The Secret of Great Fiction

by J.D. Trafford

I love fiction. I love mysteries. I love thrillers. My nightstand generally looks like a Little Free Library crept into my room and threw up next to my bed. I think that you can learn, as a writer and as a person, from almost any book, but, there is something about certain books that bring them to a higher level.

What is it? Borrowing a phrase coined by the business writer and organizational guru Jim Collins, “What takes a book from good to great?”

I think that author Benjamin Percy figured it out. I had the pleasure of meeting him and hearing him speak at a reading. It was in support of his excellent book on writing and reading fiction called, “Thrill Me.”

Percy talked about a quote from the composer Aaron Copeland related to music and what music is and how we can explore music intelligently. It applies just as well to great fiction.  Specifically, fiction, like music, operates on three levels. The first level is simply “pleasure.” Is this writing and is this storytelling fun and interesting? Am I enjoying myself?  This is the basic level, and as I sit on a beach in Mexico...that’s the kind of book I want in my hand. I want the Corona of books.

The second level is “meaning.” As a reader, experiencing the text at the second level goes beyond pleasure. The reader interacts with the text and starts to ask themselves, “what is this author trying to tell me?” or “how does this story relate to me, my society, our relationships, or the world?” On second level, we are getting more out of the book than a sweet rush of Corona and lime.

The third level is “architecture.” How was this book put together? The pacing? The flashbacks? The narrative arc? The number of chapters and breaks within a chapter? A reader is compelled to move forward not just because the story is enjoyable and the text has meaning, but also that they are compelled to turn every page because of how the vignettes and the narrative are strung together. Like a great chef at a restaurant admiring how another chef has plated the food and chosen to use a particular blend of flavors. The third level might also be called “craft.” Me, as a reader, am totally nerding out on how the author built the story.

So, when I’m writing books, I want my writing to hit a reader at all three levels. I want my books to be pleasurable. I want my books to have meaning, and I want my books to have a smart and interesting architecture. I think as a reader, that’s also what I crave the most, and my guess is that this is what you crave the most too.  When you think about your favorite books, I bet they work on all three levels.