Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

What is weighty fiction? I would argue that it is, almost unto itself, the definition for stories that matter. It’s the opposite of fluffy fiction (which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with fluff–we all enjoy a fair share of that as well).

Most authors want to write something that matters. Even if we’re never going to win the Pulitzer or be canonized alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, we still want to know the stories we’re spinning are more than just stories. We want them to touch people’s lives, make them think, make them question, make them believe. The chief ingredient in any story with that capability is always going to truth in the form of verisimilitude and a strong thematic premise.

But there’s more.

You can create a story seeping with truth and framed upon an excellent premise, and yet it can still fail to be weighty. When a thematically rich story comes up short in the “weight” department, it just has a feel of  … flabbiness. It’s feels as if it failed to take full advantage of its potential. But feelings–however important in a writer–are ultimately a little difficult to quantify. So let us examine the subject logically in order to identify the five most important factors in creating weight and substance in stories that matter.

Factor #1 for Stories That Matter: Subtext

This is the biggie. No subtext = no depth = no weight.

I talked recently about how I realized that the magic ingredient in every single one of my favorite stories was subtext–the sense of the “untold” in a story–the sense that there is more beneath the surface. But beyond just that sense, the story also needs to offer solid hints, solid questions that can guide readers to using their own imaginations to fill in some of those blanks. In short, you have to create depth–and then take advantage of it.

The Right Way to Create Subtext

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator does a marvelous job of this. The weight of the backstory is evident from the very beginning, thanks to the skillful and telling interactions between characters who have known each other all their lives. We sense immediately the baggage present in Maximus’s relationships with Marcus Aurelius, Lucilla, and Commodus–as well as amongst the emperor and his children. That subtext is then paid off throughout the story with just enough deft revelations to explain away our most salient questions without condescending to explain everything to us.

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

The Wrong Way to Create Subtext

By contrast, Kevin Reynold’s Tristan & Isolde is a story that brims with the potential for subtext in the characters’ relationships and motivations. Tristan’s Ghost (being saved by Lord Marke, who loses his hand in the process and then adopts Tristan) offers potential, but his true feelings about this incident are never satisfactorily developed. As a result, the conflict at the center of the story–between his love for Isolde and his loyalty to Marke–end up lacking both depth and weight.

Factor #2 for Stories That Matter: Passage of Time

Not that you can’t tell a powerful story in a very short amount of time, but as a general rule, the more time in which you have to develop the plot, the more significant the character development will seem. Although it’s possible for people to be transformed quickly, most evolutions are the process of much time, if only because we need more than one catalyst to prompt the change. Consider how much more weight you gain from sticking a character in prison for a year versus imprisoning him for only a week or two.

The Right Way to Utilize Passage of Time

Gladiator covers a significant amount of time as Maximus journeys from war in Germania to his devastated home in Spain to slavery in Zuccabar to the gladiatorial games in Rome. The passage of time is handled artfully so that it never slows the story’s pacing, but it creates the understanding within us that the character’s sufferings are not the fleeting pains of a moment. Thanks to that alone, what he undergoes seems much more important.

The Wrong Way to Utilize Passage of Time

Aside from the ten or so years that pass between the prologue and the main story, the passage of time in Tristan & Isolde is never made clear. Tristan’s wound seems to heal overnight. The journey from Cornwall to Ireland and back again is performed in a twinkling many times, and we’re never given any kind of idea how much time passes after Isolde arrives in England. As a result, the story feels rushed, and the characters’ reactions never gain the weight they might otherwise have done.

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

Factor #3 for Stories That Matter: Multiple Settings

Again: it’s totally possible to tell a powerful and meaningful story that remains primarily in just one setting (John Sturges’s Great Escape and Yimou Zhang’s Flowers of War are two of my favorite examples). But you can often create a more impressive sense of depth and importance by making sure your plot will affect your characters in more than just one place.

The Right Way to Use Multiple Settings

In self-respecting epic fashion, Gladiator manages to traverse almost the entirety of the Roman Empire. Doing so allows us to gain a sense of the world in which Maximus lives, the imperial power he faces, and the scope of the population that will be affected by his actions. It also works hand in hand with the passage of time to evoke the sense that the character has journeyed far, seen much, and endured many things in his pursuit of his goal. Most importantly, the extensive use of settings in this story is never extraneous. The settings are never present simply for the sake of creating epic scope; they always serve the plot in a sensible and necessary way.

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

The Wrong Way to Use Multiple Settings

Tristan & Isolde showcases two countries: England and Ireland. But both countries are reduced to two seemingly tiny settings. The lords from all over England frequently gather in Cornwall as if the country were tiny enough to make their journeys insignificant. The uniting of England is a major theme, but the size of that problem is reduced significantly in our minds simply because we never get a sense of a country rather than a handful of small neighboring villages.

