Fiction writing is about truth. The truth of your vision and the truth of the world. The best stories marry these truths into a seamless, dazzling, inspiring whole.
The truth of your vision is at once simple and complicated. It is the story you want to tell. It is the aesthetics of the story world, the technologies, characters, worldviews, setting, everything that composes a story. At the meta level, it is the mood, tone, outlook, themes, the overall energy of the piece. It is your interpretation and execution of the writer’s art.
The truth of vision is simple because you are the originator. You get to decide what the story is about. If you want to write a grimdark steampunk fantasy story with a heavy, broody atmosphere populated by antiheroes and tyrants, that is your vision. If you want to write a light-hearted children’s story about a kid detective solving everyday crimes in the modern day, that is your vision. If you want to write an adrenaline-soaked thriller featuring a superspy travelling the world and fighting terrorists and criminals, that is your vision.
The truth of vision is complicated because you cannot cut any corners. All things must serve the story. Everything inside the story must be an organic development of the paradigms, technologies, ethical frameworks, geography, aesthetics, tone and themes of the story. These are the fundamentals of every story, the field upon which the story grows. If the field is conducive to a certain kind of story, then inserting irrelevant elements corrupts the truth of your vision. They are weeds in your garden, crops planted out of season, and distasteful to the reader. Having a kid detective solve a brutal murder and violently confront a vicious killer does not lend to a light-hearted children’s story, nor is there much room for portrayals of calm, everyday life in grimdark fantasy.
Your truth must be pure and holistic. A reader must understand the story, characters, themes, technologies and settings and see how they all fit together. There is no room for careless dissonance or extraneous elements. Side stories must contribute to the big picture, not lead down a dead end. Actions must fit characters, technologies must make sense, worldviews must sound reasonable to the characters who hold them. Every element of the story feeds into everything else, reinforcing every seam and pillar of the text.
This is not to say dissonance is unwanted. Deliberate dissonance, a planned juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible elements, is a useful tool. But like all tools, there is a time and place for it, and it must contribute to the story. John Ringo’s black humor adds significantly to his stories, as they provide insight into the characters, give the reader breathing room, and highlight the absurdity or intensity of the situations his characters find themselves in. This dissonance must be both obvious and planned, to throw into sharp focus, else it appears to be a mistake.
The truth of the world is a reflection of reality. Different genres reflect different facets of the grand tapestry of life. Romance looks at love, thrillers focus on human evil and conflict, science fiction examines the relation between humanity and technology, and fantasy seeks timeless truths. Stories drill deep into reality and show the reader a deeper truth, be it about crime, politics or human nature. In a masterwork of fiction, the reader sees the writer, a fragment of the world, and a reflection himself.
The temptation here is to conflate the world with yourself. It is easy to see the world in a single light, to interpret human nature and events by your biases, and to ignore everything that doesn’t fit your personal beliefs. Thus, it sounds reasonable to proclaim in your stories the death of capitalism, the self-contradictory nature of patriarchy, the evils of the far left, the joys of communion with God, the self-destructive nature of violence, the aggression of Russia and China, or whatever your own point of view may be. To readers with a more expert understanding of this facet of the world, stories like this come across as shallow, facile, and little more than intellectual masturbation.
If you do not want to write for a narrow audience by appealing to their biases, if your goal is to reach as wide an audience as you can, then you must write beyond yourself. Study the ideas, history and cultural values that drive the characters, factions, nations and other groups in your stories. Stories are about drama, and drama comes from clashing perspectives and the struggle for dominance. Doing this effectively requires research, an unflinching examination of how your own ideas influence your work, and the willingness to give all parties a fair showing.
And if the truth of the world decisively contradicts the truth of your vision, the former will always trump the latter. At best your story will be no different from midmarket works, consumed once and quickly forgotten; at worst, your story is mocked and condemned to the bottom of the pile.
It is not wrong to advocate a point of view in your stories. But the reader is looking for a story, not a screed. It is tempting to hammer your point into the reader’s brain on every page through character ‘dialogue’ or ham-fisted events. A far better way is to place the story first, make all events and actions organic to the characters and plot, and lead your reader to your conclusions.
Like yin and yang, writers have to blend these two truths into an integral whole. Allowing the truth of your vision to overwhelm the truth of the world leads to ideological screeds. It becomes boring message fic, the kind of fic good only for virtue signalling and left-wing SFF awards. Letting the truth of the world overpower the truth of your vision creates stories heavy on exposition and infodumps and light on characters and action; the great classics have cornered that market now and forever, so you might as well just write non-fiction.
Balancing both truths is the writer’s high art, and the great background struggle that dominates the creative process. Done properly, your story will become a glittering diamond, every facet reflecting a dazzling truth.