What Does it Take to Tell a Good Story?
One can be forgiven for assuming writing fiction is easy if they don't take a crack at it themselves. In fact, however, it's one of the most creatively taxing things someone can put themselves through. Do you dare to be unique and present an entirely new story? Or, do you repurpose (and drastically alter) a piece that's been sitting in your "I wrote these in high school and what the hell was I thinking" folder? Regardless, fleshing out a story in the modern day is certainly a process, requiring you to literally take your mind elsewhere and put the rest of the world aside while you hammer away at your keyboard, hoping the best will shine through. Let's take a look at some key elements of storytelling.
Characterization and Focus
If you have a protagonist and supporting ensemble of characters who your readers can't develop an attachment to, it's going to make your fiction far less appealing. Of course, this is a no-brainer, but the real substance when it comes to telling a compelling story is to make your characters engaging without sacrificing the core messaging or their unique personalities. Any writer out there can build characters around what they think their potential audience will be interested in, and as we live in the age when everyone is easily worked up by everything, acting on assumption and unquestionably hyper-sensitive, it feels dangerous not to do so. I understand how it feels, and it's hell. There are actually so many important issues out there that need to be addressed, but not everyone understands that it may not have a place in your fiction because they long to connect more deeply to your work. Sometimes weaving modern-day issues can benefit your content and make it extremely engaging, but there needs to be a mutual respect for exceptions.
I feel it's best to not necessarily pander to your audience, instead creating the characters and story you want to bring to life. It might not be easier or garner more readers straight away, but the payoff is a richer, more personable piece of fiction. Simply put, the audience for your characters and story is out there, regardless of what you change or don't change. Therefore, I say keep it authentic, bias-free and truly special. Develop relationships between characters, flesh out their backgrounds and help them grow throughout your fiction as best benefits the story you are trying to tell, and let nothing stand in your way. Always remember that trends are temporary, but your writing is forever. That's not to say there aren't important issues out there that need to be addressed, but you need to be the one to decide whether or not your fiction actually needs to touch on them. It's up to you. I come from a background where others would try to control where I would take my fiction, so perhaps I'm ironically a little biased here myself, but I feel that this method works very well. Don't lose focus and be distracted by the world around you if that's not where you want to take your own writing.
Scale and Scope
One thing I don't hear writers discuss often enough is the importance of maintaining the correct sense of scale. If you want to craft a 300-page fantasy epic and are dead-set on doing so, be sure to pad out the story enough and not just fill it with action set-pieces, as it will make the grand scope more immersive and impactful. Give the characters time to develop relationships, grow and shine through, otherwise those more intense plot points won't have as much gravity or be as compelling. That one amazing action sequence where half your cast is killed in spectacular fashion might not be as effective if you haven't given each character some real substance and, in fact, you may be better off to swap it for more character development.
In the end, don't make a throwaway tale. Dare to be different, but be sure to respect the scale and scope of the story you want to tell. Should you have an over-the-top and ambitious piece of fiction in the works, flesh it out and lend an organic feel to it to deliver the best impact. Or, if your setting doesn't leave much to the imagination, build on it through either your characterization or plot development. Make it interesting.
I'll be the first person to admit my preference to not write two words when twenty will do (an ongoing struggle), which, my bias aside, can actually be excellent for creating a more immersive piece of fiction. However, the trick is to gauge whether or not something needs that added depth in your story or if it's better if you condense it to move the plot along. This is something all writers struggle with at one time or another, as we have so much crammed in our heads that we want to transmit into the story. We just want to put everything in there because it's just so amazing to us. However, the challenge is to optimize. If something adds to the reader's experience as they flip through the pages, then don't hesitate to keep it in or expand on it if necessary. Otherwise, if you over-detail your fiction, it may feel as if your story isn't moving along quickly enough to even keep yourself engaged as the writer. If those first few chapters aren't needed for character development or the plot itself, paste them into a new document and save them for something else. This way, you don't throw away what could be great writing and have the option to rework what's on the cutting room floor into something new.
Expanding on my previous point, I want to reiterate that detail is essential. It goes hand-in-hand with length in making for a more compelling read. After all, surely you want to guide your readers through the pages and into the world you shape for a more immersive experience. Sensory detail involves creating vivid characters and settings, giving the plot more substance, but you want to balance the amount of description that you provide so it doesn't fill your piece of fiction with "fluff" that makes it a chore to read. If you drown the reader in a sea of adjectives and witty comparisons, you're going to lose them quickly and dilute the plot progression. However, if you give just enough descriptive "kick", you'll hook them in more efficiently.
In my opinion, the best kind of fiction doesn't feel like an action movie where you exchange your brain at the door for popcorn. There are so many more layers to it that enable a different form of escapism entirely. I feel that these aforementioned points are those layers. That being said, perhaps my approach isn't the right one for you. Or, maybe you have a different perspective on various aspects of the writing process that works. Regardless, building a compelling, entertaining story that you enjoy telling is only half the battle: You need to also make it something that a total stranger would enjoy reading, without destroying the tale you're trying to tell in the first place in the process. The struggle is real, but it's only as painful as you make it. Turn that mental friction into compelling fiction.