punctuationAs many of you know, I’m struggling to write a novel entitled The Only Life We Know. The novel consists of twelve stories, set in Earth’s future after a virus has reduced human population to 150 million people. For reasons that become clear in the novel, centralized government has disappeared from this future Earth, and its people almost all live an idyllic and leisurely life in small, self-selected and self-governing communities in harmony with nature. The culture of these communities has, due to the self-selection mechanism by which they have formed, evolved in wildly and delightfully divergent ways: There is absolutely no homogeneity whatever to the way in which the communities live, love, act, think, speak or make a living. Each community is like a strange and different world.

Although there is no central government, no central economy, no central anything in this future world (it is truly a World of Ends), the communities are not isolated — there is state-of-the-art multimedia communication between communities, and plenty of more-with-less technology and innovation as well. No hunting (except for knowledge) and not much gathering. In most of the communities portrayed, one’s teenage years are spent exploring other communities: One month blocks of time living and working with the people in other communities has replaced formal secondary education, and is the future world’s rite of passage — finding your true home. There is a universal language (I won’t say what it is, because its evolution is important to the story — but your first two guesses are probably wrong) as well as unique community languages that have evolved in each community. Because of the affluence of these communities, and because of the re-discovered importance of community, several of the key artifacts of civilization have crumbled and disappeared — most notably the (social and physical) family unit and the concept of private property. The societies are built on collaborative rather than private enterprise, and young people learn to find self-actualization through invention, discovery and cooperation rather than through acquisition and competition. That’s not to say these communities, and their members, are free from conflict. Some, but not all, of the stories in the novel revolve around such conflicts. Some of the stories are adult fables, like many of the stories of Earth’s aboriginal peoples.

So my novel has to work on three different levels, and therein lies the challenge: It is an horrendous balancing act, and I have already thrown out hundreds of pages of writing and at times despaired of ever getting the novel finished. The three levels are:

  1. Each chapter occurs in a completely unique and evolving community. Each chapter is, therefore, a short story in its own right. And soeach chapter has to work as a short story, with characters that need to be adequately developed within the chapter, since only the narrator (a traveller and story-teller) appears in every chapter. It has to wrench the reader out of the comfort of the previous chapter and present her with a completely new setting and set of characters, as alien from the last as is humanly possible for someone in our modern homogeneous society to imagine. This is jarring to the reader, and also staggeringly difficult for the writer. A friend told me this requires “not just a great imagination, but great imaginations“. And, as Frederick Barthelme’s Center for Writers explains in The 39 Steps, the first step in good story-writing is:
Mean less. That is, don’t mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please. Don’t let it make too much sense.
One of my readers, David M., sends me articulate critiques of my fiction, and he has passed along advice from EM Forster (via Willaim Gibson) about what Barthelme means by this: The story cannot be merely a didactic vehicle for your message, where the characters say unrealistic and absurdly intellectual things to further the author’s argument, and where the plot and the characters serve as relentless propaganda agents hammering home the author’s intended moral to the point where they become inauthentic and contrived, and to the point where the reader gets annoyed at being so baldly manipulated. This is a failing of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and Story of B and of JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. I love these books because I profoundly share the authors’ beliefs and concerns, so I am willing to overlook the fact that the characters in these books are shallow and inauthentic. But I want my book to appeal to a wider audience, to persuade those that aren’t quite ready to believe that there is a better way to live than the way we live today. I want each story to be real, inspiring, credible, a place my readers would like to live, with characters they’d like to know. So my writing has to be better than the era’s greatest philosopher’s, and better than a Nobel prize-winner in Literature’s. Yikes.

So I have to let my characters write each chapter’s unique story in their own way, and just be the channel, the scribe for it. It’s very hard. At times, thanks to my lazy imagination (in the face of aggravating distractions like needing to decide how to start getting some income flowing in to pay the bills), my characters just refuse to get out of bed and do anything. They tell me they’re waiting for inspiration, and ask me annoying questions like how do I know they wouldn’t want Ferraris just because they’re self-actualized and hence don’t need them (they rarely complain about the absence of SUVs at least). Even worse, they have this infuriating tendency to go off and do things just for the hell of it: My scientists want to learn to dance, and my artists are often spaced out on drugs which, living in such a paradise, they shouldn’t want or need (they say it helps in the creative process, even though we all know it doesn’t). And they want to have far too much sex. Damned ingrates. I put them in paradise and look how they treat me.

  1. The novel must work as a satisfying mystery (interspersed among the stories are flashbacks to the 21st century that explain how the world got from here to there).  And writing a mystery is another form of the art entirely — it has to move forward at a fast pace, dropping clues, and walk the narrow line between being too obvious and too obscure. Some, but not all, readers need to be able to guess the ending before it occurs. And it needs to have some interesting twists and turns, and to be, well, entertaining to read. And you all know I’m no fun, so this is an especially difficult challenge for me.
  1. The novel as a whole must ‘hang together’ and work as a Future State Vision (a model to show people that there is a better way to live). The whole needs therefore to be more than the mere sum of its parts, as a ‘normal’ book of short stories is. When a friend of mine suggested that I was writing a moden-day bible I groaned — but she’s right, most religious texts are, in fact, collections of stories that teach people how to live.

