3 Techniques To Make Your Fiction Better
You just make stuff up, right?
As a writer you’ll spend your life hand-crafting every item in your toolkit. It’s these tools that will save you when inspiration flees and you have to show up at the page anyway. Here’s three from mine.
Let’s work with an example: The opening scene of your story is Mike and Lisa making dinner. You’ve decided three things need to happen in this scene:
- They realise they’re out of oregano (Lisa needs to be out of the house for the next scene – so she goes to the shops).
- Mike cuts himself (the band-aid is a key factor in the next chapter).
- We learn that Lisa is two-months pregnant.
So far so boring. Which brings us to the first thing in the toolkit.
1). Choose Something Else
When composing a scene most people will run with the first details that pop into their head and not even realise this is what they’ve done. The things you choose – the things you take for granted in a given setting – are most likely the things that other people would choose. People not writers. People not you.
This makes that choice effectively invisible to the reader – those first-off-the-shelf details may as well not be there, is what I’m saying - and the setting seems flatter as a result. What you want is verisimilitude, and that means you need to stop yourself at each step and make decisions.
At this stage the setting is just a kitchen, like any other. That’s no good to you. You need a detail or two that’ll make the setting pop in the reader’s mind. A little splash of water to wake the reader up. Get them asking questions; especially now, as this is your opening scene.
You could be creative with small elements of the setting: the sink might be a 200-year-old Estonian wash basin. Mike might be peeling apples with his grandfather’s knife, the one with the handle made of narwhal bone. All of that’s cute, I guess, and perfectly fine. Or you could ramp it up a little. Maybe there’s an iguana draped over the top of the refrigerator. Maybe the kitchen’s missing a roof.
Being creative with a few of these elements will flesh the setting out, and tell us a little about the two people we’re meeting for the first time.
But let’s take it further: does it have to be a kitchen? What’s the opposite of a kitchen? A garage? A bathroom?
They’re making dinner in a bathroom. Why? Maybe you already know, or maybe you need to write the scene in order to work that one out.
2). We Don’t Want A Straight Answer
Non-sequitur is a valuable tool, both in dialogue and action. It’s not that difficult to use, either; you just need to be aware of how it works. Best to illustrate what I mean with an example. Here’s some fairly prosaic conversation that handles the three things we want this scene to address: oregano, cut, and pregnant.
MIKE: I’m sorry the kitchen’s in such bad shape.
LISA: It wasn’t your fault. Gas ovens are tricky.
MIKE: [cutting tomatoes] Could you pass me the oregano?
LISA: [peeling garlic in bathroom sink] We’re out.
MIKE: I can’t make lasagna without it.
LISA: I’ll go to the shops.
MIKE: [cuts self] Ow!
LISA: Are you all right? Here, run that under some water.
LISA: You’re going to have to be more careful than that when the baby comes along.
MIKE: At this rate I won’t make it to his first birthday.
I don’t know about you, but at this point I want to claw my eyes out.
Straight back-and-forth dialogue and non-sequitur-driven dialogue both head in the same direction, both get to the same place, but non-sequitur does a better job of keeping the reader engaged for three reasons:
- The ninety-degree conversational jinks and jags break the exchange open, creating a gap which the reader bridges with inference - and that equals engagement.
- Character responses to these conversational jags will tell us a little more about them than a straight series of questions and answers.
- It’s just more goddamned interesting.
Here’s how that dialogue might play out with the application of a little non-sequitur:
MIKE: [cutting tomatoes] Could you pass me the oregano?
LISA: [peeling garlic – stops] Hey, you remember that time you went skiing for the first time, and your legs decided to go in different directions?
MIKE: Yes, the people in the office still refer to it as ‘Black Wednesday’. Why…?
You forgot to get oregano, didn’t you?
LISA: Didn’t we have fun, that whole time you were in traction?
MIKE: I really needed oregano, dude.
LISA: [faux nostalgic] All those dinners I made…
MIKE: Okay, okay, I’ll go get… ow!
LISA: The endless trips to the kitchen…
MIKE: I’m bleeding.
LISA: When we had a kitchen, that is.
MIKE: That wasn’t my fault.
LISA: ‘Leave it to me, honey. Say, how does a gas oven work again?’
MIKE: I really am bleeding here.
LISA: [softly] Lucky you.
MIKE: [finger forgotten] Oh come on.
LISA: I’m not ready to be a mother.
The dialogue itself jags back and forth, but notice that the scene itself also does a ninety-degree turn at the end, going from light, possibly edged, banter to something a little too real.
If there’s a dialogue-driven film from the last 10-15 years that you admire, watch it again with this principle in mind. I learned a lot that way.
3). Contrast Is Key
I wondered if the third point here should be Conflict, but use of non-sequitur brings a little conflict by dint of the way it works anyway and, besides, every handbook on writing bangs on about conflict. I wouldn’t be telling you anything you don’t already know.
So instead I’ll share the biggest thing I’ve learned in the whole time I’ve been doing this:
Contrast Is Key.
If you don’t have contrast, you don’t have depth.
And if you don’t have depth then the story isn’t worth telling.
So I do my best to ensure my main characters contrast with one another, because if they do then just by interacting they’ll show themselves off to the reader. I make sure the protagonist and antagonist contrast for the same reasons. I make sure the beginning contrasts with the ending so that there’s been change in the story, thereby justifying the readers investment in having read the thing. If possible go for contrast between character and environment. I go for contrast between the reactions of two characters to one situation.
Always be thinking about contrast and you’ll never go wrong. If there is none, fix it.
Contrast is the guiding principle behind the idea of never choosing the first thing off your mental shelf (the audience won’t see your first choice because there’s no contrast between it and their own choice – it’s obvious and therefore invisible.)
It’s the principle behind the idea of non-sequitur dialogue (ninety-degree jags, that leap of inference required of the reader to bridge the gap between two disparate things.)
It’s the reason why tutors and writers keep banging on about the need for change in a novel.
It all boils down to that one simple word: contrast. Forever be hunting it and you put yourself ahead of most everyone else trying to carve a name for themselves in this business.
Finally, I should say that I had it easy writing the Mike and Lisa example; it’s not attached to anything and I’ve no preconceived ideas about what the story is – I’m blue-skying it. When you’ve got to compose a scene for a work within a very definite structure with dramatic and expository needs that require accommodating, that’s when you need to step up and really flex your muscle as a writer. And that’s something you’ll only develop by doing.