What makes “interesting fiction?”
“It is the result of a happy accident combined with instinct,” according to fiction writer, Brad Pierce. His simple formula for writing fiction is: “Strive to make your stories interesting and practice will do the rest.”
What is interest? Can we summon it at will? If so, what form of invocation does it obey?
Desire is found everywhere
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that the main interest of life consists in desire and its satisfaction. Literature, the mirror of life, obeys the same rule. The basic principle to which all successful fiction owes its appeal is the arousing and satisfaction of desire.
We can find desire in many forms—curiosity, hope, apprehension, renunciation, and so on. Understand this formula—learn how most effectively to arouse and satisfy desire—and you have the best technique to sway people, kindle them to action, and fill their minds with pleasure. Your writing may lack other elements, but it will never fall flat or uninteresting.
Whatever arouses desire in real life also arouses the same things in the world of fiction. Music, as Schopenhauer has shown, is a perfect analogy to life and, therefore, has a lesson for the writer. Music arouses desire by deviation from the keynote and the satisfaction in a return to the keynote.
In soft, trivial melodies, deviation and satisfaction follow each other in quick order. You can produce the same effect in fiction by a series of small desires and their satisfaction. Stories that move us emotionally consist of more sustained deviations. The return to keynote is deferred until the ear’s craving has reached a maximum.
Create interest in your story
You can create interest in your story by:
1) arousing desire;
2) intensifying the desire;
3) converting the desire into hope;
4) and creating disappointment when it seems just on the verge of satisfaction.
Great musicians, masters of fiction and nature play on the keystrokes of our passions until they sometimes reach the limits of human endurance.
Fulfill a desire
Fulfilling a desire in your story gives your readers a sense of completion and content in proportion to its intensity. Once this is attained, the story is finished. Only dullness will result from dwelling on the keynote. A sad ending is effective in a story because there is no return to the keynote. Abandoned at the climax or point of maximum desire, the sense of incompleteness and disappointment will vividly haunt the reader.
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” is an example of the sad ending. The Light that Failed follows the life of Dick Heldar, a painter who goes blind. We first desire Masie and Dick to unite. The author intensifies our interest by our hope that Dick’s eyesight will last until he has finished painting his masterpiece. This hope is satisfied. Then comes regret, (hopeless desire) following the painting’s destruction, and apprehension when he learns of the disaster.
We hope that his friend Massie will come to comfort his sadness. She arrives; and just as we feel hopeful of a happy ending, we learn that in despair, Dick travels back to the Sudan and joins his old company. His friend Torpenhow meets him as he arrives on horseback; but before Dick can dismount he is struck by an enemy bullet and killed. All desires are unfulfilled. The renunciation is more effective because it contrasts between despair and the happiness which seemed so near.
Diagrams can assist us in analyzing stories from this point of view. Draw a straight line to represent satisfaction. Above, and arising from it, draw an irregular line showing the course of the story. Represent passages that arouse desire by curving away from the straight line; and represent passages that satisfy desire by curving toward it.
Compare the curves
Comparing the curves of numerous stories will yield a tremendous trove of hints and working rules, and will reveal the fact that they are reliable interest charts. The interest curve of a well-constructed happily ending story will look like a range of hills riffling steadily higher and higher from the main line. Each satisfaction leads into a new and stronger desire, to the climax, or highest point of cumulative desire. The more directly it crashes back into the line of complete satisfaction, the more effective is the story ending.
Most stories end with a small and satisfied desire introduced as a bait. While the reader is following this, the author manages to involve him in the main desire, which requires more time for development.
You can assist yourself in self-criticism by applying this question to each passage: “Does it arouse a desire or satisfy one I have already aroused?” If it does, it will interest; and if it does not, it will bore readers. You should always prepare the reader for its reception by a previous desire.
Desire isn’t the end of the story
This is not the whole secret of writing a great story. If it were, we would never enjoy reading a novel more than once because we would know in advance how the author satisfies each desire. The writers whose stories last for eternity use this system, consciously or unconsciously, in their plot construction—but they did not rely on plots for interest.
Their characters appear so real that we feel their joys and anxieties, even though we know how the stories will end. The plot is the skeleton. It must be elegant and articulated, or final beauty is impossible to achieve. You should cover the hard outlines of your story with flesh. Bare bones strung on wires can be made to dance from behind the scenes; but their activity is a poor substitute for life. The true test is if readers will re-read your story.