All of this should have been enough to make me give up. This is, surely, setting myself up to fail. But every time I ask myself “If you don’t want to write this novel, what do you want to do?”, and make a list of the alternatives, it makes me realize I am a writer. This is what I do. And so I reopen my laptop and unfold the storyboard and wake up my characters, and plug on.

So now I’ve told you my problems, but I haven’t really answered the question posed by the title of this article: What are the elements of a good story? I’ve already written about the elements of a good speech, how to write clearly, how to write dialogue, the importance of a good editor, how to write a good essay, how to write funny (they say those that can’t do, teach), the need for a big ego and aesthetic enthusiasm and passion, and the need for the writer to pay attention, care, and be honest. But that’s the how. The elements are the what of the story, and I think there are six:

  1. Characters who are authentic and sympathetic. What they do and what they say has to be real.
  2. A narrative that transports the reader, takes him/her away from where they are and puts them there, in the story.
  3. Entertaining events and dialogue. We can be entertained in different ways — amused, shocked, reminded of something in our own lives. But if we’re not entertained, with every page, we’re going to stop turning pages.
  4. Surprise. The unpredictable is engaging, funny, terrifying, saddening. It’s the shortest way to our emotions. But it has to be plausible. We’ve outgrown stories about gods and aliens that come out of nowhere and smite everyone. Well, most of us have.
  5. Well-crafted imagery. By imagery I mean appeal to all the senses, not just the visual. Good writing lets you see, hear, smell, taste, feel what your narrator and characters do. Supports the transportation (element #2).
  6. Style. This is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s a little bit Point of View. Turn of phrase. The ‘voice’ of the narrative and (if there is one) the narrator. It’s humility — you need a big ego to presume to write something others will care to read (and maybe even pay for the privilege), but don’t let that ego show in your style. Writer-reader is a peer-to-peer contract. Writing is a little bit like wooing and a little bit like making love — pouring out your heart, showing you really care, being honest and polite, listening, being patient with the foreplay, a little bit of flattery and seduction, and finally, holding nothing back.

There is one thing that is critical to keep out of a good story as well: Waste. Every word, every phrase, every line of dialogue that isn’t essential to the story detracts from it — Get it out of there.

Time for me to get back to practicing what I preach.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. SB says:

    I used to daydream about this place.

  2. Ahmed says:

    kind of tangential but you may find this useful if you feel you need to get back to basics. The key is to get away from thinking “how do i make this device work” and back to “why do i need to tell this story”. Its already out in the UK and will be available in the US end Jan’05:

  3. Michael J. says:

    Dave, don’t give up – it sounds GREAT! Have you read “Story” by Robert McKee? It’s primarily targeted at writing screenplays, but is certainly applicable to general storytelling. One great aspect of the screenplay approach is that the story must be stripped down to the basic plot twists and reversals that happen in 90-120 minutes on screen. As I craft my first novel I’m starting with a screenplay to make sure I get the story right. I’m planning to use that as the starting point for the novel. If all goes well, the novel will evolve and then inform the screenplay. I’m not trying to set a rigid approach, just some structure to help me fit it all together.One interesting trick I’ve learned is to write the dialogue last. Try to write the scenes using images; think visually. Apparently Alfred Hitchcock said (I paraphrase), “Once the screenplay is finished, then we add in any required dialogue.”

  4. Another Dave says:

    Thanks for mentioning me (David M ;-)!To expand on the topic, it occurs to me that it is not suprising that your characters don’t act like you’d think they would. Basically, I assume that you want to save the world because of the believes you acquired living through your own life, i.e. the experiences YOU made. If you already lived in the perfect world, or let’s say a world that at least could survive by itself without needing to be saved, you probably would not feel the urge to change or save anything.So if your characters have time to think of Ferraris, perhaps they need more obstacles to overcome ;-).

  5. Fiona says:

    I’m blown away. I simply cannot imagine you producing a work of fiction. I’ll believe it when I see it. Your style is so technical and analytical. I picture you fighting strong urges to include charts and graphs illustrating your characters’ motivations, and flow charts showing their relationships to other characters. I certainly hope you’re one of those people who gets fired up by discouragement and then goes on to prove his critics wrong.

  6. Ahmed says:

    I’ve just remembered another book with a similar multi-voice device: “Ghost written” by David Mitchell. The voices work because Mitchell understands what it psychologically means to have a different point of view; he is not simply trying to decribe the world, which would be purely a political act, but describe a life within the world. It may also be worth looking at Queneau’s “Exercises In Style” where the same short story is retold several HUNDRED times using different voices.Incidentally, on your list: #6 should be #1. Voice is everything, and alone can carry an entire story. It’s entirely worked using turn of phrase and choice of individual words.IMHO, that is.

Comments are closed.