The Three Pillars of Fiction

There are as many recipes for great fiction out there as there are recipes for pancakes. You can rummage through hundreds of blogs and writers’ websites, read tons of books on writing and follow random advice, but since you’re not a mindless copycat, what works for others might not work for you. The best way is to go about it experimentally, figure out what works for your creative bone.

Beyond the various building blocks that are required to create a work of fiction (like characters, plot and setting), there’s also a handful of principles which you should always keep in mind. I love to call them the three pillars of fiction, a term I’ve dug out of William H. Coles’ wonderful website on literary fiction.

These pillars of fiction are (1) engagement, (2) entertainment and (3) enlightenment. Let’s see what they’re about.

 

1. Engagement

Good fiction has the readers immersed into the storyworld up to their necks, it has them engaged in the action with every fiber of their being. Without the readers’ engagement, even the most artistic masterwork of pure skill will fall flat on its ass. Good fiction must get the readers invested in the characters, rooting for them, adoring them, or loving to hate them. The more commitment you can create, the more fascinated the readers will be and the more they’ll love your story. Involvement into the matters you explore must be the first prerogative of good fiction writing, because without intense preoccupation with your story’s core, no amount of sugarcoating and pretty pink pony kisses will work.

But first and foremost, it’s you who must be totally engrossed with your story and living it with every cell of your being. It’s the only way to make sure there’s passion in every page. If you love it and infuse it with spice and everything nice, you’re on the best way to get your readers engaged too. Passion and commitment on your side won’t guarantee, but will certainly get you closer to passion and commitment on the readers’ side. And will get you many juicy pony smooches. Pink ones. For real.

 

2. Entertainment

Good stories must entertain, but not akin to a circus throwing burning clowns at you that juggle tigers in tutus in mid air. You’re not writing for a bunch of retarded monkeys who are blind on one eye and deaf on the other. Unless, of course, you are writing for such a readership, in which case you’re better off selling back scratchers engraved with funny limmericks.

Your story must entertain the reader by means of wit and diversity, by delighting their senses and offering amusement with a pinch of existential truth. Throwing in some random action, gratuitous sex and canned laughter won’t win the readers over. Don’t go for cheap instant gratification. When readers buy your book, they aren’t looking for the same shit they find online for free. They deserve to have their minds tickled and their faculties employed in an interesting new way that only you can bring.

 

3. Enlightenment

Books that teach us something about the world, life and everything—or even better, about outselves—are the ones that stick to us for a lifetime. Remember why you love the books you love, why you’d recommend them to others, and try to achieve the same effects in your writing. If your story creates awareness about an issue that’s close to your heart, if your characters demonstrate an understanding that you feel passionate about, your readers will feel that, and your story will stick. Aim to offer your readers even a little insight and enlightenment, and they will be very grateful.

 

I believe these three principles are necessary in any memorable piece of fiction, and even though one or the other advice-slinger out there might disagree about their hue or flavor, none would doubt their importance. What do you think? Would you add anything to them?

 

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This blog post is part of theΒ A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012

20 Replies to “The Three Pillars of Fiction”

    1. It’s indeed the most difficult point, and one that generates a lot of discussion. I think it’s important to follow one’s own sense of truth and express that, instead of stepping on a soapbox. You’re right, Jaye, it’s a thin line. πŸ™‚

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      1. I completely agree. It is extremely difficult. In my own experience with things I enjoy reading/watching, I’ve found that the best enlightenment is never stated directly. It should come through what the characters do and how they react in certain situations. It should be organic.

        Kind of like life.

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  1. I don’t know if I’d add anything except to say that when a story is built on these three pillars, the result is a sense of anticipation.

    You don’t have to give the readers what they expect, but it’s a sin to disappoint their eagerness to engage with the story.

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  2. Another great post! Very useful advice for any writer.

    Number three, in particular, can seem elusive at times. But I’ve found that even when I think I’ve left that part out, it’s actually right there staring me in the face. Sometimes the underlying lesson or statement comes straight from the subconscious onto the page before you even realize it. I’ve learned a lot about myself writing, and sometimes it baffles me what I’ve missed the first time through!

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    1. Thanks, J.W.! πŸ™‚ It’s kind of hard to write fiction without a theme, because whether you intend to or not, some underlying belief, passion or question will always be there. It’s better to know it and exploit it, even if it’s in the editing phase.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  3. I was a little worried, as I strive for the first two pillars. But when I looked at enlightenment, I was a little worried. But now when I think about my writing, I often weave many universal themes into my story – without getting didactic.

    I think I do it subconsciously since I studied all of the classics for years. Don’t want to be preachy, nor cheesy. But I do want things in my story to resonate with my readers.

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    1. That’s a good middle ground, Jay, writing about what moves you, without trying to make others moved by it through forceful revelation or preaching. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Vero, do you ever post a dud? No really, because you are making it really hard for the rest of us during A – Z. Yeah.

    But seriously, another great post! Yes to the three E’s. As a reader, engagement and entertainment are my two favs – especially when reading fiction. As a writer, I’m hoping to infuse my writing with the same. Enlightenment… hmm. Okay, I’m with you on this one. Reading “The Light of the Evening” by Edna O’Brien definitely tapped into something tender in my underbelly. As a writer, I wonder if this is an area I should explore more? Not randomly inject here and there, of course. But maybe it’s an exercise for me to practice. πŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks for the very encouraging praise, Tracy! *blush*

      Hm… I see enlightenment as realization, getting something, the light-bulb switching on, not necessarily a veil dropping from your eyes and suddenly you’re Mother Theresa and want to end world hunger and save all kittens from drowning. Expressing your passion for something without polarizing is very helpful in awakening passion in others, and that alone can make a big difference in how they see their own lives, without having ever told them one or another thing.

      Thank you for your comment! It made me crystallize this even better. πŸ™‚

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  5. Hi! Stopping by from the A to Z! This post is a great reminder for us writers! And readers, I suppose. I was just complaining about a book the other day that I had finished, and I felt like it was enlightening and entertaining, but that the engagement had tapered off by the end. And so I was feeling sort of crummy about what I knew was a really good book otherwise! Reading this gives my complaints a little bit more structure! I will definitely keep these things in mind when I post my review of the book!

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