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What do you look for in fiction?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ban, Oct 23, 2018.

  1. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Although this question is about reading preferences, I decided to place this thread in the writing discussions section because I hope it will be useful for writers on the forum to read the various appeals of fiction, so we can take them into account in our writing and discussing. Feel free to move it to another section if need be.

    I'd like to know what you see in fiction, and share what I see in it, so we can understand eachother's varying opinions and keep these differences in mind when writing and discussing.

    The real world is filled to the brim with stories more complex and fantastic than any individual could ever come up with. We have it all, from big worldchanging tales built on centuries worth of intricate preplanned lore, to a million charming (and disheartening) stories taking place at this very moment. In the face of this, I simply don't see the point of reading a story that didn't take place and doesn't help me understand the world around me (though it's completely fine if you do, and I'd love to hear your opinion), when I have libraries worth of equally, if not more interesting, stories that can provide me these additional benefits.

    What I instead look for in fiction, are things the real world can't provide me. Normally, I want my fiction to show me an alternative lense to look at an issue, or a speculation of what can or could have happened differently. On the other hand, whenever I'm in the mood for escapism, I want my fiction to drag me so deep into the nitty gritty of an alien world that I can't help but forget the real world for a little bit.

    In short, for me the appeal of fiction is about worldbuilding over story. The story to me is a vehicle for the worldbuilding and not vice versa. Of course regarding the story-vehicle, I'd prefer an airplane over a skateboard for transport, but the worldbuilding-destination is the thing I truly care about.

    Oftentimes I feel this approach is undervalued in writing discussions, where the story is almost always placed above the worldbuilding. I have often heard variations of the question "How does this tie into your story?" when it comes to my worldbuilding, and I never quite know how to respond. Now that I've sat down and thought out my opinion on the matter, I realize that the story simply isn't at all my objective when it comes to reading or writing.
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2018
    summondice likes this.
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Heart. If you want a simple answer.
    Real people have heart but they are normally too complex for a simple "here's who this person is and what they are about and what they go through" story. I read a decent amount of biographies but they always tend to feel more like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive story with a single, strong heart.
    Ban likes this.
  3. If you could choose to live a thousand lives in a thousand worlds, and return safely to your own at your discretion, why would you stay? Why would you limit yourself to the real world when there is so much more? I read things that take me outside of my own immediate reality and the ideas, perspectives, places, feelings and experiences I can't access any other way. I guess I read to make my world bigger. So that would be the answer, things that make my world bigger.
    Ruru, TheCrystallineEntity and Ban like this.
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Honestly, I'm just looking for something impressive. You don't go to the circus to watch a guy fall off the tight rope, or to a musical to hear the lead duck the high notes. More than anything I want to see the writer's skill on full display. I want to go wow!

    Look, I know this probably sounds presumptive, but I've had an emotional life, full of those ups and downs and angers and triumphs. I don't need to see the world from another lens. I don't need to walk in anyone else's shoes. I've done all that. A lot of things could be said of me, but nobody can say I've lived in a bubble of any kind. I don't need to see an emotional journey: I've had plenty enough of my own.

    And I can't say that I'm looking for anything new or fresh or original... frankly, I've got most writers beat there. In High School I was running the kind of D&D games where fantasy Japan invaded fantasy Mesoamerica, or another where I revealed that one of the players didn't know he was a doppleganger assassin with memory issues (because damnit, best DM prank ever). Today I work in settings where magic is ubiquitous - I've had shattered continents, I've used forest gardens pickers instead of farm boys, I've had main characters at war with each other, and now I've got a delicate prank battle between rival sprites. I've got no shortage of strong ideas. So while I can't say it's what I'm looking for, my standards here are high, and a total lack of fresh ideas is a big reason I put most books down.

    I guess what I'm saying is - and I'll put this in the most uncomfortable way possible - is that when I'm reading your book, I'm looking at you. What have you got for me? Where's the talent? What are you capable of? Whose mind am I walking through today? Spare me your character's routine sob story, and don't tell me that your magic system is so robust it can use ooze and vinegar as elements. I don't care. Every word, on every page, is a decision that you make: A creative, emotional, thematic, and telling decision. When are you making your best decisions? That's what I want to know.
    summondice and Ban like this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It's story for me, but I count worldbuilding as one of the moving parts of story, so I can't really set the one over here and set the other over there. Some stories it's the plot that wows me. In others, it's the character(s). In still others, it's the writer's prose itself. While one or another may be most prominent or memorable, all the elements, including worldbuilding (often just called setting in other genres), are necessary. All taken together make story.

