Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Guest blogger Stacey Cochran shares the five fundamentals of fiction

Today author Stacey Cochran joins us to share some writing tips. Welcome, Stacey.

Thanks so much, Cheryl, for letting me visit the Write Type blog in the midst of my CLAWS 2 Blog Tour. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the five fundamentals of fiction, and specifically I’d like to focus in on one of the fundamentals I haven’t written about in much detail previously.

Quiz Time
So what are the 5 fundamentals of fiction?

Before scanning down any further, what would you say are the five basics that every story has to have to function well?

A YouTube Book Trailer with over a million views?

No, that’s most definitely not a fundamental of story.

The five fundamentals as I define them are: 1) Character, 2) Plot, 3) Setting, 4) Style, and 5) Theme.

I’ve written at length about character, plot, and setting elsewhere during this blog tour, and so today I’d like to focus in on style. Quite possibly the most overlooked (or misunderstood) of the five fundamentals.

Here’s a quick list of must-do/don’t-do style tips:

  1. Show, don’t tell. This applies specifically to scene writing using description, dialogue, and characters. Rather than give us narrative summary, show the characters. For example: Stacey sits at his computer, scratches at his unshaven face, and then says aloud, “Show your character in action, rather than have ’em summarizing the whole damn story.”
  1. Don’t use adverbs and avoid unnecessary adjectives whenever possible. (Can you spot the irony in the previous sentence?)
  1. Don’t use characters with sound-alike names. That is, avoid making your central characters Michael and Michelle. Or John and Jack. Or even David and Dillon. Better to put characters in a scene that have wildly different names like: Oscar and Tangerine. Those are names that conjure up different impressions in readers’ minds. And last.
  1. DO NOT PUT ANY BACK STORY IN THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. I write this in all caps because it is so common in aspiring writers’ work. The extremely talented among us will avoid any back story for the first fifty pages, let alone the first five. Readers are a sophisticated bunch of folk; let them figure out the characters’ back story through what they do and say in the story itself (see Point #1 above).
  1. When writing in 3rd-person POV, stick with one character’s perspective. Rather than float around the room from one character’s perspective to the next.
  1. If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, show him think the thought rather than say it. It’ll make him/her seem much more disciplined yet still allow the sentiment to float in the readers’ mind.
  1. Use all five senses in your descriptive writing: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
  1. Make your dialogue oblique… rather than write it in grammatically correct sentences. Keep it spare. Remove words. Avoid dialogue that goes on for more than two sentences.
  1. Make everything adversarial. Conflict should be boiling over in every scene. If you put two characters in a scene, their needs should be in opposition and should be complicated.
  1. Don’t let characters who are sexually attracted to one another ever hook up… unless it immediately dovetails into the jealous lover breaking into their room to confront them. (Also known as, the 80s Sitcom Rule; i.e., think how many TV shows have gone down the drain when the characters finally hooked up. We enjoyed watching them before they slept together. Same deal with your fiction. Draw out the sexual tension as long as you can, avoiding the “hook up” scene for the whole story if possible.)
Okay, so these are some basics of “style.” I have dozens more if you’re interested in them. And will gladly spill some of these over the next few days if folks are interested.

For student writers of fiction, there’s only so much you can teach, and I definitely recommend starting with mastering character, plot, and setting first. But truth is you’ll have to nail each of the five fundamentals to fly.

What I’ve noticed is the difference between midlist authors and the Dennis Lehanes and Stephen Kings among us is that midlisters tend to focus too much on one or two of these (plot and character, for example) and don’t hammer home setting, style, and theme.

What makes a book like Mystic River so good is that it not only is a great mystery (plot) and has well drawn characters, but Lehane absolutely nails his native Boston setting and does so with a kind of macho/sensitive style that readers absolutely fell in love with. And there are themes abundant in the book.

So how about you? What are novels that you’ve read that score the fiction writers’ hat-trick? Who really kills style?

Like Ken Bruen to me is a grandmaster stylist. Lehane. King.

McCarthy’s The Road reinvents dialogue attribution.

So how ‘bout you? What books are style makers (rather than style fakers)?

* * * * *

Stacey Cochran was born in the Carolinas, where his family traces its roots to the mid 1800s. In 1998 he was selected as a finalist in the Dell Magazines undergraduate fiction competition, and he made his first professional short story sale to CutBank in 2001. In 2004, he was selected as a finalist in the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife Dr. Susan K. Miller-Cochran and their son Sam, and he teaches writing at North Carolina State University. His books include The Colorado Sequence, Amber Page, CLAWS, and CLAWS 2.


Jessica Subject said...

Great advice! I'm going to use this when critiquing my own work and that of my critique group. Thanks Stacey and Cheryl!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif said...

I enjoyed Stacey's post, Jessica. I'm glad you did too. :-)


Anonymous said...

Interesting! A few of Stacey's points differ from other writer's I have read. But I guess we all do find our own style, and what works is individual exisiting in the universal.