Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Most Important Thing

In the short history of this blog, I've tended to stick with recommending what I think is the best of the best in short crime fiction with a focus on the web. Today I'm going to stray from that formula and talk a little shop.

Specifically, what The Most Important Thing is for me. Many writers go for character or plot. Joe Konrath, over at a Newbie's Guide to Publishing, says story comes before all. A lot of other writers (specifically creative writing teachers) claim character is king.

And I can't argue with either of those positions. Clearly a good plot and interesting characters are required for readable fiction.

But I will add to it. There's something else that I think almost every good story has: mood. Yeah, it's a pretty nebulous term. Sort of slips through the fingers. But I'll take a go at explaining what I mean.

Mood can be expressed through setting. Take Ray Bradbury's clinic in suspense, The Whole Town Is Sleeping. It's no coincidence that the climax of the piece is when Lavinia runs across a bridge over a ravine in the middle of the night. Eerie setting, eerie mood.

But it's often more than setting. I guess it's the ability for the author to create a world for the reader to climb into. So there needs to be consistency within that world in order for the reader to become lost in it. Whether you're reading for escape, to feel less alone, or to understand other people better, creating another world is essential.

What got me thinking about this subject was Gary Lovisi's two brilliant short stories posted over at ATON, both oozing with mood and depraved, cool worlds for the reader to jump into. These are perfect examples of noir--even by Otto Penzler's rather narrow definition of the genre.

So, what's The Most Important Thing for you?


  1. If I had to pick just one it would be character.

  2. I think it's a combination of both. You have to have a story but if the reader doesn't like the characters they won't go along for the journey.

    If you want a novel that builds from a setting, give "Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell a try. But even here, it's the character and the story that propel this novel. The truth is, all three are necessary to build a perfect story.

  3. Good point. All three are essential to an excellent story. I guess it's a question of which aspect one emphasizes.

    There are excellent writers that are strong in different ways--some rely on a very strong voice, others on engaging characters, etc.

  4. it's a great idea - a blog on short stories. i'm not sure you're in way over your head at all. nice work.


  5. on mood, i agree. it's a difficult thing to try and weave in as a writer, though.
    for some reason a film i saw recently comes to mind - so much mood and atmosphere that it really seems tangible. the film? 'M' by Fritz Lang all the way back from 1931. i think that when i'm writing the mood isn't in my head and i hope that it's the voice that creates the atmosphere as it becomes real and develops. others will have to be the judge.

  6. Nigel, I like that mood-created-through-voice idea, that it creates the atmosphere for the piece. I think that's happening a lot in good writing--especially early on in a piece.