The 6 Most Important Words in Fiction Writing

Allow me to confuse you for a moment.  But only for a moment.  This one is complicated, primarily because it looks so stinking simple.

If you’ve been here even a little while, you’ve heard me refer to The Six Core Competencies of Storytelling, and perhaps you even know what they are (if not, hit the link for a post that introduces them).  

But today’s post isn’t about those six things.  At least not directly.  Even though they absolutely do overlap.  The number “6” here is strictly coincidental.

Today’s post is about the Big Picture of fiction writing.  It’s about the bar you must reach to write publishable novels and saleable screenplays.  It’s about what the pros know and you don’t… the difference between rejection and celebration.

Today’s six most important words are what you must completely understand before you even think about tackling the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling.

To publish your story, you must get your head around, and master, these six even-more fundamental things, and then you must also get your head around, and master The Six Core Competencies of Storytelling.  Because a weakness in any one of them – yes, all 12 – will get your story tossed.

I told you it would be confusing. 

This should help clarify: today’s six writing essentials are qualitative in nature… things you must know.  The Six Core Competencies are a checklist of storytelling essentials, packaged in six buckets… things you must deliver.

It’s sort of like singing: you must first learn to carry a tune, and then you must learn how to perform.

A Better Clarifying Metaphor

The Six Most Important Words at the end of this post are to The Six Core Competencies what athleticism is to sport-specific skills

They are the foundational literary essences you need to apply to whatever  story you are working on.  And if knowing and delivering sound like the same thing to you at this point, consider this: in some sports you must apply a foundational skill in running to a sport that may or may not be all about running, but is required to play the game.   

So first you must learn to run.  Run better, play better.

Comprehend today’s six words better, then you will write better stories… which still requires that you master the six story-specific core competencies that put them to work.

Yeah, that’s a lot to get your head around.  Hope nobody told you this fiction writing stuff would be easy.  Just like nobody told your local hometown football hero that making an NFL team would be easy, either.

Professional athletes constantly practice fundamentals behind the scenes.  They watch videos, they hire personal coaches, they build upon a base of fundamentals with sport/skill-specific strengths, and the result is a career.

Today’s six most important words are like spring training for writers.  They comprise that fundamental base.  No matter what your story, you need to keep them in mind at all times as you write. 

The Six Most Important Words in Fiction Writing

These aren’t words as much as they are realmsdimensionsessences… fundamental qualities.  Notice they have nothing at all to do with how well you write, stylistically.  That’s just the uniform the literary athlete – you – puts on.  And the uniform means squat when it comes to winning or losing.

Writing voice isn’t what will get you published (thought it can and often does get you rejected, which is why it is one of the Six Core Competencies).  Storytelling power will.

Compelling – will anyone care about your story?  Is there a hook, a draw?  Is there inherent emotional and intellectual appeal?  What question is your story posing to the reader, and is the answer compelling enough for anyone to care? 

Hero – yeah, we know we need a protagonist, blah blah blah.  But is your lead character heroic?  In what way?  Do we empathize with what they need to do?  What is at stake for her/him?  What do they need to conquer, both internally and externally, to reach their goal?  Why do we care about that goal?  What is heroic about their ways and means of getting done what must be done in your story?

Conflict – nobody wants to read about a walk in the park.  Really, they don’t.  What opposes your hero’s quest?  What does this conflicting force – usually a bad guy, a villain, but not always – want or need?  What is at stake for him/her/it?  Most importantly, how does this conflict exert the force of dramatic tension into the storyline, into each and every scene in the story?

Context – the most overlooked and taken-for-granted nuance in storytelling.  What is the contextual sub-text at any given moment in your story… how is the past influencing the moment at hand?… how is the inherent conflict of the story exerting context into the moment at hand?… what forces influence the characters as they speak, take action, make decisions?… what is the thematic context of the overall story, and how does it manifest in the moment at hand?  This is truly advanced stuff… master it and you’ll find yourself on a bookshelf somewhere.  Context and dramatic tension – often synonymous, but not always – are what makes your scenes work.

Structure – that sound you hear is me once again beating this drum.  Does your story unfold with a proper set-up?  With the properly-placed and paced revelation of the hero’s new quest and need following that set-up?  Has the context of the hero’s new journey, in a personal sense, been clearly established, and how does it affect what is said and done going forward?  Are there shifts and surprises, valleys and peaks, both in terms of narrative exposition and dramatic tension?

Resolution – does the end of your story deliver an emotional payload to the reader?  Does it makes sense?  Will it linger once the final page has been turned?  A killer resolution forgives the sins of softness in the story, but only if the hero is empathetic, the conceptual heart of the story rich and compelling, the thematic gift of the story penetrating, and the technical execution of the story optimized to make your ending the best it can be.

The better you understand and execute these six fundamental things, the quicker you’ll sell your work.  Possibly for real money.

Because once captured and clarified, there are no bounds to your potential as a storyteller.  Every writing dream you’ve ever dared to imagine can be yours.

You wanted a magic pill… here are six of them.  But remember, they need to be digested simultaneously.


Click HERE to learn more about my ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”

And look for my new ebook, Story Structure: Demystified, coming soon.


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11 Responses to The 6 Most Important Words in Fiction Writing

  1. Rob

    More great advice. Any chance you’ll do a post on scenes in the near future? I’ve heard so many dang definitions of a scene and its purpose, my head aches. Then there’s the whole question of length (as applied to novels). You write elsewhere that there are an average of 60 scenes to a novel. So are we talking 5-6 pages each?

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    You know, reading this I almost wonder if you could pull off faking not having conflict only to reveal that the hero has been manipulated all along to do what the antag wants, leaving the hero with conflict from that point on.

    It may have been done before, but I admit to not having read it, and I’m leery of the idea because as you say lack of conflict seems like it would be boring, unless you find some other way to create tension.


  3. I’ve been away and came back today to do some gentle blogging, only to find more algebra!

    But as usual, all your points are sound. You talk such good sense, I’m wondering if folk underestimate the power of what you share. It’s like knitting. All you need are two knitting pins and some yarn, but just look at all the possibilities. You teach us how to read a knitting pattern, but it’s up to us to learn to knit, choose the stitches, choose the size of pins and the type, texture and colour of yarn and decide what kind of garment we want to create. A couple of feet of beautiful plain and purl doesn’t make a sweater.

  4. Dale

    More excellent advice! All of your posts have been informative-this one really hit home with me. I’m looking forward to your Story Structure Demystified! 101 tips was well worth it and the next one is something I know I can really use 🙂

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  6. Great advice that is carried in this post. From the great title and the first sentence, you had me hooked.

  7. The six magic pills go down smooth, Mr. Brooks. You never fail to amaze and inspire me. With one novel in final revisions and a second in the outline phase I’ve got so much to think about; and a renewed sense of clarity fueling my writing dreams. Thank you.

  8. Hey Larry…I reread your post again tonight…and I still am a little fuzzy about context. I do understand how the past should influence the task at hand, but the thematic context is puzzling me. Can you elaborate on that more?

  9. Pingback: Nail Your NaNoWriMo #4: Tell Your Story in Context to… ‘Something’

  10. Sumantra Sen

    i just came to the web site and have already received success.