I have read thousands of novels, but only a bare handful I can call perfect — books I love with a pure and undying passion, to which I return, over and over and over again because the piece of soul that I encountered there spoke so strongly to me that I have never been able to forget the things it told me.
Fiction is rarely perfect. There are too many cracks and warts and scars there. And what makes it worse, and even less possible to control, is that a lot of them are selectively visible to individual readers but not to others because every reader brings their own personal prism to view any given work of fiction and sees different things in it.
If you dissect a novel, you realize that it’s like a living organism, with constituent parts that have to be present in order for it function. And if all of these are present in the right way, in the right manner, in the right quantity, you sometimes get something that’s … perfect….
There is a fundamental aspect to this that is hard to overstate. I mean, I understand that there are creatures like an octopus or jellyfish (and some cats) that exist in what appears to be a largely gelatinous form that can morph to fill any shape that they need to fill. But by and large any creature that you can name that exists on this world, which is the only world we know, needs to have an internal structure on which to hang its shape.
In fictional terms we might call this internal consistency, or story scaffolding, or all kinds of linguistic and metaphorical names – but what it boils down to is simply this. A story has to have good bones.
That is most immediately obvious in a short story whose bones are often visible through anything else you throw around them. And if those bones don’t connect in a manner that make absolute sense and create a creature you can look at and believe in, nothing else matters. If you can poke at any given bone and it disintegrates or it proves to have only an illusory connection with the rest of the skeleton which then falls apart into a heap of bits that don’t look like they have much to do with one another… the story doesn’t have good bones.
A story with a solid skeleton *articulates*, in every sense of that word. It’s the story which understands that it cannot walk without having a bendable knee joint to help fold the leg to make the next step, or – if it pretends to have a particular movement which it is impossible for a skeleton like unto our own to perform – it has to invent a functional ball-and-socket-equivalent joint that will allow it to do so. The story has to be stable, and it has to have fluidity of movement, and it has to have a certain amount of underpinning to its solidity (again, there’s jellyfish. I know. But jellyfish stories are the oh-so-literary kind which have absolutely zero cohesion and those are enjoyed only by fellow jellyfish. You can write them if you wish. Your audience will be limited. Probably to the kind of people who understand New Yorker magazine fiction.)
Never ever underestimate the importance of good bones. Half your battle is won if you have your supporting infrastructure in position before you start playing dress-up games with the tale you have in hand. In order to hang a hat properly you have to have something to hang a hat on.
And no, by this I don’t mean that you have to have a solid outline to blindly follow for every story that you write. Those aren’t your bones. The bones are the story that you have to tell. And if the story doesn’t cohere, or if the bones are stuck together haphazardly or not at all – it just doesn’t work.
The bones of a story are the need-to-tell aspec. Is this story firmly insisting that it needs to be told? Then its bones are there. You’ll feel them strong and supportive underneath it all when you start to knit the sinews of the story body together.
If your story’s bones are in place, the next thing to do is to find out what kind of flesh hangs upon them. This is the level of language, the way a story is told – this is the outward-facing visage you put on your story. This is the thing that your readers will meet. This is the image that you present to them.
Gargoyle or princess, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that your story presents a face, and that the face leaves an impression.
When you have the bones, you have the story – but now you have to tell it, and it is the language that puts the flesh on those bones. There are books I’ve read that that inspired me to actually follow people around the house bleating: “Listen to this. LISTEN. Just listen to his.” Because the language in which the story was being told was making me unbearably happy.
Language is an incredible tool when used well. The whole “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” platitude might work on the surface because words might not leave visible bruises or scars – but oh, they leave them on the inside, where it really matters. Words are amongst the most powerful weapons of all, if wielded by a master. Words can cut a spirit into ribbons. Words can shatter hearts. Words can blow minds. Words can bring tears to your eyes, or make your hands shake, or your ears ring. Words can make your blood sing.
This is the raw material you build story flesh from.
Use it wisely.
Good story bones will make a story hang together; but the flesh upon those bones, the words you use, will be the thing your readers will remember the story by. Years after they read something they might overhear someone quote a line from a story they once read and that one line will bring back the memory of the story entire, like a seed unfolding into full flower, and the image of the flesh of that story will return to them.
There are times they may not even remember what the story’s name was or who wrote it – but they will remember the story, if it had been told well. This is a deeply sensory thing, this flesh aspect – you will remember the touch of a loving hand, or a personal scent of a vanished lover, or the sound of a beloved laugh, or what the first taste of a cold ice cream feels like on a hot summer’s day, or the way sunlight scintillates on the surface of the ocean. When you write a story, you put all this in – because this is where memory lives. In the details. And words are what you have to make it all come alive. Words are the flesh you mold between your writer’s hands until you are happy with the shape of it, and you release it, and you know that readers who catch a glimpse of the creature you made are not going to be able to forget it.
But neither bones nor flesh will work to tell the story if you don’t have something to tie it all together- a living heart pumping literary lifeblood through all of it
You can have a story that is absolutely solid and built on bones of adamantium – and yet the flesh on those bones is weak and brittle and bits of it fall off like leprous scabs and what’s left is a lumbering skeleton whose teeth are showing through its decayed cheeks and which just shambles along mubling “Braaaaaains.” Or you can have a story that is utterly and mindbendingly beautiful – but you look into its eyes and realize that it’s just a pretty inflated balloon with absolutely no substance inside it at all.
And then you have the story which stands there before you, solid AND beautiful, and you take it by the hand and the hand is warm, and you know that if you cut it the story will bleed.
And you know you have a living friend to take with you into the future.
Because you can have it all – ALL of this – and yet you can still have just a simulation of life.
Because without someone bending over the body of this story and breathing that last little breath of life into it… it is not completely, fully, and lastingly alive.
The best stories carry a tiny part of their creator inside of them, a sliver of that storyteller’s own soul. This is impossible to prove, or even to describe – but you will know it, when you meet it. Because you will feel something inside of you respond to that. Because you’ll find yourself smiling or weeping and you don’t quite know why – and it’s because you just touched a piece of a soul, and it spoke to your own.
This last gift is what makes a book PERFECT.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve read thousands of books and there have been the good ones, the bad ones, the unbearable ones – and the perfect ones, the kind you carry within you always. The kind you remember.
You will have a handful of your own ‘perfect’ books… Everyone does.
My ‘perfect’ stories may not be the same stories that have spoken to you. We each have our own version of “perfect”. I’ve written about some of those few that I call perfect on a part of my Patreon site that is available only to my patrons. If you’d like to become a patron and insure that I can continue to strive to make some of my own stories perfect, you can make a modest pledge at my site.
Go to Alma’s Patreon site HERE
And if you’d like to share your own perfect books here, I’d love to hear about them!