to spot ourselves. That is why it is so important to have beta readers you trust to tell you about them.

Where do you find beta readers? Among your friends (but make sure they will tell you the truth, not just try to feed your ego), or join a critique group. As a last resort, you can hire a professional editor, who will do a thorough, trustworthy job, but can be fairly expensive.

Just as an example, a friend sent me a scene from a project she was working on. In this scene, she had her protagonist touring Italy in the summer. Because of the sun, she protected herself with a parasol. (Makes sense. Okay.) She was also described as taking numerous photos with a digital camera. Okay…wait…most people need to use both hands to hold the camera still enough to take a photo. So how was she holding the parasol?

My friend, intent on setting up the next plot twist, hadn’t even noticed the conflict, but it makes the reader sit up and say “That can’t happen.” It breaks their immersion.

The same happens when you say it takes twenty minutes to travel from point A to point B in lower Manhattan, when anyone who lives there knows it takes at least an hour, or when your hero’s life is saved when her bulletproof vest stops a sniper’s bullet, when a little research would tell you the standard Kevlar vests police use are designed to stop pistol rounds, not rifle, which would usually go through it.

All these are mistakes a reader can (and usually will) catch. When they do, they immediately lose their ability to believe the illusion you have created is real. They will stop reading and that is exactly what we DON’T want them to do.

In short, we all need to work at improving our skills in all three areas of fiction. It is only when we have mastered all three of them that we can truly become successful at this writing life we’ve chosen.

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2 thoughts on “Three Pillars of Fiction

  1. Fascinating post. It is interesting that we spend more of our time, it seems, worrying about making our writing sound nice (in other words, the mechanics you talk about) as opposed to actually worrying about what the writing is conveying. Content is just as important, if not more so, then form, it appears.

    How do you particularly try to balance these two things?

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    • Hi Christopher. Thanks for the comment. Personally, I balance content and mechanics (as you say) in drafts. The first few drafts of a work are used to get the content right, the plot, the locations, the physical details. Naturally, I try to write beautiful sentences every time I write, but it is only after I feel the content is as good as I can get it that I concentrate on the mechanics. Sometimes that’s four or five drafts later.

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