Factor #4 for Stories That Matter: Subplots

Big stories are just that: big. As such, they’re about more than just one thing. The character’s primary conflict will be supported and contrasted by other concerns–just as our own major problems in real life usually spawn smaller problems. When we reduce a story to a single issue, we eliminate its context–and therefore its subtext. Subplots allow us to explore multiple facets of our characters’ lives and struggles. Every subplot needs to be pertinent to the main plot, but don’t feel that a small amount of divergence, for the sake of thematic exploration, is something to be avoided.

The Right Way to Include Subplots

Gladiator is an extremely focused story. But it is still able to offer many layers. The primary conflict is ultimately that of saving Rome. But Maximus’s personal journey to vengeance fuels most of the plot. The relationships between Maximus and Lucilla, Maximus and Proximo, Maximus and the other gladiators, Lucilla and Commodus, even Commodus and his nephew Luciusall work together to weave a tapestry of rich contrast and color that would otherwise have been lost if the story had been reduced to nothing more than a quest for revenge.

The Wrong Way to Include Subplots

Tristan & Isolde offers the opportunity for exceedingly juicy subplots via the relationships of Tristan with pretty much every character in the story. But none are taken advantage of. All the focus is on his relationship with Isolde. Even his crucial relationship with Lord Marke is sadly undeveloped. In crafting your subplots, remember that even just a single small conversation between characters, exploring their motivations in relation to one another, can transform your story.

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

Factor #5 for Stories That Matter: Emotional and Intellectual Sequel Scenes

Every scene in your story is made of two halves: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). The action in the scene is what moves the plot. But the reaction in the sequel is where the character development and the thematic depth will almost always be found. Never neglect your sequels. For every important event in your story, you must take the time to demonstrate your character’s reactions–both intellectually and emotionally. If readers don’t know how your characters feel about events, they won’t be able to properly draw their own conclusions about what to think.

The Right Way to Create Sequels

Gladiator didn’t win awards because it was an action story. It won critical acclaim because it perfectly balanced its action with strong sequel scenes showing the characters’ reactions and emotional processes. When Maximus reacts to his identity being revealed at the Midpoint (in the scene in which Lucilla visits his cell), he shows his anger, his frustration, his determination, and his sense of betrayal even in regard to her. Without this scene and others like it, his emotional process could only be guessed at.

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

The Wrong Way to Create Sequels

On a technical level, Tristan & Isolde structures its scenes and sequels properly. But the sequels are almost uniformly disappointing. With few exceptions, the characters–and especially Tristan–never really discuss the intricacies and complexities of their reactions. This is a story that centers around Tristan’s conflicted loyalty to a man to whom he owes everything. But that is never touched upon in a satisfactorily direct way. Excellent subtext can only exist when the text itself offers enough meat for readers to chew on.

If you can implement just these five factors in your story–whatever your theme or subject–you’ll be able to bring instant weight to your plot. The result will be a story that is much more likely to matter to your readers than the vast majority of what they read.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the most important factor in writing stories that matter?

Stories That Matter: 5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Louis Wilberger says:

    The heart of the story. That point when everything the protagonist believes or clings to falls apart. P.J Reece gave a good example in his book. The scene in Good Will Hunting when Will and Sean face off. The “It’s not your fault. Will leaves his old world and goes after Skylar, just like Sean blew his chance to see the Red Sox Game to go after his wife. The life changing moment.

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    When you can ask yourself the question (sincerely), if your story’s weight will still hold up in the minds of others, and the answer is yes. This is the most important factor.

  3. Amazing post! I love subtext, and I am glad to stumble upon posts that go into more detail about how to use it. I will definitely drawl from this post in the future when I work on my themes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally with you on subtext! It’s the secret ingredient in all my favorite stories.

  4. My stories always have more stuff unwritten than written, but that’s both because of me not being able to write everything I’m thinking of in a clear, concise, way that gets the job done in a connected way. I have a 30,000 word novel that’s pretty much just fragmented scenes important to the plot. I have 160,000 (aprox.) of backstory, subtext, subplots, and conecting scenes that haven’t been written. Ugh, why am I even reading your blog right now, I have work to do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! You sound like me. Between my notes and my deleted scenes, I usually have at least twice as much “stuff” as I do finished novel.

  5. “The action in the scene is what moves the plot. But the reaction in the sequel is where the character development and the thematic depth will almost always be found”

    This reminds me of musical structure used in opera. A recitative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recitative) is often used for exposition and to advance the plot, and then is followed by an aria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aria) to allow a character a chance to express their emotions about what just happened. This type of formatting is what allows opera to add depth to a story with music as much as lyrics.

    As it happens, Gladiator used music this way also. Listen to the waltzy music in the first battle scene of Gladiator – lots of staccato notes and brass instruments. Then listen as Maximus walks through his army’s camp after the battle – the music flows more from note-to-note, and wood winds are highlighted.

