The mechanics of fiction


I’m the owner of several pieces of fiction that have conked out at the side of the road, unfinished, in various states of disrepair. You too? Thought so.

It reminds me of Springsteen’s Thunder Road:
‘There were ghosts in the eyes
Of every boy you sent away,
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets.’

(Thanks Bruce.)

So what to do about these sorry husks, these stalled attempts at storytelling? There’s no RAC or AA to call, so I have to flip open the boot and take out my toolkit. The boot used to be empty, but I’ve learnt over the past few writing years to stash some items in there, things that might get my sorry vehicle back on the road.

First, spark plugs. They come in the form of a question: What’s the story about? Sounds like an obvious one, but confusion over this point might be why I’m stranded at the side of the road. So, what is the story about? I usually let the theme emerge as I’m writing; it might not even become apparent till draft two or three. Sometimes even I don’t really know what the theme is once a story is finished and it doesn’t really matter if the story works. But if your piece of fiction stalls, it’s time to examine it objectively. This can help me focus and spark the battery back into life. Why exactly am I writing this story? The theme might change again going forward – in fact, I hope it does as I like my stories to guide me rather than the other way round – but at least I’m up and running again.

Next, oil. Now that we’re ready to move, we need to put something in that will keep the vehicle going. This brings the second question: Can I restructure the story to get it flowing again? This is much easier to do after you’ve left it alone for a while and achieved a bit of distance. The shape of the story (however hideously malformed) becomes apparent when you come back to look at it, as does – hopefully – how to reshape the story to get it moving again.

The last item to haul out of the boot is the puncture repair kit. This is the nitty gritty process of looking for holes: holes in the plot, in the characters, in details or explanations you’ve maybe left out (by following the ‘show don’t tell’ rule perhaps a little too militantly) and which might be confusing the reader. Fill ’em up.

Are you back on the open road? Good. I’d advise looking dead ahead and putting your foot hard on the gas until you reach the end of the next draft. There’ll be potholes and traffic lights along the way, and more potholes, but don’t stop.

And if you do end up in the ditch again, just pop the latch on the boot and don your mechanic’s overalls (oh, and stick them in the washing machine soon, will you? They’re looking filthy).

Happy Motoring. Or, at least, Motoring.

One thought on “The mechanics of fiction

  1. Shane says:

    Nice analogy! And sometimes, you just have to put your feet out the bottom, Fred Flintstone style!

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