    So, I don't really care how the author gets there. The books that I regard most highly are the ones that click on all cylinders. That list is rather short, and I have enjoyed a great many books that are outstanding on just one or two story-telling aspects. What I look for in fiction is a story that delivers. It captures me.

    Stories that don't work are the ones where I am aware, sometimes painfully aware, that I'm reading. In movies they talk about how you can see the actor acting. Never a good thing. In average books, I can see the author writing. I'm aware that the pacing flags, that a character behaves in a way that only serves the plot, or that the author simply doesn't have good command of the language. That's not what I look for in fiction.

    Stories that work are the ones where I forget I'm reading. Somehow, though I know perfectly well I'm reading, I'm there. I'm on the scene, witness to the events. I react to events directly--I gasped on the first reading of LotR when the Balrog took Gandalf. I can still recall the sensation, almost fifty years later. That's what I look for in fiction. To be tricked. To believe. Do that, and I'll follow you anywhere.
    Ban likes this.
  6. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    Entertainment and immersion. Plain and simple.
    SoulThief and Ban like this.
  7. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Archmage

    S. S. C. Subversion, Story and Characters. Mostly kind of in that order. The standards don't hold me much anymore and I like looking into new tries at it. But it has to have a good story and characters too. So I end up doing a bit of digging to find what entertains me now.
    TheCrystallineEntity and Ban like this.
  8. Agam Ridelle

    Agam Ridelle Scribe

    Smart humor, a surprising plot, well-developed characters, imaginative worlds, diversity, a good pace that keep me in the story, adventures, and a fun romance.
    SoulThief and Ban like this.
  9. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Archmage

    To me its often to experience things that I can't, or won't, experience in reality.
    Ban likes this.
  10. DylanRS

    DylanRS Dreamer

    This is the essence right here. For me it's not so much about what's being talking about, but the cohesion - from every angle. Someone said that the best art seems like it was oozed by the artist, not created. It's like they found it somewhere. I think Vladimir Nabakov said, and I'm hugely paraphrasing, that rather than enjoying fiction for what it tells us, he enjoys it for - and approaches the creation of it with - the goal of transporting the reader to a place where "art is the norm," and he specifically defined art as being curiosity, tenderness, kindness, and 'ecstasy'. I don't quit understand those word choices, but the idea still resonates with me. Maybe he meant it from the point of view of the narrative itself in a meta way, including every narrative point of view (first, second, third). Meaning that good art, under this definition, can of course be about very ugly things.

    My enjoyment of ideas that align more with a didactic goal or that aim to address an overarching theory is not actually mutually exclusive with this. I do enjoy some allegory, but usually IN an aesthetically cohesive piece of fiction, FIRST (and even if I'm in the mood for allegory, I usually dismiss almost all of it. It's gotta be GOOD). My goals as a writer are actually almost equally concerned between essay-type content and fiction, so I'm far from reluctant to, you know, think about things. Get real cerebral and stuff. But the fiction I look for falls into the same category as life itself in a certain sense. You can relate The Lord of the Rings to something like WW1+2, but the usefulness of that entire piece of fiction is first and foremost a much richer thing.

    I'm looking for an overloading of meaning that you couldn't possibly "figure out," and yet makes more sense than anything. I want to be able to imagine, if I wanted to, that there are countless things about the story that the author could never know themselves. In short,

    Edit: Someone might need it said - don't wait for that first draft to ooze out of you. It won't. Like skip.knox said, the effect is a trick. You gotta write a lot of crap or you won't write at all.
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2018
  11. summondice

    summondice Scribe

    Like Devor, I'm looking for something impressive.

    But I'm really pretty easy to please and I'm only looking for one thing that's impressive. I want to read a book and by the second chapter be thinking, "Wow, this author has an amazing handle on tagging - this is going to be a really fun read." or "The world of this book is amazing and it's obvious that the author didn't simply throw it together so that it happens to work with their story. I bet the author could write an encyclopedia about all of the things that *aren't* in this book. That are there because they require the same kind of consistency that we experience in real life."

