Review Your Fiction Fundamentals

by James Scott Bell

Things change.

For instance, as of January 1, recreational marijuana use is legal in California. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our traffic problems. I think I know: Now, more than ever, California drivers will seldom leave a turn unstoned.

Ba-dump-bump. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waiters on the way out.

Other things don’t change. Grant is still buried in Grant’s Tomb (isn’t that a marvelous coincidence?)

And the foundations of great fiction remain solid and true.

You still need a character and you still need a plot. A plot is the stuff that happens to a character that forces him into a battle requiring strength of will. If you don’t have those elements, you don’t have a story. You might have a slice of life, or a character study. You might even have an “experimental” novel, which is also defined as a novel no one reads.

So know your fundamentals.

But also realize that conditions around you change, which may require applying the fundamentals in a slightly different way.

Case in point: The Golden State Warriors.

Basketball fundamentals include dribbling, shooting, passing, setting screens, playing defense. A coach figures out ways his team can do these things to create high-percentage shots and stop the other team from doing the same.

In the “old days,” the ideal offense was designed around a dominant big man, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Shaquille O’Neal.

But things have changed because of a couple of kids named Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. These are the two guards on the Golden State Warriors, and they are the best three-point shooters I’ve ever seen. They have made the Warriors the pre-eminent team in the NBA by virtue of their ability to score from twenty-five feet or more.

Now, common sense would tell you that a fifteen-foot jumper has a better chance of going in than a twenty-five footer. And you’d be right. But sports has been taken over by analytics, and the numbers say that a three-point shot, even at a lower percentage, has a higher overall value than a two-pointer. You can look it up.

What’s happened as a result is that the NBA has become three-happy. A big man doing battle below is no longer seen as essential to a championship. Indeed, it may be a liability. If you’re a seven-footer these days, you’ve got to be able to fling the rock. Broad and bulky has been replaced by lean and lithe (e.g., another Warrior, Kevin Durant).

The antiquated notion of trying to get close jumpers, layups and dunks has given way to schemes designed to spring shooters outside the arc. The same fundamentals (passing, screens, shooting) are in play, but applied in a different way.

Which brings us back to fiction writing.

A hundred years ago, the standard point-of-view for a novel was omniscient, often with the authorial voice intruding into matters, as in the opening pages of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900):

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms.

You almost never see this style today. Hemingway—the Steph Curry of his day—exerted tremendous influence in the 1920s by way of character-centric minimalism (the very opposite of what Dreiser did, above).

By the 1990s, the trend was toward immersive (or deep) POV, which keeps author voice out entirely (unless that voice is itself the point of the novel, e.g., Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams).

It also used to be common—even expected—to have adverbs attached to dialogue attributions. For example, here are some clips from a single page in a1929 novel, The Stray Lamb by Thorne Smith:

“Off again, major,” Sandra said resignedly . . .

“Not a scrap of evidence left behind,” Mr. Long optimistically informed the party . . .

“That depends,” answered Thomas consideringly . . .

Ack! Do that now and your book is likely to be set aside contemptuously.

So … what are the current conditions for the writer of fiction? We all know attention spans are shorter and demands for our time and money louder and more pervasive. Which means getting and holding the attention of the reader from the jump is a major challenge.

The fundamentals are still there to help you, by focusing on the crucial questions:

  • Is your POV consistent and immersive?
  • Is your dialogue crisp and compressed? Can it stand alone without being propped up by adverbs?
  • Is your structure solid? When your book starts to “drag,” do you know why and how to fix it?
  • Are your scenes organic? Do they all have a connection to the overall plot?
  • Do you know how create “jump off the page” characters?
  • Are you aware of the “speed bumps” that interrupt the fictive dream?

We’ve talked about goals and resolutions this week on TKZ. A good thing for the new year. This is my gentle reminder to include craft study on your list. That way, even if you live in California, your books won’t go to pot.

What’s something you’ve recently learned about the craft of writing that is serving you well? What’s an area you need to revisit and shore up?

27 thoughts on “Review Your Fiction Fundamentals

  1. “To be concise,” Tom said, swiftly, as he summarized modern philosophy:
    “I wonder if I really exist,” Descartes cogitated, reflexively.
    “I don’t get that impression,” Hume observed, selflessly.

    To improve: “Sparkling dialogue,” he said, dramatically.

  2. I remember the “old day” of college basketball when Lew Alcindor (some might know him as Kareem Abdul Jabbar) played for the UCLA Bruins. No shot clock, no three point shots. Things have changed. Prior to Alcindor, there was Gail Goodrich, about a foot shorter, yet he got the job done.

    Oh, and all the stuff about writing in this post is cool, too.

    • Being an L.A. boy, I well remember Gail Goodrich, Alcindor, the Bruins. I went to John Wooden’s basketball camp one year, and got to talk with him one-on-one a couple of times. He was an exponent of team play and fundamentals all right. Which is why the Bruins won TWO national championships with Steve Patterson at center (in between Alcindor and Bill Walton).

