Start with two shapes. They’re odd shapes; they aren’t really ovals or semicircles. They look almost like gravestones, don’t they?
Move the shapes further apart, and set the shape on the left at an angle. Notice how the shape on the left — despite being the exact same dimensions (1 in. x 1 in.) as the shape on the right — looks slightly smaller when tilted to this angle. Isn’t that weird?
Take the straight line from the shape on the right (Shape 2) and shift it upward just slightly. And since the shape on the left (Shape 1) appears unfairly smaller than Shape 2, let’s compensate for that by taking the same-length line and bending it around the side of Shape 2, to give it some heft.
Draw a line through the bottoms of Shapes 1 and 2. This gives our picture perspective, depth and connectivity.
Add some circles and dots.
A picture is coming into focus. Shape 1 is a wedge of cheese, and Shape 2 looks kind of like a mousehole.
Don’t those circles and dots look a bit too neat and clean? Rough them up a little. And take a bite out of the chunk of cheese. You’ve earned it.
What do we know from this picture? What can we deduce?
Well, we know there is a mouse, who lives in a hole in the wall, and that he likes cheese. We can also see that he isn’t super crafty, as he’s left a trail of cheese crumbs leading directly through the front door of his home. Or maybe there’s a predator in the vicinity — a cat? an owl? — whose mere existence causes the mouse to frantically take what he can get, and then to scamper back to his hole as quickly as possible. Perhaps the mouse lives in constant fear of this predator, and doesn’t have time to cover his tracks when stealing a morsel of cheese.
And who put the cheese there in the first place? That’s quite a conspicuous place to put a piece of cheese, if you ask me, right there next to a mousehole. Maybe someone — the owner of the home, most likely — deliberately left the cheese out on the floor to lure the mouse out of his hole so that he could be murdered with a broom. This would mean there are two predators in the mouse’s environment, both of them trying to trick the mouse into doing something incredibly stupid yet vitally necessary for his survival. What a terrifying and action-packed life this mouse must lead!
Now draw a third shape (Shape 3) above and to the left of Shape 2 (the cheese). It’s the same as the original two shapes, but oriented horizontally. What on earth could this third shape be doing there?
Draw some straight lines around Shape 3, boxing it in to the corner.
Can you guess what Shape 3 is? If you guessed the lower half of a wall outlet, you guessed correct!
Look away from the picture for a few seconds, maybe take a minute. Maybe take an hour. Eat a salad, watch some football. Check Facebook. Then come back to it with fresh eyes.
Something is “off” about the picture. It’s not properly scaled. The wedge of cheese should be bigger. There’s no real foreground, no sense of motion or depth.
The picture is flat.
Put down pen.
Now go back and look at each image from Steps 1 through 9. Forget, for a moment, that they are “steps” in a narrative sequence, and try to evaluate each picture on its own merit.
Then tell me: Which is the most compelling image?
* * *
I’d argue that the most compelling image is the one from Step 6. That’s the one that got me thinking about the mouse, and the soulful life he must lead, and the insults to his existence that he must face every day. I also like the white space above the two dominant images, how it hints at a larger world that the mouse is not a part of, a world that is both dangerous and empty. But then, I am a strange man who drinks alone, and there is no right answer to this question. Most people probably determined that the final image was the most compelling, and that’s cool. Some people might even like the first image best, seeing in it something ominous and beautiful and blank, the twin tombstones of a married couple, two deaths not yet etched out in granite. It’s not something we have to argue about, because finding the exact most compelling image was never the point of this exercise.
* * *
The point of all of this is to write good fiction. I’m not talking about the kind of fiction taught in MFA programs and published in The New Yorker, treacly and strained, like ketchup passing through a coffee filter. I’m talking about the kind of fiction that people might actually freely consume, and share with their loved ones and friends. You know, like Stephen King writes. And Alice Munro*. And before them: Dostoevsky.
(*Important Note: Alice Munro has been published many times in The New Yorker.)
I think what you do is you begin with two characters, or two places, or two ideas, or two random animals, a mouse and a piece of cheese, whatever. Make them relatable but set them apart from one another, create some distance between them. Give them depth so that they aren’t one-dimensional; or rather, allow the depth and true nature of each character to spontaneously reveal itself. Connect these characters in a meaningful and focused and honest way, a kind of straight line bisecting their otherwise errant trajectories. More details about these characters will emerge, further clarifying the dissonance between them, the horrible choices they must face, the consequences of making or not making those choices, until it becomes clear that they are not just random objects passively inhabiting the same line; they are at war with each other; and through this second layer of detail the real story may be discovered.
Which is just a crafty way of saying that there ought to be some sense of menace to your work. It doesn’t have to be as cinematic or intrusive to the plot as a sadistic ex-husband or Voldemort or an alien robot dinosaur (although that would be cool); in fact the “menace” may never be seen or even alluded to; its existence may be merely implied.
What is absolutely vital is that something more is at stake than the psyche of your main character. There must be some mystery, some horror, some wonder to the endeavor, an opportunity for the reader to use his or her imagination, to fill in the blanks, as it were.
Because really, in the end, who cares if a mouse gets a piece of cheese?
* * *
When all of this is done, you may add to your story color and shading and all the finishing touches your heart desires, knowing that you’ve built your story on solid ground, and are well on your way to creating polished, professional-grade fiction (you’re welcome). Now it is time to share your work with the world. Send your story to your legions of rabid fans, of whom you have precisely one, and she is your mother. Email it to your ex. Try to fishhook an agent with a sharp and colorful query. Put it in an envelope and send it to a magazine. And wait for the money to fall out of the sky.