Hey, anybody can play this game!  Here's my #10:

10.Stories are made of scenes.  A good scene needs a monkey.  Which is to say, two characters talking while standing (or sitting) in a room, or walking down the beach, or riding in a car, aren’t usually enough to make an interesting scene.  No matter how funny or interesting or important the dialogue is, the scene will still be boring if that’s all that’s going on.  But if your characters are driving down the freeway and trying to talk about something important and there’s a monkey leaping around the car’s interior, flipping the headlights on and off, honking the horn and pooping in the ash-tray—then you’ve got a scene.  Of course, not every scene can have a literal monkey in it, so you have to find the particular “monkey” that’s right for your particular scene—something for your readers to look at while the characters talk. 

The full list is up on my blog, here: http://jonloomis.blogspot.com/2012/02/eleven-things-i-know-about-fi...

Feel free to comment, argue (within the normal bounds of civility, of course), add stuff, make your own lists, etc.

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"Just  show up," that one's a bitch sometimes.

The single best piece of writing advice I've heard: "Fiction is compelling to the extent that it raises questions and delays answers."

I like that, Eric.  And to the extent that it tells jokes.  And talks about food.  And has sex.  And other stuff people do.

Good advice on all fronts. I've been wondering what to do about a few scenes in the WIP, and you just showed me: they need a monkey.


I posted on your blog. I liked it a lot. As for the plot business: I always tie myself into knots, because plot in a mystery tends to mean to people the puzzle they are to solve before the author does. I really don't like that sort of plotting.  I do like structure and building suspense.  And I also like tossing a monkey into the works from time to time.

Thanks, Dana and I.J.  Of course I really should have been grading papers all day...

I love your list for the most part, Jon, but I'm not sure about #11. For stylistic purposes, and just because it feels right sometimes, I often write what any 7th grade English teacher (and some of the copy editors I've worked with) would consider to be horrible sentences. Fragments. One word sentences. Sentences that start with And or But. Sentences with serial "ands" instead of commas. Very long sentences. Subject/verb disagreement. Sentences written in the passive voice. Sentences that end with a preposition....

In other words, my sentences in works of fiction tend to be conversational rather than academic. So when you say, "Write good sentences," what exactly do you mean by that?

I mean the felicitous sentence, as opposed to the merely grammatical sentence.  If you're writing in first person then generally the conversational tone works fine, as long as it's not too heavy-handed.  What you don't want is a sentence that's stiff or flat or clunky or stilted, or out of tone with the character or the rest of the book.  I like a lively verb and a well-drawn metaphor.  What I don't like is a sentence that reads like a police report or a technical manual. 

I can go along with that. What we want to avoid, of course, is writing that calls attention to itself, whether it be clunky and stilted or "beautifully crafted." We don't want our sentences to become a bunch of performing seals, jarring readers out of their fictional dream. The best writing is that which comes closest to being invisible, in my opinion. 

All of the things you mention, Jude, are quite common and customary in fiction.  A different standard prevails from what is expected in scholarly or essay writing.  In fiction, we write to create effects.

See, I would disagree to some extent--I know Elmore Leonard says that if it sounds like writing he cuts it, but that's a stylistic choice and not a maxim I'd want everyone to live by. A lot of Chandler sounds like writing--you can see the author in the background, working away--but it's still wonderful. There are other rewards in a novel besides the story, potentially, and good writing is one of them.

Thanks for a great post,  Jon. I especially liked your take on "write what you know."

As for the monkey, there's always more than one thing going on in life. Most scenes are better if there's more than one thing going on there as well.

Yep.  I give this as an exercise to my beginning fiction students: write a scene in which two characters are doing a dirty or complex or dangerous task while talking about trouble in a relationship.  Fun!


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