    We can’t use music in writing, but we can learn from it. Diction, sentence structure, and meter are what allow us to add subliminal depth to a scene in a book the way Hans Zimmer does in Gladiator.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great to know! I understood that already on an instinctive level, but it’s great to hear the science behind it, so to speak. The Gladiator soundtrack is one of my all-time favorites, and certainly yet another contributing factor to the overall greatness of this movie.

  6. Natasha says:

    Awesome post! I’ll refer to it every time I write a new story. I have to admit that I struggle with the passage of time; my current story is more character-driven and in order for the protagonist to complete a believable character arc, lots of months need to pass. However, when I finished planning, I realized it only took three months, and I’m worried it won’t be realistic for him to change so much in so little time. This post helped me realize this, thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We have to balance the weight of long timelines against the tension of short timelines. Depending on your story’s events, of course, three months sounds like a generally reasonable compromise.

      • Joe Long says:

        I have also been concerned about how to skip over extended periods of time between scenes. I’ve outlined the story arc and major scenes, along with when they happen on the calendar, and some additional scenes in between as I write. But what about when I’m in mid-October, the 2nd act is winding down, but the third act isn’t scheduled to start until December? How much do I want to stick to the outlined dates? How can I gracefully skip over a few weeks?

        I’ve been reading another amateur author’s series posted online, and he’s managed to do this well in later chapters. Instead of filling in every week on the calendar with some scene (won’t the readers wonder what the characters have been doing?), he now can go more in depth in a scene, and then skip ahead several weeks to the next event that’s worth devoting a scene too. It seems so easy when someone else does it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The key is two-fold:

          1. Make sure you note the change in time, so readers are right there with you.

          2. Try to make sure the ending of the earlier scene segues naturally into the goal or reaction that will take place in the later scene–so that the progression seems natural and it’s obvious to readers why you’re skipping time.

  7. Your rich explanation of the five factors — and the need to create “weighty” fiction really made me pause to think. I am printing the article, so I can highlight and ingrain this information; the power/influence of a strong article. This, as well as many of your articles, really address the needs of maturing writers. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! The creation of weighty fiction should be a challenge we’re all rising too. It can make all the difference in the ultimate quality of the stories we’re producing.

  8. K.M.,

    If a story doesn’t have the power to move me, it lacks the power to move anyone.

    What makes that happen?

    A number of factors contribute, but getting the five points you’ve mentioned right seem to be the key.

    Thank you for going into detail about each one, but especially sub-context.

    A great post. Thanks and best wishes,

    Carrie

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Subtext is huge. I think it’s the single greatest factor in the difference between a great story and a good story.

  9. To me, the two things that give a story the most weight are the complexity of its characters and the theme (maybe subtext as its put in this article). If the characters aren’t flawed and don’t have both positive and negative qualities, they strike me as flat and uninteresting. If the story doesn’t contain a theme or subtext, I’m left with the question: what was the point? I want stories to be entertaining, but when they delve into a deeper aspect of life they resonate with me much longer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point. Theme and character arc are inherently related. If both are working in concert, any story immediately improves.

  10. If the characters are executed well and if the content is nice to read then that is going to be a good story.

  11. I love both of those movies, but with Gladiator I end with a sigh of satisfaction and awe. With T&I I always sigh at the lost opportunity.

    Having read several versions of T&I, I feel frustrated by knowing the many things they could have done, said, and showed, but all they did was make it pretty.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree on making Tristan & Isolde “pretty.” It’s a story with so much depth and opportunity, and that version really didn’t do it justice.

      • In reading all of this, I had to comment on what I’ve noted about Kevin Reynolds’ films (aside from the more in-depth analysis you’ve given us here, Katie):

        “Pretty” is what he seems best at—creating stunning-looking sets, costumes, the cinematography. He’s good at the “entertainment” factor, making aspects appealing to the audience, but often at the expense of authenticity and quality, which will always keep them from reaching their full potential.

        Some/many of the actors’ performances are inauthentic and inconsistent. Their accents can be fleeting or inappropriate, and some dialogue interspersed is “modern day” when his films are generally period pieces. What I compare all this to is like typos and misspellings, etc. while reading that jolt the reader out of a story, making us conscious that we’re reading rather than staying IN the story.

  12. After reading the article about prologues and this one, I see the value of subtext more. I had written a prologue on one WIP and I realized that it should be subtext. I’m reading a book right now that had almost entire flashbacks for the first 30-50 pages. It’s interesting, but it should be more subtext, mystery, and woven through the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, we won’t even realize what our subtext is until we’re deep in the story. I’m just at a place in my WIP right now myself where I’m realizing I need to go back and delete some specific references earlier on in order to make a later revelation more powerful.

