3 Elements of Good Fiction

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These days I mostly find myself reading nonfiction. I am interested in the world and how it works and nonfiction helps to satisfy that interest. This wasn’t always the case. I read a lot more fiction growing up. There were times growing up when I found nonfiction boring. Frequently the reverse is true today. I see lots of recommendations for novels that I can barely get into. After giving up on a few novels in recent months, I got to thinking about this. I thought about the novels that I raced through, and those in which I couldn’t make it past a few pages. In doing so, I identified three elements that will virtually guarantee I’ll finish a novel. These are (in order of importance to me):

  1. A good story
  2. An entertaining story
  3. Good writing

1. A good story

Story is the most important thing for me. If the story is not interesting (or nonexistant) then I am really unlikely to finish a book. I think this is why I enjoy Stephen King novels so much. For all the criticism I read of his work, he knows how to tell a good story. It doesn’t matter to me how long the novel is. If the story is good, the longer the better. I want to be immersed in story. Brandon Sanderson is another great story-telling, and depsite his Stormlight Archive novels being over a thousand pages each, the story maintains them. I finished each of those books wanting more.

There are novels that I have wanted to read that just don’t have a good story. A good story has to hook me right away. I recently tried reading Ulysses by James Joyce, but there was no hook to it. I couldn’t find the story, and gave up.

I sometimes feel shallow when I think of this, but novels, for me, are really no different than TV shows for people who enjoy visual media.

Recently, I started re-reading Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels. These are examples of novels with good stories. I’ve binged nearly four of them in less than a week. It’s the reading equivalent of binging a series on Netflix.

2. An enteraining story

In addition to providing a good story, a novel needs to be entertaining. This is entirely subjective, and I’m not sure I could describe what elements make up an entertaining story. It’s like pornography: I know it when I see it. Intersting characters, novel ways of presenting scenes, vivid imagery, pacing, all of it comes together to make an entertaining story. Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson are masters of these elements.

3. Good writing

When I read a novel, I’m generally looking for the first two elements. I want to have fun. I want a good story and I want to be entertained. Good writing is nice, but not necessarily required. I thoroughly enjoy Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, but I wouldn’t say that the writing is the best I’ve ever encountered. One of the reasons Stephen King has become one of my favorite novelists is because he’s got all the tools: good, entertaining stories with good writing. (For two understated examples, check out From a Buick 8 and Joyland.)

Craig Johnson’s Longmire novels are examples of good, entertaining stories, backed by good writing. Brandon Sanderson’s novels and Patrick Rothfuss’s novels hit all three of these buttons for me. So do Barry N. Malzberg’s novels.

Tom Clancy’s novels are great stories, with a lot of entertainment value, but I wouldn’t say he set the world on fire with the quality of his writing. It was good enough to get the pictures in my head and make for an enjoyable read, but nothing more.

Like I said, I’m pretty easy-to-please when it comes to fiction. I want a good story, one that entertains me. If there the stories happen to be well-written, that’s a bonus, but not a must. If I start a novel and don’t see at least the first two elements quickly, it is extremely likley that I won’t finish it. I’m okay with that.

Written on February 23, 2022.

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