It’s become a treasured habit, and one that I hope sticks around. We snuggle up in the living room, all of us under blankets, even on the hot days, and they listen as I read.
Sometimes the younger of the two gets a bit squirrelly. He needs a gentle reminder now and then to sit still, but when I can finally get them both settled, more often than not they’re swept up in the tale.
Because good stories have the power to take you far, far away.
Homeschooling two of my younger children affords me the opportunity to expose them to some of the most classic literature of all time. We’ve laughed with Roald Dahl, sat breathless with Julie Edwards, and are currently smitten with the imaginative and vivacious Anne of Green Gables.
This is my chance to show them that which I’ve long known – books hold power far greater than the latest and greatest app on a phone.
“Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
As a writer, it is my deep conviction that fiction storytelling is an art unlike any other. It requires one to merge imagination and real life in such a way that makes the seemingly impossible appear plausible, the horrific seem touchable, and the base nature of man seem comprehensible.
A work of fiction cannot merely be a story. It must tell a story. It shouldn’t confuse the reader, no matter how twisty the plot. Good fiction takes the reader from point A to point B. Great fiction makes them want to take the journey again.
A fictional story will ultimately have a message to convey. The stories that have withstood the test of time all go beyond simply telling a tale. They examine the heart of mankind, of love, of good and evil. They explore heartache and redemption from inside the character’s heads. They dissect the politics and prejudices of the time, and reveal the very nature of who we are as human beings.
And the beauty of it all is that fiction can do these things through a simple concept, or through a plot that’s twisted and convoluted.
Beyond the underlying message conveyed in a great novel, there are other important and necessary components needed to take a story from good to great. First and foremost, great fiction employs interesting characters that are well developed. This is key to hooking your reader.
In addition, a great work of fiction will employ all five senses. Readers will see and hear the characters and settings. Description is so vivid in these books that the reader is transported from the couch to the place of which they read.
Consider briefly this passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:
“Fantine threw her looking-glass out the window. Long before she had left her little room on the third story for an attic room with no other fastening for a latch…She no longer had a bed, she retained a rag that she called her coverlid, a mattress on the floor, and a worn-out straw chair…She had lost her modesty, she was losing her coquetry. The last sign. She would go out with a dirty cap. Either from want of time or from indifference she no longer washed her linen…She had a strange brilliancy in her eyes, and a constant pain in her left shoulder near the top of her left shoulder-blade. She coughed a great deal…
She felt herself hunted down, and something of the wild beast began to develop within her. About the same time Thenardier wrote to her that really he had waited with too much generosity, and that he must have a hundred francs immediately or else little Cosette, just convalescing after her severe sickness, would be turned out of doors into the cold upon the highway, and that she would become what she could, and would perish if she must. ‘A hundred francs,’ thought Fantine. ‘But where is there a place where one can earn a hundred sous a day?’
‘Come!’ said she, ‘I will sell what is left.’
The unfortunate creature became a woman of the town.”
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Do you feel Fantine’s desperation? Can you smell her surroundings and hear the rasping, wretched cough that wracks her body? This passage, which I have spliced a bit for sake of time, expresses a depth of emotion that gives the reader a sense of Fantine’s oppression. She had nowhere to turn. She sold her hair, and her two front teeth. She was worked to the bone, desperately ill, the bottom of the rung in impoverished Paris.
So it was that she gave away the only thing she had left.
As a writer, your challenge is to take the reader beyond the outline of the plot, and lead him straight into the heart of your characters. Even in this day in age where literary fiction has been replaced with the faster paced, quicker to read storytelling, there’s plenty of room for depth in writing.
Your job is to make your readers thirsty for the next page. Give them a sense of desperation for what comes next, and the thrill of taking the journey.