    It can be a single really well-written character that keeps me going, even if all of the others are cardboard.

    Because I think what I'm really doing when I read is studying. I notice when I'm immersed in a story, and I stop to analyze it - what made that scene work so well? I set down books in the middle of a chapter because I need to think about a character's development arc and how well it's working and what's making it feel forced - or natural. I'm noting what becomes important in the world - why and under what circumstances? I try not to be judgey of stories or authors - they've written and published a BOOK! That's impressive by itself. They've put themselves out there...And I don't feel a need to crap in their Cheerios. So I like to find what they did well and focus on it. There are articles enough on what *not* to do in writing and all the best what to do articles give examples - might as well find some on my own :)

    I think too much and don't let myself feel enough...but it's probably part of why I'm good at what I do :) *shrug*
  12. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    Ooh... This is fascinating. Thanks for starting this discussion, Ban.
    I've actually been thinking a lot lately about what specific things make me love a book, so I hope I'll have a good answer for you.

    The biggest single thing is connection and character investment. I love being able to fall deeply in love with characters. The characters I end up caring about most are usually ones that have at least some strengths or qualities I admire, like loyalty or something, and have really deep, painful internal conflicts and vulnerabilities. They're also usually entertaining or distinctive. I love it even more when an author can create an entire cast of characters like this and give them interesting dynamics and relationships. So I guess you could say I'm a character-first reader.

    The next thing is, (as a couple of people have already said :)) immersion. I love a world that I can really sink into, that feels vivid and alive. Like Knox said; stories where I can "forget I'm reading."

    But what makes a story world interesting to me is more than just immersion. It also has to have wonder. Cool stuff. Interesting ideas. Something that lifts it out of the mundane. This is why I read almost exclusively speculative fiction. When I first started reading real books, way back in first grade, I did it to escape, because I was just so bored with life. I still have a resistance to genres like historical fiction and urban fantasy, because they're just too closely tethered to reality. It feels like a chain. That's feeling has eased up a lot as I've gotten older, but I still feel like stories set outside the real world, especially in fantasy, can explore ideas in a way real-life stories can't.

    And I like plots with lots of tension and plot twists, the kind that make me guess and wonder and dread and spend ridiculous amounts of time theorizing because every possibility buzzes with interesting ramifications. Plot twists that blow my mind with their perfection. For me, the best tension is usually character driven, because I'm much more invested and the consequences are more varied. I like seeing the possibilities and being excited for them, maybe even more than I like being surprised. (But of course, the best stories do both).

    And lastly, I like subtext. This one's harder to explain, but subtext just adds a level of emotional depth to a story that no amount of words can. It forces me to put myself into a story. It leads me to make the final realization, makes my heart ache with the words that aren't being said, and overall just makes me want to bask in its genius and read it over and over.

    I think if I had to narrow it down to a few words, I would say that I read for emotional engagement and investment more than anything else.
  13. SoulThief

    SoulThief Scribe

    What I look for:
    • Writing that makes me forget I am reading.
    • Stories that are so immersive that I sometimes feel like entering the fantasy world and just shaking some of the characters for their thoughtless actions/beleifs/behaviours.
    • Ummm... really a variation of the above - emotional engagement.
    What I don't look for or want:
    • Long expositions
    • Too much poetry
    • Poor attempts at humour (I'm not against humour, but it has to be done well)
    • Unlikable characters (as in every character lacks even one redeeming characteristic)
    • long boring bits where nothing happens
    • unlikely plot movements simply to get something else in place for later down the line
  14. DylanRS

    DylanRS Dreamer

    I guess the word "long" basically covers this, but I'm wondering whether most people mean boring expositions. And I'm wondering if this is similar to taking a common route of a beginning writer and stopping them from writing boring expositions by condemning expositions themselves. Like how a lot of people learned in elementary school that they "can't" use the words but, and, or because at the beginning of a sentence. What about expositions that make you forget you're reading an exposition? It seems to me like this preference boils down to "don't be hamfisted," but you could also be thinking of good exposition as well. I'm not really arguing with the point, but maybe opening a conversation about what the word "exposition" means to those of us who hate it. Am I making sense?

