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The Four Dimensions of Fiction Craft

CPSS- Character, Plot and Setting:
    The basis of all fiction, if not all writing, once coherently expressed in an entertaining Style.

Beginning writers often ask which of the first three elements is most important, or which drives a particular novel. I believe that every good story is balanced by all three, and that the blending of characters in a particular setting driven by an entertaining plot must be carefully crafted by a choice of vocabulary, rhythm and timing that combine to form a writer's unique style. For me, this is the definition of the craft of writing, all critical to the readerís enjoyment - which should be the over-reaching goal of any writer.

Instructors, short courses, even entire books are focused on one of the four elements, or even limited aspects of just one element. Each is worthy of study, in fact demands attention, but in the same way a system engineer analyses physical systems in my technical life, a writer must craft the four elements together in a cohesive manner for a good book. In doing so, the writer will also achieve that other inherent goal, self-satisfaction, the knowledge that they have written a good book that readers will enjoy. Maybe not as eloquent as Donne, but a "damn good book."

And yes, I have over-simplified what takes most of us years to learn, but they are the basics upon which to build.

The opening to this essay, the scene in Vietnam, was a grabber designed to start the reader in the middle of the action, give them some setting and a feel for the character. The story, especially a good fiction story, must continue to develop the Character by defining the main and supporting characters' motivations and objectives, and advance the development of the Plot (the flow of action and situational development), all in interesting Settings. For example, here are the C, P, S & S for Desert Winds.

  • Characters - The protagonist is a disgraced Army officer who is part Lumbee Indian from rural North Carolina thrown together with a Frenchwoman and an Iraqi boy, plus a cast of interesting and realistic supporting characters, not to mention a dangerous antagonist; each of whom could form the basis for a new book.
  • Plot - On the surface every story is driven by a challenging situation, in Desert Winds a search for nuclear weapons hidden in Iraq is complicated by a significant religious twist causing tension between the main and supporting characters. Below the surface character conflicts and goals drive the characters' reactions to external forces as well as spur their own motivations.
  • Setting - the Middle East: not just the everyday view, but the backsides of locales many readers have never seen (unless you are in the US Military) described so those who have been there/done that will nod their heads and say: "Yep, that's the place, all right!" And Setting includes not only the geography, but regional customs, food, even the climate, all those elements that establish a scene's mood and help establish the emotional tension surrounding the plot and characters. (This novel was written long before our deployment to Iraq. I'm glad I researched it in depth because I have had GIs come back and tell me "I got it right.")
  • Style - the fourth element - is simply the choice of words and the patterns within which they are used that define a writer. So simple to say - so difficult to execute. Just remember as you write:

Bring some piece of new and interesting knowledge to the reader. I'm never concerned about which element comes to mind first. It seems a bubble bursts in my mind with a character in a unique situation and setting. And what I originally thought would happen often changes before the book is finished. The villain may morph from a hairy Russian to a sloe-eyed Arabian princess, or visa-versa. I don't worry about what comes next, it'll all just happen if you think about it enough.

Just be different!

Dry facts, peoples' names, awkward dialog - no, that's not the difference I mean!

Facts, characters and their exchange of dialog, but played out in words that inspire further thought. Big stuff, writing can be, but paragraphs start with one word following another, crafted, agonized over,  rewritten, edited, chopped and rewritten again and again, in such a way that a haphazard collection of words soon becomes an example of the author's unique Style.

A definition that is always confusing for new (and old) authors and readers - GENRE. I write thrillers. What are thrillers? My definition: novels with elements of action/adventure/romance told in a manner that maintains a high level of suspense from beginning to end. How do thrillers differ from mysteries? In mysteries, the dastardly event has already happened, and the sleuth must unravel a sequence of clues to unravel the crime and defeat/catch/disclose the villain. Good mysteries also contain those essential ingredients - action/adventure/romance and suspense, but in a wide variety of circumstances - from a Miss Marple cozy to an Ellery Queen hardboiled.

So where does mastery of the four elements come from? Lectures and workshops and texts on "how-to-write" help: I got much of mine from reading, especially the kind of fiction I wanted to emulate.

I learned much of my military and geo-politic history from the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, a combat veteran of the WWII Burma campaign, and the Sharpe series by Bernard Cromwell. Both are fictional series, but so well researched that as you ride with Fraser's Flashman at the Charge of the Light Brigade or with Custer at the juncture of the Little and Big Horn rivers, you understand the politics, characters and setting of the real events. Cromwell even explained the strategic significance and tactical nuances of Waterloo to me, all through the eyes of Sharpe and his sword, and much of the personalities of the American generals in our Civil War through the eyes of the unlikely Confederate Captain Starbuck for Boston. (and this was pre-Battlestar Galactica). Within historically accurate settings, these series are also wonderful examples of action writing with extraordinary character development.

For realism, bring to bear your own life experience - my life was greatly shaped by my youth in Occupied Japan, military operational experience in  Vietnam and the Middle East, integrated in with my civilian technical training and experience. And I continue to research:

  • Personal notes and personal life experience;
  • Books/library;
  • Internet, for example, research on nuclear weapon development in Iraq, the Kurds in Iraq; and the UN High Commission for Refugees;
  • Correspondence - e.g. email with the operations officer with the Canadian Contingency in the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights;
  • Letters to the Mint Museum and the Wedgwood Museum in England;
  • Correspondence with old military helicopter pilots to get aviation sequences correct. (Yeah, you, Mike!)

So, At first I began leaning the craft, I tried my hand at a few short articles, a few of which are in the Library.

(Click below to continue the Flight to Adventure.)

Favorite Thriller Books and Authors

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