“They Won’t Talk To Me!”

     The news is pretty static just now, and I haven’t done a piece about fiction lately, so have a fresh one.

     There are a lot of approaches to the conception of a story. What matters is the emotional impact of the product, and oftentimes that’s more a function of the writer’s imagination and sensibility than his craft. Please don’t misunderstand me: craft does matter. It’s a sine qua non. But the best collection of skills in the world can’t redeem an insipid story that contains nothing to move the reader.

     Yes – and I have said it before – you must have craft as well. There’s nothing sadder than a genuinely moving story that’s told in an inept fashion that ruins the reader’s experience. While there are innumerable stories among us, few take the time to write them down…and fewer still have the chops required to do them justice.

     But I see I’ve already veered from my main point. Apologies; I’ve only had two cups of coffee.


     Affecting stories usually express something that matters greatly to the writer. Yet the writer seldom says to himself explicitly that “I want to tell a story about [insert writer’s passion here].” When I’ve tried that, it’s fallen flat. Other writers of my acquaintance have told me similar stories.

     I have in mind an acquaintance from some years back who was a huge gun nut of the military variety. His enthusiasm for the weapons of war exceeded his sense for what makes a story worth telling. He turned out a novel approximately 200,000 words long that was loaded to the eyelashes with what I call “gun porn”…and as you might expect, it was unreadable. I edited it for him – a mutual friend had asked me to take it off her hands – excising most of the gun porn, refining the character conceptions, and bringing the emotional aspects of their experiences forward. When I finished, it was down to 160,000 words and fairly readable for a military / international intrigue thriller. Sadly, the work came to naught. It did not sell, for the genre was already oversupplied. However, it was a useful lesson to me.

     And that lesson has come around again on the carousel.


     No matter what your occupation, it’s essential to play to your strengths. You can spend a whole career straining to shore up your weaknesses. It’s not wasted effort, but to the extent that it takes effort away from what you do best, it can shortchange whoever is paying for your work. It doesn’t matter whether you labor for a wage or for the irregular bit of revenue from your readers.

     I wasn’t sure what my strengths were, if any, until I’d turned out a couple of dozen short stories. After a while, I concluded that I’m better at characterization and the associated skill of dialogue than at the other aspects of fictioneering. So when the time came to try a novel, I started with character conceptions. I figured that appealing characters could lead a reader along quite as well as an intricate plot.

     It developed that once I’d conceived of my Marquee Characters and had given them their essential passions and drives, they knew what story to tell. They told it to me in no uncertain terms. All I had to do was type it out. At the end, I discovered something I badly needed to know:

Theme is expressed through characterization.

     Whatever your passion, your characters, if you’ve thought them out adequately, will embody it. They’ll talk about it in their exchanges with one another. They’ll actuate it through their decisions and actions. You, the writer, won’t need to keep saying to yourself “must express [insert passion here].”

     That insight had great importance for me. It sustained me through nineteen novels and a great many shorter pieces. But these past few months I managed to forget it, God alone knows how.


     I’ve been unable to make substantial progress on the book I imagined would be my magnum opus, at least for my personal value of magnum. I kept trying to insert my Marquee characters into contrived series of events that would allow me to explore my chosen theme. As a result, they wouldn’t tell me the story I sought to tell the reader. And why should they? I was trying to coerce them, and they were busy with their escape plans.

     I’d mislaid the insight above and foolishly concentrated on plotting. It was a fatal error, for me at least; your mileage may vary. For me, a plot conceived separately from character conceptions goes nowhere.

     So I went back to the beginning to try again. On this second attempt I’ve striven to focus on what moves my characters rather than the complex, multithreaded plot I’d had in mind. It’s coming slowly – it’s hard to set aside one’s previous work, even when it’s clearly a wrong turning – but it’s beginning to take shape at long last.

     Don’t let yourself stray from what you do best.


     The above isn’t an attempt to prescribe a method that every writer must follow. It’s my method; it works for me; that’s all. For example, writers of military and espionage fiction would probably be better served by concentrating on plot construction and then contriving characters that would fit those decisions and actions. But the overarching principle – know what you’re best at and play to it – has wide application.

     But how is one to discover what he’s best at? Must one experiment with a slew of approaches? Should one’s readers have a say in it? Does it take a long period of trial, flecked by failures, disappointments, and periods of agonizing self-doubt?

     Well, maybe. And maybe not. When you’ve figured it out for yourself, write and let me know!

1 comment

    • Dan Patterson on April 22, 2024 at 10:35 AM

    I do character and place more easily than plot.
    And yes to a well-told tale; craft is essential!

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