    An unskilled storyteller might be frustrated with, or unaware of, the need to ease the reader into a world where a bunch of dry context is necessary. So they end up almost copy/pasting sections of their notes into a passage, and it comes out clumsy. Then this gets labeled as the "exposition" you should never do. Is it possible that a perfectly valid story element is getting a bad rap? One page, one paragraph, or one sentence, can all be "long" if the exposition is boring enough. That's what I mean by my opening line.

    Maybe you don't even consider long exposition to be bad, but that good long expositions don't do it for you for some reason.
  15. SoulThief

    SoulThief Scribe

    Yes. But I suppose even the word "boring" is subjective. I actually don't mind large amounts of exposition if it is cleverly distributed through a story. It's when I have to read 5 or 6 pages before reaching dialog or action. Some of Charles Dickens' work absolutely slayed me. I think it was somewhere in A Tale of Two Cities where the characters take about 3 pages to walk between two rooms due to an extensive description of both rooms. Arrgghh!

    And I tend to ignore such grammar rules. :) As an aside, as a reader I used to skip long exposition even before I knew that it was considered bad form. Why? Because I just don't want to read it.

    True, but I rarely see engaging exposition.

    I get what you are saying, but I doubt whether serious writers simply cut and paste sections of their notes into their novels. I believe that most writers who use long exposition do try to be engaging and simply fail.

    Given that I cannot think of a 4-5 page exposition that has done it for me, I cannot really say whether or not a good exposition will change my opinion. This said, I acknowledge that there are exceptions to every rule and every opinion and I am looking forward to reading one. If you can recommend a book that starts with a gorgeous half a dozen pages of exposition then please recommend it to me and I will happily engage. :)

  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    We've talked about this one before. The plain fact is, what one person finds boring another will call fascinating or colorful. I can point to long stretches of dialog that bored me, too.

    And maybe there's a way to make a distinction. Rather than say exposition is boring, which is a generalization, we say this exposition bored me. That at least lets the would-be author off the hook: write what you feel needs to be written. If most or all your readers say a passage was pointless and boring, consider rewriting. OTOH, if one reader says it while other readers love it, then you're just dealing with individual taste.

    The place where that approach breaks down is in trad pub. There, if the agent doesn't like it, all questions of style go out the window, because your book won't get published. Reason #714 to self pub. I don't want to write to an audience of one in order to reach an audience of thousands.

    I have many favorites for exposition well written. Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Joseph Conrad come to mind, but there are many others. In fantasy? Not so much. Tolkien. Mervyn Peake, maybe.
  17. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    Any element of a story can be boring if it's badly written or being read by the wrong audience, but I thing the reason readers hate long stretches of information so much is that they kill pacing and immersion. Important exposition can be conveyed in much more interesting and engaging ways than a two page infodump.
    SoulThief likes this.
  18. SoulThief

    SoulThief Scribe

    Precisely! (no pun intended) :)
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I keep thinking infodump gets a bad rap. Clumsy dialog can kill immersion just as quickly. To me it all comes under the rubric of bad writing. Though, once again, I have to say that some people just love the stuff, so YMMV.

    I was recently on a thread for historical fiction (FB) where some people were saying how much they love mega books -- the 700 page sort of thing. This, even though Accepted Wisdom says modern readers don't like long books. And you know darn well those doorstop books have extended passages of exposition. So there ya go. One thing I know is: you just never know.
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  20. DylanRS

    DylanRS Dreamer

    Speaking of which, anyone here into James Clavell? I started Shogun last october and was burning through it at first. That first like 1/5 was some of the most jam-packed content I've ever read. Just so much action and scenery and vivid characters...it was straight up cinematic. But I fizzled out because it started hitting a stride that felt somehow rote. Tons of dialogue and character thoughts that just felt kind of like the notes copy/pasting I mentioned above, with characters scheming about lineages and remembering feuds like they were practicing for a history exam. I bet the pacing ratchets back up soon (I'm halfway through) but it became a slog for me. This is still on topic! I'm mentioning what I look for aren't I? There's also the possibility that my own mindset took me out of it, which is why I'll probably revisit it soon.

    As for providing an example of 5 pages of gorgeous exposition, I guess I can't really do that. So maybe that point was a bit too theoretical.

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