What makes a novel work? What makes a short story ring true?
It may be a bit ironic to talk about "the truth" in fiction when the very definition of fiction is something that isn't.
Good fiction is often described as something that's believable...like any other great lie. Or sometimes fiction is considered "good" if it conveys a great moral....like an Aesop's Fable. But we all know that a great moral can't fix a lousy story. Sam Goldwyn once said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I tend to agree.
It's probably more useful to look at fiction as one might look at architecture. We've all heard the expression "form follows function" to describe a building...or a bridge... that just is "right"...the Golden Gate Bridge comes to mind. But what do we do about the Missouri Arch, or the Washington Monument, or The Eiffel Tower....or even the Mona Lisa. We are forced to consider that, as often as not, the form is the function! How do we evaluate how well a novel does what it's supposed to do if we don't even know what it's supposed to do?
A hack writer may attempt to tack on some meaning to a piece of literary architecture in order to give it some function....much as one might put a gift shop in the Eiffel Tower and say that the gift shop gives the Eiffel Tower a purpose. While this may give an insipid piece of literature an excuse to exist, the truly great writer....or architect...will create a work whose mere existence justifies itself....such as the Eiffel Tower.
In the absence of an obvious, immediate purpose, can a work of art, or music, or architecture be true...or not?
Absolutely! Most of us can recognize a melody that...well....isn't. A collection of notes does not a melody make...no matter how "profound" the "artist" may consider it. A true melody has a certain inevitability to it...which is not the same things as predictability. Think of the first time you heard a song that really grabbed you by the tone tonsils....you remembered it the very first time...even if it was completely different from anything you've ever heard before. You knew how it was going to end from the first bar...because it was the ONLY way it could end. You could play the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth to a space alien who'd never heard music before, and he would immediately respond with the second four notes.
On the other hand, false melodies are contrived....like a movie with multiple alternative endings. A great movie can only have one right ending...even if it's a totally unpredictable ending.
Great fiction is true on its own merits, independent of any "truth" one tries to attach to it. It is form and function....even if the function is not immeciately obvious...even to the writer. You may not be able to define it, but you can certainly recognize it.
Great fiction is discovered rather than invented. A nugget of gold can only be dug up if it's there in the first place. All the shoveling and picking and hammering you can do won't create an atom of gold no matter how enthusiastically you shovel and pick and hammer.
A writer of functional fiction doesn't have to "come up with stuff." He just has to peel the bark off what's already there. Of course, if a would-be writer of fiction has never done anything except hope to write some fiction, there won't be anything "already there." Before attempting to create an alternate reality, it's a good idea to live in a real one for a while.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.