  3. Haha, thanks for the laughs.

    Recently learned: pacing. (Not MASTERED, mind you, just learned about.)

    An area to revisit and shore up: Present v past tense. I keep picking up novels written in the present tense. They are strange to me, and I’m uncomfortable trying to write that way. But I’m writing that way as I type this . . . ugh, I’m confusing myself!

    • First Person Present seems to be a thing in YA these days. It was something of a fad in the 90s in thrillers. To each his own, but it always seems to pull me out of the narrative a bit.

      Oddly, Third Person Present can work for me if it’s done as a call-out POV, say, for a villain. Koontz does this well in Intensity.


      • Don Winslow has mastered the art of third person present. He reels you in so deeply to the story and his characters, you forget about the present tense. Next thing you know, you’ve reached the end.

  4. I just started reading Kllzone and killzone books about four months ago, and learning a lot. The biggest thing I’ve learned and applied with results is structure. I used to think I was bad at plot, but I can come up with events aplenty. Structure really boosted my writing and brought me leaps aheads.

    I want to shore up on everything, but there are two areas I know I’m fairly good at: dialogue and character. So, everything else comes first. I struggle with setting and description the most, but have yet to come across any advice on that.

    Any suggestions?

  5. Hi Jim,
    A belated Happy New Year! Engaging the reader emotionally is something I’ve worked on recently, having taken Don Maass’s excellent Emotional Craft of Fiction workshop last fall. I used a lot of his techniques in my last book, Empowered: Outlaw.

    Something I want to revisit and strengthen are my external plots. My readers all love my pacing and my character arcs, but I’d really like to boost the power of my external plotting. I’m re-reading your wonderful “How to Write Pulp Fiction,” for productivity and plotting tips.
    Is there one thing you can recommend to take my external plotting to the next level?

    As always, thanks for all your insights and writing wisdom!

    • Hi Dale. I’m not sure what you mean by the “power” of your “external” plotting. But in general, keep asking this:

      How can things get worse?


      How can they get even worse than that?

      Make a list of possible “disasters” for your MC and flesh out the best ones.

      Also, un-anticipate. Always be thinking, What would the reader expect to happen next? Then don’t do that.


  6. While thinking about an answer to your first question, I was reminded that I’ve reviewed HOW TO WRITE A SHORT STORY several times over the past year. I like to take a break from working on my WIP to enter short story contests, especially those where the winners will end up in an anthology, and those where the profits will go to charity. Each time I begin a new story, I review HOW TO WRITE A SHORT STORY and WRITE YOUR STORY FROM THE MIDDLE. Those two books have served me well, with seven stories in four anthologies.

    As for the second question: Voice. I’ve read your book on Voice twice. I believe I need to keep rereading it.

    Have a successful new year. I hope you will continue to leave no stone unturned in your teaching.

    • Thanks for those kind words, Steve. I’m going to try to do more short stories and novellas this year. I find great satisfaction in short-form work done well and put out there for readers.

  7. Gotta like how Dreiser characterized the impact of the city, though. Splendid writing. Not easy to convey that same insight thru “Show, don’t tell.” Maybe could show the city’s effect on one person, but how to convey the magisterial generalization? Today it would seem to require an essay rather than fiction. But that would leave out whatever contribution Dreiser’s fiction adds to the insight. (I’m speculating about that contribution, since I haven’t read _Sister Carrie_.)

    • I happen to love Dreiser, and think he is woefully unappreciated today. An American Tragedy is a true classic, in great part because Dreiser does get so deeply inside his characters.

  8. I have a novel that I finished, but now realize that the beginning drags a bit. It’s difficult to cut out background I feel is important to understand the character, but it does harm if it bores the reader. I’m struggling to find a balance.

    • Charlie, that’s a common problem, even for veteran writers! Some suggestions:

      Readers will wait a long time for b.g. info if a character is shown dealing with immediate disturbance.

      Hint at b.g. by things the character DOES that seem unique, waiting to reveal the WHY later. Mystery is a great read-on prompt.

      Marble in three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, used all at once or spread out. Add three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages, together or spread out. (A simple practice that you can tweak for yourself later on)

      Try the Chapter Two Switcheroo: Make your second chapter your new first one. See how much crisper it is. If it’s still draggy, go to the first place there’s dialogue and start there.

      Fun stuff!

  9. Another solid post, James. Another way Stephan Curry and other contemporary players are breaking the old mold is through intelligent outspokenness about the issues of our day. In the case of Curry, it’s against gun violence (which I wish we could consign to our fiction only…)
    To answer your invite–I’m working hard at eliminating filter words and unnecessary words and phrases and even sentences, for that matter. Tight tight tight.

    Thanks for your service to all of us aspiring writers.


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