Fiction writing, like all other forms of art, is predicated upon communication.
First and foremost, a fiction writer should focus on ensuring he has the requisite ability to communicate his or her thoughts via the written word and to communicate them effectively. It doesn’t matter how extensive your lexicon, nor how captivating your style, if you cannot arrange sentences in such a way as to drive home the meaning contained therein. We shall not cover, in any depth, the rudiments of the English language nor of any other and will, instead, assume a certain degree of literary proficiency and creativity from the reader (one should be careful not be to too bound by forms which can sap the work of its vigor and inventiveness). Instead we will be turning our fevered imaginations towards the specific ways (the forms) in which the themes within a given work are communicated.
Pay particular attention to your opening sentences.
There is no more important section of a given story than the opening sentence(s), for if your audience does not find it sufficiently eye-catching they are like as not to read little further. Certainly, if the whole opening paragraph is either mundane, impenetrable or both, then one should not expect any sizable readership to follow. For instance, in my recently published short story The Chittering, the tale begins with a evocative description of the scene and the principal actors within it. I wrote:
Night fell like a blanket of smoke over the hunters, the clicking of crickets in the forest beyond the old bunker, the only sound, save for the rustling of the lonesome wind.
The purpose of this introduction was to provide a description of both the “stage” and the “actors” upon it as well as lay the snare which was to pull the reader deeper into the story. It was my hope that the mention of mysterious hunters, huddled in a old bunker would cause the reader to ponder, “Who are these hunters, what is this bunker? Why are they in it? What is all this about?” This is not to say that one should not begin with naming or detailing their characters (that’s perfectly fine), however, there is something to be said of cramming too much information into one particular place. Information overload (something author’s like DeLillo delight in, i.e. Underworld) occurs whenever you attempt to describe multiple events and/or characters all within the space of a single line of text. Something like, “Tim, the Freemason, was feeling queasy, he figured those lobster’s which Sherry, the cook, had given him for Clancy’s birthday, were the likely culprit.” The sentence is a little difficult to follow, but more than that, it is rather clunky and reads like a paint-by-numbers description (he did X, then he did Y because she did X, etc), which is not particularly interesting and can wax rather robotic.
Whilst we are on the topic of painting-by-numbers, another attribute of one’s story which will return dividends if cared for is the rhythm of the text itself.
The rhythm of a particular line of text is also of considerable importance not just for the “flow” of the story but also for the impact of particular portions thereof. Consider the way following passages:
His hands shook upon the handle of the smoking gun as he loomed over the twitching ruddy creature upon the ground, now twitching no more.
Chopping this sentence up (“changing the rhythm”) can be a method to place more emphasis upon particular actions, like so:
His hands shook upon the cool handle of the gun. Coils of smoke, like phantasmal worms, moved about the rafters. He looked down to behold his victim, twitching like some bird-rent crab.
Twitching no more.
The first description is more compact and more “correct” grammatically speaking, but it doesn’t have the same level of visceral impact as the second description. Neither is necessarily better, in any total and all-encompassing sense, but certainly, one or the other will be much better for certain types of scenarios and deftly navigating between the two kinds of descriptions (those being: “matter-of-fact” and “poetic”) will make for a much more enjoyable read, it will also allow you to explain certain segments of your story in a way the other will not.
Any cinephile worth his salt will have seen at least one film series wherein a character or place or theme is introduced and becomes important only to vanish in the next installment and never reappear again. I call this world inconsistency to differentiate it from a plot-hole as the two are not necessarily synonymous. World inconsistencies occur when one builds up a particular portion of their world(s) over a particular portion of one’s story and then suddenly and inexplicably glosses over or ignores everything there created. Such inconsistencies typically occur either through forgetfulness or a misbegotten desire towards flair (i.e. it just sounded good at the time). World inconsistencies often occur in sequels which are, in the current artistic climate, usually driven my market demand and are thus hastily cobbled together re-imaginings rather than detailed elaborations. A good example of this phenomenon can be found within the Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor as Manhunter puts it) series of novels written by the notable and stylish crime author, Thomas Harris.
In the novel, Hannibal Rising (2006), the individual who is most formative to the budding serial killer is his fiery adoptive aunt, Lady Murasaki, a Japanese woman of considerable refinement and ability who I assume (though do not know) was patterned off of the 11th Century Japanese writer, Murasaki Shikibu, known for her text, The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Despite her prominence in the sequel novel, Lady Murasaki is never mentioned or referenced in anyway in any of the other novels, those being: Red Dragon (1981), Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). Now we should forgive Harris this oversight due to the fact that, firstly, he did not want to write the book to begin with (Dino De Laurentiis forced him into it due to studio pressures; i.e. maintaining the franchise) and secondly, he couldn’t very well change his other previously written books right off the bat and would have had to have made additions to one or more of his previously released novels. Now what he should have done (other than just refusing to write the book to begin with) was write yet another novel or novella, occurring sometime after Hannibal Rising, but yet before the last book in the series, such that all the various strands of Hannibal Rising were tied together into the rest of the previously established Lecter mythos. Failing this, one is left with prominent thematic attributions which dissolve into utter nothingness.
[continued in part 2]