Learning more about our writing craft never stops. We can try to get better with every book. In this article, Braeden Phillips shares suggestions and examples for taking your next book from good to great.
First off, selling your novel and getting it read is hard enough. You’ve got a lot of competition, you have to deal with marketing, and readers are quick to drop a book that doesn’t interest them.
After you’ve managed to achieve that task, then there’s another problem you have to wrestle with.
Let me explain.
How many “okay” novels have you read, but you quickly forgot afterward? How many movies have you seen that you don’t really remember?
If you are like most people, then you’ve probably experienced hundreds upon hundreds of different stories, and only a few would have stayed with you.
Only a few would be your favorites.
There’s plenty of talk about what makes good writing and what makes bad writing, but what we’re going to be talking about is what makes great writing.
There’s less advice out there when it comes to greatness.
In this article, we are going to look at what it takes to create a work of greatness. If you want to create a piece of art that’ll impact people’s lives for years to come, then read on.
It’s a good question to ask.
If you can write a story that’s entertaining, that people like, and that possibly makes you money, then why bother about greatness?
Think of Hollywood for a second.
Hundreds of films are produced every year. Some of them are bad, sure. But most of them are at least entertaining.
Yet how many are great?
In his masterpiece, Story, Robert McKee says, “I’m starved for great films. Over the last two decades I’ve seen good films and a few very good films, but rarely, rarely a film of staggering power and beauty.”
There you have it. Entertaining stories hold our attention for the moment, but it’s the great works of art that stay in our mind for years after we’ve experienced them.
Aiming for and achieving greatness fulfils us. That’s when we hit our highest potential and the world recognizes our work and applauds us.
Works of greatness have beauty. They have power. They are able to change the way we look at the world.
Momentum And Depth
A piece of fiction that’s entertaining is going to have momentum. That much is for sure.
Think of your by-the-numbers thriller novel. If it is well written, then the plot will draw us in and the characters will be relatable.
If the writer knows how to handle exposition properly and knows how to create excitement in the story, then she’s likely going to be able to create a story that has momentum.
Yet momentum isn’t the whole equation. Not if we want to achieve greatness with our work. If that’s what we want, then we’ve got to have depth.
Depth Is Different From Momentum
Momentum in novels is all about getting you to read the next page, the next page, and the next page. The story builds up and up and you get drawn in, deeper and deeper into the book.
It’s a great feeling, but if the book lacks any depth, then there’s a problem. After you’ve finished reading, you’ll likely feel a little hollow.
Upon rereading, you might discover that the book wasn’t as exciting as you thought. That it wasn’t as clever as you first assumed. That it actually has some major flaws.
That’s because while you were reading it for the first time, you were caught up in the experience, that you didn’t look too closely at the lack of depth.
But if you reread a work of greatness after you know the plot, often you’ll be rewarded with an even deeper understanding of the text.
What Stephen King Has To Say About Depth
The legendary author Stephen King offers a great example of this. In a talk, he speaks about the book Lord of the Flies. In that book, a group of boys are stranded on an island during the midst of a massive war.
The boys, while civilized at first, slowly descend into savagery. At the end of the book, the main character Ralph is being chased by the boys who were once his friends, who are about to ritualistically kill him.
When it seems like he is almost about to be caught, he reaches the beach and finds an English Officer standing there, who has just arrived from a nearby ship. The boys are saved.
The officer is disappointed by the boys, and explains he expected them to have done better because they were “English boys.”
In the afterword, Golding said something along the lines of, “The boys were saved by the sailors, but who will save the sailors?”
This, King said, totally changed the dimension of the book for him, and made him reread it. He told the listening crowd that, “Any good book, you should be able to read it twice.”
Escapism And Empowerment
Here’s another major difference between purely entertaining fiction and great fiction.
While a story that’s entertaining offers us escapism, that’s it. We pick up the book knowing what to expect, and then once we are done with it, there’s nothing more there.
There’s nothing wrong with a book that serves a purely escapist function in our lives, but if we want to achieve greatness with our own fiction, we have to do something different.
We have to be focused on empowerment.
A work of great fiction has the power to leave a lasting mark on you after you have consumed it. A work of great fiction, in fact, has the power to change the way you look at the world.
Take To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for example.
While that novel is an entertaining read, the deeper message, the power of it, had a massive impact on society.
The way Harper Lee is able to look at racism through the lens of a child, to highlight the hypocrisy and injustice of it all, is masterful.
