Commercial fiction vs. literature plots

I read a story for a friend yesterday; she’s in a college writing class and doesn’t yet have a lot of experience. I ended up explaining something that I hadn’t fully realized I knew, so I’ll add it here, too.

You may have heard this a bajillion times already, but in case you haven’t, I’ll say it: IF WHAT I SAY DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU PERSONALLY, IT’S NOT WORTH A DAMN, so forget about it. Every writer has their own journey, learning different things in different orders, to fit different times and mores. Don’t like it, NEVER use it. Don’t defend yourself and how you came to write what you wrote (explaining is okay); just write down that a particular thing didn’t work for a particular person, and decide whether you value that.

You have the character down–the character voice–but there’s a problem: no plot. I had this problem until a couple of years ago, too; I know it well.  I still have it.  (On the other hand, I’ve seen writers who can’t do voice, nyaaa nyaaa nyaaa, who never seem to be able to ride in other characters’ skins. Great plots, but nobody cares…)

“Woman comes to realization that she may be, at least in part, responsible for the bad things that happened to her” isn’t a plot–it’s a snapshot in a life. There are two ways to go with this: commercial fiction and literature.

To write a commercial fiction story, decide on a market or genre, decide on how your character will change, and decide how this will entertain your audience. For example, you’re writing a horror story, your character will change from being a “good mother” to being a “vindictive bitch,” and you will entertain your audience by showing your character chasing down the ghost of her dead husband and making sure it never finds peace. This could adequately show the same idea, by having her, at the last minute, regret what she’s doing to her husband’s ghost, but it’s too late. Be sure not to go with what you think a horror story is; read a few dozen current stories from free online horror magazines and then decide. In a commercial fiction story, the realization comes in the middle of a plot in which a character has a problem, tries to solve it, and either succeeds or fails. Your character has a problem but does not try to solve it, in no matter how misguided a fashion; to me, this is the start of a commercial fiction story: “And then what?” is the interesting part.

To write a piece of literature, decide on the situation you need to explore, decide how each character will (separately, and with different results) explore the situation, and decide how this will impress your audience. For example, you’re writing a story about blame inside a loveless marriage. Your main character blames her husband, then herself; the husband blames himself, then his wife; the kid blames a small dinosaur. You will impress your audience by writing this from the POV of the child, 100% in character and yet poetically. Showing only one possible perspective in the story–that is, specifically one way of thinking, rather than one character’s vision–is bad literature, preaching. The other perspectives (husband, child) can be implied or suggested, and you may want the reader to emphasize with one character in particular, but if they aren’t a part of the story, you’re not writing literature. Again, finding free online fiction and reading a couple dozen stories in a particular market is not a bad way to go; you shouldn’t be trying to write like other writers, but see what solutions they came up with. Try to find the core idea they used, then see how they turned that idea into a situation, varied the theme in each character, and impressed the audience.

It is possible to use techniques from both types of story, together.  Those tend to be the ones that I like best.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m starting to think I’m one of those people who suck at creating character voice. I’m doing an experiment for this NaNoWriMo so I can practice it.

    On a totally different note, I had no idea you had a book published! Congratulations! I can’t wait to read it!

    I personally like character driven stories, but when I get ideas for stories, my initial thought is plot — not character. I need a brain rewire!

  2. PS: I did get your email; I just haven’t had a spare second to read your story. I’ll try to get to it this weekend. Sorry for the delay!

  3. De

    That’s okay 🙂

    I am under a horrible, overarching load of guilt on a few things I promised to read and haven’t yet, so that would be totally hypocritical of me to pitch a fit, wouldn’t it?

    As far as character-driven stories…my favorite trick is filling up the character spots with people I know, or combinations of people I know, and then putting them in situations for which they are inappropriate, either comically or tragically.

  4. Heh, I can’t imagine being an editor. I think it’d be a lot of fun, but I’d be afraid of getting tired of reading stories (especially if I got a lot of bad ones)!

    That’s a good trick. So far, my main character doesn’t really have much personality. I’m working on her little by little before November. Her brother, however, is really standing out to me. He might end up with his own side story after NaNoWriMo!

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