We talk so much of all the elements that go into writing great fiction. You know, the litany of points that make up the plotting, pacing, structure; all things characterization, our hero’s journey, creating people who come to full-color life; beautiful prose that sings itself off the pages, and all the components to get there.
A funny thing happens on the way to writing great fiction. Yes, all the tangibles come into play—those pesky left-brain analytics, the learning of the enormity of skills that go into this craft. And what a trick that is to balance with the right-brain creativity, where the beauty of it all bubbles up from within.
It takes both. And in the best of cases, these merge into virtually a third entity.
Sometimes, especially in the beginning, this stymies writers. As a book editor, my counsel is always to write first—let the creativity run, the people and the story flying from your fingertips uncensored.
Only after that initial draft is in the can, then dig in and learn the skills. Then apply those in revisions.
Now armed with writers knowledge, you can once again let the muse direct your words as they sail across the pages. And sail, they will.
Then go back and edit, revise, rewrite once more.
Sounds exhausting, no?
But taken one day at a time, this framework provides writers with the structure to keep going until truly, The End is nigh.
You can accomplish all of this. Write a bang-up plot, believable multi-sided characters, tighten the prose like a well-strung violin.
But without memorable moments, you’re still left with something somewhat pedestrian. And, a book that agents, editors, publishers, and readers easily forget.
Writing those moments in fiction, and creative nonfiction as well, takes a careful pen, indeed.
So first off, what exactly are those?
You know how when you’re reading a great book, one you’re caught up in as it moves you along with the characters through the story, and you come upon a passage that takes your breath away?
It may not even be the most beautiful prose in the book.
While it is about the wording, it’s not about the prose per se. It’s about something deeper, sometimes intangible.
But oh, lordy, do you know it when you read it.
What happens—and great authors know this—is while you’re weaving together the subtleties of your story and people, ever deepening them as you go, you’re also at the same time continually bringing everything full circle.
Yes, that sounds odd, but the best stories are spirals rather than straight lines, and in the end, as we come back to the beginning, everything has changed even though we’re back in Kansas once more.
And along the way, where threads of the theme have crystallized, we have breath-taking moments.
It’s this crystallization of the depth of things, how those affect the characters, where literary moments shine brightly.
These aren’t just at the end either, although hopefully some exist there! But interspersed throughout.
As a book editor and author and reader, a book I refer to a lot—because I’m not sure another exists with as many heartbreaking moments as life within such a slim volume—is chock-full of these. From the opening line:
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”
In this opening paragraph, the themes of faith and family, and of the family passion, come together in the first and last lines, bringing a moment that draws readers in like a trout snagged by the hook.
And deeper in:
“As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining with them. It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.”
Ahh . . . such beauty and foreshadowing.
Leading to the ending:
“Then in the arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
—A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
It’s these sorts of moments that readers remember (I didn’t even have to look up this last quote from the book). Where the essential elements flow together into one resonating whole.
Writing great moments in fiction is tricky, no? But having them makes all the difference.