I believe that the three essential building block of a winning story are:
Let me explain why each of these is important:
You can watch this video, read the post, or both! They say the same thing, just in slightly different ways.
Why Realism Is Important
Way back in the good ol’ days of fiction, there was an era in which books had to be squeaky clean. Men had to be brave and honorable all the time and women had to be feminine and saintly all the time. In short, the stories were similar to the nursery rhyme from that era:
There once was a girl,
In other words, the bad guys were very bad and the good guys were very good, and the stories were designed to teach the next generation the rewards of virtue and the punishments of vice.
The problem was that none of it was truly realistic. We all know that even the best people are flawed and some of the most horrible villains have been shockingly relatable. We also know that real-life bad guys sometimes get away with their crimes, and real-life good guys aren’t as appreciated as they ought to be.
By the time I was old enough to realize this, I had already begun drifting away from the saccharine stories of my youth. Sure, they were clean, but they didn’t feel real.
I wanted stories that ached with that peculiar bittersweetness of a hero like Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, who gains a victory that he cannot share in, because the war cost him too dearly. I craved stories with a hero like Eugenides from The Thief of Eddis series, who doesn’t have the luxury of choosing between an obvious good and an obvious evil, and who faces perilous consequences with either decision. I resonated with Theo from the Westmark Trilogy, whose greatest conflict was not with those who wore the uniform of his enemies, but was within himself.
Reality is sometimes dirty, hard, and unpleasant. The “clean” books shy away from prostitution, drugs, deception, and other unpleasant or controversial facts of life. But try to walk through life without hearing a cuss word or seeing something you wished you hadn’t. We are exposed to harsh realities constantly that the clean literature runs away from.
Why Honor Is Important
To combat the trend of over-sanitized literature, some stories take things to the other extreme. The heroes are gritty and gruff, patronizing the aforementioned prostitutes, fluent in cussing, and hardly different from their enemies except in general motive. The plot arc of the story involves a progression of choices that favor expediency over honor, and popularity over moral fiber.
The story with the brilliant plot line suddenly screeches to a halt in a scene replete with verbal pornography, which adds nothing to the story save random sexual titillation. The worldly wisdom of the hardboiled main character is somehow not apparent enough by his character, and must be reinforced with expletives that the writer would never allow his own children to utter. And the hero whom audiences are expected to root for indulges in violence of a level that, were the “bad guys” to commit it, would be considered horrific and appalling.
I well remember the day when I hunted in the public library for a science fiction book or a fantasy novel that I could sink my teeth into, and realized that there was nothing I wanted to read. Yes, I wanted something that reflected the real, but I also wanted something that aimed for the ideal. I didn’t want a hero who was a smarmy goody two-shoes, but I also didn’t want a hero who was no more honorable or respectful than the villain.
I didn’t just want a story that stroked my intelligence. I wanted a story with intention behind it. A story of the sort that would give a sufferer of the Holocaust courage, offer a drug addict hope, and challenge a person like you and me to be a real-life hero to someone today.
And I saw very, very few such fantasy or science fiction stories available in the world today. I looked down the library aisles with tears in my eyes at the numerous volumes that reflected only poor, wretched, blind, and naked humanity, or that remained cowardly neutral between morality and realism. I made myself a promise. “I will never add to this. I want my readers to know that they are made for more than this.”
The way that I carry out this promise may be completely different than the way that another writer carries out the same promise, but that is my purpose.
Why Imagination Is Important
In my emphasis on both intelligence and intention, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m so focused on realism that I can’t take some creative liberties, or that I’m so focused on honor that my story must follow some preconceived mold for producing virtuous volumes.
There is no point in a fantasy or science fiction story that gets hung up on realism all the time. There is something captivating when a character rides a dragon high into the sky, even though at that height, he’d probably be oxygen deprived and pass out, and even though there are no such dragons to ride. After all, speculative fiction is all about “What if…?” I love the ways in which my favorite authors have answered that question. New worlds with new rules and new possibilities absolutely fascinate me. So I’m not going to sacrifice an awesome story just because it defies some rules of nature—but I’m also not going to undermine the story because my characters don’t react realistically or because I take magical shortcuts out of perils. There’s a balance.
There is also no point in a fantasy or science fiction story that turns into some epic-scale Aesop’s Fable. Give me a story or give me a moral lesson, but don’t disguise a lesson like a story. That said, some of my favorite stories examine universal principles and important truths, but they do so in the same way that we experience such things ourselves—through a story. We often don’t come across some incredible new understanding all at once. Instead we blunder through life, then look back at our latest adventure and see the overall picture that we missed while we were mired in the details. That’s why I’m more in favor of the lesson revolving around the story than the story revolving around the lesson. People will figure the lesson out themselves if you give them a compelling story.
I believe readers have a right to expect a story that challenges, inspires, and fascinates them, all at once. And I believe that now is the time for fiction authors to commit to that high standard of excellence.
Which of my three pet peeves—lack of realism, lack of honor, or lack of imagination—bothers you the most? Do you agree or disagree with my stance? Make your case in the comments below! I welcome any opinions so long as they promote a respectful, robust discussion.