Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Sweet Spot

As a creative writing teacher, I often find it difficult to articulate to students exactly what makes good fiction. There are stories and novels that many us agree are good, even great. We know ‘em when we see ‘em, but just because we can recognize good fiction doesn’t mean we can automatically produce it, any more than we can listen to a highly talented and well-trained singer perform and then instantly sing as well ourselves.

I’m always searching for new ways to express the fundamental concepts of fiction writing – both to help my students and to further my own understanding of the craft. Sometimes an insight will come to be during a class I’m teaching. (I came up with the Amazing Story Spiral after showing the film Wonder Boys to a group of novel writing students as a way of discussing alternatives to the classic plot design.) But other times ideas come to me as a sudden burst of inspiration, like when Doc Brown first visualized the flux capacitor. (Although I’ve never needed to crack my head on the edge of a sink to get ideas.) I came up with the idea for the Sweet Spot this way. It popped into my head as a complete Venn diagram, labels and all, and I grabbed a piece of paper and drew it. In fine absent-minded professor tradition, I quickly lost the drawing and forgot that I’d ever visualized the Sweet Spot. Months passed, and a couple days ago, my wife found my hastily drawn diagram while working on our taxes. (How it got mixed up with our financial papers, I’ll never know.) She held the drawing up and asked if it was something I needed. I almost didn’t look at it, figuring she must be talking about a receipt of some kind, but I looked and there it was: the Sweet Spot. I decided right then that I’d better blog about it before I lost the damned drawing again. So here it is – The Sweet Spot.

(I’m inordinately proud of myself for figuring out how to create a somewhat professional-looking diagram using MS Word, but my newfound knowledge didn’t extend to highlighting the place where the four circles overlap and labeling it THE SWEET SPOT. So use your imagination for that.)

The first aspect of my vision for the Sweet Spot was to see fiction as having four primary goals: 1) To entertain, 2) To provide an aesthetic experience, 3) To evoke an emotional response, 4) To stimulate imagination. (None of these goals is more important than any other; they’re all equal despite my numbering them here.) The Sweet Spot – the area where fiction is its strongest – is the point where all four goals coincide. Let’s talk about each goal and why it’s important, then we’ll discuss why it’s vital to tend to them all – to the Sweet Spot – if you want to produce the best fiction you’re capable of.

A disclaimer first: Yes, it’s possible to write successful, publishable fiction focusing more on one goal than the others. Popular fiction tends to focus more on entertaining, and literary fiction tends to focus more on providing an aesthetic experience, for example. But I believe that regardless of what your ultimate writing and publishing goals are, all types of fiction are most effective when writers focus on the Sweet Spot.


Effective fiction should capture readers’ attention and hold it throughout a story. It should repay readers’ time and attention, should give them an experience they find fulfilling. When they finish a story, they should feel satisfied that their time was well spent. Why this goal is important: If readers aren’t entertained, why should they bother reading fiction at all? Different readers may find different aspects of a story entertaining – some may enjoy action more, some detailed characterization – but people don’t read by accident. They choose to read, and they want to feel like their choice was a worthwhile one. More, that it was enjoyable.


Effective fiction should give readers an artistic experience through skilled use of language and imagery, innovative structure, and well-drawn characters. Originality should be strived for, and plots shouldn’t be predictable. Why this goal is important: Fiction is art as much as craft, and even casual readers have a need for artistic appreciation. A well-turned phrase, a chilling description, a mind-blowing plot twist, a psychologically complex character, lively dialogue that you can practically hear . . . The artistic aspects of fiction make stories live and breathe, making them more than simple recitations of This Happened, Then That Happened.  


Each story should have an emotional core and explore the emotional life of the characters in addition to whatever else may be happening. The Wizard of Oz is just an adventure without the emotional core of Dorothy wanting to go home so badly. Jaws is also just an adventure without the emotional core of Sheriff Brody feeling such a strong responsibility to protect his town from the killer shark. The outcome of a story should create an emotional catharsis for the reader. Why this goal is important: Anyone can communicate basic information with writing, but it’s infinitely harder to use those abstract marks called letters to make readers care about imaginary people doing imaginary things (often in imaginary places and times). When art of any kind touches the human heart, when it moves us, it reconnects us with a huge aspect of what makes us human. It cuts through our emotional barriers and deepens our empathy. In short, it makes us better people, and what could be more important than that?


Interesting ideas, vivid description, and immersive point of view all help stimulate readers’ imaginations. Banal, run-of-the-mill ideas and plain, overly simplistic writing that reads more like a summary than a story don’t. Why this goal is important: For one thing, exercising our imaginations makes us smarter. Vivid fiction allows us to take the abstract and visualize the concrete, to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell that which is not real, to compare the choices characters make to those we might make – or not – in similar situations, and in speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and any combination thereof) we project ourselves into world of tomorrow, worlds that never have been, and confront nightmares safely on the page.


As I’ve already said, this is the intersection where the four goals meet. Stories that hit the Sweet Spot tend to these goals equally: they entertain, provide an aesthetic experience, evoke emotion, and stimulate imagination. Stories that do this operate strongly on all levels, not just one or two, and not only are they well-made stories, they fulfill multiple needs for readers. Stories that hit the Sweet Spot are, simply, the best stories of which we’re capable of producing, and that’s what we should strive for every time we write, isn’t it?


The Sweet Spot works for both short and long fiction, but in long fiction, you might think of each scene of chapter as having its own Sweet Spot. For example, Chapter Three of your novel might entertain because there’s an action scene. It might provide an aesthetic experience because one of the characters is blind and you’re going to write the action from his/her point of view. The character is fighting a once-beloved mentor, which will evoke emotion, and you’ll use intercutting brief flashbacks of that character being trained as a child by the mentor during the present-time action to stimulate imagination (and since this is a structural choice, it doubles down on the aesthetic experience). In Chapter Four, you’ll have a new set of goals, and so on.


At some point during your process – when you first generate ideas, while you draft, or when you review your first draft – ask yourself these questions:

1) What can I do to make this story as entertaining as possible?
2) What can I do to provide a greater aesthetic experience?
3) How can I more strongly evoke emotion?
4) How can I better stimulate readers’ imaginations?
Do this, hit the Sweet Spot, and you’ll take your fiction to a whole new level, gain more readers, and create fiction that readers not only enjoy, but that matters to them. What more could any of us possible hope for?

My novella The Winter Box has recently been released by DarkFuse. Here’s a short synopsis:
It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on strange things start to happen in their house – bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning . . . but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.
Reviews have been good so far. Why not pick up the book and see if I manage to hit the Sweet Spot with it?

My short story “Her Corner of the Sky” appears in Night Terrors, an anthology of stories set in Jonathan Maberry’s V-Wars world, where vampires from various mythologies are suddenly reappearing on Earth with serious and often unexpected consequences:
My short story “Foundling” appears in the X-Files anthology The Truth is Out There. Mulder and Scully find a town that’s completely deserted, with the exception of a single infant. But if the town’s truly abandoned, what are the strange figures they see out of the corners of their eyes?


  1. You've given me something to think about, Tim. I've found myself mentally reviewing my stories to see how well they incorporate the four elements that combine to produce a "sweet spot." Thanks.

  2. Thanks for posting this! I'll be sure to use the diagram.