With a purely entertaining story, you’ll likely forget it shortly after reading it. With one that’s got greatness to it, you’ll remember it for a long time afterward.
Shining Light On The Human Condition
One of the reasons that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be played to this day is because of how they highlight the truths of the human condition.
The characters are flawed, they are inconsistent, they make mistakes and they all have their own aims.
William Faulkner has been quoted as saying, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
That’s what is at the core of a great story.
An entertaining story often can be pretty shallow when it comes to character. We’re carried away by the plot and happenings more than we are by the character growth and underlying human truths.
To write a story that goes beyond entertainment, we have to write a story that is able to shine a light on the truth.
An Example From Tolstoy
In War and Peace, one of the favorite characters for many people is Pierre. At the beginning of the novel, Pierre is a bumbling young man, entranced by the wonderment of high society life in Saint Petersburg.
He’s got no social grace and he creates awkward situations for the host of the party he’s attending. On the same night, he goes back on his word with his trusted friend and goes out drinking. He ends up causing havoc late into the night with trouble-makers.
Yet Pierre is loveable and relatable because beneath all of his flaws we see that he’s got a good heart and that he means well.
In other words, he’s complex. He has contradictions.
To write an entertaining story, you don’t need to delve into making your characters complex or allowing them to portray some deeper human truth.
For pure entertainment value, the focus is on keeping the plot moving. To write something that’s great, then shedding light on the human condition is a must.
For a story to have greatness, we must be able to look into it and see aspects of ourselves reflected back to us.
Honoring The Nobility Of The Human Spirit
This is what greatness is really all about.
All the great saints and remarkable people of history share this trait, that they in some way or another honored the human spirit.
How’s that relate to fiction?
Well if you want your work to inspire your readers, to give them a lasting impression, and make them have an experience so uncommon with today’s stories, you need to get this right.
Entertaining stories can get away with skipping this. If you create something cheap and fast-paced, sure it can be entertaining and do well.
But it’s when you commit to honoring some form of the human spirit do you create something that’s worth standing the test of time.
Tolkien And The Human Spirit
Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings is one of the most beloved characters of all time. The main reason why is that his character honors the human spirit.
During those last moments in The Return of the King, Sam seems to be willing to give up almost anything for his friend and master, Mr Frodo, to get him to the top of the mountain so they can destroy the ring.
In moments in all of our lives, there are times that call for us to be brave, to have courage, to push through even though we feel like quitting.
All great stories will express these deep traits like this. They can be overt or subtle, but in some way, the characters will show us what we are all capable of.
Probably the most classic example of this comes from Charles Dickens in his book, A Tale of Two Cities.
Sydney Carton gives up his life to save his rival Charles Darnay from execution during the French revolution and instead takes his spot beneath the blade of the guillotine.
Sometimes great stories may even show the reversal of these noble traits, such as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where Macbeth repeatedly acts against his internal moral code and suffers the consequences for it.
In whatever case, what is right and wrong is clear for everyone to see. A great story helps to highlight what lies innate in the reader and helps them better understand who they are.
The Greatness Checklist
While I have talked a bit about what makes for a great piece of writing vs just an entertaining piece of writing, I thought I’d wrap this article up with something purely practical.
If you want to write a work of greatness or change a draft you’ve already written into something that has the potential for greatness, here are the eight things I’d start with, in question form:
- Does your story shed light on the human condition? In what way?
- Are your characters acting in their rational self-interest or are they cogs in the plot?
- What does your story say about society at large, even if it isn’t explicitly stated?
- If someone already knew the twists and turns, would they still have a reason to read the book?
- Are your characters complex with a mixture of realistic flaws and virtues?
- Do you use symbolism effectively throughout your story?
- Do you draw on archetypical ideas and characters throughout your story?
- Would your story have long-term benefits for the people who read it?
That’s going to do it for this article. I hope you found the information useful and can use it to tell better stories.
What are your favorite practices to try to improve your writing craft? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Braeden Phillips is an entrepreneur and copywriter who lives in New Zealand. He’s been writing fiction seriously since he was sixteen years old (he is now twenty-one.) Right now, he is editing the first book in his adventure-fantasy series.
If you enjoyed this article, then you might want to check out his latest venture, Storykation, an online resource for writers who want to improve their storytelling abilities and create works of excellence.
You can check it out here. Right now, you can download his free guide on Dialogue, called Snap Dialogue. This guide will give you the principles you need to know to write great dialogue, and you can learn it all in less than 45 minutes.