  13. Joe Long says:

    #4 seems like the one I’ll have to look into, and read your link. I think I’ve done a good job on the others, including subtext, but I’m not so sure about the subplot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Subplots can be tricky, since they need to flow naturally from the main plot. They can’t be shoehorned in. But most authors are surprised to discover that aspects they never *thought* of as subplots are, in fact, just that.

      • Joe Long says:

        I watched your 2012 video on subplots while this week I also started rewriting chapter 1 of my WIP.

        I’d mentioned before about wanting to go back and remove data dumps in favor of scenes where the characters share the same information.

        Where I have “let me tell you about my cousin, bah, blah, blah…” and then a little later, “Let me tell you about myself, and how I don’t get along with my dad, blah, blah, blah…” (It really wasn’t bad, but now I know something better.)

        So I cut much or all of that out, and put in a scene where his cousin gets to witness Dad being rude. “What up with your dad?” “You wanna walk down to the playground with me?”

        That gives the opportunity for an extended scene where she can comment on her back story (mom’s relationships, moving around (subplot?)) along with him telling her about his issues with Dad (subplot again?)

        When she sits on the swing and asks “aren’t you going push me?” touching her stirs him physically, which prepares the reader even more to his behaving inappropriately at the end of the chapter.

        So much better than a data dump!

  14. Thank you for another interesting article!

    I have a question regarding #5, however, and it also pertains to a video post from years back about abusing dream sequences:

    In the beginning of the “past” timeline of my novel, my MC and her cellmates react to their capture and imprisonment by exploiting a way to make themselves of use to the wounded aboard the ship. One of whom turns out to be the antagonist who is obviously interested in getting back on his feet ASAP. It becomes clear during this chapter (inciting event) and as the plot moves along that my antag is trying to keep my MC as a secret prize from my villain. The reader meets the villain by the middle of this chapter and my MC has no choice but to heed the antags warnings/will/whatever you want to call it and accept her imprisonment from that point forward if the safety and status quo is to be maintained for her cellmates.

    The antag and contag keep my MC hidden and the villain essentially distracted with the others in plain sight until my MC finds a way to flout them that can’t be ignored once the status quo changes with her cellmates.

    Because this chapter was written from the POV of my “guardian” character, my MC’s cellmate, I did not want to neglect my MC’s reaction to this turn/sequel to this event from the MC’s POV. But I also did not find a point in the MC sitting and mulling while all this other interesting stuff is going on, on screen with my secondary characters, antag, villain and contag. Dreams play a large part in this story as a whole, and my solution was 4 dream sequence chapters that follow a mini arc of the backstory and the main players in the MC’s life, written in close third person present tense while the rest is close third past tense. My concern is that this dream tactic would not portray this “puzzling out/putting together” aspect of her reaction properly since the dreams are tightly written but are not flashes but scenes. Essentially, it’s a tertiary sub timeline type thing. Would you advise treating it as a tertiary timeline or keeping the dream premise?

    (Sorry this is so long, but thank you for reading in advance 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes dreams can be used to good effect. Usually, this happens when the dreams are either extremely evocative portrayals of the character’s inner panorama (which is really hard to do well) or “real” in a way that significantly advances the main plot. If you’re achieving either of those, then you may well be able to pull the dreams off.

      But the important thing to understand about character reactions is that they usually need to happen in real-time – in the sense that the reader needs to see the real-time reaction that follows the real-time action, rather than that reaction at a great remove of time or space.

      This is actually (yet another) of the major challenges of stories with multiple POVs. If the narrative leaves a character’s POV for too long, it can sap the power from his reactions by the time it returns to it.

      • Hmm, okay I think I misspoke a little there. We see the reaction to the real time thing happening. I guess I meant more the internal fall out afterward as it were.

  15. Natalie says:

    This may sound odd – but if you’re American, this will make sense. Britain, in itself, is tiny. You can literally drive along the coast in three or four hours. A bullet train from London to Paris takes about two hours – for a passage of time in a movie or book, this is not a lengthy stretch compared to others. With comment on a “few” neighboring villages, that’s probably a lot like how it was.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Can’t argue that (although in this particular story, we are, of course, talking about traveling by foot or by horse). But greater distances *do* up the scope of most stories, for better or worse.

  16. I think I’m good with subplots, since my main theme is good versus evil and my other themes are friendship and struggles and learning how to overcome them. I don’t know how to work with subtext.

Trackbacks

  1. […] You can create a story seeping with truth and framed upon an excellent premise, and yet it can still fail to be weighty. When a thematically rich story comes up short in the “weight” department, it just has a feel of … flabbiness. It’s feels as if it …read more […]

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  3. […] Award: “5 Necessary Factors for Weighty Fiction” – This is full of unusual and helpful […]

  4. […] Make sure you include these five factors in your story if you want it to make an impact on your read…. K. M. Weiland. […]

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