When I think about the writing of fiction, I tend to think best in images. What I mean is that instead of just saying that a novel needs to have momentum from the first page to the last, I use the image of dominoes falling. I tell writers that on the very first page they need to knock down the first domino and make sure the following pages keep the rest of the dominoes falling.
Lately, another image about writing fiction has come to mind. I think it all started when I realized that I was seeing some very fine writers producing novels that really could not be faulted technically. The characters were okay, the first domino was successfully toppled, the plot was good…..so why was I rejecting this novel?
The image that came to mind was that of a large woods thick with trees in the middle, but with fewer trees on the outer edges. In short, it was a woods that began with a few trees and as you walked deeper into the woods, the thicker the trees got. I don’t know about you, but a woods thick with trees is a lot more interesting to me than one with a few scattered trees. The heart of the woods is really the best part of the woods.
So it occurred to me that although some of the novels I was reading were okay, perhaps even good, they were still skirting the edge of the woods. The writer was content with just being a good writer technically. And yet, to me, as a reader, I wanted more. I wanted the fullness of the story the writer was seeing but not fully communicating. And I knew the fullness of the story could only be found if the writer would venture deeper into the woods.
I hope that makes some sort of sense. I suppose I could also liken it to a swimming pool. The shallow end of the pool is fine, but to really swim, you need to get out in the deep water.
Years ago (many years ago), I had an enjoyable job driving a bookmobile for the county library. I loved that job. I did it for several years and could imagine doing it for the rest of my life. But then I got to thinking….do I really want to stay here, unchallenged, and not find the (hopefully!) deeper and more rewarding life God may have for me elsewhere?
In talking to a job interviewer, I explained my problem. He pointed me to Psalm 107:23-24 which says
Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
He said that to see the works of the Lord, you had to go out to the deeper water. I followed his advice, took the job he offered me and the rest is history. A glorious history, really. God has led me into a remarkable ocean of discovery in my life. And hopefully, there are even greater depths ahead.
In fiction–as in real life–the wonders are in the deep places. Your novel will be best written as you take yourself into the deep end of the waters….or deeper into the woods of your story. That’s where the riches are to be found.
How to do this, you ask? One way is to let each succeeding draft take you there. Every draft of a novel should not only become better technically as you iron out the grammatical and copyediting mistakes, but it should also take you deeper into the woods. Deeper into the real story that you’ve only seen from afar before now. Perhaps one entire draft could be devoted to adding depth to the story….taking it deeper into the woods.
Another way is to make sure you believe your novel is really happening. It sounds strange, but when an author is writing a novel, he must, on a very real level, believe the story is happening. To the extent the story is real to you, so will it be to your readers. This brings up the Mary Gordon quote I often cite. Ms. Gordon says her characters are so real to her that when she gets to heaven she plans to look them up and ask them how things went for them after the novel ended. That can only come from a willingness on her part to believe in her characters and in the story they have to tell. To walk deeper into the woods with them.
I believe this relates to what Henry James called “felt life” in fiction. Does the reader feel the life of your story….or is he merely observing the actions of the characters you’ve created?
I’m sure writers who have mastered this aspect of fiction have their own ways of taking their story deeper. Try to find your ways. If nothing else, invest a full next draft of your story in finding ways to take it deeper into the woods. It will be well worth it…and perhaps the most important element of fiction writing you will master.